From the files...
Updated: Apr 20, 2019
Welcome to “Forgoing Tradition,” an alternative history tale I penned some 20 years ago. I intended this short story as the first chapter in a literary march through strikingly different centuries that, in the end, would demonstrate one inalterable truth – God’s plan for our salvation through Jesus Christ. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your outlook, my efforts never advanced beyond this short story and outline. When my recent move uncovered this manuscript, I thought it might make an interesting Easter post. So here we go…
By Kirby Lee Davis
It was the blood that captured Pilate's eye. The trickle from his prisoner's bruised ears, the scarlet swelling of his temples, the dried scabs about his torn nose and blackened lips. The crimson clots in his matted hair and beard. The smears on his ripped tunic, some soaking through a shining purple cloak shrouding his throbbing maroon neck and shoulders.
Yes, the governor of Judea applauded in his heart. Herod's men must have enjoyed themselves. Yet warnings issued from his core. This "king" the Jews feared had just enough strength to stand, and yet, in his aching, exhausted face....
"With Herod's compliments," cut in the Captain of the Guard, snapping to attention at Pilate's left hand.
The prisoner king stumbled to a stop beside the soldier, gasping for breath. Pilate couldn't resist stepping to his side, seeking a glance beneath that curtain of tangled hair hiding his downcast eyes.
"So Herod wouldn't take him," Pilate reflected, fingering the silken purple wrap. "Still, he shows me respect. Perhaps I've underestimated him."
Coughs shook the prisoner. Against the pain he straightened his back, looking full upon Pilate.
The governor stepped away. That face... so serene, even in his agony!
A commotion echoed from the outer hall. Shoving their way in, grumbling all the while over the crimson drops splattered on their cloaks, came the smug priests – led by Annas in all black, the old manipulator, clearing a path for his successor, the High Priest Caiaphas in his omnipresent garb, that gaudy jeweled breastplate and all. Pilate almost laughed at their folly. And yet they came in force, as before, accusers and priests beyond number, treading through the trail of blood to fill the governor's chamber, all seeking the death of this so-called king, this fanciful weaver of miracles who threatened their faith.
What a morning this had turned out to be!
Pilate knew what his captain of the Guard would say, letting the Jews so overwhelm his squad of centurions. Pilate had listened to repeated warnings over the last two days, when a throng of enraptured Israelites dwarfing his Roman garrison swarmed into Jerusalem, cheering as this would-be king rode through the wall gates on a donkey – of all things, a donkey! And then there'd been the disturbance at the Temple, when this same king confronted the priests and disrupted their worship. And the midnight excitement, when all the city seemed alive with intrigue.
Three times the captain sought reinforcement from the garrisons at Caesarea, Tiberias, Caesarea Phillipi, even Damascus. Pilate exercised patience, for this was a good soldier, one of the best, but the governor knew every breeze carried rumors of rebellion to his captain's suspicious ear. This vast Passover crowd accentuated this. So Pilate gave the captain his full attention and debated strategies, but took no action. He felt no worries, not with Jerusalem's Roman cohort practically at his side in this, his palace Antonia.
"Herod will not act," Annas grumbled to the governor, showing no care for protocol.
Pilate gathered his thoughts. The elder priest arranged his entourage with masterful care throughout the room, all to encircle Pilate and pressure him to their will.
"I admire your work," he admitted.
"What?" the priest snapped.
"Never mind," Pilate answered, brushing their exchange away with a wave of his hand. Offering a casual smile, Pilate reasserted his command, turning from them all to retake his judgment seat, a commanding chair in the middle of his chamber. Let them come to me, he decided, taking comfort in the sound of their footfalls as they followed in his wake.
"Now," Pilate began, shuffling his backside to find some comfort in the shallow pads of his throne, "you brought this man to me as one who incites rebellion. I have examined him before you, and I found the charges groundless. I see no guilt in this man."
"No guilt?" Annas nearly exploded in his rage.
"No – and neither has Herod, for he sent him back to me."
Caiaphas took a firm step forward, planting his withered body at Pilate's feet. "Herod knows nothing of God – and neither do you. Long you have pledged by Caesar to leave matters of our faith to us. This is such a matter. We have a law, and by that law he ought to die – because he made himself out to be the son of God. We demand his death!"
Pilate leaned back, clutching his hands against the polished stone. Was there any province more unruly than Judea? At times like this, he wouldn't mind a dozen legions at his command. Let the streets of Jerusalem run red with blood! That would knock some obstinance out of these stubborn Jews!
All this talk of gods and sons of gods! Do they actually believe this? What a backward people! Oh, to be in Rome once more!
"Listen carefully," Pilate dictated in his voice of judgment.
"You dare take that tone with me?" Caiaphas stabbed back.
Pilate ignored it. "I tell you this man has done nothing deserving death. I will punish him and release him. Let that be enough."
The High Priest fumed beneath the multitude of robes and that misshapen headpiece old customs demanded he wear. His gaze burned the air. The governor stiffened. He had backed down once before over this "religion" of the Jews. Never again.
A sly smile formed on Caiaphas' dry lips. "Have you looked, wise, proud Pilate, at the crowd forming outside your palace? You think this man's following is not your concern? You think rebellion is not your concern? Put it to them! It is your custom, is it not? To release a prisoner at Passover? Ask the crowd who they want. Put it to them!"
Pilate gazed at the thick purple curtain along the left wall, all the while admiring the guile of this priest. Beyond that curtain, under his balcony platform, surely waited a crowd of people ready to shout whatever Caiaphas wanted. How he must have worked, to get such an audience raised with the dawn!
The governor felt a tug on his left sleeve. Glancing down, Pilate found his wife awaiting him, still veiled within her night robes. An embarrassed centurion saluted just behind her.
Pilate felt equal shares of shock and amusement. The latter won out.
"Woman," he whispered in loving reproach, "have you lost your senses?"
Then he beheld the fear in her gaze. She ignored his levity, grasping his arm in concern.
"Have nothing to do with that righteous man!" she whispered.
Pilate hesitated, his thoughts stumbling in disbelief over this strange turn.
"You expose yourself in my ruling hall just to say that?"
"I'm telling you – have nothing to do with him!"
Pilate couldn't help smiling. "For years you've paid no attention to my office! What makes you interested now?"
She glanced around, perhaps recognizing for the first time just what she'd done. But then her eyes fixed on Jesus, the prisoner wobbling at the foot of Pilate's throne, and sorrow overcame her. Even more than that, Pilate saw awareness on her brow. She knew this so-called king – but how?
"Last night," she whispered, "all last night, I suffered, greatly, in a dream – because of him. I tell you – let him go! Have nothing to do with him!"
Pilate gripped the arms of his throne. "You suffered? How?"
Her back snapped erect. Her eyes grew wide, her focus distant. Tracking her sight, Pilate panned across the frustrated, self-absorbed priests to rest on his prisoner's bloodied face. It was he who returned his wife's gaze, and not in surprise, shame, or anger, but compassion. Intrigued, the governor looked back to his wife, only to watch her last steps to flee their presence.
Pilate almost struck this so-called king, wondering in rash anger what this Nazarene had done to her, but the absurdness of such thoughts stopped him cold. Sure, she had heard of this alleged miracle worker – who in all the land hadn't caught echoes of his name over the last three years? But she had never seen him. Pilate was certain of that.
How could she possibly dream of him? What did that mean?
Pilate looked anew upon the prisoner, only to find Jesus staring up at him, his eyes appealing to Pilate through pits of bloody, disfigured flesh. And yet Pilate saw no animosity in those wet, bruised orbs. Amazed, the governor stared into those windows to the would-be king's mind. The prisoner sought not mercy or justice – indeed, he seemed to care nothing for himself or his fate. But for Pilate, for his wife, this condemned man offered understanding, even friendship.
That face! Despite the beatings, the bloodshed, never had Pilate seen such command, such presence. Such royalty.
"Are you the king of the Jews?" he blurted out.
With visible effort the prisoner lifted his aching shoulders, determined to present himself as a man should in Pilate's court. Pilate saw the agony in his face, and the unimportance Jesus gave it.
"Do you ask this, this question, on your own initiative," inquired the Nazarene between gasps of pain, "or did others tell you about me?"
So innocent he is! Pilate marveled. And yet he knows what these priests have told me! He heard! How can he dare play such games? Has he no cares in the world?
"I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests brought you to me. What have you done?"
"My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, then My servants would fight to keep Me from My accusers. But so it is: My kingdom is not of this realm."
Pilate leaned back in pleasure. Who would have thought a Jew could banter with such skill, both answering and evading a question!
"So you are a king?"
"You speak correctly," said the prisoner. "For this, I was born, and for this I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice."
Pilate struggled to contain his curiosity, all the while pondering his wife's dream.
"What is truth?"
"It is as you say."
"King, you mean?"
A red-faced Annas sought to interrupt them, his eyes bulging in his hatred.
"You see now what we mean?" he barked.
"He is a scourge to our people, a spreader of half-truths who mocks God and his servants!" agreed Caiaphas, waving his arms at Jesus as if the Nazarene were the agitator here.
"Oh, come now!" Pilate protested, choking back laughter at their fears. Caiaphas looked so silly in that ridiculous garb! "Whether he is or isn't king – "
"Dare not suggest it!" Annas interrupted.
"He has done nothing against our Emperor or myself," Pilate stated, hardened by the priest's lack of decorum. "He doesn't interfere with our business. He even pays taxes!"
"Didn't you see how the crowds brought him into Jerusalem?" spat Caiaphas. "Bowing before him as if he were God Himself!"
"I think you're envious," Pilate snickered.
"Envious? If this man were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered him up to you! He has stirred up the people from Galilee to Judea!"
"So you say. Yet Herod does not convict him."
A low rumble echoed from the courtyard. Pilate eased back into his judgment seat, pondering anew the games these priests played. His gaze wandered, lost among the light reflecting in the jewels of Caiaphas' breastplate. Oh, the problems these Jews cause! How did I ever get talked into taking this office?
The prisoner was innocent. Pilate was sure of that, no matter what this talk of kingship meant. Yet these priests wanted his death. And they did have Rome's pledge to respect their religion, as he had years before with those damn legion standards and shields.
What could he do? There had to be a workable solution.
"What do you say about all this?" he asked Jesus.
The prisoner met his gaze, took a deep breath.
Shouts from the outer world penetrated the curtain. The crowd's reckless talk rose like thunder.
The prisoner looked away.
Pilate endured another wash of anger.
"Do you refuse to answer?" Feeling a twinge of desperation, Pilate pointed towards his accusers. "Haven't you heard the charges they bring against you?"
The would-be king lowered his head.
"Honor your custom!" Caiaphas demanded. "Put it to the people!"
Pilate scanned the room. The captain had guards at both entryways, with two more at the balcony. The captain himself stood at attention behind the prisoner, not revealing the apprehension Pilate knew burned in his heart. For even Pilate could feel the tension, the danger.
"Very well," he agreed, grasping for a plan. "Captain of the Guard – who was that sadist they brought in last week? Barabbas... wasn't that his name?"
The captain stepped to the throne. "Yes, sir!"
"Barabbas," said Pilate, enjoying a sudden inspiration. "A real insurrectionist he was – and yet he used even the rebels for his own lusts. How many rapes and murders is he known to have committed? Four? Five?"
Doubts flowed across the High Priest's brow. In absent thought he drew his left hand to his chin, stroking his beard. Pilate took restrained delight in that. He knows I have him!
"Yes, Caiaphas, I'm sure your people would love to have Barabbas walking among them once more!" Pilate stated. So he leaned over to the Captain, saying, "Go fetch him!"
With a dozen rapid steps, the centurion disappeared into the main hall.
"But why should we wait?" Pilate continued, moving towards the curtain. At his signal the guards drew away the cloth, revealing a stone platform overlooking a courtyard only slightly smaller than Jerusalem's famed amphitheater. To Pilate's amazement, it overflowed with faces. Restless, agitated faces.
He had never seen it so full of humanity.
The priests closed around him, thrusting the prisoner king to Pilate's side. Jesus stumbled forward, his eyes closed, wet.
"Ask them," Caiaphas urged.
Just that quick, Pilate didn't want to. His very being seemed threatened.
What have I done?
Taking a deep breath, the governor of Jerusalem raised his arms. The platform guards blew piercing notes from their trumpets.
With some resistance, the crowd grew silent.
"In honor of your heritage," began Pilate, "the Emperor will return to you the prisoner of your choice. Who would you have me release – Jesus the Nazarene, or Barabbas?"
From the center of the throng came brash, furious screams for Barabbas. The name spread throughout the courtyard, echoing louder with each utterance.
Pilate raised his hands anew as he strode to the balcony's edge.
"Don't you want me to release this king of the Jews?"
"No!" came many shouts, even as others cried out for Barabbas.
"Away with this man!" echoed others.
Pilate felt a rush of anger. "Then what should I do with Jesus of Nazareth?"
Bitter rage erupted from the courtyard. "Crucify him! Crucify him!"
Fears penetrated Pilate's frustration, but none could stand against his Roman pride –
now wounded by a room of conniving, arrogant Jewish priests.
"But why?" he truly wished to know. "What evil has this man done?"
"But I find no guilt in him!"
Pilate stumbled back. The screams for death drowned every sound of the world. The crowd seemed to expand even as he watched, if that was possible, with the most agitated scrambling like monkeys up the ragged stone walls as if intent to slay the prisoner themselves.
Pilate pivoted back to Jesus, determined to wrestle answers from his Jewish tongue. He knew the prisoner was innocent – all this man had to do was speak out, to provide one excuse for defying these priests! But then Pilate spied Caiaphas standing like a proud rooster in all his glory, certain he had achieved the goal of his life. He spied old, meddlesome Annas gazing upon the crowd, happy with his triumph over the Roman governor and law.
Pilate grew furious.
"No," he stated. "I will not let you kill this man."
The crowd surged forward, not hearing his defiance. So he raised high his arms. The trumpets sounded, quelling the chaos.
"Above all tradition, all heritage, must first rule truth and justice," Pilate proclaimed.
Facing Caiaphas, he told the crowd, "It is clear to me now that you have been manipulated and deceived by those who have no cares for either truth or justice. For that reason I must now forgo tradition. I will release Jesus – "
Harsh cries protested.
"I will release Jesus!" Pilate shouted. "For I find no guilt in him!"
"Enough!" screamed Annas. "We have endured enough!"
Shouts rose behind Pilate. Twisting about, he saw countless accusers swarming over his guards. Others laid hands on the Nazarene, even as the crowd tore from its momentary quiet like a rushing lion. Waves of Jews climbed upon the platform, engaging the centurions with clubs, ropes, and nets.
"Stop this madness!" the governor cried.
Fingers dug into his arms. Sudden fears of plummeting off the ledge made him buck like a stallion, and his captors gave way. Surging against the sweaty tide, Pilate shoved and squeezed into his chamber, only to find it a battleground. From the outer hall, he heard shouts from the captain of the Guard. He scrambled towards them, evading blow after blow. At the dark passageway, Pilate caught the repeating crash of clashing swords. Songs of praise rose behind him.
A sharp edge pressed against his neck. "Going somewhere, governor?"
"You can't win," he told Annas.
Unkind hands bound Pilate's arms behind him, even as the sword remained poised at his chin. Callous, uncaring hands tossed Pilate back into his chamber, where Caiaphas spoke rapid commands to several black-robed priests. The young men scattered, leaving Caiaphas tired but content in a room where many centurions lay dying or dead, along with many more of the Jews. Beside them sang and danced many of the accusers, oblivious to the carnage.
"Saul reports Fort Antonia is ours," Caiaphas told Annas. "God has blessed us."
"God be praised," replied the elder priest.
"Are you truly such fools?" Pilate stammered. "You dare – "
"The armory is in our hands," continued the high priest. "The towers are either blockaded or taken, and those bottled up will soon be smoked out."
"You won't survive!" Pilate exclaimed. "Captain of the Guard!"
"You brought this on!" Caiaphas said, turning upon the governor.
"He can't answer you," Annas told them. With a smug smile, the former high priest cast a bloodied short sword onto the floor. Pilate sagged, recognizing it as his captain's gladius.
"Your stubborn defiance of God and his judgment of the Nazarene," said Caiaphas, "that was your doom. We were called to condemn this blasphemer, no matter the cost. You interfered. Very well; you can join him."
Furious and desperate, Pilate struggled against his bonds, but he found no hopes there.
"Hypocrites!" he shouted. "Claiming this innocent man would spur rebellion when that was your plan!"
"No, it wasn't," Annas snapped. "You left us no choice. But God's paths are indeed strange. After that Galilee catastrophe, I didn't expect freedom in my lifetime. I truly thought salvation would come under your command, Caiaphas."
"God be praised," the younger priest answered.
"Fools," Pilate spat. "Your god cannot save you!"
"He already has," replied Annas. "But you stand condemned."
Something rang hard against Pilate's skull, leaving him dark and alone, numb to the world, until an even greater agony drew back his conscious self – a scorching blaze intent on devouring his shoulders and back, all seemingly from within his flesh. He struggled to escape, only to find his hands stretched farther apart than seemed possible. Then came true realization of what pain could be – a slow, penetrating pounding, again and again, as someone drove a blunt iron spike first through the cords and bone of first his left ankle, then his right. Pilate wanted to cry out for help, for his captain, for his wife, his mother, anyone, but he heard only the rushing of his heart, the incoherent screams of his lungs, and the shattering rings of his ears. He was too forlorn to resist when his arms were outstretched once more, then wrapped about a rough slab of wood bound to the same object as his feet. A frightening picture formed in his mind, fighting against the stormy daze that clouded his sight. The Jews had called for this, this torture....
He felt his body lifted up, his weight tearing against his feet, and he knew.
Waves of nausea poured through him. Thoughts broke against it into random fragments, rarely making sense. But through the catacombs of his chaos, he heard the catcalls, the taunts, and with them, he pieced together a dim awareness of his plight. Odd blows battered his chest – stones, he guessed. Hurled at him to speed his death, though he hardly felt them, such was the pain swarming through his frame.
Never would he have believed such agony possible. The effort just to exhale threatened to destroy him. And yet he suffered more significant worries. That he was up here, enduring this, meant the Jews did indeed control the city. The rebellion… it had succeeded.
He'd lost Judea. He'd failed Caesar.
What of his wife? His children? What would happen to them?
"Be at peace," came a shallow, forced wheeze.
Thunder cracked the black sky. Pilate tried to focus, to regain his sight, although he could guess where he was – hanging aloft with at least one other man, no doubt the Nazarene, stuck on huge angled spikes atop the hill of death, Golgatha.
"But who... who will help them?" Pilate asked. The effort almost killed him, though it helped clear his sight. The Nazarene hung to his right, his cross surrounded by priests determined to make his last moments a living hell. Still another cross thrust from the earth at an odd angle beyond the prisoner. Strange... it looked like Barabbas.
"Don't you worry," someone shouted at Pilate's feet. "We'll find them!"
Pilate struggled to think that through, wondering if they failed to take all the palace. Perhaps some guards still held out.
"She... listened," came the voice. Pilate heard someone groaning, straining amidst a rough, pulpy grinding, bone and flesh against ragged cedar. "To... to the Father's call. Her faith... has saved her."
"Faith? My wife?"
Faith in what… all that talk of God?
But for a bloody crown of thorns, the Nazarene had been stripped of his clothing, and yet that humiliation mattered little against the needs of his flesh. Nailed to the coarse wood by his hands and feet, with the very skin of his back hanging in tattered shreds, the would-be king had to stretch his spine upward against the cross just to catch a breath. Each time it forced his weight upon his broken ankles, crushing flesh and cracking bone. The slivered cedar post clawed meat from his shoulders on each pass.
Despite all that, Pilate could see the Nazarene clung to his serenity, his compassion. Even as the accusers gambled for his robes, and the priests condemned him, this man offered forgiveness.
Who could possibly do that?
"You," sputtered Barabbas. His pinned fingers strained against his cross as if he might reach out for Jesus. "Aren't you the Christ? Damn you! You caused this! Come on then! Save yourself – and us!"
"Fool!" Pilate spat. He didn't know why he spoke out. It just seemed right.
A stone struck his gut, even as someone shouted for him to be quiet. Sheer agony pulsed through the cords of his flesh.
"What do you know of God?" a priest taunted him.
"More than you, it seems." Grasping for breath, Pilate stammered, "This man, he is more like your god than any of you. He has done nothing wrong."
Pilate had recognized that from the first time he'd seen Jesus, and yet the quality he'd witnessed was more than innocence, more than serenity or nobility. In truth, Pilate didn't know what it was, but he knew it was special. Maybe even... divine.
It would take something like that, to endure all he did, to do what he did.
The Son of God…. isn't that what Caiaphas said?
"Jesus," Pilate whispered, "remember me when You come into Your kingdom."
Again he caught the grunts of strain, the wet grinding of muscle and bone against shivered wood. Just hearing it tore Pilate's heart. And yet the Master's words were as a brilliant light, comforting him.
"This day," said Jesus, "you will be with Me, in paradise."