Having read “The Last Week” by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, the Palm Sunday service on 5 April 2015 followed the 2 processions entering Jerusalem that day. This is the text for Pilate’s parade/background:
There were 2 parades that day, at the beginning of the week of preparation, as the Jewish community got ready for the most important festival in their calendar, the Passover.
The Passover was a difficult subject for the Roman empire. They, of course, were the oppressors, the conquerors, the ones who prevented the Jewish people from freely living in their land, due to being ruled by an outside power – and worse – an outside power who was pagan.
They worshipped many gods and believed their emperor, who at the time was Caesar Augustus, was the son of god. Consequently, that had an influence on how the empire viewed itself – as doing the will of god – and it’s ideas about religion. Judaism, though tolerated, was viewed with confusion at best – how strange it was to have only 1 God – or contempt at worst, as Jewish people would not acknowledge the emperor in his divine role.
Add to that the fact that Passover was the great festival of celebrating that time when God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and brought them into the promised land. It was a celebration of liberation and freedom.
Liberation and freedom, which the Roman empire were denying the Jewish people, through their occupation. Consequently, tensions were high at this time of year.
And keeping order, maintaining stability, was one of Pilate’s jobs, in a region which had only been under Roman power for 20 years, but which was strategically important for the Roman empire in securing the eastern boundary of the empire.
Pilate was the Roman prefect in the region. This was a military, rather than political role, though the distinction was less clear-cut than it is now. It did mean his primary role was to keep order, to stop rebellions, and to engage the might of the Roman army as and when necessary.
Most of the time, Pilate ruled from a distance, allowing Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great – the one who ordered the killing of the innocents, which we remember at Christmas – to govern.
That was fairly common practice in the Roman world, where local kings, nobility etc would be used to help with Roman rule. The idea of this was, in using trusted locals to do the job on the Roman’s behalf, eventually the area fully subsumed into Roman culture which, in turn, would lead to stability which came under the Pax Romana, a peace which was viewed to extend across the empire, due to military and political control, and also a broadly unified culture across the empire. Stability also would ensure the security of the empire’s eastern boundary.
And every Passover, that Pax Romana, that Peace of the empire was under threat, as the Jewish people recalled their liberation.
And there had been rebellions in the past at this time of year, so it was important for the Roman empire to make a show of strength within the city of Jerusalem, to maintain order, to maintain control and show who was really in charge.
In order to do this, the empire could no longer rely on their local ruler, no longer rely on Herod Antipas, to keep things under control, but Pilate went there in person, went to Jerusalem to control things himself.
Normally, Pilate lived in Caesera Martima, built in the Greco-Roman style by Herod the Great, which was a port on the Mediterranean coast about 70 miles from Jerusalem.
It was from here Pilate travelled to be in Jerusalem for the Passover.
He, due to his position and the purpose of his visit, would have travelled with a large retinue, including soldiers, servants, slaves. There would have been chariots and banners and weapons. The full force of the Roman army, the pagan Roman army marching towards the most important city in Judaism, Jerusalem, the city where the temple was on the highest hill, the temple where God was thought to reside, in the holies of holies.
Pilates retenue would have been a big physical display of the might of the Roman empire as it journeyed to Jerusalem, over the course of 3 or 4 days.
Then, when they arrived at the city, they entered through one of the gates.
Coming bringing their banners, their customs, their power, their pagan symbols and religion with them.
No one would have missed them, no one would have been in any doubt of their purpose and reason for coming to the city at Passover, to stop rebellion, to stop uprising and to secure and maintain the Pax Romana, but in doing so maintain the Roman empire’s position of power, invaders, oppressors.
As the people celebrated that great liberation, by God, in the passover, they were reminded in and through Pilate’s actions they were no longer free.