That winter, Jerusalem was garbed in white, the snow covering the walls and roofs of the houses. It was the month of Kisleu, and our town was festively commemorating with lighted lamps the dedication of the Temple and the purification of the altar. Jesus and some of us went to the capital during the feast. As always, we stayed in the town near Bethany, in our friend, Lazarus’ inn….
Lazarus: ……As you have heard, countrymen, it happened only yesterday, shortly before you came. Two Galilean men were in the Temple, offering a lamb as sacrifice. Then two Roman soldiers entered and apprehended the two, who were then dragged into the Antonia Tower.
Martha: They were staying with us, the poor guys… In fact, their clothes and some of their things are still in the patio…
Lazarus: One of them is the son of a certain Reuben, of Bethsaida. They say the other one is called Nino. His mother is from Chorazim.
Jesus: What will they do to them, Lazarus?
Lazarus: Search me, Jesus! The life of these prisoners hangs on a spider’s web. It depends on Pontius Pilate’s whims. As you can see, the scoundrel didn’t have any respect for the Temple, nor for the sacrifice they were offering…
Judas: History repeats itself. Now the Romans are making fun of us, as they did with the Greeks before… Two hundred years back, during the time of the cruel Antiochus Epiphanes of the Greek domination, the foreigners had sacked the Temple of Jerusalem and profaned the altar of the sacrifice. After the initial victories of the Maccabees brothers, our ancestors performed great ceremonies of atonement. Since then, in winter of every year, we celebrate the feast of the Dedication….
Mary: Hey, Lazarus…. Martha….!
Lazarus: What’s with you, Mary? Have you got any news?
Mary: Yeah. This cripple, Saul, told me that the two Galileans would be judged in the Antonia Tower. Pilate will present them before the people…
Judas: When will this be, Mary?
Mary: This morning, Judas. If we hurry, we’ll get there on time…
Lazarus: C’mon, guys, let’s all go there!
Lazarus, his two sisters and we, left the inn together. In a few minutes we reached the village of Bethphage, climbing through the slope of Mount Olives, crossing the Cedron river, which was slippery on account of the snow, until we got into the city of Jerusalem. Many people milled in the streets. Slowly, we shoved and pushed our way through to the front of the Antonia Tower… The black and yellow flags of Rome waved along the battlements… A giant bronze eagle on top of the flight of steps was a grim reminder that our country was under the domination of a foreign nation….
A Man: That’s where the trial is!… Run, the governor is coming!
Below the Tower was a small, paved patio, where Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, tried the prisoners in public and meted out their sentence….
Pilate: When will you ever learn, huh? How do you want me to say it?… These clandestine meetings are never allowed!
A Woman: My son didn’t do anything, governor. He was not meeting anyone!
Pilate: Your son and his friend were conspiring against Rome. Do you know what I do with conspirators? I crush them like bugs and fleas! Do you hear?
Pontius Pilate, the governor of Jerusalem and of the whole southern region, was a tall and robust man. He wore a white linen cape and a pair of braided sandals. His hair was short according to the Roman style, and his face showed an eternal expression of contempt for us Jews….
Woman: Governor, my son is innocent! He was inside the Temple!
A Man: And the Temple is a sacred place!
Pilate: The Temple is a mousetrap. It’s the job of my men to catch the mice hiding in that hole.
Woman: Governor, they were not in conspiracy! They were offering a sacrifice, shedding the blood of a lamb on the altar of God!
Pilate: Oh, yeah? So, that was what they were doing?… Well, then, the blood of your son and that of the other Galilean will be mixed with the lamb’s!….. Soldiers, bring the rebels before me, now!
Soldier: Right away, governor.
There was tense silence while the Roman guards headed for the pits of the Antonia Tower, where the prisoners awaited their sentence. In a short while they were back, pushing with their lances the young Galileans who were caught inside the Temple the other day… One of the men was tanned. His hair was dishevelled and his robe was torn into pieces. The other man was shorter, and he was covering his face with his tied hands. He was trembling, like he was suffering from fever. His back was smashed by lashings and beatings….
Woman: Have mercy on them, Pontius Pilate, and please pardon them! Where is your heart?… Can’t you find pity for a mother that is weeping?…… Please forgive my son, please!
Man: Clemency too for the other fellow!
Pilate: There’s no forgiveness for rebels like them. Rome is an eagle and no one can escape from her claws. You Jews are a stubborn people. After the feast, when you go back to your homes, tell them what you are now to witness with your own eyes….
Pontius Pilate looked at all of us in great contempt and raised his ringed hand for the fatal command….
Pilate: Behead them!
Woman: No, no……!
Two soldiers from the governor’s guards held the Galileans and lay them down on the humid tiling. Two other soldiers came close and unsheathed their swords…. and in one slash, the heads of the young men came rolling…… We all gave out a terrifying cry. The mother of one of the victims screamed like mad and a group of soldiers had to cordon the area in order to control the mob….. But Pontius Pilate remained unperturbed…..
Pilate: Bring me the victims’ blood!
A soldier then took a jar, headed for the victims’ bodies and filled the jar with the blood that gushed out of their necks…. and presented it to the Roman governor who was standing by.
Pilate: This is going to be my sacrifice. I will pour the blood of these stubborn rebels on the altar of this more obstinate God of yours. Listen well, all you rebels: the only powerful god is seated in Rome. Emperor Tiberius is the only true God. He reigns over you all and mixes the blood of the sons of Israel with the blood of lambs and dogs. Long live Caesar!
A Man: Damn you, Pontius Pilate! May the blood of your own head be shed someday!
There was great bewilderment. Many of us had to close our eyes in horror as the governor, who was heavily guarded, crossed the hallway that joined the Roman fortress to the Temple. Without any deference, Pilate proceeded to the altar of the holocausts and amid the soldiers’ laughter, poured the blood of the two young Galileans, which was still warm.
Another Man: This is desecration! Pontius Pilate has profaned our altar! Shake your robes, brothers!
Another Man: The governnor is making a mockery of us! A while ago he brought Caesar’s flags to the Temple’s atria! And now, this!
An Old Man: If the Maccabees rose up in arms, they would again take up the sword of revenge!
Man: Revenge, yes, revenge! I swear there will be revenge!
Since then, more protests were mounted in Jerusalem, more people’s uprisings were staged and more assassinations occurred. A group of zealots tried to dig a tunnel up to the tower of Siloah, a small arsenal beside the fountain of Ezekias, where the Romans kept their swords and other weapons… But the tower’s foundation was already in a state of decay, and the tunnel caused the construction to suddenly collapse…. claiming the lives of several Galilean families who had built their houses near the tower.
Lazarus: The situation is getting out of control, Jesus…
Jesus: And it’s getting worse, Lazarus. There’s a rumor that Pilate is reinforcing the surveillance.
Judas: Then I’m sure there’ll be more prisoners and more to be crucified.
Martha: In that case, then why do they continue to get themselves into this mess, why?
Judas: Because some of them can’t stand it anymore, Mary. They have no right to trample on us, like these damned foreigners are doing.
Mary: But neither is it right to bring down a tower right on the heads of those eighteen innocent victims, my gosh! They can break Pilate’s bones if they wish to, but what good can they get out of it? The poor and innocent become victims of something they haven’t done, huh?
Lazarus: They’re doing it to provoke Pilate.
Mary: That’s right, and Pilate continues to kill to provoke them just the same. That’s how it is now. We can never feel safe in the street, for anyone can just thrust a dagger on us at any street corner. No, no, no, I wouldn’t want to hear any more.
Jesus: Yeah, you’re right, Mary. Pilate is a bloodthirsty man. And those who fight him become equally bloodthirsty. But who has taught them to be such? To be violent? This is basically the problem, don’t you think so? Those in power sowed the wind, now they are reaping tempests from the poor. This will go on and on if we don’t reform our ways, and soon we shall all drown in a bloody deluge.
The feast during that winter was embittered by crimes, by fear of the Romans and their surveillance. It was during that week of the Dedication when a group of Jews gathered around Jesus in one of the arks of Solomon’s Gate…
A Man: Hey, you, Nazarene, what’s wrong with you? Until when will you keep us guessing, damn it!
Another Man: If you’re the Messiah that we’re waiting for, then say so, so we don’t waste any more time!
An Old Man: What we need is someone with the gall to face up to Pilate’s people!
All: That’s it, that’s it!
Jesus: No, my friend, no. What we need are a people who will know how to face up to themselves! When the babies are small, the mother leads them by the hand so they don’t fall. When they grow up to be adult, they have to walk on their own two feet.
Judas: What boy are you talking about, Jesus?
Jesus: About us. Now is the time for us to strengthen our knees and lift our heads. Freedom is in our hands! We don’t expect it from anyone! The Messiah is here, among us! He is there where two or three persons are fighting for justice! Yes, God breathed over dry bones, the bones were joined and the people awoke and stood up. The Messiah is like a big body, with head, hands and feet! All the members have the same spirit, and all parts are necessary! We’ve got to break the oppressive yoke among us, and together raise the flag of command! We’ve got to construct among us a new Jerusalem and write anew on her walls: “The House of God, the City of the Free”! Here there will be no violence, neither the violence of the wolf who kills the lamb, nor the violence of the lamb who defends itself from the wolf! We shall convert our swords into hoes, and the bars of prison cells into plowing grills!
A Man: Now he’s talking! Long live the Messiah of God!
All: Long live the Messiah, long live the Messiah!
A Soldier: Hey, you Galileans, disperse, all of you! Don’t you know that such assembly is prohibited? C’mon, c’mon, beat it, if you don’t wish to lose your heads like the two other Galileans!
The Roman soldiers tried to arrest Jesus, but we succeeded in hiding him. We mixed with the people who were assembled at Solomon’s Gate. That same day we undertook the journey to Jericho, as the situation in Jerusalem made it more and more difficult for us.
There are only two seasons in Palestine: summer and winter, or you could say the seasons are hot and cold; or sowing time and harvest time. The month of Kisleu corresponds to the ninth month of the year, around mid-November and mid-December. Since Jerusalem is a desert city, the temperature goes very low in winter, and it snows expectedly.
The Feast of the Dedication of the Temple was held in December and lasted for eight days. This feast, commemorating the consecration of the Temple in Solomon’s time, had been revived during the time of the Maccabees (about sixty years before Jesus was born). During the evangelical times, the people of Israel commemorated in this feast the victory of nationalistic fighters, the Maccabees over the Greek Seleucids, the country’s invaders, as well as the purification of the Temple and the construction of a new altar after the holy place was desecrated by the atrocious Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes. This was also celebrated as the Feast of Light, as a reminder that the dedication of the Temple brought back the custom of lighting of the holy light with seven candles. In Jerusalem, the torches used during the Feast of the Tents were again lighted for this feast. Thus, the Dedication was popularly known as the Feast of the Winter Tents. The celebrations also bore a messianic flavor, like those of the harvest. At present, the Jews solemnly light the “hannukah” (a candelabra with eight lights, each one corresponding to each day of the feast).
Rome ruled over her colonies in the provinces of the empire through the officials representing Caesar. These provinces were of three types: The senatorial (governed by the Roman proconsuls, who were annually replaced), the imperial (led by Roman governors, legates and procurators) and other provincial territories, which were governed by the natives who served the economic and political interests of the empire. Galilee was the latter, which was governed by Herod. Judea – whose capital was Jerusalem – was definitely an “imperial” province, beginning the year after Jesus was born. Ruled by a governor, it was militarily occupied by Roman troops, and the administration was in the hands of Roman officials. Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea from year 62 to 36 (B.C.E.).* He used to stay in the coastal city of Caesarea – the official residence of the governors – and he would transfer with his special troops to Jerusalem for the feasts, as these were the most favorable occasions for uprisings and people’s movements. The priestly class of Jerusalem, the highest religious-political authorities of Israel, was in total collusion with the Roman imperial power represented by Pilate. The image of Pilate as an intellectual, a man of certain stature, and cowardice projected by a certain Christian tradition does not correspond to historical reality. All information provided by historians of the period – Philon, Flavius Josephus and Tacitus, Jews and Romans as well, confirm the cruelty of that man who was detested by the Israelites for his continuous provocations and who occupied such a high position as a result of his intimate friendship with Cejanus, the military favorite of Emperor Tiberius. Cejanus was one of the most influential characters in Rome during those years. Aware of the religious aversion of Jews for images, Pontius Pilate paraded the images of Caesar Tiberius along the streets of Jerusalem and placed them in the ancient palace of Herod the Great. This caused an uproar on the part of the people. Pilate likewise desecrated the sanctuary on various occasions, by robbing the Temple’s treasury for his construction projects, etc. Luke’s text, the basis of this episode, most likely corresponds to one of these political vendettas and religious profanations, pushed by the hateful governor. Since Galilee was the principal focus of the country’s anti-Roman movements, Pilate persecuted the Galileans, whom he always suspected with more atrocity as Zealots.
During the Roman domination, the Antonia Tower (Antonia Fortress), which was situated beside the Temple and joined to the most sacred places of the sanctuary by interior stairways, was the seat of imperial garrisons. These were tasked to guard the whole city, especially the Temple’s open area, where the multitude converged. In the tower was the tribunal – the praetorium – where Pilate would judge all cases of rebellion against Rome and her laws. This did not in any way resemble the present day tribunals, as there was no justice to speak of. The sentences – as in the case of opposition to the empire, could always be a death sentence – depended solely on the arbitrariness of the governor. Pilate’s cruelty and profanity unleashed the people’s protest movements and violent retaliations by the Zealots, the most organized group for the purpose. The Roman rule, oppressive both politically and militarily, and economically exploitative, generated strong resistance in Israel. This was the country in the entire empire that was in constant, angry rebellion against the Roman power; the last uprising was the year 70 after Christ. Jerusalem was destroyed; this caused the start of the long Jewish exile that has lasted up to our time. Jesus’ time was rife with the violence of the oppressors and the counter-violence of the oppressed, leading to the inevitable deaths of innocent persons as in the case of the collapse of the Siloah Tower, the subject of this episode.
Violence is generated by unjust structures of power. This is found in laws, in courts, in economic inequality, in the lack of opportunities. It comes in the form of hunger, labor exploitation, ignorance, lack of good hygiene, etc. The same may also come in repressive form such as torture and assassination when it is met with resistance. There is another form of violence. It is resorted to by those who because they have grown weary of injustice resist, attack and fight. From the Christian point of view, it is not fair to judge these different forms of violence with the same measure. How can one resort to counter-violence without feeling hatred, which is blinding and dehumanizing? How to avoid the risk of using counter-violence as a form of retaliation or revenge is one of the major challenges before us.
Solomon’s Gate was situated in the eastern facade of the large outer patio of the Temple. In the words addressed by Jesus to the people who were gathered to listen to him, he was referring to the prophetic texts and those of Paul himself, about the idea of a “collective Messiah” (Ez 37:1-14; Is 2:3-5; 9:2-4; 11:6; I Cor l2:1-29 and 13-11). From the prophet Micah (Mic 2:12-13), he began to open the minds of the Israelites to the idea of the capacity of the poor to liberate that originates from “the least” of the people, or from the entire people of Israel who had been captive in Babylon but became the bearers of Messianic promises of the Kingdom (Zep 3:11-13). Jesus, faithful to this theological tradition, never wished to monopolize messianic action, but he was more his real self in this liberating leadership among the poor (in contrast to accepting the role of a self-glorifying triumphant Messiah).
(Lk 13:1-5; Jn 10:22-40)