When his scribe informed Pontius Pilate that Titus was seeking colloquy, he knew something was amiss. The Prefect of Judea had sent Titus, his best man, for what was surely the easiest-ever assignment in the long career of one of Rome’s finest soldiers. So, why has he returned early?
Titus was an old man – by Legion standards – but still twice the warrior of men half his age and the most reliable of all.
Yet he has abandoned his post. Why?
Titus entered the hall, slapped his right fist against his breast: “Prefect!”
Pilate looked up from behind a desk covered with dispatches. He met the soldier’s eyes and frowned. Then he looked back down at whatever it was he’d been reading and said:
“Why are you here, sergeant?”
Titus knew that the prefect was more irritated than angry. So far.
“Prefect, the tomb has opened and the man, Jesus, is gone.”
The scribe stood to Pilate’s right. He had been scribbling the prefect’s dictated messages. At the entrance to the room – the one through which Titus had just marched in – two guards stood silently at attention.
The prefect pushed back his chair and stood. His eyes met those of the scribe.
“Go,” Pilate said, also nodding towards the guards, and the scribe exited the hall, motioning the guards to follow, and closed the doors after them.
Pilate suddenly felt very tired. He walked around the desk, settled his backside against the desktop, and crossed his arms.
Titus looked straight ahead and, as always, told the truth.
“Prefect, there was a soundless explosion. This is the only way I can describe it: like a gust throwing open a door. We heard nothing but felt a blast, and it knocked us to earth. I covered my face with my hands, but I. . .I could see that light was blazing all around. I squinted and forced myself to look up and saw the figure of a man in the light. He was its source. There was another blast or gust and the light was gone. There was the light of dawn as before. And silence, Prefect: no birdsong, no chirping crickets, although I was aware of the sound my own breathing and of my soldiers’ gasping. The man had vanished. I got to my feet and saw that the stone no longer covered the entrance to the tomb. I stumbled inside, and what I saw is the truly strange thing –”
Pilate almost laughed. What could possibly be stranger than what the Titus had already said?
“– Inside” Titus went on, “where the body had rested, I saw the burial wrappings folded neatly and set to one side.”
Pilate noticed as Titus spoke that his voice was not as coolly clinical as when he made his usual reports in Caesarea or Jerusalem. It was because the old man – he was fifty – had been everywhere and fought everyone and seen everything that Pilate had brought Titus with him to Judea. If anybody could help handle the Israelites, Pilate reasoned, it was Titus.
“And who, would you say, was the man in the light?”
“Jesus of Nazareth.”
Pilate knew the Galilean had said this would happen. It was why the Temple priests had come begging for a Roman detachment to guard the tomb. Pilate had been too exhausted then to insist, as he should have, that this was a matter for the Temple not the Praetorium. He’d wanted to say: I killed an innocent man for you; now you go guard his grave. But it seemed easier simply to acquiesce. And he sent his best man to organize and oversee the shifts of the three-day watch.
Pilate had assumed that was the end of it, because crucified men don’t get up and walk.
And that was what made it so unsettling to hear a most reliable witness say Jesus – a man like every other, who had, in fact, bled and suffered and died like any other – was alive again.
“So, the crucifixion failed.”
“It did not, Prefect.”
“So, you and your men got drunk and passed out on duty –”
“– Prefect, no! I had just returned with the morning watch. We were all wide awake!”
If it were anyone other than Titus saying this, Pilate would have had him clamped in irons immediately. Now the two men stared at one another.
“Are your men nearby?
“On the Pavement.”
Pilate looked into Titus’ eyes. It’s all true, he thought. Now what do we tell the Temple elders?
The prefect surprised Titus by ordering him to go immediately to the Temple and report to the priests: “Exactly,” Pilate said, “as you’ve reported to me. But leave out that you were here first.”
So Titus went and took along his men. He was stunned when the Jewish leaders gave them money to keep quiet about what they’d seen. A lot of money, enough silver coin to purchase the silence of a dozen men.
“You are to say,” the high priest said, “‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’”
Seeing the angry expression on the Roman soldiers’ faces (knowing the penalty a Roman faced for dereliction), the priest quickly added:
“If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”
Titus wanted to laugh in the man’s face, but he took the coins and divided them up evenly among his happy soldiers. He kept nothing for himself.
The Prefect of Judea smiled when he heard the news.
“Does this mean they believe it too?”
Titus said: “Maybe they assume we took the body . . . or simply wish to quash a rumor.”
Pilate said: “They needn’t have bothered. This will all be forgotten soon enough.”
Titus left through the hall’s tall doors. He didn’t know what the prefect really believed, but, for his own part, Titus knew he would always remember.
*Image: Resurrection of Christ by Giovanni Bellini, c. 1475 [Gemäldegalerie, Berlin]