In Tents # 20 Pilate before Jesus, Part 6

Today, Sept. 23, 2012, stake centers in Utah became extensions of the temple so people could participate in the dedication of the Brigham City temple. We attended the 9 AM session, the first of 3, conducted by L. Tom Perry, who grew up just south of Brigham City in Perry, “The peach capital of the world.” Elder Perry started the dedication by explaining there would first be a cornerstone sealing ceremony. He said that modern temples, being built of concrete, don’t actually have cornerstones–”the Lord is our cornerstone”–but there was a space built in at one of the corners to hold a box of mementos that should be of historical interest in the future.

During the cornerstone sealing he (or whoever was narrating) said, “This is purely ceremonial,” meaning, I suppose, that the mortar wasn’t meant to be permanent. It was simply part of the ceremony for the various participants to put some mortar into the groove. But that doesn’t mean the action wasn’t significant, wasn’t freighted with meaning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ceremony and ritual the last few years. In ceremony and ritual, words and actions have ritual meaning they don’t necessarily have in other settings. In this case placing the mortar had nothing to do with the structural integrity of the building, and much to do with testifying of that stone the builders rejected, which became the chief cornerstone (see Matt. 21:42).

I started thinking about rituals a few years ago, when I was thinking about a remark Roger Sale made in a seminar on pastoral, Elizabethan and later (1985 or 6 at the University of Washington), that the Fall is a Christian story, not a Jewish story. No one in the Hebrew Bible mentions the Fall. It’s the story that gets things going, but until Paul talks about Jesus as a new Adam no one talks about the Fall as having theological significance. Indeed no one in the Hebrew Bible talks about the Fall at all.

Sale’s insight makes Lehi’s commentary on the Fall all the more interesting, especially since it is presumably informed by the prophets he has been reading on the brass plates. Every time I read or listen to II Nephi 2 I’m struck by Lehi’s lack of regret about the Fall. There’s no sense of a fortunate fall–which seems to mean “Well there was a silver lining to this cloud after all” (or, as Agent Oso says at each mistake, “It’s all part of the plan”)–or a catastrophe averted by Jesus’ willingness to atone for Adam and Eve’s failings.

Indeed, for Lehi the catastrophe would have been if Adam and Eve had not partaken of the fruit.

22 And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.
23 And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.

Lehi’s implication is not simply that they wouldn’t have had children, but they couldn’t have had children, and he states this explicitly:

24 But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.
25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
(II Nephi 2:22-25)

But if eating the fruit is part of the plan, why the prohibition?

16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
(Gen. 2:16-17)

As Bruce Jorgensen said to me once, “That sure sounds like a commandment to me.” Me, too. Until I started thinking about it as a ritual warning.

For all the disdain Protestants and Evangelicals have for Jehovah’s Witnesses (and Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons–The Four Major Cults as Anthomy Hoekema titled a book) I suspect the comment a Jehovah’s Witness woman made to me as a missionary would resonate widely among Christians: God gave Adam and Eve the whole run of the Garden. They could have anything they wanted. He just asked one thing of them, one little thing: This tree is mine. Don’t touch it. And they couldn’t do it.

I’ve even heard Gen. 2:16 described as a death penalty. But what if God doesn’t mean, “Touch that fruit and I will kill you.” What if he means, “If you eat that fruit, the fruit will kill you.”

But if God wants them to eat the fruit, why warn them away? Perhaps because God is a God of truth and cannot lie (see Ether 3:12). What loving father would tell his children, “Here, eat this delicious fruit. It is highly desirable,” without telling them the side-effects?

The only way Adam and Eve can obey the command to give mortal life is to become mortal themselves. God shows them the means to become mortal, but warns that that if they become mortal they will die. Giving a command and telling the consequences of the command means that if we choose we choose based on knowledge. (The warning feels a little like the ritual language in drug commercials: “Seek immediate help for — redness and swelling at the injection site.)

A commandment is an invitation to be enticed by one choice or the other (see II Ne. 2:16), to choose this day (see Joshua 24:15) between mount Gerizim, the mount of blessing, and mount Ebal, the mount of cursing (Deut. 27:12-13).

Thinking about all this led me earlier this year to explore Pilate’s words to Jesus as ritual words. I suspect it was part of Pilate’s regular interrogation of prisoners to refer to them as innocent. Imagine how disorienting it would be to go before a judge who consistently referred to you as innocent, but treated you as guilty. Such a practice suggests great cruelty, and Willis Barnstone says in The New Covenant, Vol 1 that Pilate was called home from one assignment because he was overly cruel.

But that wasn’t the first thing that struck me as ritualistic in Pilate’s words.

“He took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.”
(Matt 27:24)

Pay attention to the 2nd half of the statement. Pilate is ordering an execution. In effect he’s telling the prisoner, “Don’t bother with an appeal, there is none,” and his guards, “Take this man away and kill him.”

I found out recently that the ritual implications are even richer than I thought. In his note for this verse in The Jewish Annotated New Testament Aaron Gale suggests Jewish readers would have heard echoes of Psalms 26:6,

6 I will wash mine hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar, O Lord:

and 73:13,

13 Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency.

And applied to Pilate, the first half of v. 13 seems particularly ironic.

Gale also cites Deut. 21:1-9 as an example of a purification ritual. That passage is the ritual city elders are to use in proclaiming their innocence when they find a murdered person but have no knowledge of the murderer. Pay attention to verse 7:

1 If one be found slain in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him:
2 Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain:
3 And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke;
4 And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer’s neck there in the valley:
5 And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the Lord thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the Lord; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried:
6 And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley:
7 And they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.
8 Be merciful, O Lord, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel’s charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them.
9 So shalt thou put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you, when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the Lord.

Pilate’s words feel like a parody of this ritual. Perhaps he was acquainted with this passage and used his handwashing as an insult to Jews, perhaps as a prelude to proclaiming he was crucifying their king.

Next month I will probably summarize the points I’ve made in this digression, then present them in a midrash. In November and December I want to look at why a group of stories that clearly implicate Rome were reinterpreted, and what it means for the intent of audiences. Then back to Jesus the Pharisee. Till then, your turn.

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3 Responses to In Tents # 20 Pilate before Jesus, Part 6

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    As always, Harlow, your suggestive contextual readings open up new dimensions of my understanding of key scriptures.

    • Harlow says:

      Thanks for your encouragement, Jonathan. Your invitation to blog has drawn a lot out and given me a way to explore some things I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

      Of course, one of the drawbacks of the kind of contextual reading you mentioned is that the closer you look the more there there is there. This is where a smilie would normally go, but I don’t mean it as a joke. The abundance invites me to slow down, which means I may never get to where I thought I was going with all this. (Now I can put a smilie.) I mention Gadamer’s concept of the ueberfluss to my Sunday School class occasionally–the spring springing up unto everlasting life that gives continually but never diminishes itself.

      I tell them this abundance means the scriptures will richly reward any study they make, even brief study. It’s meant as comfort, as encouragement not to let the ravages of old age or Alzheimer’s take away their ability to think and ponder.

  2. Dennis Clark says:

    And speaking of ritual language, I find it much more interesting to read the story of Adam and Eve as allegorical, rather than as literal (which I realize you are not doing). Adam and Eve represent each of us, in that we made a choice to take the fruit of the tree of knowledge from the hand of Lucifer. His greatest argument for his way of approaching mortality had to be “That kind of world will be a hell-hole. There’s got to be a better way than blundering around and banging each other into blithering idiocy. I can get it done without all that unnecessary pain.”

    The counter-argument had to be “If you can’t suffer the consequences of your own choices, how will you ever learn from them? How will you ever grow?” We chose a world of free agency, of choice, one in which there would be opposition in all things. So who provided that opposition? He who extended the false fruit, the knowledge of good and evil achieved without first-hand knowledge. He, or she. Hell, for all I know, it was a team effort, a mock Father and Mother teaming up to misle us.

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