Fr. Michael's Thoughts on Biblical Imagery: The Verdict


(Fr Michael Boakye Yeboah: Vice Rector of St Gregory Seminary, Kumasi-Ghana)


Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrew 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42


            This is the case beyond time. In the history of legal affairs especially Court deliberations, I don’t think any case may come close to the trial of Jesus. What was the system of legal proceedings used at that time? Historians are not absolutely sure the type of legal system used in the case of Jesus. We are familiar with the law of the “Twelve Tables” believed to have been compiled by a commission of ten senior senators in the mid-fifth century BCE. Cicero is believed to have put on record that when they were young, Roman boys were required to memorize the wording of Twelve Tables. Prolific and influential legal authors like Marcus Antistius Labeo and Gaius Ateius Capito cites that Roman Law made use of jurists in legal proceedings in court.

            When it came to enforcing the court’s decision in civil cases, it was left both in Roman and in Jewish society to the legal victor, without any intervention by the state. This may have influenced the decision for bringing Jesus before Pontius Pilate. When the case came before Pontius Pilate did he give Jesus the right verdict? The enforcement of punishment following criminal convictions was much more systematic. In Roman society, the range of penalties inflicted depended not only on the offence committed but also on the status of the guilty party. Some of the most violent punishments were reserved for slaves. Imprisonment was not usually in itself seen as a punitive measure, but simply as a means to prevent absconding before trial. Little use was made of fines payable to the state (as opposed to restitution to injured parties, as in the punishment of provincial governors convicted of stealing from their erstwhile subjects), or of corporal punishment such as flogging (which was, however, common in the enforcement of military discipline). Other punishments were loss of status as a citizen of Rome; the more humble were condemned to work in the mines or other public projects requiring intense physical labor. The ultimate penalty for all classes was execution, which could take various forms, from the brutal simplicity of crucifixion, a standard mode for disposing of ordinary criminal, to the ceremonial casting of traitors from the Tarpeian rock, a cliff on the side of Capitoline hill. Condemnation to fight as a gladiator was effectively a delayed death sentence. These very public deaths doubtless fulfilled a useful social function as deterrence against criminal behaviour. It was also important that for every crime the penalty should seem to be appropriate. Did the law give Jesus the appropriate punishment for his alleged “crimes”? Let us go to court and relive the proceedings that day.

            Today gospel presents a Jew standing trial before a Roman career diplomat, Pontius Pilate. Palestine was a troubled land and so Augustus stationed Pontius Pilate to take charge of the area. Pilate took over in AD 26 and remained in office until AD 35. Palestine was a province bristling with problems, one which required a firm and a strong and a wise hand. We do not know Pilate’s previous history, but we do know that he must have had the reputation of being a good administrator or he would never have been given the responsible position of governing Palestine. It was while in office in AD 33 that the case that has inked him in history came to him.

It was the morning of 14 Nisan, AD 33, that Jesus was arrested and the charge brought against him by the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Council) was blasphemy. He was accused of calling himself the Son of God, and therefore a divine person, an equal to God. The penalty for that was death (cf. Mark 14:64). But there was a small problem: the Jews had no power to put anyone to death. Only the Roman authority had such power. So, they promptly took Jesus to the Roman governor of Palestine, Pontius Pilate. But the governor was not a Jew. He was a pagan. So, the charge of blasphemy would cut no ice with him. It was a religious “crime”. He simply would not be impressed by it. So, the Jews had to find another crime that the governor would act upon. They settled on sedition. They accused Jesus of calling himself a king, and thereby challenging the authority of the Emperor in Rome. That was a political “crime”. The prominence of the kingship motif underscores the intersection of religion and politics in Palestine during the time of Jesus. Romans were aware of the threat the Jewish Messiahship pose on their rule in Palestine so they did not take chances. A governor who seemed uninterested, all of a sudden got seriously involved. The governor will sit on the case.

            They were asked to present their case and back them with evidence. After presenting their case, Pilate decided to cross examine the accused (Jesus). Jesus did not have the privilege of a defence attorney but he was up to the task of defending himself and this is accepted in almost every court of competent jurisdiction. After the cross examination, Pilate found no case against Jesus and so decided to release him and this conclusion was arrived at after another “Judge” Herod, found no case against him.

            The plaintiffs did not accept the ruling and mounted pressure on Pilate using emotional and sentimental tactics. When reason takes a “sabbatical”, emotions and sentiments rule and they always promote disorderliness and recklessness. Pilate next action was just to satisfy the yearning crowd’s emotions and sentiments. His actions should be nuanced like; ‘if this decision will make you happy and be at peace, then so be it.’ Pilate had the privilege of a wise counsel from his wife, who advised him to have nothing to do with Jesus’ case because of a dream she had the night before. Some men do not respect the wise counsel of their wives let alone when the advice is influenced by a dream. Pilate swept the advice of the wife aside and went on with his decision though he had symbolically washed his hands from the verdict if a curse was to follow such a decision. The Jewish authorities responded by saying that they will be ready to accept any curse if there may be any.

            After the verdict, Jesus was sent away with hundred soldiers commanded to march him to his destiny as if he was a hardened criminal. These hundred soldiers all had their pound of flesh from Jesus – in literal terms they subjected him to a torture of a kind never witnessed in the history of capital punishment. In the Pieta Prayer Book, it is recorded that St. Bridget wanting to know from the Lord the number of blows he received, the Lord told her that he received 5480 blows on his body. And in the same book it is recorded that the Lord told St Bernard of Clairvaux that the most painful of all the wounds was his shoulder wound. Many saints recount stories of the disfigured body of the Lord to the extent that he could not be recognized. Of this the prophet Isaiah centuries before will prophesize: “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised…” (Isaiah 53). It was a sad day for his family especially his mother and his friends, John, the beloved, Mary of Magdala, Joana, Salome, Mary, the wife of Cleopas and other few faithful friends.

            The verdict that Pilate gave was divinely appropriate but legal false. Divinely right and appropriate because it was through his death that we were redeemed. Today is called “Good Friday” because though Jesus death was horrific, it was for a good cause.


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