Dawn breaks on the Antonia Fortress

It was the morning before the great Jewish feast of Passover. Pontius Pilate, the Judean Procurator, had previously made the journey from his official residence in Caesarea on the northern coast of Israel, to the Antonia Fortress, the governor’s headquarters in Jerusalem, situated on Temple Mount.

The history of the Antonia Fortress is intriguing. It was built during the reign of Herod the Great as military barracks in honour of the Roman General, Mark Anthony, around 40BC. Josephus describes it like this:

“Now as to the tower of Antonia, it was situated at the corner of two cloisters of the court of the temple; of that on the west, and that on the north; it was erected upon a rock of fifty cubits in height, and was on a great precipice; it was the work of king Herod, wherein he demonstrated his natural magnanimity. In the first place, the rock itself was covered over with smooth pieces of stone, from its foundation, both for ornament, and that any one who would either try to get up or to go down it might not be able to hold his feet upon it.

Next to this, and before you come to the edifice of the tower itself, there was a wall three cubits high; but within that wall all the space of the tower of Antonia itself was built upon, to the height of forty cubits. The inward parts had the largeness and form of a palace, it being parted into all kinds of rooms and other conveniences, such as courts, and places for bathing, and broad spaces for camps; insomuch that, by having all conveniences that cities wanted, it might seem to be composed of several cities, but by its magnificence it seemed a palace.

And as the entire structure resembled that of a tower, it contained also four other distinct towers at its four corners; whereof the others were but fifty cubits high; whereas that which lay upon the southeast corner was seventy cubits high, that from thence the whole temple might be viewed; but on the corner where it joined to the two cloisters of the temple, it had passages down to them both, through which the guard (for there always lay in this tower a Roman legion) went several ways among the cloisters, with their arms, on the Jewish festivals, in order to watch the people, that they might not there attempt to make any innovations; for the temple was a fortress that guarded the city, as was the tower of Antonia a guard to the temple; and in that tower were the guards of those three.

There was also a peculiar fortress belonging to the upper city, which was Herod’s palace; but for the hill Bezetha, it was divided from the tower Antonia, as we have already told you; and as that hill on which the tower of Antonia stood was the highest of these three, so did it adjoin to the new city, and was the only place that hindered the sight of the temple on the north. And this shall suffice at present to have spoken about the city and the walls about it, because I have proposed to myself to make a more accurate description of it elsewhere.”

This was a massive structure, built on a rock precipice approximately 25m in height, with a wall around it approximately 20m high and each of the four corner towers 25m in height, except for the one on the south eastern corner, which was over 30m high. It is often depicted as a square with four corner towers and a central enclosure, and located to the north west of the Temple Mount.

The layered bed-rock, shown lower-right, on which Antonia may have been built.

The population of the Old City swelled at festival time. Religious emotions ran high and civil unrest in this occupied territory might break out at any moment. A strong Roman presence was required, sufficient to quell any potential disturbance and keep the people in check, so Pilate brought with him a whole battalion of 600 armed men.

In Jerusalem, power was concentrated in the hands of the religious elite, the governing Sanhedrin Council. This cohort of 71 judges convened to resolve matters of national political, legislative and judicial importance. In the very early hours of that morning, they had found Jesus guilty of blasphemy, a crime punishable by death. However the Supreme Court still required the Roman Governor to sign off the execution warrant.

A delegation of chief priests, elders and scribes brought the condemned man to Pilate around daybreak on the morning before 14th Abib, the first month in the Jewish Calendar. The Passover would commence that evening at sundown and if the Jewish people entered the governor’s headquarters they would be defiled.

Perhaps reluctant, Pilate asks “What accusation do you bring against this man?”  Avoiding the question, the crowd answers, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.

Not good enough,”  Pilate might have mused. Rome’s policy of not getting dragged into local civilian affairs was there for good reason – he wasn’t there to micro-manage every trivial dispute between citizens. “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” Betraying their ultimate intention, they insisted and petitioned Pilate “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.

Rumour had it this man was denying giving tribute to Caesar and claiming to be a king. But they wanted him executed? Usually these people would praise anyone taking a stand against Rome. It didn’t make sense. Pilate had better ask this troublemaker a few questions behind closed doors.

Waiting in the wings was someone who knew exactly why the Sanhedrin wanted this man dead. Not only had he shared a special Passover meal with Jesus the evening before, leaning back on him at supper, but he was also present at the trial of the accused in the middle of the night. Decades later, John Mark, the Beloved Disciple, would document his account in the Fourth Gospel.

So what exactly had happened the night before? And why did Jesus celebrate the Passover a day early? And did Pilate have any idea that this ordinary day would come to be known universally as Good Friday?