Christ on Trial

How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement

by Rowan Williams

Archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop Rowan Williams

Christ Church (Parish) Church

Westmorland Street at Charlotte, Fredericton

Facilitator: Canon Jim Irvine

 

“I know what you want.  You want a story that won’t surprise you.  That will confirm what you already know.  That won’t make you see higher or further or differently.  You want a flat story.  An immobile story.  You want dry, yeastless factuality.”

Pi in A Life of Pi, page 336

 

 

Mark: Voices at Midnight

Mark's account of the Trial

Master and Margarita - Bulgakov

 

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, from Chapter 2: Pontius Pilate 

In a white cloak with blood‑red lining, with die shuffling gait of a cavalryman, early in the morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, there came out to the covered colonnade between the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

More than anything in the world the procurator hated the smell of rose oil, and now everything foreboded a bad day, because this smell had been pursuing the procurator since dawn.

It seemed to the procurator that a rosy smell exuded from the cypresses and palms in the garden, that the smell of leather trappings and sweat from the convoy was mingled with the cursed rosy flux.

From the outbuildings at the back of the palace, where the first cohort of the Twelfth Lightning legion, which had come to Yershalairn with the procurator, was quartered, a whiff of smoke reached the colonnade across the upper terrace of the palace, and this slightly acrid smoke, which testified that the centuries’ mess cooks had begun to prepare dinner, was mingled with the same thick rosy scent.

‘Oh, gods, gods, why do you punish me? ... Yes, no doubt, this is it, this is it again, the invincible, terrible illness ... hemicrania, when half of the head aches ... there’s no remedy for it, no escape ... I’ll try not to move my head ...’

On the mosaic floor by the fountain a chair was already prepared, and the procurator, without looking at anyone, sat in it and reached his hand out to one side. His secretary deferentially placed a sheet of parchment in this hand. Unable to suppress a painfi‑d grimace, the procurator ran a cursory, sidelong glance over the writing, returned the parchment to the secretary, and said with difficulty:

‘The accused is from Galilee? Was the case sent to the tetrarch?’

‘Yes Procurator,’ replied the secretary.

‘And what then?’

‘He refused to make a decision on the case and sent the Sanhedrin’s death sentence to you for confirmation,’ the secretary explained.

The procurator twitched his cheek and said quietly:

‘Bring in the accused.’

And at once two legionaries brought a man of about twenty‑seven from the garden terrace to the balcony under the columns and stood him before the procurator’s chair. The man was dressed in an old and torn light‑blue chiton. His head was covered by a white cloth with a leather band around the forehead, and his hands were bound behind his back. Under the man’s left eye there was a large bruise, in the comer of his mouth a cut caked with blood. The man gazed at the procurator with anxious curiosity.

The latter paused, then asked quietly in Aramaic:

‘So it was you who incited the people to destroy the temple of Yershalaim?’

The procurator sat as if made of stone while he spoke, and only his lips moved slightly as he pronounced the words. The procurator was as if made of stone because he was afraid to move his head, aflame with infernal pain.

The man with bound hands leaned forward somewhat and began to speak:

‘Good man! Believe me...’

But the procurator, motionless as before and not raising his voice in the least, straight away interrupted him:

‘Is it me that you are calling a good man? You are mistaken. It is whispered about me in Yershalaim that I am a fierce monster, and that is perfectly correct.’ And he added in the same monotone: ‘Bring the centurion Ratslayer.’

It seemed to everyone that it became darker on the balcony when the centurion of the first century, Mark, nicknamed Ratslayer, presented himself before the procurator. Ratslayer was a head taller than the tallest soldier of the legion and so broad in the shoulders that he completely blocked out the still‑low sun.

The procurator addressed the centurion in Latin:

‘The criminal calls me “good man”. Take him outside for a moment, explain to him how I ought to be spoken to. But no maiming.’

And everyone except the motionless procurator followed Mark Ratslayer with their eyes as he motioned to the arrested man, indicating that he should go with him. Everyone generally followed Ratslayer with their eyes wherever he appeared, because of his height, and those who were seeing him for die first time also because the centurion’s face was disfigured: his nose had once been smashed by a blow from a Germanic dub.

Mark’s heavy boots thudded across the mosaic, the bound man noiselessly went out with him, complete silence fell in the colonnade, and one could hear pigeons cooing on the garden terrace near the balcony and water singing an intricate, pleasant song in the fountain.

The procurator would have liked to get up, put his temple under the spout, and stay standing that way. But he knew that even that would not help him.

Having brought the arrested man from under the columns out to the garden, Ratslayer took a whip from the hands of a legionary who was standing at the foot of a bronze statue and, swinging easily, struck the arrested man across the shoulders. The centurion’s movement was casual and light, yet the bound man instantly collapsed on the ground as if his legs had been cut from under him; he gasped for air, the colour drained from his face, and his eyes went vacant.

With his left hand only, Mark heaved the fallen man into the air like an empty sack, set him on his feet, and spoke nasally, in poorly pronounced Aramaic:

‘The Roman procurator is called Hegemon. Use no other words. Stand at attention. Do you understand me, or do I hit you?’

The arrested man swayed, but got hold of himself, his colour returned, he caught his breath and answered hoarsely:

‘I understand. Don't beat me.’

A moment later he was again standing before the procurator.

A lustreless, sick voice sounded:

‘Name?’

‘Mine?’ the arrested man hastily responded, his whole being expressing a readiness to answer sensibly, without provoking further wrath.

‘The procurator said softly:

‘I know my own. Don't pretend to be stupider than you are. Yours.’

‘Yeshua,’ the prisoner replied promptly.

‘Any surname?’

‘Ha‑Nozri.’

‘Where do you come from?’

‘The town of Gamala,’ replied the prisoner, indicating with his head that there, somewhere far off to his right, in the north, was the town of Gamala.

‘Who are you by blood?’

‘I don’t know exactly,’ the arrested man replied animatedly, ‘I don’t remember my parents. I was told that my father was a Syrian . .

‘Where is your permanent residence?’

‘I have no permanent home,’ the prisoner answered shyly, ‘I travel from town to town.’

‘That can be put more briefly, in a word – a vagrant,’ the procurator said, and asked:

‘Any family?’

‘None. I'm alone in the world.’

‘Can you read and write?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you know any language besides Aramaic?’

‘Yes. Greek.’

A swollen eyelid rose, an eye clouded with suffering fixed the arrested man. The other eye remained shut.

Pilate spoke in Greek.

‘So it was you who was going to destroy the temple building and called on the people to do that?’

Here the prisoner again became animated, his eyes ceased to show fear, and he spoke in Greek:

‘Never, goo...’ Here terror flashed in the prisoner’s eyes, because he had nearly made a slip. ‘Never, Hegemon, never in my life was I going to destroy the temple building, nor did I incite anyone to this senseless act.’

Surprise showed on the face of the secretary, hunched over a low table and writing down the testimony. He raised his head, but immediately bent it to the parchment again.

‘All sorts of people gather in this town for the feast. Among them there are magicians, astrologers, diviners and murderers,’ the procurator spoke in monotone, ‘and occasionally also Ears. You, for instance, are a liar. It is written clearly – “Incited to destroy the temple”. People have testified to it.’

‘These good people,’ the prisoner spoke and, hastily adding ‘Hegemon’, went on: ‘... haven’t any learning and have confused everything I told them. Generally, I’m beginning to be afraid that this confusion may go on for a very long time. And all because he writes down the things I say incorrectly.’

Silence fell. By now both sick eyes rested heavily on the prisoner.

‘I repeat to you, but for the last time, stop pretending that you’re a madman, robber,’ Pilate said softly and monotonously, ‘there’s not much written in your record, but what there is is enough to hang you.’

‘No, no, Hegemon,’ the arrested man said, straining all over in his wish to convince, ‘there’s one with a goatskin parchment who follows me, follows me and keeps writing all the time. But once I peeked into this parchment and was horrified. I said decidedly nothing of what’s written there. I implored him: “Burn your parchment, I beg you!” But he tore it out of my hands and ran away.’

‘Who is that?’ Pilate asked squeamishly and touched his temple with his hand.

‘Matthew Levi,’ the prisoner explained willingly. ‘He used to be a tax collector, and I first met him on the road in Bediphage, where a fig grove juts out at an angle, and I got to talking with him. He treated me hostilely at first and even insulted me – that is, thought he insulted me – by calling me a dog.’ Here the prisoner smiled. ‘I personally see nothing bad about this animal, that I should be offended by this word . . .’

The secretary stopped writing and stealthily cast a surprised glance, not at the arrested man, but at the procurator.

‘... However, after listening to me, he began to soften,’ Yeshua went on, ‘finally threw the money down in the road and said he would go journeying with me...’

Pilate grinned with one check, baring yellow teeth, and said, turning his whole body towards the secretary:

‘Oh, city of Yershalaim! What does one not hear in it! A tax collector, do you hear, threw money down in the road!’

Not knowing how to reply to that, the secretary found it necessary to repeat Pilate’s smile.

‘He said that henceforth money had become hateful to him,’ Yeshua explained Matthew Levi’s strange action and added: ‘And since then he has been my companion.’

 

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Penguin Books 1997

Translation Copyright © Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1997

 

Download PDF File 1

There is a Time for Truth

 

Matthew: Wisdom in Exile

Matthew's account of the Trial

Life of Pi - Yann Martel

Download PDF File 2

 

Luke: Knocking on the Window

Luke's account of the Trial

The Outsider - Albert Camus

Download PDF File 3

 

John: Home and Away

John's account of the Trial

The Trial - Franz Kafka

Download PDF File 4

 

Our Witness: Believers on Trial

Download PDF File 5

Koelz - Thou Shalt Not Kill

Ashes to Easter

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Canon Jim Irvine