Make your own free website on

We have been here a week and it seems like a year. It is as though we were in a different country. I felt it immediately as we came up from the coast. Caesarea, after all, is bustling and cheerful, with a friendly face towards one. Here, as we marched up and up into these bleak hills, which stretch away north and south as far as the eye can see, I felt like an invader entering for the first time a hostile land. All the way along we saw groups of people from the farms and scattered hamlets watching us silently. It was the same when we entered Jerusalem. There was no welcome at the gates nor in the street. Not a shout nor a salute; no sign even of Caiaphas nor of any of the high-priestly caste. Crowds enough in the streets, for the place is like a rabbit-warren, but all of them glum and silent, as though they had been given the order, or sneering at us if they thought that they had caught our eye. The place is a volcano, and if I had more troops, and Caesar permitted, I would not mind if the explosion came. Marcius says that it will not come - not yet. The high priests, he asserts - and by that he means the little ring of families from whom the high priest is always chosen - will have as little to do with me as possible, but they have things well in hand. And I will have them well in hand before I finish, and so I have told Marcius. He warns me to expect no friendliness from the priests or people. To all of them alike we are aliens and usurpers, to be regarded with coldness and suspicion until their god thinks fit to remove us from their necks.

This is a wretched city. Except for the great Herod's works there is scarcely a single building worth a glance. Whatever pride and taste they possess they have put into their Temple. The streets are narrow and ill-paved. Their drains and water-supply are disgraceful even for Asia; it is no wonder that they suffer from all kinds of disease. I shall have to see about this.

The hand of Herod is evident everywhere. How that man must have despised and laughed at the Jews! On one day he would humour them and on the next strike them in the face - or, more likely, do both things almost together. He built them a Temple which is one of the wonders of the world and they are proud of it, as well they may be, and at the same time he built a theatre in the City and an amphitheatre outside it. And of what use was that, you say, since they so much resent the introduction of such wicked spectacles? I think that is just what must have delighted Herod. Their priests and all their stricter folk denounced him and his evil works, but many of the common people flocked to the spectacles. What people could resist the temptation? So Herod, in the eyes of the good Jew, was a corrupter of the people, more subtle and more dangerous than the mere persecutor.

It goes without saying that Herod built a palace too - an enormous affair which is also a fortress. It gave him an additional grip on the City. Whatever else he did, he never forgot the necessity of securing himself against his people. The whole country is dotted with his fortresses. I do not live in the palace; something more modest is enough for my pretensions. Besides, I like to have my soldiers near me. I live in the Antonia, the citadel which is close to and overlooks the Temple. I have the troops there and can keep a keen eye on the Temple, for if there is trouble afoot, especially at the time of the great Festivals, it is in the Temple that sooner or later it will show itself. You cannot imagine the eagerness of the Jews to fight each other. They are as full of factions as the Greeks, and you know what that means. A few of them favour the family of Herod; the chief priests, as I have told you, think it well to make the best of us Romans; the fanatics and agitators of the common people look askance at them both. Then the country people are always coming up from over Jordan or from Galilee and the inhabitants of the City are quick to make trouble with them, not to mention the Samaritans, with whom any good Jew is ready to pick a quarrel.

The Temple is astonishing. There cannot be its like in the world. It is a city in itself, and the priests and servants attached to it must number thousands. There are enormous colonnades and courts, one after another. Foreigners may go into the outer court, and then there is a barrier, and if any foreigner goes through and is detected, he suffers the death penalty. Even our own soldiers are executed by us if they transgress the barrier. Then there is another court which marks the limit for women and another for men, and so on to the priests' courts and the great altar of sacrifice and the inmost chamber of all - the empty one - which no one enters but the High Priest, and he only once a year. The quantity of sacrifices made by private persons is amazing, and the part of the outer court where the offerings are bought and sold is just like a great fair. The priests get part of all the offerings, and, to make sure of their income, they insist that no one shall offer sacrifice except in Jerusalem and in the Temple itself. And then there are the presents from rich Jews and the tribute-money from rich and poor alike. The Treasury is concealed somewhere in the depths of the Temple - I don't know where precisely.

You will ask me how I have been received since I first entered the City. Not well. They ask for trouble. I had invited all their chief men to meet me at the Antonia on the morning after my arrival. There was no reply, but they came. I had been told by Alexander that I had better receive them in the outer court, as some of them would have scruples about entering the actual building. I even offered to give them food and wine - not wine of the country, but real wine - before they left, but, of course, Alexander replied that that was impossible; they would not accept it; besides, it was the day before or the day after some festival or other, and that made them stricter than ever about meeting those whom they call the heathen. In this, as in everything, I gave way. You cannot say that I am not patient with them.

There was a great crowd when they came. I expect that most of them were as curious to see me as I to see them. All the Sanhedrim were there, some seventy of them. This is the body that rules the Jews, under our authority; their chief priests, officials and most distinguished lawyers and philosophers compose it. I greeted Caiaphas and he presented the leaders to me; among them Annas and one or two who had held the office of High Priest, the Captain of the Temple Guard, the chief of the Treasury and a few more. Annas had his sons there, a whole row of them. One of them has already been High Priest, and no doubt the others expect to be* The old man, I should say, is worth the lot of them. He has a hawk's face, with thin lips (for a Jew), and every now and then, when he is moved, a spark of fire in his eyes. I do not know whether it is cunning or inclination that decides his policy, but, although he is one of the heads of the priestly nobles who work with us and are almost all of the faction called Sadducees, he seeks the support and applause of the other faction, the Pharisees, who are all for the utmost observance of the Jewish law and for as much opposition as is practicable to Greeks and Romans and any other foreigners.

*Five sons of Annas held the office. Eleazar had been High Priest about A.D. 16-17. Jonathan became High Priest in A.D. 36-37 and was later assassinated at the instance of the Procurator Felix. Theophilos was High Priest after Jonathan, and Matthias a few years later. Annas the younger became High Priest for a few months in A.D. 62, and was murdered by the populace.
Now observe what happened. The leading Sadducees have seats on the Sanhedrim, but the majority of its members are Pharisees, who regard the Sadducees with suspicion and disapproval as temporizers in religion and (therefore) in politics. All were listening to hear what I would say and what the noble Sadducees would say to me. After the presentations, I began by saying to Caiaphas that I was sorry that they had not thought fit to greet me at my entry into the City. I spoke in Greek because that, as you know, is the language of the educated throughout the East. Before Caiaphas could reply Annas said something sharply in a foreign tongue and there was a little movement of applause among some of them. Caiaphas said hurriedly that it was a matter of custom and that the Roman Governor had never, so far, demanded a formal welcome on entering Jerusalem.

I am becoming, I really think, a miracle of self-control. I did not ask what Annas had said, but I discovered afterwards that he had said in Aramaic, which they use among themselves, that it was surely enough that they should consent to come to me at all. I turned to them, however, and said - again in Greek - that I hoped the indisposition was better which had prevented him from coming to welcome me at Caesarea. He smiled slightly and replied, again in Aramaic - an insulting thing to do - and there was a general laugh. I made Alexander translate for me this time. It appeared that the insolent fellow had said that his indisposition was better but might return at any moment. However, I know how to deal with such gentry and I addressed them in Latin, to teach them their place, and ordered Alexander to translate into Greek. I told them roundly that I was displeased with my reception in Caesarea, and, still more, in Jerusalem, but that they should have no reason to complain of me so long as their conduct was sincerely loyal. They listened sourly and then Caiaphas said hastily that they knew their duty to Caesar and to Rome. I asked if they had any request to make of me, and he replied that it would make for good feeling and contentment if I would restore the High Priest's vestments to their keeping. That, I replied, as at Alexandria, was a matter for Caesar, and it would depend entirely on their conduct whether I could make any recommendation. Then I went on to say that I had greatly admired what I had seen of the Temple and I desired to inspect it; perhaps some of them would show me its wonders on the following day. Caiaphas assented. I suggested that those who had been High Priests should accompany us. They all looked at Annas. He bowed gravely. 'To the outer court!' he said, this time in Greek. Really, the man is intolerable. 'I know that,' I said. 'Have we not set up inscriptions both in Greek and in Latin forbidding strangers to pass beyond the outer court?' Then I could not resist temptation. 'Yet I have heard,' I added, 'that one of my predecessors visited even the inmost chamber.' You remember that when Cneius Pompeius* took Jerusalem in the course of his Eastern conquests he penetrated to the most sacred chamber - an act of desecration which they have never forgiven. You should have seen their faces. A murmur of horror and anger broke from them; some of them spat upon the floor; some of them took a step towards me. Annas stepped forward, but I did not give him time to speak. 'I have no intention myself,' I said, 'to go beyond the outer court, just as I have confidence that you will continue to perform the daily sacrifice in honour of Caesar and of Rome.' That quieted them, for it was a reminder that, tolerant as we are, we do exact from them a daily symbol of submission.

*Pompeius the Great, who entered the Holy of Holies in 63 B.C.
Finally, I told them that I would expect them to report to me promptly any agitator among the common people who might threaten trouble. I need not, I said, particularize the kind of trouble that I meant; they knew well enough what happened when some robber or fanatic, half crazy about religion or the liberty of his country, began to set up himself as a leader and collect a following. I relied on them for loyal support. With this I dismissed them.

I shall spend a fortnight here and then make a round of inspection before I return to Caesarea. I must see the country-people. I believe they have not the slightest understanding of the power and importance of Rome - a most dangerous form of ignorance. I shall be glad to get away, but Procula will be sorry to leave Jerusalem. She finds everything picturesque, and, besides, their religion and their Temple-worship attract her. It is curious how these Eastern religions fascinate the women. If it is not Egyptian, it is the Jewish brand; the greater the mystery and hocus-pocus, the readier they are to submit themselves to the priests. Procula visits the outer court and questions Alexander about their wonderful inmost empty chamber. I tell her that some day she will forget and pass through the barrier. Then it will be my unpleasant duty to have her executed.

By the way, I have two questions for you. How many synagogues are there in Jerusalem? Fifty, do you say? There are nearly five hundred. And who discovered the alphabet? The ancient Egyptians or the Assyrians, you reply. No, it was Abraham, the ancestor of the Jews. You do not beleive it? What presumption! Neither do I, but the Jews do, or pretend to. Everything good must have come out of the Jews. I do not know, but I expect they claim the discovery of fire and the cartwheel. It is a consolation that at least we have the credit for the good Roman sword.

Your equable and tolerant mind will not, I fear, approve the tone of this letter. I freely confess that Jerusalem does not improve my temper.

LETTERS OF PONTIUS PILATE: --back to table of contents