The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter XXIV

Arrest and trial of Jesus
IT was nightfall when they left the room. Jesus, according to his custom, passed through the valley of Kedron; and accompanied by his disciples, went to the garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and sat down there. Overawing his friends by his inherent greatness, he watched and prayed. They were sleeping near him, when all at once an armed troop appeared bearing lighted torches. It was the guards of the temple, armed with staves, a kind of police under the control of priests. They were supported by a detachment of Roman soldiers with their swords. The order for the arrest emanated from the high priest and Sanhedrim. Judas, knowing the habits of Jesus, had indicated this place as the one where he might most easily be surprised. Judas, according to the unanimous tradition of the earliest times, accompanied the detachment himself; and, according to some, he carried his hateful conduct even to betraying him with a kiss. However this may be, it is certain that there was some show of resistance on the part of the disciples. One of them (Peter, according to eye-witnesses) drew his sword, and wounded the ear of one of the servants of the high priest, named Malchus. Jesus restrained this opposition, and gave himself up to the soldiers. Weak and incapable of effectual resistance, especially against authorities who had so much prestige, the disciples took flight, and became dispersed; Peter and John alone did not lose sight of their Master. Another unknown young man followed him, covered with a light garment. They sought to arrest him, but the young man fled, leaving his tunic in the hands of the guards.

The course which the priests had resolved to take against Jesus was quite in conformity with the established law. The procedure against the "corrupter" (mesith) who sought to injure the purity of religion is explained in the Talmud, with details the naive impudence of which provokes a smile. A judicial ambush is there made an essential part of the examination of criminals. When a man was accused of being a "corrupter," two witnesses were suborned, who were concealed behind a partition. It was arranged to bring the accused into a contiguous room, where he could be heard by these two without his perceiving them. Two candles were lighted near him in order that it might be satisfactorily proved that the witnesses "saw him." He was then made to repeat his blasphemy, and urged to retract it. If he persisted, the witnesses who had heard him conducted him to the tribunal, and he was stoned to death. The Talmud adds that this was the manner in which they treated Jesus; that he was condemned on the faith of two witnesses who had been suborned, and that the crime of "corruption" is, moreover, the only one for which the witnesses are thus prepared.

We learn from the disciples of Jesus themselves that the crime with which their Master was charged was that of "corruption"; and, apart from some minutiae, the fruit of the rabbinical imagination, the narrative of the Gospels corresponds exactly with the procedure described by the Talmud. The plan of the enemies of Jesus was to convict him, by the testimony of witnesses and by his own avowals, of blasphemy, and of outrage against the Mosaic religion, to condemn him to death according to law, and then to get the condemnation sanctioned by Pilate. The priestly authority, as we have already seen, was in reality entirely in the hands of Hanan. The order for the arrest probably came from him. It was before this powerful personage that Jesus was first brought. Hanan questioned him as to his doctrine and his disciples. Jesus, with proper pride, refused to enter into long explanations. He referred Hanan to his teachings, which had been public; he declared he had never held any secret doctrine; and desired the ex-high priest to interrogate those who had listened to him. This answer was perfectly natural; but the exaggerated respect with which the old priest was surrounded made it appear audacious; and one of those present replied to it, it is said, by a blow.

Peter and John had followed their Master to the dwelling of Hanan. John, who was known in the house, was admitted without difficulty; but Peter was stopped at the entrance, and John was obliged to beg the porter to let him pass. The night was cold. Peter stopped in the antechamber, and approached a brasier, round which the servants were warming themselves. He was soon recognized as a disciple of the accused. The unfortunate man, betrayed by his Galilean accent, and pestered by questions from the servants, one of whom, a kinsman of Malchus, had seen him at Gethsemane, denied thrice that he had ever had the least connection with Jesus. He thought that Jesus could not hear him, and never imagined that this cowardice, which he sought to hide by his dissimulation, was exceedingly dishonorable. But his better nature soon revealed to him the fault he had committed. A fortuitous circumstance, the crowing of the cock, recalled to him a remark which Jesus had made. Touched to the heart, he went out and wept bitterly.

Hanan, although the true author of the judicial murder about to be accomplished, had not power to pronounce the sentence upon Jesus; he sent him to his son-in-law, Kaiapha, who bore the official title. This man, the blind instrument of his father-in- law, would naturally ratify everything that had been done. The Sanhedrim was assembled at his house. The inquiry commenced; and several witnesses, prepared beforehand according to the inquisitorial process described in the Talmud, appeared before the tribunal. The fatal sentence which Jesus had really uttered, "I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days," was cited by two witnesses. To blaspheme the temple of God was according to the Jewish law, to blaspheme God himself. Jesus remained silent, and refused to explain the incriminating speech. If we may believe one version, the high priest then adjured him to say if he were the Messiah; Jesus confessed it, and proclaimed before the assembly the near approach of his heavenly reign. The courage of Jesus, who had resolved to die, renders this narrative superfluous. It is probable that here, as when before Hanan, he remained silent. This was in general his rule of conduct during his last moments. The sentence was settled; and they only sought for pretexts. Jesus felt this, and did not undertake a useless defence. In the light of orthodox Judaism, he was truly a blasphemer, a destroyer of the established worship. Now, these crimes were punished by the law with death. With one voice the assembly declared him guilty of a capital crime. The members of the council who secretly leaned to him were absent or did not vote. The frivolity which characterizes old established aristocracies did not permit the judges to reflect long upon the consequences of the sentence they had passed. Human life was at that time very lightly sacrificed; doubtless the members of the Sanhedrim did not dream that their sons would have to render account to an angry posterity for the sentence pronounced with such careless disdain.

The Sanhedrim had not the right to execute a sentence of death. But, in the confusion of powers which then reigned in Judea, Jesus was, from that moment, none the less condemned. He remained the rest of the night exposed to the ill treatment of an infamous pack of servants, who spared him no indignity.

In the morning the chief priests and the elders again assembled. The point was to get Pilate to ratify the condemnation pronounced by the Sanhedrim, which, since the occupation of the Romans, was no longer sufficient. The procurator was not invested, like the imperial legate, with the disposal of life and death. But Jesus was not a Roman citizen; it only required the authorization of the governor in order that the sentence pronounced against him should take its course. As always happens when a political people subjects a nation in which the civil and religious laws are confounded, the Romans had been brought to give to the Jewish law a sort of official support. The Roman law did not apply to Jews. The latter remained under the canonical law which we find recorded in the Talmud, just as the Arabs in Algeria are still governed by the code of Islamism. Although neutral in religion, the Romans thus very often sanctioned penalties inflicted for religious faults. The situation was nearly that of the sacred cities of India under the English dominion, or rather that which would be the state of Damascus if Syria were conquered by a European nation. Josephus asserts, though this may be doubted, that, if a Roman trespassed beyond the pillars which bore inscriptions forbidding pagans to advance, the Romans themselves would have delivered him to the Jews to be put to death.

The agents of the priests therefore bound Jesus and led him to the judgment-hall, which was the former palace of Herod, adjoining the Tower of Antonia. It was the morning of the day on which the Paschal lamb was to be eaten. (Friday the 14th of Nisan, our April 3rd.) The Jews would have been defiled by entering the judgment-hall, and would not have been able to share in the sacred feast. They therefore remained without. Pilate, being informed of their presence ascended the bima or tribunal, situated in the open air, at the place named Gabbatha, or, in Greek, Lithostrotos, on account of the pavement which covered the ground.

He had scarcely been informed of the accusation before he displayed his annoyance at being mixed up with this affair. He then shut himself up in the judgment-hall with Jesus. There a conversation took place, the precise details of which are lost, no witness having been able to repeat it to the disciples, but the tenour of which appears to have been well divined by John. His narrative, in fact, perfectly accords with what history teaches us of the mutual position of the two interlocutors.

The procurator, Pontius, surnamed Pilate, doubtless on account of the pilum or javelin of honor with which he or one of his ancestors was decorated, had hitherto had no relation with the new sect. Indifferent to the internal quarrels of the Jews, he only saw, in all these movements of sectaries, the results of intemperate imaginations and disordered brains. In general, he did not like the Jews, but the Jews detested him still more. They thought him hard, scornful, and passionate, and accused him of improbable crimes.

Jerusalem, the center of a great national fermentation, was a very seditious city, and an insupportable abode for a foreigner. The enthusiasts pretended that it was a fixed design of the new procurator to abolish the Jewish law. Their narrow fanaticism and their religious hatreds disgusted that broad sentiment of justice and civil government which the humblest Roman carried everywhere with him. All the acts of Pilate which are known to us show him to have been a good administrator. In the earlier period of the exercise of his office he had difficulties with those subject to him which he had solved in a very brutal manner; but it seems that essentially he was right. The Jews must have appeared to him a people behind the age; he doubtless judged them as a liberal prefect formerly judged the Bas-Bretons, who rebelled for such trifling matters as a new road, or the establishment of a school. In his best projects for the good of the country, notably in those relating to public works, he had encountered an impassable obstacle in the Law. The Law restricted life to such a degree that it opposed all change, and all amelioration. The Roman structures, even the most useful ones, were objects of great antipathy on the part of zealous Jews. Two votive escutcheons with inscriptions, which he had set up at his residence near the sacred precincts, provoked a still more violent storm. Pilate at first cared little for these susceptibilities; and he was soon involved in sanguinary suppressions of revolt, which afterwards ended in his removal. The experience of so many conflicts had rendered him very prudent in his relations with this intractable people, which avenged itself upon its governors by compelling them to use towards it hateful severities. The procurator saw himself, with extreme displeasure, led to play a cruel part in this new affair, for the sake of a law he hated. He knew that religious fanaticism, when it has obtained the sanction of civil Governments to some act of violence, is afterwards the first to throw the responsibility upon the Government, and almost accuses them of being the author of it. Supreme injustice; for the true culprit is, in such cases, the instigator!

Pilate, then, would have liked to save Jesus. Perhaps the dignified and calm attitude of the accused made an impression upon him. According to a tradition, Jesus found a supporter in the wife of the procurator himself. She may have seen the gentle Galilean from some window of the palace overlooking the courts of the temple. Perhaps she had seen him again in her dreams; and the idea that the blood of this beautiful young man was about to be spilt weighed upon her mind. Certain it is that Jesus found Pilate prepossessed in his favor. The governor questioned him with kindness, and with the desire to find an excuse for sending him away pardoned.

The title of "Kings of the Jews," which Jesus had never taken upon himself, but which his enemies represented as the sum and substance of his acts and pretensions, was naturally that by which it was sought to excite the suspicions of the Roman authority. They accused him on this ground of sedition, and of treason against the Government. Nothing could be more unjust; for Jesus had always recognized the Roman Government as the established power. But conservative religious bodies do not generally shrink from calumny. Notwithstanding his own explanation, they drew certain conclusions from his teaching; they transformed him into a disciple of Judas the Gaulonite; they pretended that he forbade the payment of tribute to Caesar. Pilate asked him if he was really the King of the Jews. Jesus concealed nothing of what he thought. But the great ambiguity of speech which had been the source of his strength, and which, after his death, was to establish his kingship, injured him on this occasion. An idealist that is to say, not distinguishing the spirit from the substance, Jesus, whose words, to use the image of the Apocalypse, were as a two-edged sword, never completely satisfied the powers of earth. If we may believe John, he avowed his royalty, but uttered at the same time this profound sentence: "My kingdom is not of this world." He explained the nature of his kingdom, declaring that it consisted entirely in the possession and proclamation of truth. Pilate understood nothing of this grand idealism. Jesus doubtless impressed him as being an inoffensive dreamer. The total absence of religious and philosophical proselytism among the Romans of this epoch made them regard devotion to truth as a chimera. Such discussions annoyed them, and appeared to them devoid of meaning. Not perceiving the element of danger to the empire that lay hidden in these new speculations, they had no reason to employ violence against them. All their displeasure fell upon those who asked them to inflict punishment for what appeared to them to be vain subtleties. Twenty years after Gallio still adopted the same course towards the Jews. Until the fall of Jerusalem, the rule which the Romans adopted in administration was to remain completely indifferent to these sectarian quarrels.

An expedient suggested itself to the mind of the governor by which he could reconcile his own feelings with the demands of the fanatical people, whose pressure he had already so often felt. It was the custom to deliver a prisoner to the people at the time of the Passover. Pilate, knowing that Jesus had only been arrested in consequence of the jealousy of the priests, tried to obtain for him the benefit of this custom. He appeared again upon the bima, and proposed to the multitude to release the "King of the Jews." The proposition made in these terms, though ironical, was characterized by a degree of liberality. The priests saw the danger of it. They acted promptly, and, in order to combat the proposition of Pilate, they suggested to the crowd the name of a prisoner who enjoyed great popularity in Jerusalem. By a singular coincidence, he also was called Jesus, and bore the surname of Bar-Abba, or Bar-Rabban. He was a well-known personage, and had been arrested for taking part in an uproar in which murder had been committed, A general clamor was raised, "Not this man; but Jesus Bar-Rabban"; and Pilate was obliged to release Jesus Bar- Rabban.

His embarrassment increased. He feared that too much indulgence shown to a prisoner to whom was given the title of "King of the Jews" might compromise him. Fanaticism, moreover, compels all powers to make terms with it. Pilate thought himself obliged to make some concession; but still hesitating to shed blood, in order to satisfy men whom he hated, wished to turn the thing into a jest. Affecting to laugh at the pompous title they had given to Jesus, he caused him to be scourged. Scourging was the general preliminary of crucifixion. Perhaps Pilate wished it to be believed that this sentence had already been pronounced, hoping that the preliminary would suffice. Then took place (according to all the narratives) a revolting scene The soldiers put a scarlet robe on his back, a crown formed of branches of thorns upon his head, and a reed in his hand. Thus attired, he was led to the tribunal in front of the people. The soldiers defiled before him, striking him in turn, and knelt to him, saying, "Hail! King of the Jews!" Others, it is said, spit upon him, and struck his head with the reed. It is difficult to understand how Roman dignity could stoop to acts so shameful. It is true that Pilate, in the capacity of procurator, had under his command scarcely any but auxiliary troops. Roman citizens, as the legionaries were, would not have degraded themselves by such conduct.

Did Pilate think by this display that he freed himself from responsibility? Did he hope to turn aside the blow which threatened Jesus by conceding something to the hatred of the Jews, and by substituting for the tragic denouement a grotesque termination, to make it appear that the affair merited no other issue? If such were his idea, it was unsuccessful. The tumult increased, and became an open riot. The cry, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" resounded from all sides. The priests, becoming increasingly urgent, declared the Law in peril if the corrupter were not punished with death. Pilate saw clearly that to save Jesus he would have to put down a terrible disturbance. He still tried, however, to gain time. He returned to the judgment-hall and ascertained from what country Jesus came, with the hope of finding a pretext for declaring his inability to adjudicate. According to one tradition, he even sent Jesus to Antipas, who, it is said was then at Jerusalem. Jesus took no part in these well-meant efforts; he maintained, as he had done before Kaiapha, a grave and dignified silence, which astonished Pilate. The cries from without became more and more menacing. The people had already begun to denounce the lack of zeal in the functionary who protected an enemy of Caesar. The greatest adversaries of the Roman rule were suddenly transformed into loyal subjects of Tiberius, that they might have the right of accusing the too tolerant procurator of treason. "We have no king," said they, "but Caesar. If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar." The feeble Pilate yielded; he foresaw the report that his enemies would send to Rome, in which they would accuse him of having protected a rival of Tiberius. Once before, in the matter of the votive escutcheons, the Jews had written to the emperor, and had received satisfaction. He feared for his office. By a compliance, which was to deliver his name to the scorn of history he yielded, throwing, it is said, upon the Jews all the responsibility of what was about to happen. The latter, according to the Christians, fully accepted it by exclaiming, "His blood be on us and on our children!"

Were these words really uttered? We may doubt it. But they are the expression of a profound historical truth Considering the attitude which the Romans had taken in Judea, Pilate could scarcely have acted otherwise. How many sentences of death dictated by religious intolerance been extorted from the civil power! The king of Spain, who, in order to please a fanatical clergy, delivered hundreds of his subjects to the stake, was more blameable than Pilate, for he represented a more absolute power than that of the Romans at Jerusalem. When the civil power becomes persecuting or meddlesome at the solicitation of the priesthood, it proves its weakness. But let the Government that is without sin in this respect throw the first stone at Pilate. The "secular arm," behind which clerical cruelty shelters itself, is not the culprit. No one has a right to say that he has a horror of blood when he causes it to be shed by his servants.

It was, then, neither Tiberius nor Pilate who condemned Jesus. It was the old Jewish party; it was the Mosaic Law. According to our modern ideas, there is no transmission of moral demerit from father to son; no one is accountable to human or Divine justice except for that which he himself has done. Consequently, every Jew who suffers to-day for the murder of Jesus has a right to complain, for he might have acted as did Simon the Cyrenean; at any rate, he might not have been with those who cried "Crucify him!" But nations, like individuals, have their responsibilities, and, if ever crime was the crime of a nation, it was the death of Jesus. This death was "legal in the sense that it was primarily caused by a law which was the very soul of the nation. The Mosaic law, in its modern, but still in its accepted form, pronounced the penalty of death against all attempts to change the established worship. Now, there is no doubt that Jesus attacked this worship, and aspired to destroy it. The Jews expressed this to Pilate with a truthful simplicity: "We have a law, and by our law he ought to die; because he has made himself the Son of God." The law was detestable, but it was the law of ancient ferocity; and the hero who offered himself in order to abrogate it had first of all to endure its penalty.

Alas! it has required more than eighteen hundred years for the blood that he shed to bear its fruits. Tortures and death have been inflicted for ages in the name of Jesus on thinkers as noble as himself. Even at the present time, in countries which call themselves Christian, penalties are pronounced for religious offences. Jesus is not responsible for these errors. He could not foresee that people, with mistaken imaginations, would one day imagine him as a frightful Moloch, greedy of burnt flesh. Christianity has been intolerant, but intolerance is not essentially a Christian fact, It is a Jewish fact in the sense that it was Judaism which first introduced the theory of the absolute in religion, and laid down the principle that every innovator, even if he brings miracles to support his doctrine, ought to be stoned without trial. The pagan world has also had its religious violence. But, if it had had this law, how would it have become Christian? The Pentateuch has thus been in the world the first code of religious terrorism. Judaism has given the example of an immutable dogma armed with the sword. If, instead of pursuing the Jews with a blind hatred, Christianity had abolished the regime which killed its founder, how much more consistent would it have been! how much better would it have deserved of the human race.

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