Easter Meditations – Good Friday, Part 1
*Then the whole body of them got up and brought Him before Pilate. And they began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.” So Pilate asked Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And He answered him and said, “It is as you say.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” But they kept on insisting, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching all over Judea, starting from Galilee even as far as this place.” When Pilate heard it, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who himself also was in Jerusalem at that time.
Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him. And he questioned Him at some length; but He answered him nothing. And the chief priests and the scribes were standing there, accusing Him vehemently. And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Him with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate. Now Herod and Pilate became friends with one another that very day; for before they had been enemies with each other.* (Luke 23:1-12, NASB)
*Answering again, Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify Him!” But Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify Him!” Wishing to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas for them, and after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified. The soldiers took Him away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium), and they called together the whole Roman cohort. They dressed Him up in purple, and after twisting a crown of thorns, they put it on Him; and they began to acclaim Him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They kept beating His head with a reed, and spitting on Him, and kneeling and bowing before Him. After they had mocked Him, they took the purple robe off Him and put His own garments on Him. And they led Him out to crucify Him. They pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus ), to bear His cross.
Then they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. They tried to give Him wine mixed with myrrh; but He did not take it. And they crucified Him, and divided up His garments among themselves, casting lots for them to decide what each man should take. It was the third hour when they crucified Him. The inscription of the charge against Him read, “THE KING OF THE JEWS.” They crucified two robbers with Him, one on His right and one on His left. [And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And He was numbered with transgressors.”] Those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads, and saying, “Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross !” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes, were mocking Him among themselves and saying, “He saved others ; He cannot save Himself. Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe !” Those who were crucified with Him were also insulting Him. When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “ELOI, ELOI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” which is translated, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, “Behold, He is calling for Elijah.” Someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last. And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. \When the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” There were also some women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses, and Salome. When He was in Galilee, they used to follow Him and minister to Him; and there were many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem.* (Mark 15:12-41, NASB)
As provincial governor Pontius Pilate had two basic tasks: keep things peaceful; extract money for the empire. Needless to say, accomplishing those would also aid his own considerable political ambitions. Neither was easy. Judea was not exactly rich, and the Jewish people were not exactly welcoming of Roman rule. It was common for Roman governors to be less than respectful of conquered peoples, but Pilate didn’t even know when he was treading on Jewish toes until trouble resulted. Pilate’s reflexive imperialistic pride prevented him from being effective as governor. Consequently, as Roman governors – typically political climbers – went, Pontius Pilate was a mediocrity. But he wasn’t stupid.
Pilate saw through the fluff and noise of the flurry of accusations, but he didn’t want more trouble. When the accusers mentioned that Jesus was a Galilean, from an adjacent province, Pilate thought he spotted an opportunity to pawn off a thorny decision on the ruler of that province, Herod. This Herod wasn’t Herod “the Great” who had tried to kill Jesus some time after His birth. After Herod the Great died, Emperor Augustus didn’t trust any of Herod’s children to replace him as king, so Herod’s kingdom was divided four ways, with this Herod, Antipas, getting Galilee. Herod Antipas, who was visiting Jerusalem at the time, wasn’t much better than his father, having killed John the Baptist to fulfill a rash promise to his daughter. However, Herod Antipas was a greater weasel than was Pilate. Herod toyed some with Jesus, didn’t get the amusement he wanted, and sent Jesus back to Pilate for judgment. It speaks to the character of both Pilate and Herod Antipas that freeing an obviously innocent man wasn’t on either man’s political radar screen.
In the crucifixion of Jesus, both Pilate’s disdain for those he governed and his mission of keeping the peace came into play. To be fair to him, I think the Jewish leaders pushing for Jesus’s crucifixion knew of and played on his imperative to maintain order. Pilate knew what was up, that Jesus was innocent of any crime against Rome. At the same time, here was a riot or even a revolt in the making at a time Jerusalem was filled with Passover celebrants, so his disdain for an insignificant individual subject (Jesus) and his political ambition overruled any latent sense of justice Pilate may have had and instead he tried to placate the mob.
Crucifixion, as perfected and practiced by the Romans, served several purposes. It was painful and horrible, and depending on available time, materials and the sadistic skill of the executioners, could extract tens of hours of excruciating pain from the person being executed. Did I mention the Romans were cruel and sadistic? Crucifixion was done publicly and was reserved for non-citizens, a reminder to conquered peoples of their place in the Roman world. And crucifixion served warning to would-be rebels and people inclined to make a career of banditry that the price of failure and capture would be excruciatingly high.
The crucifixion process was designed to inflict pain and use the executed person’s natural strength and survival instinct to prolong their pain. It started with what Mark called scourging. This alone would probably suffice to cause the person’s eventual death; if medical attention was received and the person survived, they would be horribly disfigured and disabled, so severe were the injuries inflicted. Carrying the crossbeam to the place of execution prolonged and broadened the scope of the public spectacle while taking the person beyond exhaustion. On arrival, the person would be seized (not gently!), arms stretched and fastened to the crossbeam; if nailed, the spike was placed at the base of the wrist (because the hands could not support a person’s weight, and would tear through), where every movement would inflame the nerves, causing explosions of pain. The crossbeam was then lifted onto the upright beam and the legs similarly fastened. The cross was then lifted upright and the base of the upright beam was slid into a hole that held the cross vertical. Needless to say, this was not done gently, and the jolt of the upright beam sliding into the hole and hitting bottom was just one more moment of agony for the person being executed. That person was now suspended in a position where the mere process of breathing happened at the cost of excruciating agony. The person could inhale, but could only exhale at the price of excruciating pain to their wrists and ankles, compounded by exhaustion and spasms in their arm and leg muscles. Thus began a slow process of exhaustion, pain, CO2 poisoning and suffocation that could last, in the extreme, 2 or more days. If time was limited or they got bored, the executioners could hasten the end with a simple, painful expedient. The one crucified was only able to exhale so as to draw their next breath by pushing against the ropes or spike with their legs; the executioners took away that ability by breaking the person’s legs. Unable to exhale, the process of suffocation soon ended the person’s agony. This was done to the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus.