Inside the Praetorium

It was early in the morning when they took Jesus from Caiaphas’ house to the praetorium. (Jn 18:28). Since a new act of the play has begun, careful note is made of the passage of dramatic time: The trial before the Jewish Senate had lasted from dawn until early morning. The information about the time of day was given by the chorus. The whole group rose up, reports Luke, and led him to Pilate. This means that the mute characters representing the scribes and the elders who had sat in judgment in the last episode of the second act joined the chorus of armed men in a procession. As they marched across the stage the chorus intoned a lengthy ode, one of the choral interludes that separated the acts of an ancient tragedy.

                 The physical appearance of the stage remained largely unchanged; the identification of the scaena as the praetorium of Pilate was made in the song of the chorus. The central doors remained shut; the fire on the altar was extinguished, to indicate that it was day.

                 The trial before the Roman authorities progressed through three episodes, recapping the three-part procedure before the Jewish religious authorities in the previous act. A preliminary interrogation by Pilate, followed by an examination of witnesses by Herod, culminated in a judicial procedure in which the chorus, acting as both prosecution and jury, engaged in an open confrontation with Pilate. As in the previous act, the first two episodes took place inside, behind closed doors, while the third and final episode was enacted outside, in full view of the audience.

                 As the chorus ended its third song, the audience saw the chorus of armed men, gathered outside the praetorium, calling Pilate’s name. This served to identify him for the audience. According to John,

Pilate went outside to meet them and said,

What do you accuse this man of?

                 Pilate did not yet go out onto the stagethe central door remained shut. He spoke to the assembled crowd from the balcony at the second level. In John’s account the response of the Jewish leaders is rather evasive:

We would not have brought him to you

if he had not committed a crime.

                 Mark only states that they accused him of many things. The reluctance on the part of these evangelists to clearly state what were the charges against Jesus is due to the tense atmosphere in which the gospels were written; the gospel writers were most concerned to avoid providing information that could be of use to hostile critics. Only Luke preserves a full statement of the charges:

We caught this man misleading our people,

telling them not to pay taxes to Caesar,

and claiming that he himself is Christ, a king,

                 This may be a correct summation of the dialogue of Seneca’s play, since it fits Pilate’s response, recorded by John:

You yourselves take him

and try him according to your own law.

                 The Jewish leaders tried to portray Jesus as an enemy of Roman power, but Pilate, seing through this pretended loyalty, forced them to state the real reason why they had brought the prisoner to him (Jn. 18:31):

We are not allowed to put anyone to death.

                 Upon hearing these words, John reports, Pilate went back into the praetorium. At the same time, Jesus was let inside the through one of the side doors at stage level, while the chorus stayed out on the open stage. This is what a Roman stage presentation required, but the Christian audience found it most peculiar that the Jewish leaders would not go inside the praetorium and make their case directly to Pilate. John tried to devise an explanation in terms of his own intellectual background:

The Jews did not go inside the praetorium because they wanted to keep themselves ritually clean in order to eat the Passover meal.

                 This explanation has given rise to some perplexity among interpreters. Raymond Brown comments:

Nothing in Jewish law or ritual... would support the contention that by entering the king’sor anybody’spalace or a courtroom a Jew would become impure... if Pilate wished to consult the people, he could just as well have let them in.[1]

                 But Pilate did not let the people in because the conventions of ancient drama required that the chorus remain on the stage for the duration of the tragedy. In no ancient play did the chorus enter the scaena that formed the backdrop of the stage. Pilate questioned Jesus inside the praetorium, but periodically stepped out of one of the open doorways for an exchange with the chorus. The several references of the gospel of John to movements to the inside and to the outside make sense only in terms of a stage presentation. Raymond Brown describes the setting of this highly dramatic and well-staged encounter:

There are two stage settings: the outside court of the praetorium where ‘the Jews’ are gathered; the inside room of the praetorium where Jesus is held prisoner.

Pilate interrogated Jesus three times, and three times he went outside to face the assembled crowd. This information is preserved by John and Luke.

                 In terms of a stage presentation, the only question to be answered is from which part of the scaena did Pilate make these repeated forays outside for his exchanges with the chorus. One can be certain that it was not through the central doorway. The opening and closing of the central doorway was an important event in the progression of a tragedy; it marked off episodes and acts from one another. We know that the central doorway was closed at the end of Act One, following the exit of the Jewish Senate, and it remained shut at the beginning of Act Two. During the first two episodes of this act, the main action took place inside, and as lomg as Pilate remained inside the praetorium, the central door had to be closed. Only at the outset of the third and final episode of this act did the central doors swing open as Pilate brought Jesus outside and sat down on his magisterial seat of judgment at center stage. While this door was open, the area of the stage in front of it was considered part of the praetorium, and the door stayed open as long as Pilate remained on the stage. The central door would not open for a lesser personage, and it would not open and close for Pilate’s occasional forays to talk to the crowd. Conversely, Pilate could not use any of the side entrances, which were reserved for lesser personages. The solution adopted by Seneca was to put Pilate at the second level of the scaena during the first two inside episodes of Act Two. This is also where Jesus was taken as soon as he was brought in through one of the side entrances. Hence every time that Pilate went outside and spoke to them, he was addressing the chorus from the balcony at the second level. This explains the ease with which he moved about between inside and outside. Because Seneca’s dramatic arrangement was preserved rather faithfully in John’s gospel, Christian artists throughout the centuries have depicted Pilate as standing at a balcony, addressing the crowd from above.[2]

                 Luke, alone among the evangelists, gives an account of a questioning by Herod, the Tetrarch of Galilee. Since it is a matter of a staged performance, requiring the utmost compression of events both in space and in time, Luke explains that Herod happened to be visiting Jerusalem at the time. From this several interpreters have concluded that Herod was occupying a wing of Pilate’s residence. But this is most unlikely. There must have been some words in the play that led Luke to conclude that Herod was inside the praetorium. Luke’s entire episode of questioning by Herod appears to be an elaboration of a single line of Pilate’s response to the crowd. After declaring that he does not find any guilt in him, Pilate adds:

Nor did Herod; for he sent him back to us.

                 The words to us are peculiar. This would be the only time that Pilate refers to himself in the plural. Some very authoritative manuscripts of the gospels render this line as

Nor did Herod; for I have sent him back to you (pl.)

                 This reading, though more correct grammatically, is usually rejected because it does not seem to make any sense in terms of Luke’s presentation. The line of the play that Luke misunderstood may have run something like:

Have I not, by Hercules [mehercle] already sent him back to you?

                 This would have been a reference to Pilate’s earlier suggestion to the crowd, cited by John, that they take him and try him according to their own law. Since on that occasion the Jewish leaders had responded that they were not allowed to put anyone to death, Pilate’s next words are:

font-family: Toronto'>There is nothing this man has done to deserve death.

            That Luke’s account of the hearing before Herod is based on a misunderstanding is confirmed by the fact that he does not cite any lines spoken directly by Herod. Because of the arrangments of the Roman stage, Luke had to assume that Herod was present inside the praetorium of Pilate. This called for an explanation of how Herod, an inveterate enemy of Pilate, should have been staying inside Pilate’s official residence. Hence Luke provides the information that the two had had become reconciled on that day (Lk. 23:12). It is possible that Luke was influenced by some genuine traditions about Herod’s role in the death of Jesus, traditions with which Seneca was not acquainted, or which he had chosen to ignore. Mark relates that Herod, upon being informed of Jesus’ activities, exclaimed: It must be John whom I beheaded risen from the dead! This means that he considered Jesus the successor to John the Baptist, and equally dangerous. According to Luke, Jesus was later warned by some Pharisees of Herod’s plan to kill him. By contrast, in Luke’s version of the trial, the same Herod is content merely to scoff at Jesus when he has him in his custody, and to release him back to Pilate, after dressing him in a splendid robe! Since Jesus later wore a purple robe when Pilate took him outside and exhibited him to the crowd, there was a need to explain how a royal robe could be found in the official residence of Pilate, a mere procurator. Luke’s solution was that this robe had been supplied by Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, who was entitled to own royal clothing. The real Herod Antipas may well have shared responsibility for Jesus’ death, but Luke’s account of his role in the trial is spurious.

            Luke, a recent arrival in Rome, must have had only a rudimentary knowledge of Latin, especially the poetic Latin of Seneca’s play. Moreover, he was unaccustomed to the highly stylized dialogue of the Roman stage, where some of the parts were sung, rather than spoken, being closer to an operatic recitative than to what we would recognize as dramatic dialogue. Since John had access to the written text of the play, his citations of the play’s dialogue tend to be more reliable than those of Mark, Matthew or Luke.

[1]           Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus (New York, 1971), pp. 147-8.

[2]           Cf. the well-known etching by Rembrandt of 1655. All the Etchings of Rembrandt Reproduced in True Size (London, 1977).