In Tents 17 Pilate’s Trial Before Jesus Part 3

As I mentioned in May, the last parable Jesus tells before going into the temple to deliver his final public sermon–and I think “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees” is best seen as a sermon, a jeremiad, rather than a rant or tantrum–is about a man who has the power to send out slaves to compel people to come in and fill up his banquet hall. My suggestion that we see this as a prophecy about Pilate might seem less fanciful if we ask, “What are all those people doing in Pilate’s courtyard anyway?”

Someone pointed out (Maybe Willis Barnstone, but I don’t find it in his commentary in any of the Gospels) that it is Passover and the Jews would have been making preparations for the feast, certainly not gathering at the Roman conquerors’ palace clamoring for their enemy to kill one of their own. Perhaps some of them were there to try and rescue their rabbi, but I suspect some were there under duress.

The idea that the parable of the wedding feast is a foreshadowing of something that wasn’t recorded in the text resonates more strongly if we look at a second parable about a wedding and how events later in the night echo that parable.

After Jesus’s sermon in the temple he gives some instructions to his disciples. First he tells them to be prepared for his return, giving a bunch of short pithy examples, then he gives three parables. The first is about a group of bridesmaids who are waiting for a night procession with the bridegroom. Five have brought oil for their lamps (olive mash, probably), five have not. The five who have oil encourage the others to go buy some oil but it’s night and everyone falls asleep, like the eleven who cannot manage to stay awake and pray while their rabbi is praying in great pain a stone’s throw away.

Both the ten bridesmaids and the eleven disciples are awakened by a procession approaching with torches, but instead of joining the procession the disciples run away. The parable ends with the five oil-less bridesmaids shut out from the feast, banging on the doors begging entrance. The night ends with Peter inside the doors, but by denying that he knows the groom he places himself outside the wedding party.

The second parable is about three slaves asked to give account of their stewardships. The events in the parable do not parallel the next part of the story, Jesus’s trial before the Sanhedrin, but two of the main tropes of the story, being asked to give an account of yourself and being condemned for the account you give, do.

While the first parable leaves us at the door, the third takes us through the door, into the throne room, where the people are not asked to give an account of their stewardship, but are told instead that the way they treated each other was their stewardship.

Similarly, the morning begins with Jesus taken into Pilate’s presence to be judged of him. Barnstone says the trial represents an “extreme redaction” of both Matthew and Mark’s original writings, partly because there’s no other record of what Pilatus and Yeshua say to each other. I think the record is faithful but incomplete, with the transcript of Jesus and Pilate’s conversation coming from the resurrected Savior.

As I suggested in #16 the record may be sketchy because the Gospels were meant as notes for reciters, who would fill in the details in recitation, as Biblica: The Bible Atlas says was the practice among reciters in times of the Hebrew bible.

Whether or not that’s the case the key to understanding Pilate’s trial is not what he says about Jesus (Lord, Lord have we not prophesied in thy name?), but what he does unto this man who called himself “least in the kingdom of heaven” when talking about his relationship to John the Baptist.

The two don’t match. Except in one place. In one place Pilate’s words about Jesus do match his actions toward Jesus, in the superscription on the cross.

And Jesus stood before the governor: and the governor asked him, saying, Art thou the King of the Jews? And Jesus said unto him, Thou sayest.

(Matt 27:11).

I’ve always read this as Jesus refusing to answer Pilate, “Well, that’s what you say,” but it occurred to me in writing my AML paper that that is what Pilate says,

And set up over his head his accusation written, This Is Jesus the King of the Jews.

(Matt. 27:36)

Or as John has it:

19 And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.

20 This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin.

21 Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews.

22 Pilate answered, What I have written I have written.

(John 19:20-22)

One of the commentators in the Jewish Annotated New Testament says Jesus’s repeated admonitions not to tell people he was the Messiah may have been a warning to keep quiet so the Romans didn’t come and kill him. But like Abinadi, Jesus isn’t very good at keeping his identity secret. Pilate would have had good reason to worry about a charismatic rabbi who could repeatedly draw crowds of 5,000 multiplied by women and children, and who had just been hailed by a crowd as their king.

Also, the superscription (whose superscription is upon the coin, Jesus had asked) serves to remind the Jews that Pilate is without ruth (what is ruth? he said, turning away), and has no compunction about torturing and killing their king. I suspect Jesus’s death was a catastrophe even to people who didn’t consider themselves his followers.

There are a few other matters to consider in this digression, Pilate’s death sentence with its ritual washing his hands of the condemned, the presentation of Yeshua Bar Abba and Yeshua called ha Mashiach, (for a preview see Dennis Clark’s comment to # 16 and my reply) a midrash of the trial, and a consideration of the aesthetics of depicting this episode. Probably two posts (that means three, right?) then back to Jesus and the Pharisees.

Your turn.

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4 Responses to In Tents 17 Pilate’s Trial Before Jesus Part 3

  1. Dennis says:

    I like your observations about the parables being worth considering as prophecies of Christ’s death, since the first two of these parables are, to my way of thinking, some of the toughest to like in the entire canon. No matter how often I think of the wise and foolish virgins, it seems to me a damn shame to waste half of them because they ran out of oil, and the other half seem rather selfish in their behavior.

    I regret that this kind of in-depth consideration of the narrative as a coherent narrative is virtually impossible in Sunday School, for two reasons: first, we insist on studying a “harmony” of the gospels, not in studying the gospels; and, second, we insist on studying them in the same year as a boatload of epistles, which means that we can do justice to neither, to say nothing of Acts nor the Revelation of John. Maybe that’s why you were tapped to lead us into this be-wilderness, where we must dwell in tents and follow a Liahona.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Dennis, Thanks for your comment. One of the logistical problems with creating stories is that it’s always possible for readers to sympathize with an antagonist, or villain, or sinner–even if the author doesn’t.

      In the Jewish Annotated New Testament Aaron Gale glosses the Parable of the Bridesmaids as follows: “Oil, metaphor for righteousness or good deeds (Ps 119.105; Prov 6.23; 13.9; Job 18.5; 2 Bar. 59.2; 4 Ezra 14.20-21).” That’s a very different interpretation than most LDS will give it. We see oil as symbolic of testimony, and say, “You can’t live on borrowed light,” meaning you can’t gain a testimony in an instant.

      I like Gale’s reading. It works well if you read the story strictly as a metaphor, as a declaration that good deeds take some time to do, and when the bridegroom is at the door you don’t have time to do them. But Gale’s reading also works if you think of the story as a story. It highlights an aspect I haven’t seen discussed much, how Jesus’s parables often subtly undercut themselves, as in these two verses from The Parable of the Pounds in Luke 19:

      24 And he said unto them that stood by, Take from him the pound, and give it to him that hath ten pounds.
      25 (And they said unto him, Lord, he hath ten pounds.)

      If the oil in the Parable of the Bridesmaids represents good deeds, then the bridesmaids are out trying to build up their store of good deeds, out doing good for others, or out looking for some poor sleepless soul they can do a good deed for. So they miss the bridegroom not because they’re being unrighteous, but because they’re so busy trying to do the right thing that they haven’t left themselves enough time to do the thing that matters most.

      Back in high school, when I heard about people who had a bullet for each can in their food storage I thought it would be interesting to write an apocalyptic story called “The Parable of the Five Foolish,” raising the question who are the foolish, the starving neighbors or the ones who shoot them down?

      I remembered this in thinking about your comment, and realized it doesn’t have to be a full-length story. It could be a parable. And if I get enough of them I could write my own book of Parables and Paradoxes and not have to rely on Kafka’s light. (BTW, did you catch Gregor Samsa’s correspondence with Dr. Seuss on This American Life a week or two back?)

      I have been thinking through a longer answer to your second paragraph, but it will have to wait.

  2. C. M. Malm says:

    While I seldom respond to your essays (usually I’m left in speechless awe), I want you to know how much I appreciate the light you shed on “treasures of knowledge” that I didn’t even realize were hiding there in (I had thought) plain sight.

    In this essay, this line in particular jumped out at me, forcing me to view this scene anew with an almost frighteningly cold, historical perspective: “[Pilate] has no compunction about torturing and killing their king. I suspect Jesus’s death was a catastrophe even to people who didn’t consider themselves his followers.” An obvious (and stunning) truth, but thoroughly obscured by the focus of the Gospel text on the “us versus them” of Jesus and the disciples on the one hand and the handful of powerful Jews who wanted Jesus dead on the other.

    Pondering what Pilate’s execution of Jesus would have meant to the common man in the province of Judea gives me a whole new perspective on the next time we see crowds of people…converting to Christianity by the thousands.

    Thank you, Harlow. You’re the best virtual Sunday School teacher ever.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      C. M., sorry to take so long replying (it takes a long time to stop blushing).

      Once you start seeing what’s hidden you wonder why it took so long to see, and then you say, “How come I’m the only person talking about this?” That’s one of the problems with doing original research–how do you know it’s any good if no one else is validating it? Of course, if someone else is doing the same research, what kind of original contribution are you making, and what’s the point of an unoriginal contribution?

      I probably need a little of Harold Bloom’s arrogance. When The Book of J came out he apparently took some flak from Bible scholars, and he replied, “What’s a Bible scholar but a very bad literary critic?” (As I recall, that was the call-out quote in a Time or /em>Newsweek article I read. I remember it when I’m tempted to say, “You don’t read Hebrew or Greek, or have a graduate degree in Ancient Scripture, you can’t have anything worth saying.” Stand me in good stead, Bloom and Fiedler!)

      About the comment on how Jesus’s execution would have affected other Jews, I may have been influenced by the conversation on Emmaus road in Luke 24 where Jesus asks the two why they are so sad and Cleopas says “Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days? (v. 18).

      Anyway, thanks for telling me your reaction to my comment. It means a great deal to me to know things like that.

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