Let us not be Pontius Pilate and wash our hands

PAUL JOHNSON

The events which led to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday ad 33 were essentially a conflict over freedom of speech.

The Romans ran, on the whole, a liberal empire whose subjects were free to practise the religions of their choice, and Rome did not impose its official cult. The only practice they would not permit was human sacrifice. Preachers, mystics and visionaries of all kinds delivered their messages freely, provided only that their conduct did not provoke a breach of the peace. The question Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, had to decide when Jesus was brought before him by the official leaders of the Jews was: were Jesus’s statements so inflammatory that the peace of Judaea was threatened?

The question was an old one, and the Jews themselves had had to deal with it when their country was self-governing. The ancient Hebrews were not ruled by kings alone, whose power was limited by the law. They were also monitored by prophets, whose function was to remind the kings and priests, as well as the people, what the law was, and to admonish them when they broke it. The part played by prophecy in the constitution of Judah and Israel implied the right to prophesy, and thus freedom of speech, and the only question was: how far could this freedom safely be allowed to go? The question arose in an acute form in the 8th century bc, when a rough sort of fellow called Amos, describing himself as ‘a herdsman and a gatherer of sycamore fruit’, was told by the Lord (or so he said) to leave Judah, his own country, and prophesy in Israel.

His message was clear. The Lord did not want the sacrifices offered up to him at Bethel, as these were empty. What the Lord wanted was for the authorities to do justice to the poor. The preaching of Amos, then, was political and, in a sense, anti-religious. Some historians of antiquity have seen it as part of an international movement bringing a new concept of justice into the world, of which the contemporary writings of Hesiod in Greece were a part. To Amaziah, priest of Bethel, Amos was an outsider who abused the sacred right to prophesy by bringing in a new and inflammatory political programme. He said, ‘O thou seer, go, flee thee away into the land of Judah. And there eat bread, and prophesy there.’ And the priest said to Jeroboam, king of Israel, that Amos’s preaching threatened the peace, for ‘the land is not able to bear all his words’.

  

I have often thought of this phrase of Amaziah for, if the words are harsh enough and fiery enough and sufficiently based on genuine grievances, what land is able to bear them? In a well-argued piece in Index on Censorship — the gist of which appeared in the Guardian — Tom Stoppard took the side of Amaziah, arguing that the interest of the group or society must come before the right of the individual to say exactly what he wishes. If the land will not bear certain words, then the right to utter them cannot be absolute. The case of Jesus Christ, when it came before Pilate, was more complicated. I have just reread the accounts in the three Synoptics, as well as St John’s Gospel, which is the fullest. Pilate clearly wished to uphold Roman liberalism. He had earlier got into trouble by insisting that the right to show images in Jerusalem, no matter how objectionable it was to the Jews, was lawful. When he questioned Jesus, which he did with some care, he reached the conclusion that Jesus’s message was not inflammatory in a political sense or such as might lead to a breach of the peace.


This common law tradition of reason is totally opposed to any organised group in society which threatens to riot, injure and even kill those exercising reasonable use of the free speech tradition. We can beat fanaticism by the proper and judicious use of reason, enshrined for a millennium in our legal structure.


Pilate elicited from Jesus the key remark, ‘To this end was I born, and from this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.’ Now for a man charged with words or conduct calculated to provoke a breach of the peace, truth is not necessarily a defence. In English law, in cases of civil libel, truth is an absolute defence. But in criminal libel, where the peace is broken or liable to be, truth may aggravate the offence. In any case, truth is a debatable commodity, and may be a dangerous one. To quote Francis Bacon’s memorable words in his essay on the subject, ‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’ Actually, what he said to the Jews was, ‘I find in him no fault at all.’

Pilate was eventually persuaded to change his mind, and to put to the horrific death by crucifixion a man he believed quite innocent, by the persuasions of the Jewish elders. They were able to manipulate the mob, or a mob (as Mr Pickwick points out, there are often two mobs in history), which said, ‘Crucify him, crucify him.’ And this in turn led to Pilate’s terrible and humiliating admission of cowardice and abdication of power, ‘Take ye him, and crucify him, for I find no fault in him.’ I have no doubt that the elders made it clear to the nervous governor, behind the scenes, that by permitting Jesus freedom to resume his preaching he would be risking real trouble, warning, ‘You may find no evidence so far that this man has caused a breach of the peace. Believe you us, there will be a breach of the peace on a horrific scale.’

This kind of blackmail, to which Pilate succumbed, is exactly the same as that now being exerted by the leaders of extremist Muslim minorities in Britain and other European countries which have a tradition of free speech. They say, in effect, anything which we deem insulting to our faith must be unlawful because it leaves us no alternative but to take to the streets. There is a danger that this form of blackmail will prevail.

In England, however, we have the resource of the common law tradition, which is too often overlooked by harassed and nervous politicians trying to devise statutory remedies for new sources of social disorder. The common law has always put preservation of the peace first, and judges have ruled unlawful breaches of it by blows or words, or any conduct likely to have that effect. Freedom of speech has never been absolute in our country. But, equally, the common law gathers itself carefully around the word ‘reasonable’ — the reasonable man or woman, reasonable conduct, reasonable response. This common law tradition of reason is totally opposed to any organised group in society which threatens to riot, injure and even kill those exercising reasonable use of the free speech tradition. We can beat fanaticism by the proper and judicious use of reason, enshrined for a millennium in our legal structure.

  

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Paul Johnson. "Let us not be Pontius Pilate and wash our hands." The Spectator (April 8, 2006).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.

THE AUTHOR

Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2006 Paul Johnson


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