A Centurion’s Troubles: Empty Tombs & Politics

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Those who follow my writings know that I struggle with faith. Since my return from Iraq in 2008 I have found a certain kinship with soldiers who have been assigned the unthankful and trying tasks of dealing with occupation  duties or fighting insurgencies. 

In the case of the story of Easter it is all too common that writers, theologians and others focus on the story of Jesus and his disciples, or conversely, if they explore anyone else, they  focus on the Jewish religious leaders of of the time. 

After Iraq I had a harder time relating to Jesus and his followers, or the religious leaders of Jerusalem. That being said, coming home from Iraq, struggling to believe, I find a tremendous affinity with the officers of the Roman Legions serving in Judea and Samaria in the 1st Century A.D. 

This is the final chapter of a series that I have been writing about the Roman Centurion known as Longinus, who according to tradition, was at the cross when Jesus was crucified. I have tried to weave other characters from the Gospel narratives, including the Centurion whose “beloved servant” was healed by Jesus an account mentioned in both Matthew and Luke, where the Greek word for servant “Pais” is only found in these accounts and is different from the word commonly used in the New Testament “Doulos.” The difference leads to some interesting and potentially powerful understandings about the people that Jesus interacted during his earthly ministry.

The reason I am doing this is because I believe that many Christians cannot imagine what it must have felt like to be the Roman occupiers of Judea in a time where they were hated and deep divisions, religious, cultural and political complicated the lives of Roman officers like the Centurion known as Longinus.

I do hope that you enjoyed the series and that it and the Gospel narratives challenged you whether you are a Christian or not. I know from my time in Iraq serving with our advisors to the Iraqi forces that what the Roman officers dealt with was more difficult than any of us could imagine, unless you have been a soldier or officer of an occupying power, which I have been.

Peace and Happy Easter…

Padre Steve+

The pounding on his door awakened Longinus before he expected on this day after the Jewish Passover. He was hoping perhaps beyond hope that the worst was over and that in a few days he could take his soldiers back to the confines of Caesarea and away from the troubled city of Jerusalem. He was tired of this duty and longed for service with a real Legion with real Roman soldiers.

The pounding continued and the weary centurion wiped the sleep from his eyes, rolled out of his bed and went to the door of his quarters in Fortress Antonia. He opened the door to find his Optimo, or second in command Decius standing there, his fist ready to continue pounding, with a look of near panic on his face.

Startled, Longinus asked the young officer to come into his quarters and take a seat at his table. They like the other officers had seen events that they could barely explain over the past week, and some of those events had troubled Longinus in a manner in which he was not accustomed to, or prepared for.

Longinus took a wineskin and poured the contents into two cups. He asked Decius what was so urgent and frightening that he had to be at his quarters well before the duty day began. The young man took off his helmet to reveal a crop of blondish brown hair common to the Tyrol in the northern part of Italy.

The young officer took the cup of wine and downed it in one motion. Longinus, pureed and another as the young Tyrollean told an almost unbelievable story. Wiping his brow and taking a drink from the cup he explained that there was trouble at the tomb of the itinerant preacher named Jesus.

Longinus listened to his report:

The two guards from Longinus’s unit who had relieved the previous watch at the tomb had evidently fallen asleep. While they were asleep there had been a break in. The soldiers  claimed that they had been overcome when some kind of angelic being descended in front of them. They reported that  some of the women who had been at the execution site previously had been near the tomb. They said that when they awakened the body of this Jesus was no longer in the tomb.

The story seemed preposterous, but Longinus could not believe that his soldiers  had fallen asleep on duty, as such an act could be punished by a death sentence. Adding to the confusion was a report that two of the preacher’s “disciples” had reportedly entered the tomb and claimed that the body was gone as had some of the women that had been there at the crucifixion.

Longinus took a drink from his cup of wine and thought for a moment. He had to admit that the story was unbelievable, but yet in light of the strangeness of the man and the events surrounding his execution Longinus, was no longer surprised at anything. Longinus looked at his young executive officer and said:

“Optimo, there has to be a logical explanation for what happened, and we need to find the truth. I do not like to think that our soldiers were asleep on duty, and I don’t think that the High Priest would not attempt to use this against us. Please have the soldiers and the Sergeant of the Guard report to me.”

Longinus had Decius bring the two soldiers to him along with the Sergeant of the Guard to explain what had happened.

The two soldiers, one a Samaritan and the other a Greek had good reputations in the unit. Neither had given him cause for concern and the terrified expression on their faces as they explained what happened at the tomb gave Longinus reason to believe them. Yes, it was possible that they were lying but Longinus believed their story because in spite of his threats they stuck to it. He threatened them with death if they had fallen asleep and were lying. When that did not produce results he promised a light punishment if they only told the truth, but despite his efforts to get them to testify to something rational they stuck with this outrageous story.

Longinus was not much of a believer in miracles angels or any sort of magic hocus pocus purveyed by seers, magicians or fortune tellers. He did not believe in the state “gods” of Rome and likewise had little respect for the Jewish God, not so much because he understood the theology of the Jews, or even might believe in some sort of all-powerful being, but because he was disgusted by their use of their god for their political purposes.

All that being said Longinus was inclined to believe his solders. When his friend Flavius had told him about his servant being healed by the Jesus fellow he found it hard to accept. That being the case here he was believing this outlandish story. It was preposterous, but he could not accept the alternative. To disbelieve his men would mean that there was a serious breakdown of discipline by two outstanding soldiers. Longinus had some soldiers that he wouldn’t believe for an Athenian minute if they told him such a tale, but he believed these men. The terror on their face as they told the story led Longinus to believe that they had to be telling the truth as improbable as it was.

Longinus again thought of his words as the darkness enfolded the city and the earth quaked preacher hung dying on the cross on that evil hill just two days before. He dismissed the soldiers and as they left he prepared himself to tell the scheming governor they latest “good news.” If only Rome had let these people stew in their own mess. Longinus shook his head as he wondered about the wisdom of attempting to police such fouled up lands.

After he washed and put on his uniform, Longinus went to Pilate’s headquarters where he and the other Centurions, including his friend Flavius participated in a meeting with Pilate and his staff, the Jewish High Priest and his representatives and two of Herod’s people.

The meeting reminded Longinus  of a meeting of criminals. The High Priest and his representatives were livid at the report he delivered and demanded that Pilate take immediate action to solve their problem. Herod’s henchmen voiced their displeasure regarding the lapse of the Roman soldiers that allowed this to happen.

Longinus spoke up for his men and said that as improbable as the story was, that he believed his men. That only made the non-Romans angrier and they began not only calling for punishing the soldiers, but Longinus as well. Longinus  thought that they were engaging Pilate in yet another histrionic episode in order to force Pilate to do their bidding, if not today, in the future.

The High Priest and Herod’s men  insisted that Longinus’ soldiers had to have fallen asleep and or that they had conspired with the preacher’s followers to remove the body from the tomb. This angered Longinus to the point that he interrupted their ranting to defend his men’s honor. Pilate finally ordered Longinus and the High Priest to be silent. He asked the non-Romans to step outside while he conferred with Longinus and the other Centurions. The High Priest objected, but decided not to press the point and left the room.

Pilate explained his dilemma. He was afraid that if he sent the High Priest away by supporting his soldiers that there would be a revolt in the streets. He had seen the tumult on the streets by the supporters of the High Priest when he tried to release the “King of the Jews” and felt that this would be worse for security. He advised the Centurions that while he had no reason to doubt them or their men that he had to placate the High Priest and Herod in order to avoid chaos, chaos that could lose him his job if he wasn’t careful. Likewise he did not feel that he had the military manpower in the city to handle a full-fledged revolt and that he would have to call for reinforcements from the Legions based in Syria. Pilate was loath to do as this as it would get back to the Emperor, and the Emperor did not take kindly to governors who could not manage their provinces.

Longinus thought back to the day of the execution. Pilate had agreed to place a guard at the tomb at the urging of the High Council. Longinus had argued against placing any soldiers at the tomb as he felt that since the “King of the Jews” was the problem of the Jews and since man that he had called the so called  “son of God” was dead that Rome’s obligation was over. Let the Jews handle their own problems.

The whole thing reeked of politics and Longinus did not like it, But but on Friday he had been overruled by Pilate. Then Pilate explained that Roman soldiers needed to guard the tomb because the High Priest  insisted that Jesus’ followers would attempt to steal the body and then claim that he this Jesus had been raised from the dead. That insisted the High Priest would lead a revolt against the Jewish council and eventually Rome itself.

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Another actor who added to the Judean witches’ cauldron was the Herod Antipas, the corpulent and corrupt “King” of Judea. If Longinus detested Pilate and the Jewish High Priest he hated Herod and all that he stood for even more. The presence of Herod made Longinus wonder why Roman lives and treasure were spent to solve the problems of this God-forsaken land; a land that Longinus believed would still be trouble two millennia from now if the world lasted that long.

Longinus believed that as long as Rome allowed the High Council and Herod to rule the region by proxy that the troubles would never end. He believed that it was only a matter of time before these people, mobilized by the passion of the Zealots would revolt as they had against the Seleucids nearly 200 years before. He knew if that happened that Rome would mobilize more the  enough legions to crush the revolt, and when they were done would not leave as much as a house standing. Longinus hated this occupation and all that it stood for, especially when he saw a good and innocent man like this Jesus fellow killed for no good reason other than the politics of it all. It sickened him.

When Pilate was done explaining his decision to Longinus and the other Centurions Pilate called the quite irate non-Romans back into the proceedings. He told the High Priest and Herod’s men that he would discipline the soldiers involved. He also explained that he would assist them in finding just what parties removed the body from the tomb. In the mean time he would suppress any stories coming from the soldiers about this supposed “resurrection” of this Jesus character from the dead.

The High Priest and Herod’s men agreed that this would suffice and thanked Pilate for his time and effort. Longinus and the other Centurions quietly seethed as this took place. When the non-Roman parties had left Pilate, knowing how his officers hated his decision called them to him. He told the officers that no action would be taken against the men and that he would not actively assist the Jews in trying to find the perpetrators of the event. He had in fact deceived the High Priest an Herod’s men.

Pilate then let the officers know that they and their units would remain in Jerusalem for another week to allow the multitude of pilgrims to leave the city. Once the Jewish festivities were over and the people had departed, they would return to Caesarea. Longinus thought about it and for a brief moment he admired Pilate’s duplicity. Pilate the consummate politician had again found a way to defuse the situation, deceive the local leaders and protect his soldiers, and as much as Longinus and the other Centurions despised the deal it was better than trying to deal with a full fledged rebellion with so few troops available in Jerusalem.

Longinus left with the others and met Decius and Flavius when he stepped into the court of the fortress. He was very unhappy with the deal that Pilate made with the High Priest and Herod even though he understood the reality of the politics behind it. Longinus felt that he had dishonored his soldiers and the unit for the sake of political expediency. He felt ashamed of the Empire for what Pilate had done in cooperating with these people from beginning to end during this affair. He would not forget.

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When Longinus returned to his quarters he again looked at his blood stained lance and thought about the man who was put to such an ignominious death for such putrid reasons. Surely something had to be different about him and there had to be some purpose to this injustice. Longinus again mused quietly, “truly this was the Son of God…”

Whatever that meant…

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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