There’s a lot more to say about Jesus and Pilate, and I may come back to the subject, but I want to do a quick summary of the things I’ve learned in this digression.
1) (Part 1)
This project started as a running argument in the sheets of paper that serve as my marginal notes for Willis Barnstone’s translation and commentary The New Covenant, vol. 1. Barnstone is deeply concerned with how “the voice of Rome” entered the Gospels. He calls them “highly redacted,” but it seems to me Rome’s voice can be heard much more in interpretation than in textual corruption. Is it possible to uninterpret the text, so to speak, to recover what it is about the text that might have concerned Rome in the first place? Is it possible to interpret the Gospels as anti-Roman, or at least as anti-Pilate—and to see them as Jewish documents, as Barnstone does?
2) There are not a lot of adverbs in the account of Jesus and Pilate to guide our interpretation. All four agree that Pilate says, “I find no fault in him,’ but kills Jesus anyway, just like Herod killed Jesus’s cousin, but Jesus’s death is far more painful. We’re fond of saying things like, “What you do thunders so loudly in my ear, I can’t hear what you say,” but my sense from hearing this story over and over over decades is that Christians generally pay more attention to what Pilate says than to what else he does.
This means that in some way the imaginative sympathies of those who first called themselves Christians at Antioch shifted toward Pilate. But why? Perhaps it was in the same way that the imaginative sympathies of those who were first called syndromers at Stockholm shifted towards their kidnappers.
The problem with saying that last sentence, though, is that names can have so much power that invoking them stops the question asking, stops us asking why they shifted their sympathies. I suspect there was less of a shift toward Rome than a shift away from Jerusalem. More about this next month, or in December, or . . .
3) (Part 2)
In the Gospels, Matthew at least, the end mirrors the beginning, with Pilate playing the devil.
4) Pilate’s excuse that he had to crucify Jesus to pacify the crowd is bogus. No military commander, especially one with a full band or cohort of 600 men available, would give in to a mob–if only because it sets a bad precedent.
5) With 600 highly trained soldiers obeying his command, Pilate had plenty of people in the praetorium who could call for Jesus’s crucifixion when he asks what they want him to do with Jesus.
6) (part 3)
Jesus’s final parables work well as prophecies of his trial and death.
7) Nephi’s practice of likening the scriptures to ourselves is a good one to adopt in reading about Jesus and Pilate. One problem with a name (see #2) is that when names become iconic we stop trying to understand what they are naming. One way we try to understand something is by imagining ourselves in the same situation. Yeshua’s trial and crusifixion are so iconic to us that we don’t try to imagine what they would be like in a contemporary setting. I suspect that if you asked a cross section of Christians how common crucifixion was they would think it was fairly common.
Still, it’s worth imagining how Christians in general would react if some right-wing or left-wing group kidnapped 3 missionaries (of whatever denomination) and murdered them publicly on Christnas day, or Easter. It would clearly be a deep insult. So why have I never heard a discussion of what it would have meant to the Jews to have not one of their own, but three–including a popular rabbi–brutally executed on the eve of one of their holy days? Well, maybe I just haven’t been listening to the right discussions, or reading the right books, but it just occurred to me in preparing this column that it is not coincidental that Pilate performs a triple execution at a time there will be a lot of people in town to see the King of the Jews put to death.
But I hear a little voice saying, so what? Why is that important? After the people at Antioch and their namesakes split off from the Jews, the first-called Christians shifted their imaginative sympathies away from the Jews. But the charge “to turn the hearts of the Jews to the prophets” and the Lord who called them–a pretty fair summary of the message of the major and minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible–was never rescinded. Indeed, we have the added charge to “turn the hears of the prophets to the Jews” (D&C 93:16-17, see Rev. 19:10 for a definition of prophet).
One way we turn our hearts towards each other is by each trying to imagine the other’s life and story. If those who have “the testimony of Jesus” undestand how the hearts of their fathers and mothers were turned away from the Jews, that understanding might also show them how to return their hearts.
7) (Part 4)
I suspect there are two stories playing out at the end of the Gospels. One is the culmination of a struggle between Jesus and some of the leaders of his people. The other is the culmination of a largely untold story about Rome’s reaction to this young rabbi who could repeatedly draw crowds of 4 and 5,000 men–multiplied by women and children. We get a glimpse of this story in Luke 23:12, which reports that after Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, “The same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.”
8) (Part 5)
We often read the Gospels metaphorically, as if there’s one primary meaning that can be stated as a metaphor, but it is mor profitable to interpret scriptural stories as puns, where there is not a single dominant meaning that displaces the others, but instead a multitude of meanings that complement each other. For example, Pilate hastening the deaths of the crucified men at sundown so they won’t be on the cross for the sabbath could be both deference to Jewish customs, and a way of emphasizing that the executed men are Jews.
9) (Part 6)
A name for a pun acted out is a ceremony or ritual, and Pilate’s trial is full of ritual if we know what to look at.
The way to put these elements together is through a narrative, rather than an argument. When I was preparing my original AML paper I came across Robert Rees’s “The Midrashic Imagination in the Book of Mormon” (Dialogue 44:3, Fall 2011) and realized a midrash would be a way of bringing together what I’ve learned. Because October has 5 Mondays next week was open, so I will post the midrash then.