In Tents # 15, Pilate’s Trial Before Jesus, Part 1

Note: This is out of sequence, but I’m putting it here because I’ve been working on it this month as part of my paper for AML’s annual meeting. I also want to use it as an introduction to the next section, which will focus on the first mention of the Pharisees, which also involves a Roman soldier. I had thought to make this a one-part digression, but, there’s too much to say for one part.

If you asked a random group of Christians who is responsible for Jesus’s death the non-reflexive answer would likely be, “The Jews.” A little reflection might yield an answer like, “The Romans crucified Jesus with some pressure from the Jewish leaders,” or, “The Romans put Jesus to death using a form of execution reserved for insurrectionists,” or like the Boy Scout troop I heard about decades ago who had a Scout-O-Rama exhibit inviting people into their booth to see who was responsible for Jesus’s death. Once inside the booth a Scout would pull back a curtain, revealing–a mirror.

But the non-reflexive answer, I’m fairly sure, would be, “The Jews.” In contrast if you asked a random group of college students who was responsible for Socrates’ death they wouldn’t automatically say, “The Greeks,” or even, “the Athenians.” They’d likely say that Sew krates came into conflict with the Athenian elders, who condemned him on a flimsy charge.

Rome would have felt good reason for concern over a preacher who could draw crowds of 5,000 multiplied by women and children, and had just ridden into town with worshipful multitudes heralding him as their savior and king. And the gospel writers do not spare Rome or the Roman governor–which created a problem when the later church wanted to reconcile with Rome.

In his translation and commentary The New Covenant, vol. 1 Willis Barnstone calls the solution to this problem “the voice of Rome,” and gives examples throughout. Anything positive about a Roman, such as “render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s,” is the voice of Rome. Barnstone believes a lot pro-Roman passages were added to the original. I think Barnstone overstates his case, and after a running argument in the sheets of paper that serve as my marginal notes, to the effect that most of the voice of Rome could be introduced through reinterpretation rather than textual corruption, it occurred to me that Barnstone is a better (and valuable) guide to the way early Christians interpreted the Gospels than to the Evangelists’ intent.

Writers are not the only people with intent. Audiences and cultures interpret with intent, and we don’t always see the intent until it occurs to us that the way we’ve been reading a story all our lives is indeed an interpretation, that is, until our received reading stops being transparent. So let’s look for a moment at the received story, at how I think Christians generally interpret Pilate’s trial before Jesus:

The Sanhedrin convicts Jesus as a blasphemer and takes him to Pilate for a death sentence. Pilate, who has no interest in the internal squabbling of an occupied people briefly examines Jesus, says, “I find no fault in him,” and offers to release him. The leaders are adamant in wanting a death, so he takes his case to the people gathered in the courtyard. They also call for Jesus’s death, and Pilate throws up his hands in frustration, or rather, washes his hands in frustration, telling the Jews to see to Jesus’s death, but they don’t have the authority, so they demand a crucifixion, and Pilate obliges.

Except that’s not quite what the text says. To understand why, a little anecdote. Earlier this year I listened to a 27-hour recording of Moby Dick, and it was quite apparent Ishmael did not follow Stephen King’s dictum, “Adverbs are not your friends.” I followed that with 18 or 20 hours of Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Seamus Seoyce also paid no attention to King, he’s particularly fond of adding rudely to his verbs.

The Gospel writers, though, could have been King’s mentors, using maybe no adverbs at all. There’s no, “I find no fault in him,” Pilate said sincerely; “see you to the death of this innocent man,” he said with a sneer; “I wash my hands of the blood of this innocent man,” he said frustratedly. Or sarcastically. There are no words next to the verb that tell us Pilate’s manner of speaking.

King’s point, I take it, is that readers should be able to discern manner of speaking from what a character does rather than relying on words the writer places next to the character’s verbs. If that’s the case, the things Pilate does after examining Jesus hardly support the idea that he finds no fault in the man. Crucifixion is not the only way Pilate would have had to kill Jesus. He could call a squad of archers or spearsmen to prefigure the martyrdom of St Sebastian, he could do what Herod did to Jesus’s cousin, he could have someone come up behind with a garotte, or break his neck with a quick twist or run him through with a sword. Crucifixion is not a death you administer quickly because you have to get rid of this man. It is something you do to someone you want to suffer, someone you want to suffer an exemplary death, a long, drawn out, excruciating death.

This lack of adverbs made it easier for reinterpreters to build a tradition of taking Pilate’s words at face value, assuming he really did think Jesus innocent. But taking Pilate’s words at face value raises another question. ‘Why does Pilate condemn a man to death after insisting the man is innocent?’ However, the reinterpretation was so effective at turning attention away from Pilate that we don’t often stop to consider the question beyond the unlikely answer “When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made,” (Matthew 27:24) or Mark’s terser statement, “willing to content the people” (Mark 15:15).

Indeed, when my 9th grade seminary teacher played a dramatic monologue of Pilate musing on his guilt, “Why did I think a little water and a few words could wash my hands clean?” I thought it was a bold reinterpretation.

And it was, though it didn’t question Pilate’s statement that he found no fault in Jesus. That poorly written dramatic monologue freed me from taking what scriptural characters say about themselves and their motives or the motives of others at face value, and allowed me to develop a picture of Pilate as a cowardly but very skilled, ruthless politician, someone who outsmarts the Sanhedrin by giving them the death they want, but then humiliates them with an inscription over the cross emphasizing that the Jews are a subject people whose king he has no compunction about torturing–to death.

So I was quite surprised, over 30 years later, to find Barnstone saying several times that the story of Yeshua before Pilatus (Barnstone uses the Hebrew/Aramaic and Latin names) represents the voice of Rome and works to exonerate Pilatus, especially the following passage:

10 Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?
11 Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above
(John 19:10-11).

Maybe the last half of verse 11, “therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin” represents a later addition in the voice of Rome, but I have a hard time seeing Yeshua’s first sentence as anything but a sharp rebuke, a strong insult, an utter denial of Pilatus’s power. And I realized earlier this year that the insult is even sharper than I thought.

Flipping to the endnotes for James E. Faulconer’s Romans 1: Notes and Reflections I kept noticing the following phrase in endnote 114, “Most modern translations deal with this literary convention . . .” (104). I knew without reading further what convention he was talking about, the convention of ascribing all power to God. Perhaps he had mentioned it in class all those years ago.

When I got to the page that references note 114 I found these two sentences:

“They knew that the Lord had not forced Pharaoh to have a hard heart, but to show the subservience of every power—including the Pharaoh—to God, they ascribed all significant actions to the Lord. Perhaps they also did this to help prevent idolaters from using the scriptures to show the power of their idols” (91).

I paraphrased this out loud as, “‘Yo, pharaoh, you think you’re so powerful. You don’t even have the power to harden your own heart. God has to do it for you.’ Ooh! That’s what Jesus is telling Pilate!” Jesus is acting out a literary convention, taking the literary words literally.

So if Pilate has no power of his own, the encounter with Jesus is really a trial of Pilate. More about the trial and how Pilate fares next month.

This entry was posted in Literary Views of Scripture. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to In Tents # 15, Pilate’s Trial Before Jesus, Part 1

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Interesting insights as always.

    The notion of scripture as (often deliberately) open-ended is one we frequently hear, but often don’t apply, wanting as we often do some authoritative interpretation. In short: we accept the idea that meaning in scripture requires work on our part, though we may often want that meaning handed to us without putting in that work ourselves. Less often do we accept that there may not be any one authoritative interpretation. I’m reminded of the exchange between Bilbo and Gandalf toward the beginning of The Hobbit:

    “Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.
    “What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”
    “All of them at once,” said Bilbo. “And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain. …
    “Good morning!” he said at last. “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water.” By this he meant that the conversation was at an end.
    “What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!” said Gandalf. “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off.”

    Clearly, Gandalf here is a stand-in for Tolkien the philologist, having fun taking a close look at language we typically glide past in everyday speech. Beneath that lurks a crusty insistence that if we don’t know or think about what the words actually mean, it probably is an indication that we aren’t thinking all that clearly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>