April 10, 2009

Easter Supplement

A Roman soldier writes about the Resurrection

By John F. Fink

My name is Marcus Aurelius. I’m an old man now, a retired soldier of the Roman Empire. I’d like to tell you about something that happened years ago when I was only XIX (19) and a soldier for only a year.

I was sent to Palestine in the Middle East, where I was assigned to the forces commanded by the governor there, a man named Pontius Pilate. It was, quite frankly, a terrible assignment because Palestine’s residents, who called the place Israel, were Jews who greatly resented us Romans.

Of course, you could hardly blame them since they considered us as occupiers of their country and they wanted their freedom.

Every now and then, one of their leaders would start an uprising and the soldiers who were there ahead of me would have to put it down. It always ended with the leader’s crucifixion—a horrible way to die but the common Roman form of capital punishment.

We were usually stationed in Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast. It was a magnificent city built by King Herod the Great, but he had been dead for XXXIV (34) years when I arrived. That’s where Governor Pilate lived most of the time.

However, every year, during the spring, Pilate moved to the praetorium in Jerusalem, the Jews’ principal city, and, of course, our whole cohort—about DC (600) soldiers—went with him. We went there because Jews from all over the Middle East congregated there to celebrate their feast of Passover, and the arrival of so many pilgrims in the city posed a danger of riots. We had to be prepared just in case.

The first year I was there, the day before that feast of Passover, the leaders of the Jews brought a man named Jesus to Governor Pilate. They said that he was claiming to be the king of the Jews. It seemed strange to me because there hadn’t been any signs of an uprising that we soldiers heard about.

Nevertheless, Jesus was brought before Pilate and those Jewish leaders demanded that Pilate put him to death. I wasn’t present during Pilate’s questioning of Jesus, but I got the impression that Pilate thought that he was innocent of the charges.

I was standing guard, though, when Pilate brought Jesus out to the crowd that had gathered at the praetorium. The crowd, urged by their chief priests, demanded that Jesus be crucified.

Finally, Pilate acquiesced to their demands. We soldiers thought it was good that he did since a riot seemed about to break out. Pilate proclaimed his innocence by asking for a basin of water and washing his hands, but he then turned him over to us soldiers to carry out the sentence.

Prior to the actual crucifixion, it is customary to scourge the prisoner. That task, thankfully, was not part of my duties. It was done by more experienced soldiers. It’s brutal the way we Romans do it—usually two men on either side whipping the prisoner with straps with lead weights at the ends that dig into the prisoner’s flesh. It causes the loss of a lot of blood.

Some of the other soldiers decided to mock Jesus. One of them found some long thorns and formed a crown with them. He placed the crown on Jesus’ head and some of us hit him over the head with a reed. I admit that I participated.

We then tied the crossbeam of a cross around Jesus’ shoulders and led him out of the city to a place called Golgotha, where crucifixions took place. He was badly weakened from his loss of blood and fell several times under the weight of the cross. It looked to me that he wasn’t going to make it, so I grabbed a husky man out of the crowd and made him carry the cross. I heard later that his name was Simon and that he was from Cyrene, the capital of Cyrenaica on the north coast of Africa.

I watched while the more experienced soldiers crucified Jesus and two other men. As is our custom, we first stripped the prisoners of their clothes so they were naked while hanging on the crosses, further humiliating them. Then we divided the clothing among us by casting lots. I didn’t win.

It can sometimes take a long time for a man to die by crucifixion. He is either tied or nailed to the cross in such a way that he can keep pushing himself up with his feet so he can breathe. Eventually, his legs cramp so he can no longer push himself up. To hurry it along, we sometimes break the man’s legs with a heavy sledge hammer.

After the men were hanging on the cross for about three hours, our centurion ordered me and another soldier to break their legs. It seems that the Jewish elders didn’t want the bodies hanging on the cross during Passover.

So we broke the legs of the other two men. But it was obvious that Jesus was already dead so we didn’t break his legs. I did, though, take a lance and thrust it into his side. I saw blood and water flow out. I knew for certain that he was dead.

We took the bodies down from the cross. There wasn’t anybody there to claim the other two bodies, but several men and some women took Jesus’ body and buried it in a tomb that happened to be in a nearby garden.

I thought that was the end of it. Frankly, I was glad it was over. However, the next morning, I was called for a new assignment. The Jewish chief priests and some of their people called the Pharisees went to Pilate and asked for soldiers to guard the tomb. Yes, guard a tomb, of all things!

It seems they remembered that, while Jesus was alive, he predicted that he would be killed, but then said that, after three days, he would be raised up. So these priests wanted the tomb to be guarded so that Jesus’ disciples couldn’t steal the body and then say that he had been raised from the dead.

So Governor Pilate told them that his guard was theirs. Since this wasn’t exactly a plum assignment, my centurion selected me and several others of the younger men to go guard the tomb.

It was a boring assignment at first, but then the most amazing thing happened, the reason I’m writing this account. First, there was a great earthquake. Then we all saw a man whose appearance was like lightning, with clothing as white as snow. All of us were scared to death as he approached and rolled back the stone that was covering the entrance to the tomb. When he did so, we could see that the tomb was empty!

Some women approached, who where planning to anoint Jesus’ body. The man with the shining clothing just sat on the stone and told the women that Jesus wasn’t in the tomb because he had been raised from the dead.

They quickly ran away to tell Jesus’ disciples while we just stood there dumfounded. But we saw Jesus—the man who I was sure was dead when I pierced his side with a lance—meet the women. They were too far away, though, for us to hear what he said to them.

Finally, coming out of our trance, we had to go into Jerusalem and tell the chief priests what had happened. Frankly, we were afraid that we might be court-martialed. But the opposite happened. We were actually given a large sum of money and told to keep quiet. We were told, if anyone should ask us what happened, to say that Jesus’ disciples stole his body while we were asleep. That, of course, was a lie, but we did what we were instructed.

That’s not quite the end of my story. After a couple years in Palestine, I served in many other parts of the

Roman Empire, including Africa and Spain, before retiring. When I returned to Rome, I was surprised to find a group of people who called themselves Christians, followers of that man Jesus.

They believe that he had been crucified in order to redeem the world and that he had risen from the dead. I didn’t know about the redemption part, but I was sure about the resurrection part because I was there. I didn’t see Jesus rise, but I did see the empty tomb. I’m positive that his dead body had been in it and I saw him alive, talking to those women.

I have been a Christian for about XX (20) years now.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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