“YOU do not speak, Yeshua — when once so full of words . . . so very full, I hear.” I am before Pilatus on his little wooden throne. Good craftsmanship spoiled by its use. A fine chair should hold a fine man, this is my thought, but this chair holds Pilatus.
“A man so full of words now empty, Yeshua?” He offers a queasy smile. “Are they all used up, like the wine at a poor man’s wedding?”
My hands are tied, the cord fierce on my skin. I have soft wrists, James always said this but now I am pushed to my knees, the soldier unkind with his shove. He stands behind me, I hear his armour as he breathes; it has a life of its own, the sword clanking against his thigh.
Pilatus appears distracted. His Greek is not bad, he is learning, but he is a chancer, I see this; his fingers tapping his bare knees, his waxy skin. He’s as scared as Herod said. It’s not wise for Romans to be in Jerusalem at Passover.
“If only you could bring peace, Yeshua — then no need for, well — all this.”
“Unfortunately I bring a sword — and seem quite unable to disarm myself.”
“We could certainly help you there.” He smiles at his wit.
“I’m afraid it’s out of your reach. It almost feels out of mine.”
“Nothing is out of my reach.” He is tetchy. “My Roman reach.”
“You have wisely forgotten the ensigns.”
The zealots told me of the ensigns, and I am careful to remind him. . . The time his soldiers brought ensigns into Jerusalem, imprinted with the image of Emperor Tiberius — and then set them up in Fort Antonia, next to the Temple.
It was done at night, to keep it secret — as if Jerusalem could ever keep a secret. And when word spread, which it does, like fire, the city was in uproar. Angry Jews then rush to Caesarea to protest, and Procurator Pilatus, this emptiness before me now — he refuses to see them!
He turns away from their disgust. From his little throne, he imagines there is no need to deal with these mad men.
Meanwhile, the crowd outside his palace grows; but for five days he continues to refuse a meeting. He hopes that they will forget their grievance — always unlikely in Israel, which has storehouses full of them and never forgets. And then, on the sixth day, he takes to his judgement seat and allows them in.
They arrive raging, but he has no plans to listen. Instead, he surrounds them with soldiers and threatens death to any who complain. Only recently arrived in the province, he imagines Judea a reasonable place — or, at least, one suitably afraid. He imagines it a place where he can pull such a stunt because he has a few spears to his name!
But death held no fear for these men. They bared their necks, lay on the ground and declared themselves happy to die if the ensigns stayed in Jerusalem. What else could they do with the holy city so abused?
They would never appease a blasphemer — never. So all are now lying down in his palace, awaiting death by sword and spear. And Pilatus on his throne? He need only nod to the soldiers for slaughter to commence — but the nod does not come.
He doesn’t himself have the neck. Against such rage, such insane commitment, he had no power. He had the ensigns removed from Jerusalem.
Pilatus: “Every successful commander chooses which battle he must lose in order to win the war. You may have noticed I still sit on the throne, Yeshua, with Israel still ruled from Rome. Who knows where those oafs are?”
Sharpening their knives in the caves probably; I almost think of them fondly.
“If nothing else does, Pilatus will make you a zealot!” they told me when we met. “He’d make a zealot of a grape!” I see their point; he seeks only power, and loves only himself. Though he says he would like to free me; that this is his desire. “I would like to set you free, Yeshua. I do have the power.”
And now a woman steps out of the shadows behind him, with a well-jewelled neck; though haunted by the seven devils of anxiety in her eyes. Does she wish for a closer look; to greet me, even? But I do not speak as the soldier stands, the woman stares, the slaves demur, and Pilatus fidgets. He senses the woman; he does not wish her here, but plays the man, firm and strong.
“But I insist you speak!” Only the weak insist.
“I tire of words.”
“The wordsmith tires of words?”
“By our fruits we are known. Words are not real, Governor, they make things up, they pretend.”
“My words are real, Yeshua, quite real!” He speaks to himself, to reassure — as when two dying men each say how well the other looks. “I say so, Yeshua, and it is so.”
He clicks his fingers and asks for cheese. Cheese is brought hastily, with bowing, and set before him on the table by the throne. He smiles, picks it up and throws it away.
“Words,” he says, as if all is quite proved.
I lose interest. I am invited to the festival of debate . . . but do not attend. Once, I would speak and contest; no one contested like me. But those days appear gone.
“The word ‘light’ is not light, Pilatus. You cannot make your way in the dark by speaking it. The dark will still be dark.” His face queries me, his head pulled back and jutting jaw. “Words come and go, yours and mine — like ghosts, taken by the wind to who knows where?”
“And the promise to pull down the Temple, stone by stone?” He shakes his head, as one in shock. “I hate to advise a Jew on Jewish affairs, Yeshua, but, well . . . it is your own who have brought you here with strong and determined hands. They want you ended.”
He speaks of another time; I cannot return to the rage. I wish only to be alone at my lathe, working the wood; there is more truth in a splinter than in this perfumed gallery, slaves within, soldiers without, a woman watching and the anxiety of power on its throne.
“Everyone makes of words what they will, Pilatus. My words cannot change you . . . though you could change yourself by them.”
“You would change me, Yeshua?” His voice rises in delighted surprise. He seems to like the attention.
“No, I would have you change yourself.” He likes this less. “I am visible before you, but I am not visible. You do not see me. Recognise what is in front of you, Pilatus, recognise this moment . . . and what is hidden from you will be revealed.” He stares at me; the woman from the shadows steps closer.
“You really do not see what is in front of you, do you?” And now I cannot help it, I start laughing at this scene: a man on a throne; another on his knees; a soldier in armour, a woman made of fear, and a slave with a bowl.
Who ordered all this? How is it so? Who made him to be on a throne and I on my knees? Who gave one man armour and a wage and another a bowl, which is not even his? I cannot help but laugh. “You see what is behind you and what is ahead of you, Pilatus, where nothing is revealed. But you do not see what is in front of you!”
“I see this amuses you.” He is cold.
“But I see what is in front of me, Pilatus. And do you know what I see? I see a child clothed in a prince’s robe and fine-jewelled chains. How happy he must be! Would you not think so? Yet this child, he has no pleasure in his play, for his princely dress fills him with fear.
“He is frightened that his fine clothes might be torn on a rock or stained by the dust of the world. So tell his mother it is no joy or gain for the child to wear such finery. It denies him joy and separates him from his friends. Do you recognise the child, Pilatus?”
The woman from the shadows is aghast; she gasps, and reaches for the throne to steady her.
“We use words for a season, and then the season is past. Only the earth remains . . . and truth.”
I hear the horses in the street and soldiers’ shouts, “Get back!”
“And what is truth?” hisses the woman, as if this is the only answer she seeks.
“The truth is in the silence.” I feel her eyes. “So, as Habbakuk declared, let everyone in the Temple be silent.”
Pilatus sits on his throne, she stands behind; both are still. And then, truly, the silence arrives.
This is an edited extract from Gospel: Rumours of love, by Simon Parke, published by White Crow Books at £11.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10.79); 978-1-78677-147-6.
Listen to an interview with Simon Parke on the Church Times Podcast