In Tents #19 Pilate before Jesus Part 5

Note: I hope to revise this a little later with scripture quotes and citations. I’ll note the updates in the Reply section.

He taught me language, and my prophet on’t is,
I learned how to pun

At the end of #18 I suggested Jesus might have appealed to Pilate, perhaps as a prophecy of Paul’s appeal to Caesar, and/or a prophecy about the mission to the Gentiles. The suggestion that Jesus may have appealed to Pilate answers a question I didn’t ask, but it’s worth asking: What is Jesus doing up on the balcony of the Praetorium talking to Pilate anyway?

In his commentary in The New Covenant, vol. 1 Willis Barnstone says Pilate would not have been interested in the internal squabbling of Jewish sectarians, and the Sanhedrin wouldn’t have asked the Romans to execute “a dissident rabbi.” Barnstone works out an argument in his footnotes that the text of the Gospels is redacted through “the voice of Rome,” that when the Christian church became the Roman church someone or many tampered with the texts to exonerate Rome and shift the blame to “the Jews,” a phrase that appears throughout John, separating Jesus and his followers from “the Jews,” robbing them of their character as Jews, as Barnstone points out repeatedly.

Barnstone implies that Rome executed Yeshua as an insurrectionist and that Rome’s voice worked to obscure that fact–to avoid embarrassment, perhaps? I find Barnstone’s commentary enlightening and useful, but I kept wondering how much the voice of Rome could speak through reinterpreting the text rather than rewriting it.

Suggesting that Yeshua demanded the Sanhedrin take him to Pilate doesn’t preclude Pilate being interested in him as a threat to Roman rule–that’s the charge he writes on the superscription over Yeshua’s head. And the point of Matthew and Luke’s genealogies tracing Jesus’ lineage from David is that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the descendant of the king and so the rightful king of the Jews.

In suggesting there’s more than one thing happening on the balcony, I’m also suggesting the pun is a better rhetorical model for analyzing scripture than the metaphor. Metaphors belong to a class of rhetorical figures called metonymy which work through displacement. In a metaphor the metaphorical meaning displaces the literal. If I say, “State Street is a washboard,” no one imagines driving down State Street seeing the peasants of Anatevka washing their clothes in the gutters, or seeing Grand Ole Opry performers running sticks up and down washboards.

The metaphorical meaning so completely displaces the literal that even people who’ve never seen a washboard can understand the image without much effort. Puns, on the other hand, are non-hierarchical. One meaning isn’t primary and the other secondary. One meaning doesn’t displace the other. A pun requires both meanings to be present at once.

Metaphorical thinking enthralls us so completely–and we recognize how metaphors displace so completely–that if someone says something like, “The water into wine miracle is a metaphor for God’s grace and abundance, not a historical event,” we’re likely to respond, “No, it’s a historical event with a historical setting,” rather than saying, “Why do you insist something has to be either metaphorical or literal? Why can’t the story be a type of God’s grace and also a record of a historical event?” In not asking such questions we readily assent to the either/or structure of metaphors. Puns have a both/and structure.

As anyone who has spent much time around me knows, I love puns, things that can be more than one at the same time. I trace this back to babyhood. My mother has told me often that the year I was born my brother Dennis was out of school with rheumatic fever and took care of me. I grew up spouting a vocabulary of nonsense words, with no sense–until I returned from my mission and heard my father reading “Some Couth” a poem about Dennis–that the words hadn’t come from myself. So I credit a lot of my love of joyful noise and sound and interconnections to Dennis, who in turn credits our mother in his poem “Selvage.”

To apply this concept of many things being present at once, a symphony of puns rather than a solo metaphor, to the question at hand consider Pilate’s declaration, “I find no fault in him.” Reading it metaphorically we assume either that Pilate is sincere and we should adopt his sincerity, or that he’s lying and his act of crucifixion belies his act of proclaiming Jesus’ innocence. Reading it punningly suggests something else. In The Jewish Annotated New Testament Aaron Gale points out in his commentary on Matthew 27 that everyone who has anything to say–from the Sanhedrin who has to find false witnesses, to Pilate’s wife, to Pilate, to the crowd who has to be encouraged to call for Jesus’ crucifixion–proclaims Jesus’ innocence.

I’ve been thinking about Pilate’s declarations of Jesus’ innocence as part of a cruel ritual akin to the warden bounding up the steps to the gallows shouting, “Good news, the governor has pardoned you,” at the same moment he signals the hangman to spring the trapdoor. Imagine a prisoner hearing Pilate say, “I find no fault in him.” What would the prisoner think, and then what would he think when the torture started?

I’ll look more fully at Pilate’s sentencing ritual later, but I want to suggest that not only did Matthew see Pilate’s words as ironic/hypocritical/cruel/insincere, but as part of a pattern in which all events and speakers proclaim Jesus’ innocence even while pretending his guilt. Matthew and the other evangelists thus add tension and irony to the story by letting us see both the literal meaning and the ironic meaning of Pilate’s words at the same time.

The deeper irony is that Christian tradition has largely lost that double perspective. We don’t see both things happening at the same time, just as we don’t see Pilate’s treatment of Jesus as a prophecy about how the Gentiles would treat the gospel. We have spent too much of Christian history blaming “the Jews” (whatever that phrase means) for Jesus’ death, without considering who actually put him to death.

If Jesus had been sent to the Romans they would have crucified him. If he’d been born in 15th Century France he would have been burned at the stake. Nineteenth Century Americans would have shot him down from the jail window then formed a firing squad to put more bullets into his body. And the 20th Century? Well, as Dick Gregory said, “If Jesus had been born in America we’d all be wearing little electric chairs around our necks.”

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