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Soldiers, Politics, and Empty Tombs: The Strange Experience of Longinus the Centurion

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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 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 wrote several years ago 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.

By the way, at the point this article posts I will be preaching at the Easter Sunrise Service at my base proclaiming the triumph of life over death and the universal love of God for all people. As the German Lutheran theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“Believing in the resurrection does not just mean assenting to a dogma and noting a historical fact. It means participating in this creative act of God’s … Resurrection is not a consoling opium, soothing us with the promise of a better world in the hereafter. It is the energy for a rebirth of this life. The hope doesn’t point to another world. It is focused on the redemption of this one.”

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 Tyrolean 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 fortunetellers. 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 now beginning to believe 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 on Friday Pilate had overruled him. 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.

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 and 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…

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Filed under christian life, ethics, faith, History, Loose thoughts and musings, middle east, Military, Religion

The Long Good Friday of Longinus the Centurion

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today is Good Friday and so unless something really unusual and earth shattering occurs I am going to take the Easter weekend to do some reflection, including on some spiritual topics. In light of that I am simply going to post three of my older fictional accounts of that weekend today, tomorrow and Sunday.

There are a number of other articles in the series that cover all of Holy Week. If you want to read them those stories are on the site,

As a genre this series falls in the realm of historical fiction, which means that while they may be set in a historical event, that they are fiction. Likewise, I admit that they and the main character are more a reflection of me, and my journey, and my over-active imagination, than my cursory study of Roman and New Testament History.

That being said, have a nice weekend, and if you do it, have a nice Easter.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Longinus had finally decided to try to get a bit of rest. After his rather morose meeting with Flavius and Decius he and Decius went back to check on the preparations for the executions scheduled for the next day. Quentin his Tesserarius had been working with the squad chosen to to conduct the actual crucifixions of the prisoners, Bar-Abbas the insurgent as well as the common criminals and murderers Dismas and Gestas who he had met in the hell hole of a jail in the dungeon of Fortress Antonia after Pilate had assigned him the task of conducting the executions.

Longinus was certain of his unit’s ability to carry out the mission, though he would have rather had a unit from Italy than his unit of Syrian and Samaritan troops. There was one positive aspect, his Samaritans and Syrians had no love for the Jews and would have no qualms whatsoever in disposing of the criminals.

He thought for a moment about the prisoners. That Bar-Abbas fellow, he would be glad that he or any other Roman would have to deal with him again once the crucifixion was over. As for the common criminals he felt that everyone would be better off with Gestus dead although he hoped that Pilate might take pity on the repentant thief named Dismas. However, despite his feelings he also knew that the law was the law and repentant or not that Dismas was guilty of the crimes and the sentence was just. As he had realized earlier in the day while talking with Flavius it was important not to become emotionally involved with the locals, especially prisoners. Maintaining an emotional distance ensured that he would not flinch in times when ice rather than blood needed to flow through one’s veins. He was proud that he could do this but envied the humanity that his comrade and friend Flavius still maintained in spite of everything.

He was just about to prepare for bed when a messenger from Pilate knocked on his door. It was late, too late and Longinus wondered just what was going on.

“Come.” He said, the weariness in his voice obvious in the way he answered.

The messenger, a relatively young Italian soldier assigned to Pilate’s bodyguard entered, came to attention and saluted.

Longinus looked at the young man, like him far from home and asked “what am I needed for now?”

“Centurion, the Governor has requested your presence” the soldier replied.

“May I ask what for?” A now increasingly irritated Longinus asked.

“Sir, I do not have the details but it is a pressing matter regarding the Jews and that Galilean preacher.” The young man was obviously uncomfortable in having to request a career officer like Longinus, a veteran of real battles and campaigns appear before Pilate for what was not much more than a religious dispute among an occupied people.

“Pressing matter?” Asked Longinus.

“Yes Centurion. I was told that it was urgent that you come to Governor Pilate now and alert your unit as at least some of your men may be needed if things get out of hand.”

“Can you please tell me just what is going on?” Longinus asked as he pulled his armored breastplate over his shoulders.

“I’m sorry Centurion, I have no more information. You are to report to the Governor within the half hour. The Governor wants your unit ready within the hour.” When he finished he came to attention, saluted and exited the room.

Longinus hated how leaders sent young men to be their messengers and would not give them all of the relevant information.

He then sat back down in his chair where he had been sitting and discussing the situation with Flavius and Decius. He wondered to himself what could be so pressing that Pilate needed him now.

After briefing Decius and Quentin, instructing them to wake the men and be ready for action Longinus took a squad and went to Pilate’s headquarters. When he arrived Pilate greeted him.

“Centurion, I hate to have bothered you at this hour in light of how busy you and your men will be in the morning but a situation has arisen.” Longinus looked around the room and then heard some commotion on the area called “the Pavement.”

“What is happening my Lord?”

“Longinus, these Jews have brought that Jesus fellow here and are accusing him of fomenting a rebellion against the Emperor.”

“A rebellion sir?”

“That is what they say Centurion. They claim that one of his closest associates had turned him in and after a trial of their own that they found him guilty of claiming to be a king and God that will overthrow the Emperor.” Pilate could not hide his discomfort.

“Do you actually believe them sir? After all we had heard this morning that this Judas Iscariot fellow had betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver.”

“I know Centurion, I know.” Pilate looked at Longinus then back out at the crowd gathered outside in the dark. He was afraid and Longinus could sense that fear, fear that if he made the wrong move that a real rebellion could break out and that Pilate as the Governor would take the blame and bear the punishment and wrath of Caesar.

“Centurion, I tried to placate these people be questioning this Jesus fellow myself.” Pilate paused. “I must say that he is a rather unusual man and truthfully I could not find anything that under Roman law that I could find him guilty of doing. Not a thing Centurion, nothing but their leaders kept pressing me.” Pilate’s gaze seemed to be almost pleading with Longinus to help him escape this decision. Longinus knew at that moment that his day was about to get worse. Pilate continued “It seems to be a religious squabble of some kind so in order to deal with it and to try to keep us out of it I sent Jesus to Herod since Herod is the ruler of Galilee.”

“So Herod will certainly deal with the situation, will he not Governor?”

“Centurion, I thought that that corpulent bastard Herod would deal with it but I just got word that Herod too could find no crime. The Jewish leaders and of their Temple Police are supposedly bringing him back to me to render judgment. They are leaving it to me.”

“Judgment for what?”

“Sedition, treason, blasphemy, proclaiming himself a king.” Pilate paused, his face flushed. “My God I’m surprised that they haven’t accused the man of fathering the High Priest’s daughter.” The sarcasm and bitterness was evident in his voice.

“So what do you intend to do.”

“I intend to try to get us out of this with as little trouble or guilt as possible. When they return him to me I will ask a few more questions and set him free as is my prerogative, certainly they wouldn’t want to release a real murderer like Bar-Abbas back into society, I do give them more credit than to stoop that low.”

“I do hope that you are right governor, but from what I understand it seems that they are intent on ridding themselves of the fellow once and for all. I think that their leaders see the Galilean as more of a threat than a man like Bar-Abbas.”

Pilate said nothing and during the silence Longinus’s troops under the direction of Decius entered the perimeter of the court adding an additional security cordon as the crowd grew and got more boisterous. As they took up position the Temple Police and members of the High Priest’s entourage approached the court with the Galilean in custody. Quentin with four soldiers met them and took custody of the obviously tired and already abused man. They delivered Jesus to Pilate and stood back. Longinus watched as it happened. As he did so Flavius entered the room with his servant. The servant appeared unsteady and full of emotion when he saw the man who had healed him two years before. Flavius stood by his face not betraying any feelings except deep-seated rage that was boiling as he saw this travesty of justice take place.

Pilate attempted every trick in the book to garner a way to save the life of the man standing before him. He asked him questions and Jesus clothed in a purple robe that Herod had mockingly placed upon him said nothing. Finally in desperation Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king. The answer both fascinated and terrified Pilate and caused him to wish that he had never come to the city. As he deliberated earlier and debated the members of the Sanhedrin his wife again urged him to “have nothing to do with that innocent man.”

But the answer of Jesus to the question of his kingship troubled Pilate. Had he thought the man insane he would have scourged him, declared him mad and been done with the affair.

“My kingdom is not of this world, if it were my followers would be fighting to ensue that you did not hand me over to the Jewish leaders.” Jesus looked into Pilate’s eyes, the look sent a chill through Pilate’s soul and so he restated the question “so you are a king?”

Jesus replied solemnly “You say I am a king. I was born for this and it is why I came to this world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me.”

Pilate appeared stunned and both Longinus and Flavius knew that he was beaten. They listened as Pilate asked “what is truth?” The question was one of a man who had long ago sold his soul to gain the world, it was the question of a deeply cynical man who had long determined that truth was only in the eye of the beholder and to be used as needed to acquire power. At the same time they could see a touch of genuineness in the question as Pilate, desperate for an answer that would enable him to please everyone and spare the life of the man before him wrestled with the question of truth for the first time in years.

They watched as Pilate attempted to bargain for the life of Jesus only to be shouted down by the increasingly riotous crowd who demanded that Bar-Abbas be released. Again attempting to assuage the mob he had Jesus scourged with a barbed whip. The soldier who did that brutal work was a Syrian, big and burley without a trace of feeling in his eyes or face. The servant of Flavius begged him to intervene but Flavius now knew that the things happening to Jesus could no longer be influenced by sentimentality and stories of the goodness of Jesus. He had seen this type of Justice before, and though he despised it, he earnestly hoped that it would be enough to deliver Jesus.

After the scourging, soldiers assigned to Longinus jammed a crown of thorns down on the blood covered Jesus and placed the purple cloak over him. Jesus’s body trembled. Pilate again approached the mob and tried to decline the odious responsibility thrust into his hands. The mob led by the Chief Priests and joined by man of their rivals, the Pharisees cried out for Jesus to be crucified.

They heard Pilate plead with Jesus, again noting that he had power over the life and death of Jesus to which Jesus replied that Pilate “had no power over him that had not been given by God.” Finally he pleaded with the Jews one more time to take Bar-Abbas for execution and to spare the Galilean. The leaders shouted him down again and cried out that Pilate would be “a traitor to Caesar” if he let a man who claimed to be a king live.

Defeated By the mob and by his own weakness of character Pilate asked for a ceremonial washing basin full of water. When it came in the hands of a court member he placed his hands in it and proclaimed “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” He then ordered the soldiers to take Jesus to be crucified even as the prisoners Dismas and Gestus were led from the dungeon for execution and a profoundly perplexed Bar-Abbas was released by the jailer.

Longinus looked at Flavius and whispered to him “wash my hands of his blood? My God, he knows that he is as guilty at them.” Flavius looked on and simply said, “I know my friend, we all are.”

The small cohort of soldiers assigned to the crucifixion detail were commanded by Quentin, a man who had fought many battles, and like Longinus and Flavius felt that these executions of helpless prisoners were unworthy of soldiers like himself. The soldiers of Flavius’s unit had responsibility for helping to clear a way down the narrow street called by the Romans Via Delarosa, or The street of suffering. It was the street that all the condemned travelled to the hill of execution so fittingly called the place of the Skull. Longinus had seen others walk this path but in the past he had been able to shield his person from their suffering, but today was different.

Longinus’s own execution squad led by Quentin led Jesus and the others along, forcing them to carry their crosses. About halfway down the street Jesus collapsed under the weight if his cross and grabbed a bystander, a man from Cyrene to carry the cross while the soldiers prodded the bloody body of Jesus down the street and out of the city to the place of execution. People jeered at the condemned as they did at very execution as for most this was no different than any other crucifixion and most of those present knew little about any of the condemned men and even those that were familiar with Jesus probably did not recognize the bloody man stumbling down the street. Of course there were others present who did know Jesus and watched in horror as their friend, teacher and for one woman her son struggled to the execution site. Longinus wondered about his own elderly mother and thought of her as he saw the mother of Jesus. He quickly tried to chase her image from his mind, he needed to be strong and hard if he was to keep his objectivity and conduct the mission as distasteful as he found it.

When the macabre parade arrived at the hill, the prisoners were stripped, placed on the crosses and nailed to them. Their screams as Quentin hammered the large iron nails home through their already abused flesh echoed for all to hear. Thankfully Quentin knew what he was doing and this part of the execution process happened quickly. Then the crosses were raised, but just before this a messenger from Pilate arrived with the placards that denoted the charges. He handed them to Longinus who noted what was written on the one for Jesus. It said “The King of the Jews.”

The placards were placed and with a thud the crosses were placed in the holes on the hill. The suffering of the prisoners was great, the crowds jeered and mocked them while those that loved them stood at a distance. Soldiers stood guard to ensure that no one interfered with them in any way. There was a bit of banter between the real criminals one of whom, the unpleasant one named Gestus joined in the mocking of Jesus only to be put in his place by the other one named Dismas.

Longinus, Flavius, Decius and a few other officers watched as their soldiers from the crucifixion detail divided the paltry worldly possession of the men between themselves. The men argued over a one piece tunic worn by Jesus, Not wanting to destroy it they cast lots for it. A trooper from Tyre won the tunic. Longinus and Flavius looked at each other and realized how little most of their men earned and neither begrudged the men the few items that they gathered from the men being executed.

The skies which had began the day with bright sunshine now became dark and foreboding. Lightening appeared in the distance and occasionally Jesus would address his mother or one man, Flavius believed him to be a disciple who stood by the cross. Jesus even promised the Dismas character that “he would be with him in paradise” and told others, Longinus thought the soldiers but he wasn’t sure “forgive them they know not what they do.” As it approached the ninth hour Jesus cried out in Aramaic “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”

A cold rain began to fall.

Quentin approached him with a sponge on a pole which was soaked in a sour wine. It touched Jesus’s lips and Jesus said “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” and then “it is finished.”

With that last dying remark the head of Jesus fell to his chest and his body, bloody and mangled hung limp. As the men looked on the ground began to tremble and as the ground shook and the officers looked about amid the gloom and confusion as the onlookers took flight Longinus exclaimed “surely this man was the son of God.” Flavius looked at his fellow Centurion in astonishment. Longinus, the man who had closed his heart in a fortress was echoing what he had believed since Jesus had healed his servant, the young man who was more than a servant to him.

As the crowds dispersed Longinus received the message that the executions had to be concluded before the Jews began their Passover. With that he sent Quentin to break the legs of the prisoners to hasten their deaths. When Quentin reached Jesus he called for Longinus.

“Centurion, I believe that this man is already dead. Do you still want me to break his legs?”

Longinus looked up at the bloody corpse and then at his subordinate and said “no I must do this myself.” He had a soldier bring him his lance, a ceremonial lance that denoted his seniority as the senior Centurion in the Legion. He looked at the lance and plunged it into the side of Jesus into his heart. Jesus did not move but from the wound blood mixed with what looked like water poured out of the wound and down his side.

“Quentin, he is dead, you may take him down.” Other soldiers pulled down the dead bodies of the thieves. As they did this a man approached Longinus and Flavius.

“Gentlemen. I am Joseph, I am a member of the Sanhedrin. I have come to take responsibility for the body of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Longinus replied in a businesslike manner “by whose authority?” He had a hard time believing that a member of the Sanhedrin would claim this body.

With that Joseph produced a letter from Pilate. Longinus looked the letter over and handed it back to Joseph without comment. Joseph then motioned to several men with him to take the body as Longinus, Flavius and the others looked on. Longinus thought to himself that it was good that a man of some means and influence would at least take the time to give this innocent man a decent burial.

As Quentin took charge of the cleanup Longinus instructed Decius to prepare the troops to return to Fortress Antonia. Flavius instructed his optimo to do the same. The last thing that any of them wanted to be was on the streets when the Jews began their Passover, as always they decided that it was unwise to stir up any more animosity than was needed. Today was a near run thing with e demonstration outside Pilate’s headquarters and none of them wanted any more excitement this evening.

When the clean up was completed and the bodies removed Longinus and Flavius ordered their soldiers back to Fortress Antonia. When they arrived the Centurions went to Pilate to inform him that the mission was complete. Pilate was glad the ordeal was over but was obviously still disturbed by the events of the day. Longinus, now exhausted was glad to leave Pilate’s presence. He still loathed politicians and wondered if had Pilate been a soldier if he would have had the courage to tell the leaders of the Sanhedrin to “pound sand” and keep Jesus alive. But then he knew that had Pilate done something that only a diplomat could do, he kept the peace. Had he been in charge the man named Jesus might have lived but hundreds maybe even thousands of others might have died.

After he dismissed his soldiers he went to his room, doffed his gear and went to the tavern in the fortress. Flavius joined him about 15 minutes later. They sat at the table as the barkeeper brought them each an ale. They looked at each other and Flavius asked “What did you mean by surely this man was the son of God?”

Longinus shook his head. “My friend I do not really know.” He paused and took a drink from his cup. “Until today I simply figured that he was a good man, but after today, after what I witnessed I just don’t know.”

“If you ask me my friend I think that he must be a God, if not somehow connected to the greatest of Gods, the God of the Jews.”

“Perhaps Flavius you are right. All I know is that I can no longer see the world, the Empire or my life in the same light as I did just a week ago.”

Flavius nodded his understanding as Decius entered the tavern. The younger officer reported to his seniors. They acknowledged his entrance and Longinus asked the younger officer to sit with them.

“What do you know Decius?”

The younger officer spoke. “Sir, I do not know if you heard the latest about the man that betrayed Jesus.”

Longinus asked sarcastically “did they elect him High Priest?”

The younger man caught the sarcasm and replied “if only that we’re the case. He was found dead, hanging from a tree in the Potter’s Field.”

Flavius answered: “So the traitor couldn’t handle the consequences of his own act of duplicity?”

Longinus replied, “Evidently not, it serves the bastard right.” He took a drink from his cup and motioned for the barkeep to get Decius a cup of ale too. The three men continued to drink silently and wondered what else could happen…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Politics and Empty Tombs

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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 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 Tyrolean 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 fortunetellers. 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 now beginning to believe 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 on Friday Pilate had overruled him. 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.

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 and 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…

 

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The Long Good Friday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today is Good Friday and so unless something really unusual and earth shattering occurs I am going to take the Easter weekend to do some reflection, including on some spiritual topics. In light of that I am simply going to post three of my older fictional accounts of that weekend today, tomorrow and Sunday.

There are a number of other articles in the series that cover all of Holy Week. If you want to read them those stories are on the site,

As a genre this series falls in the realm of historical fiction, which means that while they may be set in a historical event, that they are fiction. Likewise, I admit that they and the main character are more a reflection of me, and my journey, and my over-active imagination, than my cursory study of Roman and New Testament History.

That being said, have a nice weekend, and if you do it, have a nice Easter.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Longinus had finally decided to try to get a bit of rest. After his rather morose meeting with Flavius and Decius he and Decius went back to check on the preparations for the executions scheduled for the next day. Quentin his Tesserarius had been working with the squad chosen to to conduct the actual crucifixions of the prisoners, Bar-Abbas the insurgent as well as the common criminals and murderers Dismas and Gestas who he had met in the hell hole of a jail in the dungeon of Fortress Antonia after Pilate had assigned him the task of conducting the executions.

Longinus was certain of his unit’s ability to carry out the mission, though he would have rather had a unit from Italy than his unit of Syrian and Samaritan troops. There was one positive aspect, his Samaritans and Syrians had no love for the Jews and would have no qualms whatsoever in disposing of the criminals.

He thought for a moment about the prisoners. That Bar-Abbas fellow, he would be glad that he or any other Roman would have to deal with him again once the crucifixion was over. As for the common criminals he felt that everyone would be better off with Gestus dead although he hoped that Pilate might take pity on the repentant thief named Dismas. However, despite his feelings he also knew that the law was the law and repentant or not that Dismas was guilty of the crimes and the sentence was just. As he had realized earlier in the day while talking with Flavius it was important not to become emotionally involved with the locals, especially prisoners. Maintaining an emotional distance ensured that he would not flinch in times when ice rather than blood needed to flow through one’s veins. He was proud that he could do this but envied the humanity that his comrade and friend Flavius still maintained in spite of everything.

He was just about to prepare for bed when a messenger from Pilate knocked on his door. It was late, too late and Longinus wondered just what was going on.

“Come.” He said, the weariness in his voice obvious in the way he answered.

The messenger, a relatively young Italian soldier assigned to Pilate’s bodyguard entered, came to attention and saluted.

Longinus looked at the young man, like him far from home and asked “what am I needed for now?”

“Centurion, the Governor has requested your presence” the soldier replied.

“May I ask what for?” A now increasingly irritated Longinus asked.

“Sir, I do not have the details but it is a pressing matter regarding the Jews and that Galilean preacher.” The young man was obviously uncomfortable in having to request a career officer like Longinus, a veteran of real battles and campaigns appear before Pilate for what was not much more than a religious dispute among an occupied people.

“Pressing matter?” Asked Longinus.

“Yes Centurion. I was told that it was urgent that you come to Governor Pilate now and alert your unit as at least some of your men may be needed if things get out of hand.”

“Can you please tell me just what is going on?” Longinus asked as he pulled his armored breastplate over his shoulders.

“I’m sorry Centurion, I have no more information. You are to report to the Governor within the half hour. The Governor wants your unit ready within the hour.” When he finished he came to attention, saluted and exited the room.

Longinus hated how leaders sent young men to be their messengers and would not give them all of the relevant information.

He then sat back down in his chair where he had been sitting and discussing the situation with Flavius and Decius. He wondered to himself what could be so pressing that Pilate needed him now.

After briefing Decius and Quentin, instructing them to wake the men and be ready for action Longinus took a squad and went to Pilate’s headquarters. When he arrived Pilate greeted him.

“Centurion, I hate to have bothered you at this hour in light of how busy you and your men will be in the morning but a situation has arisen.” Longinus looked around the room and then heard some commotion on the area called “the Pavement.”

“What is happening my Lord?”

“Longinus, these Jews have brought that Jesus fellow here and are accusing him of fomenting a rebellion against the Emperor.”

“A rebellion sir?”

“That is what they say Centurion. They claim that one of his closest associates had turned him in and after a trial of their own that they found him guilty of claiming to be a king and God that will overthrow the Emperor.” Pilate could not hide his discomfort.

“Do you actually believe them sir? After all we had heard this morning that this Judas Iscariot fellow had betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver.”

“I know Centurion, I know.” Pilate looked at Longinus then back out at the crowd gathered outside in the dark. He was afraid and Longinus could sense that fear, fear that if he made the wrong move that a real rebellion could break out and that Pilate as the Governor would take the blame and bear the punishment and wrath of Caesar.

“Centurion, I tried to placate these people be questioning this Jesus fellow myself.” Pilate paused. “I must say that he is a rather unusual man and truthfully I could not find anything that under Roman law that I could find him guilty of doing. Not a thing Centurion, nothing but their leaders kept pressing me.” Pilate’s gaze seemed to be almost pleading with Longinus to help him escape this decision. Longinus knew at that moment that his day was about to get worse. Pilate continued “It seems to be a religious squabble of some kind so in order to deal with it and to try to keep us out of it I sent Jesus to Herod since Herod is the ruler of Galilee.”

“So Herod will certainly deal with the situation, will he not Governor?”

“Centurion, I thought that that corpulent bastard Herod would deal with it but I just got word that Herod too could find no crime. The Jewish leaders and of their Temple Police are supposedly bringing him back to me to render judgment. They are leaving it to me.”

“Judgment for what?”

“Sedition, treason, blasphemy, proclaiming himself a king.” Pilate paused, his face flushed. “My God I’m surprised that they haven’t accused the man of fathering the High Priest’s daughter.” The sarcasm and bitterness was evident in his voice.

“So what do you intend to do.”

“I intend to try to get us out of this with as little trouble or guilt as possible. When they return him to me I will ask a few more questions and set him free as is my prerogative, certainly they wouldn’t want to release a real murderer like Bar-Abbas back into society, I do give them more credit than to stoop that low.”

“I do hope that you are right governor, but from what I understand it seems that they are intent on ridding themselves of the fellow once and for all. I think that their leaders see the Galilean as more of a threat than a man like Bar-Abbas.”

Pilate said nothing and during the silence Longinus’s troops under the direction of Decius entered the perimeter of the court adding an additional security cordon as the crowd grew and got more boisterous. As they took up position the Temple Police and members of the High Priest’s entourage approached the court with the Galilean in custody. Quentin with four soldiers met them and took custody of the obviously tired and already abused man. They delivered Jesus to Pilate and stood back. Longinus watched as it happened. As he did so Flavius entered the room with his servant. The servant appeared unsteady and full of emotion when he saw the man who had healed him two years before. Flavius stood by his face not betraying any feelings except deep-seated rage that was boiling as he saw this travesty of justice take place.

Pilate attempted every trick in the book to garner a way to save the life of the man standing before him. He asked him questions and Jesus clothed in a purple robe that Herod had mockingly placed upon him said nothing. Finally in desperation Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king. The answer both fascinated and terrified Pilate and caused him to wish that he had never come to the city. As he deliberated earlier and debated the members of the Sanhedrin his wife again urged him to “have nothing to do with that innocent man.”

But the answer of Jesus to the question of his kingship troubled Pilate. Had he thought the man insane he would have scourged him, declared him mad and been done with the affair.

“My kingdom is not of this world, if it were my followers would be fighting to ensue that you did not hand me over to the Jewish leaders.” Jesus looked into Pilate’s eyes, the look sent a chill through Pilate’s soul and so he restated the question “so you are a king?”

Jesus replied solemnly “You say I am a king. I was born for this and it is why I came to this world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me.”

Pilate appeared stunned and both Longinus and Flavius knew that he was beaten. They listened as Pilate asked “what is truth?” The question was one of a man who had long ago sold his soul to gain the world, it was the question of a deeply cynical man who had long determined that truth was only in the eye of the beholder and to be used as needed to acquire power. At the same time they could see a touch of genuineness in the question as Pilate, desperate for an answer that would enable him to please everyone and spare the life of the man before him wrestled with the question of truth for the first time in years.

They watched as Pilate attempted to bargain for the life of Jesus only to be shouted down by the increasingly riotous crowd who demanded that Bar-Abbas be released. Again attempting to assuage the mob he had Jesus scourged with a barbed whip. The soldier who did that brutal work was a Syrian, big and burley without a trace of feeling in his eyes or face. The servant of Flavius begged him to intervene but Flavius now knew that the things happening to Jesus could no longer be influenced by sentimentality and stories of the goodness of Jesus. He had seen this type of Justice before, and though he despised it, he earnestly hoped that it would be enough to deliver Jesus.

After the scourging, soldiers assigned to Longinus jammed a crown of thorns down on the blood covered Jesus and placed the purple cloak over him. Jesus’s body trembled. Pilate again approached the mob and tried to decline the odious responsibility thrust into his hands. The mob led by the Chief Priests and joined by man of their rivals, the Pharisees cried out for Jesus to be crucified.

They heard Pilate plead with Jesus, again noting that he had power over the life and death of Jesus to which Jesus replied that Pilate “had no power over him that had not been given by God.” Finally he pleaded with the Jews one more time to take Bar-Abbas for execution and to spare the Galilean. The leaders shouted him down again and cried out that Pilate would be “a traitor to Caesar” if he let a man who claimed to be a king live.

Defeated By the mob and by his own weakness of character Pilate asked for a ceremonial washing basin full of water. When it came in the hands of a court member he placed his hands in it and proclaimed “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” He then ordered the soldiers to take Jesus to be crucified even as the prisoners Dismas and Gestus were led from the dungeon for execution and a profoundly perplexed Bar-Abbas was released by the jailer.

Longinus looked at Flavius and whispered to him “wash my hands of his blood? My God, he knows that he is as guilty at them.” Flavius looked on and simply said, “I know my friend, we all are.”

The small cohort of soldiers assigned to the crucifixion detail were commanded by Quentin, a man who had fought many battles, and like Longinus and Flavius felt that these executions of helpless prisoners were unworthy of soldiers like himself. The soldiers of Flavius’s unit had responsibility for helping to clear a way down the narrow street called by the Romans Via Delarosa, or The street of suffering. It was the street that all the condemned travelled to the hill of execution so fittingly called the place of the Skull. Longinus had seen others walk this path but in the past he had been able to shield his person from their suffering, but today was different.

Longinus’s own execution squad led by Quentin led Jesus and the others along, forcing them to carry their crosses. About halfway down the street Jesus collapsed under the weight if his cross and grabbed a bystander, a man from Cyrene to carry the cross while the soldiers prodded the bloody body of Jesus down the street and out of the city to the place of execution. People jeered at the condemned as they did at very execution as for most this was no different than any other crucifixion and most of those present knew little about any of the condemned men and even those that were familiar with Jesus probably did not recognize the bloody man stumbling down the street. Of course there were others present who did know Jesus and watched in horror as their friend, teacher and for one woman her son struggled to the execution site. Longinus wondered about his own elderly mother and thought of her as he saw the mother of Jesus. He quickly tried to chase her image from his mind, he needed to be strong and hard if he was to keep his objectivity and conduct the mission as distasteful as he found it.

When the macabre parade arrived at the hill, the prisoners were stripped, placed on the crosses and nailed to them. Their screams as Quentin hammered the large iron nails home through their already abused flesh echoed for all to hear. Thankfully Quentin knew what he was doing and this part of the execution process happened quickly. Then the crosses were raised, but just before this a messenger from Pilate arrived with the placards that denoted the charges. He handed them to Longinus who noted what was written on the one for Jesus. It said “The King of the Jews.”

The placards were placed and with a thud the crosses were placed in the holes on the hill. The suffering of the prisoners was great, the crowds jeered and mocked them while those that loved them stood at a distance. Soldiers stood guard to ensure that no one interfered with them in any way. There was a bit of banter between the real criminals one of whom, the unpleasant one named Gestus joined in the mocking of Jesus only to be put in his place by the other one named Dismas.

Longinus, Flavius, Decius and a few other officers watched as their soldiers from the crucifixion detail divided the paltry worldly possession of the men between themselves. The men argued over a one piece tunic worn by Jesus, Not wanting to destroy it they cast lots for it. A trooper from Tyre won the tunic. Longinus and Flavius looked at each other and realized how little most of their men earned and neither begrudged the men the few items that they gathered from the men being executed.

The skies which had began the day with bright sunshine now became dark and foreboding. Lightening appeared in the distance and occasionally Jesus would address his mother or one man, Flavius believed him to be a disciple who stood by the cross. Jesus even promised the Dismas character that “he would be with him in paradise” and told others, Longinus thought the soldiers but he wasn’t sure “forgive them they know not what they do.” As it approached the ninth hour Jesus cried out in Aramaic “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”

A cold rain began to fall.

Quentin approached him with a sponge on a pole which was soaked in a sour wine. It touched Jesus’s lips and Jesus said “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” and then “it is finished.”

With that last dying remark the head of Jesus fell to his chest and his body, bloody and mangled hung limp. As the men looked on the ground began to tremble and as the ground shook and the officers looked about amid the gloom and confusion as the onlookers took flight Longinus exclaimed “surely this man was the son of God.” Flavius looked at his fellow Centurion in astonishment. Longinus, the man who had closed his heart in a fortress was echoing what he had believed since Jesus had healed his servant, the young man who was more than a servant to him.

As the crowds dispersed Longinus received the message that the executions had to be concluded before the Jews began their Passover. With that he sent Quentin to break the legs of the prisoners to hasten their deaths. When Quentin reached Jesus he called for Longinus.

“Centurion, I believe that this man is already dead. Do you still want me to break his legs?”

Longinus looked up at the bloody corpse and then at his subordinate and said “no I must do this myself.” He had a soldier bring him his lance, a ceremonial lance that denoted his seniority as the senior Centurion in the Legion. He looked at the lance and plunged it into the side of Jesus into his heart. Jesus did not move but from the wound blood mixed with what looked like water poured out of the wound and down his side.

“Quentin, he is dead, you may take him down.” Other soldiers pulled down the dead bodies of the thieves. As they did this a man approached Longinus and Flavius.

“Gentlemen. I am Joseph, I am a member of the Sanhedrin. I have come to take responsibility for the body of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Longinus replied in a businesslike manner “by whose authority?” He had a hard time believing that a member of the Sanhedrin would claim this body.

With that Joseph produced a letter from Pilate. Longinus looked the letter over and handed it back to Joseph without comment. Joseph then motioned to several men with him to take the body as Longinus, Flavius and the others looked on. Longinus thought to himself that it was good that a man of some means and influence would at least take the time to give this innocent man a decent burial.

As Quentin took charge of the cleanup Longinus instructed Decius to prepare the troops to return to Fortress Antonia. Flavius instructed his optimo to do the same. The last thing that any of them wanted to be was on the streets when the Jews began their Passover, as always they decided that it was unwise to stir up any more animosity than was needed. Today was a near run thing with e demonstration outside Pilate’s headquarters and none of them wanted any more excitement this evening.

When the clean up was completed and the bodies removed Longinus and Flavius ordered their soldiers back to Fortress Antonia. When they arrived the Centurions went to Pilate to inform him that the mission was complete. Pilate was glad the ordeal was over but was obviously still disturbed by the events of the day. Longinus, now exhausted was glad to leave Pilate’s presence. He still loathed politicians and wondered if had Pilate been a soldier if he would have had the courage to tell the leaders of the Sanhedrin to “pound sand” and keep Jesus alive. But then he knew that had Pilate done something that only a diplomat could do, he kept the peace. Had he been in charge the man named Jesus might have lived but hundreds maybe even thousands of others might have died.

After he dismissed his soldiers he went to his room, doffed his gear and went to the tavern in the fortress. Flavius joined him about 15 minutes later. They sat at the table as the barkeeper brought them each an ale. They looked at each other and Flavius asked “What did you mean by surely this man was the son of God?”

Longinus shook his head. “My friend I do not really know.” He paused and took a drink from his cup. “Until today I simply figured that he was a good man, but after today, after what I witnessed I just don’t know.”

“If you ask me my friend I think that he must be a God, if not somehow connected to the greatest of Gods, the God of the Jews.”

“Perhaps Flavius you are right. All I know is that I can no longer see the world, the Empire or my life in the same light as I did just a week ago.”

Flavius nodded his understanding as Decius entered the tavern. The younger officer reported to his seniors. They acknowledged his entrance and Longinus asked the younger officer to sit with them.

“What do you know Decius?”

The younger officer spoke. “Sir, I do not know if you heard the latest about the man that betrayed Jesus.”

Longinus asked sarcastically “did they elect him High Priest?”

The younger man caught the sarcasm and replied “if only that we’re the case. He was found dead, hanging from a tree in the Potter’s Field.”

Flavius answered: “So the traitor couldn’t handle the consequences of his own act of duplicity?”

Longinus replied, “Evidently not, it serves the bastard right.” He took a drink from his cup and motioned for the barkeep to get Decius a cup of ale too. The three men continued to drink silently and wondered what else could happen…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Easter Special: Trouble in River City the Centurion’s Easter: An Empty Tomb, Duplicitous Politicians and a Lingering Question

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. He wiped the sleep from his eyes and went to the door of his quarters in Fortress Antonia.  He opened the door to find his Adjutant Marcus with a look of near panic on his face.

He asked the young officer to come into his quarters and take a seat at his table. He took a wineskin and poured the contents into two cups. He asked Marcus 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 and told an almost unbelievable story. He explained that there was trouble at the tomb of the itinerant preacher named Jesus. The two guards from their unit who had relieved the previous watch at the tomb had evidently fallen asleep and there had been a break in.  They claimed that they had been overcome when some kind of angelic being who had descended in front of them and some of the women who had been at the execution site previously.  The story seemed preposterous but Longinus could not believe that they had fallen asleep on duty either as such 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.  It was unbelievable but yet in light of the strangeness of the man and his execution.  Longinus had the Adjutant 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 gave Longinus reason to believe them. Yes it was possible that they were lying but Longinus believed their story. I found that not to believe them and their story that they heard the angel or whatever it was tell the women that the preacher had been raised from the dead. Longinus was not much of a believer in miracles angels or any sort of magic hocus pocus purveyed by seers, magicians or fortune tellers but here he was believing this outlandish story because to disbelieve would mean that there was a serious breakdown of discipline by two outstanding soldiers. He had some soldiers that he wouldn’t believe for an Athenian minute if they told him such a tale but he believed these men and he again thought of his words as the preacher hung dying on the cross on that evil hill.

Longinus went to Pilate’s headquarters when he and the other Centurions were participants in a meeting with the High Priest and his representatives and two of Herod’s people.  The meeting reminded him of a meeting of criminals.  The High Priest and his representatives were livid and Herod’s henchmen voiced their displeasure regarding the lapse of the Roman soldiers that allowed this to happen. Longinus spoke for his men and said that as improbable as it was that he believed their story. That only made the non-Romans angrier; he almost thought that they were engaging Pilate in some histrionic episode in order to force Pilate to do their bidding. They 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.

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 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, something that he was loathe to do as this would get back to the Emperor.

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” them man that he had called the “son of God” was dead that Rome’s obligation was over. The whole thing reeked of politics, Longinus was overruled by Pilate who explained that Roman soldiers needed to guard the tomb because the High Priest who Longinus detested as much as Pilate insisted that Jesus’ followers would attempt to steal the body and claim that he had been raised from the dead to lead a revolt against the Council and eventually Rome itself.  Added to the Judean witches’ cauldron was Herod, the corpulent and corrupt “King” of Judea.  If Longinus detested Pilate and Caiaphas he hated Herod and all that he stood for, it made him wonder why Roman lives and treasure were spent to solve the problems of this God-forsaken land which he 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, led by the Zealots would revolt as they had against the Seleucids nearly 200 years before. He knew if that happened that Rome would crush the revolt and not leave as much as a house standing.  He hated this occupation and all that it stood for, especially when he saw a good man, an innocent man killed for no good reason other than the politics of it all. It sickened him.

When he was done explaining his decision to Longinus and the other Centurions he called the now quite irate non-Romans back into the proceedings.  He told the High Priest and Herod’s men that he would disciple the soldiers involved and 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.”  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 ensured 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 then let the officer know that they would remain in Jerusalem for another week to allow the multitude of pilgrims to leave the city and then they would return to Caesarea.

Longinus left with the others and met his Adjutant and stepped into the court of the fortress. He was very unhappy with the deal that Pilate made with the High Priest and Herod.  He 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.

That night he felt compelled to walk to the empty tomb.  In the darkness he looked into the sepulcher aided by a lantern. He saw the grave cloths where they remained; the large stone was rolled away and the seal that had been placed on it was broken.  He looked for any evidence to suggest that his soldiers had fallen asleep but could not find any.  Nor did he see how anyone could have stolen the body and gotten very far without being seen by anyone. Convinced by what he saw he set down in the tomb and thought about this man.  He looked at ground where the body had been placed.  In the dim light he noticed what appeared to be some thorns.  He reached down He would have to find out more about him if he truly was the son of God.

He walked back to the fortress when he went to the Officer’s Mess and had the steward pour him some wine. He drank quite a few before the evening was out and then went to his quarters where he lay down exhausted and perplexed by the events of the past few days.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Trouble in River City the Centurion’s Easter: An Empty Tomb, Duplicitous Politicians and a Lingering Question

What springs from earth dissolves to earth again, and heaven-born things fly to their native seat.
Marcus Aurelius 

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. He wiped the sleep from his eyes and went to the door of his quarters in Fortress Antonia.  He opened the door to find his Adjutant Marcus with a look of near panic on his face.

He asked the young officer to come into his quarters and take a seat at his table. He took a wineskin and poured the contents into two cups. He asked Marcus 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 and told an almost unbelievable story. He explained that there was trouble at the tomb of the itinerant preacher named Jesus. The two guards from their unit who had relieved the previous watch at the tomb had evidently fallen asleep and there had been a break in.  They claimed that they had been overcome when some kind of angelic being who had descended in front of them and some of the women who had been at the execution site previously.  The story seemed preposterous but Longinus could not believe that they had fallen asleep on duty either as such 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.  It was unbelievable but yet in light of the strangeness of the man and his execution.  Longinus had the Adjutant 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 gave Longinus reason to believe them. Yes it was possible that they were lying but Longinus believed their story. I found that not to believe them and their story that they heard the angel or whatever it was tell the women that the preacher had been raised from the dead. Longinus was not much of a believer in miracles angels or any sort of magic hocus pocus purveyed by seers, magicians or fortune tellers but here he was believing this outlandish story because to disbelieve would mean that there was a serious breakdown of discipline by two outstanding soldiers. He had some soldiers that he wouldn’t believe for an Athenian minute if they told him such a tale but he believed these men and he again thought of his words as the preacher hung dying on the cross on that evil hill.

Longinus went to Pilate’s headquarters when he and the other Centurions were participants in a meeting with the High Priest and his representatives and two of Herod’s people.  The meeting reminded him of a meeting of criminals.  The High Priest and his representatives were livid and Herod’s henchmen voiced their displeasure regarding the lapse of the Roman soldiers that allowed this to happen. Longinus spoke for his men and said that as improbable as it was that he believed their story. That only made the non-Romans angrier; he almost thought that they were engaging Pilate in some histrionic episode in order to force Pilate to do their bidding. They 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.

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 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, something that he was loathe to do as this would get back to the Emperor.

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” them man that he had called the “son of God” was dead that Rome’s obligation was over. The whole thing reeked of politics, Longinus was overruled by Pilate who explained that Roman soldiers needed to guard the tomb because the High Priest who Longinus detested as much as Pilate insisted that Jesus’ followers would attempt to steal the body and claim that he had been raised from the dead to lead a revolt against the Council and eventually Rome itself.  Added to the Judean witches’ cauldron was Herod, the corpulent and corrupt “King” of Judea.  If Longinus detested Pilate and Caiaphas he hated Herod and all that he stood for, it made him wonder why Roman lives and treasure were spent to solve the problems of this God-forsaken land which he 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, led by the Zealots would revolt as they had against the Seleucids nearly 200 years before. He knew if that happened that Rome would crush the revolt and not leave as much as a house standing.  He hated this occupation and all that it stood for, especially when he saw a good man, an innocent man killed for no good reason other than the politics of it all. It sickened him.

When he was done explaining his decision to Longinus and the other Centurions he called the now quite irate non-Romans back into the proceedings.  He told the High Priest and Herod’s men that he would disciple the soldiers involved and 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.”  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 ensured 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 then let the officer know that they would remain in Jerusalem for another week to allow the multitude of pilgrims to leave the city and then they would return to Caesarea.

Longinus left with the others and met his Adjutant and stepped into the court of the fortress. He was very unhappy with the deal that Pilate made with the High Priest and Herod.  He 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.

That night he felt compelled to walk to the empty tomb.  In the darkness he looked into the sepulcher aided by a lantern. He saw the grave cloths where they remained; the large stone was rolled away and the seal that had been placed on it was broken.  He looked for any evidence to suggest that his soldiers had fallen asleep but could not find any.  Nor did he see how anyone could have stolen the body and gotten very far without being seen by anyone. Convinced by what he saw he set down in the tomb and thought about this man.  He looked at ground where the body had been placed.  In the dim light he noticed what appeared to be some thorns.  He reached down He would have to find out more about him if he truly was the son of God.

He walked back to the fortress when he went to the Officer’s Mess and had the steward pour him some wine. He drank quite a few before the evening was out and then went to his quarters where he lay down exhausted and perplexed by the events of the past few days.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Morning after a Crucifixion: A Centurion Reflects on a Days Work

The horrible day was over and the night had passed. The sun rose over the escarpment overlooking the Jordan River casting a red glow in the east as the city awoke to the Sabbath morning.  Longinus rose as always when his adjutant arrived at his quarters in Fortress Antonia with his breakfast.  He preferred a private breakfast and this was typical for the area, a cup of the local tea, a plate of figs a loaf of bread with honey and since they were in a major city a portion of mutton procured from a local butcher who was more interested in earning a living than completely avoiding contact with the gentile Roman legionnaires.  Longinus invited the young officer to sit on a small chair beside the table which served both as his dining table and office desk.

They discussed the impending return to Caesarea and the needs of the soldiers as well as the case of a soldier caught drunk and disorderly stumbling around the outer court of the Temple. The Temple Police apprehended the man and returned him to the watch officer of the fortress. It was embarrassing but not atypical of the locally recruited Samaritans.  Sometimes Longinus wished that he was back with an Italian Cohort or even with the elite Imperial Guard, but even in those units individual soldiers would still do stupid things.  After discussing the matters he dismissed the officer and rose from his chair.  Longinus took the cup of tea and a piece of the bread and walked to the small window which looked out across the city and he could see the rocky crag called Golgotha now devoid of crucifixes where he supervised the executions of the two criminals and the man called by Pilate “the King of the Jews.”

It was the last that bothered him; while Longinus had seen or supervised numerous crucifixions he never enjoyed them as did some of his brother officers.   Occupation duty anywhere but especially here was difficult on soldiers.  The troops were not the elite of the Empire, many of the officers were cast offs from the Legions and the duty itself drained officers and men alike. They knew that the Jews hated them their Caesar and their taxes.  Violence against soldiers posted to remote outposts was not uncommon; the Jews of the Zealot party had no compunction about killing Roman infidels and felt that dying to free their land was an honorable thing to do. They could be brutal both to the Romans as well as other Jews that they suspected of collaborating with the hated occupiers.  Longinus hated them and treated them as terrorists whenever he encountered them, they were not soldiers and they had no honor He hated them and their land, he longed for the culture and peace of the home provinces of the Empire.

There was something unusual about the man that Pilate called “the King of the Jews.” Longinus took a sip of his tea and took another bite from the honey covered bread and shook his head. He had no idea why a man who did not seem to be violent whose followers melted away the moment this “King” was arrested by the Temple Police.  He gazed upon the sunrise as the sky began to lighten. He thought about the women and the young man who stood nearby the cross the day before. He thought about the blood and the water and his remark to his men as the man died “truly this man was the son of God.”  He hadn’t thought about it much until now. He knew that he would have to think some more on this subject but he had too much to accomplish today. There was still the possibility of violence in the city and one never knew what the Zealots were up to.  Yes he would be busy. He took another sip from his tea and dressed for his meeting with Pilate and the other Centurions.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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