In Tents #24 Ethics and Aesthetics of Jesus and Pilate, Part II

By any measure the story of Jesus and Pilate is not flattering to Pilate, or to Rome. To see why take the elements of the story and move them to another time. A judge or military commander who says to a person on trial, “I believe you are innocent but I’m going to kill you anyway, and it won’t be a painless death–it will be torture,” is a coward if he believes what he’s saying. If he doesn’t believe the prisoner is innocent his words are a sign of extraordinary cruelty, an exercise of sheer power, playing with the prisoner’s emotions and expectations–a foretaste of the humiliation of mortal public torture.

Imagine how we would feel if an American military commander asked to settle a grudge between two competing religious factions found a way to humiliate both groups, and posted photos of the torture–including pictures of sexual humiliation, and desecration of both the corpse and his writings–on his Facespace page. Now imagine how the people of that country would feel towards the American commander and towards the country that sent him to occupy their land.

Why don’t Christians feel that way toward Pilate, or toward Rome? It’s not a rhetorical question–that is, the answer is not obvious. The answer is certainly not that the Crucifixion happened 2,000 years ago and it just doesn’t make sense to hold a grudge against a nation or people. Nor is the answer that Jesus’s disciples embraced his ethic of forgiveness, that they forgave everyone involved in the Crucifixion because those people did not know what they were doing.

Just last week in Priesthood meeting, during a lesson on forgiveness, one fellow raised his hand and said, “My mission president made it very clear that Jesus was referring to the Roman soldiers who carried out the crucifixion, not to the Jews.” My seminary teacher made the same point at the same time. That was nearly 40 years ago, when the Seminary curriculum heavily emphasized the Great Apostasy as a reason for the need for a Restoration (rather than emphasizing, say, continual sin as a reason for continual revelation, as the Hebrew Bible does).

As a sign of the apostate character of contemporary Christianity my teacher pointed out a declaration by some council of churches or governing body somewhere that the Jews were not responsible for Jesus’s death.

Both my friend’s mission president and my seminary teacher quoted JST Luke 23:35,
“Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.(Meaning the soldiers who crucified him,) and they parted his raiment, and cast lots.”

I don’t know why Joseph Smith chose to emend this passage with the parenthetical phrase, nor what he meant by the emendation. I’ve never read any comment he made about it. If he intended it as limiting the scope of Jesus’s forgiveness to the people who were actually killing him, does that mean he (note the ambiguous pronoun) was excluding others from the scope of his forgiveness? I only hear this passage quoted when people want to argue that it means Jesus was not forgiving the Jews. And the phrase is always that broad, sweeping, all-inclusive, “the Jews.”

But that’s not what the emendation says. Any correct interpretation has to start with what the words themselves say, and the words say, “(Meaning the soldiers who crucified him,).” The words do not say that Jesus was refusing to forgive anyone, but if that’s the implication, why do we assume he’s refusing to forgive “the Jews” rather than Pilate?

I’ve heard it said more than once that the chief value of the Joseph Smith Translation (besides the Book of Moses) is the number of revelations it called forth, the questions it raised for Joseph, and the answers he recieved. And one revelation it called forth stresses the absolute necessity of forgiving everyone. If we insist on interpreting Joseph’s emendation of Luke 23:34 as a comment that some people (or a people) are beyond forgiveness, we had ought (Joseph’s phrase from the first edition of the Book of Mormon) to remember that the same verse that affirms the Lord’s prerogative not to forgive barely pauses for breath before commanding us (at least I think require and command appear together in the synonym roll) to forgive each other.

I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.
D&C 64:10

But to return to the question I asked earlier, if Christian tradition insisted on disregarding the ethic of forgiveness and holding someone responsible for Jesus’s death, why not Pilate? Asking that question takes us back to Simon Dewey’s painting “Behold the Man,” and the comment I made in #23 objecting to my dislike for how the painting portrays Pilate:

“The obvious objection to what I’m saying is that Dewey is simply using poetic license and I shouldn’t try to impose my own artistic vision on him. Furthermore Pilate doesn’t deserve anything more than a diminutive role in the painting. Isn’t that the whole point of the exchange in John 19:10-11? Isn’t Jesus telling Pilate, “You’re not nearly as important or powerful as you think you are. You have no power, none.””

In the whole story of the Gospels Pilate is a relatively minor character, not even worth the dignity of an answer:

And he answered him to never a word; insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly.
 —Matthew 27:14

The story arc of the Gospels is not about the growing and finally lethal conflict between Yeshua and the Roman governor. The story arc is, “I came unto mine own and mine own received me not” (see 3 Ne. 9:16)

There, did you notice how smoothly I made that shift? We’ve been talking about the ethics of interpretation and suddenly we’re talking about aesthetics, about how we put stories together. I’ll talk more about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in my next post, because we have to understand that relationship to understand how the early Christian church reinterpreted the stories of Jesus and Pilate, and Jesus and the Pharisees. Part of what happened was that early Christians mistook the aesthetic demand that a story have a villain for the demands of writing the story of the Savior.

In interpreting the story we chose to read it as a story about the struggle of good and evil rather than as the story of redemption from death, sin, and destruction, that is the story of forgiveness.

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?
—Luke 24:25-6

That’s the key to how we ought to interpret the story. More next time.

Your turn, with my prayers for a holy day.

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2 Responses to In Tents #24 Ethics and Aesthetics of Jesus and Pilate, Part II

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    One of the more shameful parts of our history of scriptural interpretation is how the New Testament was wrested by Christians who saw themselves as the cultural descendants of the Romans to justify their antisemitism. I think we as Mormons sometimes unthinkingly accept the residue of that prejudice, which interacts in a kind of schizophrenic way with our Mormon cultural fondness for Jews and Israel on a conceptual level.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      I don’t know if the Christians saw themselves as the cultural descendants of the Romans or as their cultural conquerors, victors in a long struggle to overcome the Roman paganism before tackling the various paganisms of the barbarians, some of them like Alaric the Goth also Christian, in taking the gospel into all the world. But I couldn’t agree more that we seem to have an ambivalent approach towards the Jews of Jesus’s time and the modern state of Israel. Why we reflexively support Israel over the Palestinian people I don’t quite understand, since we as a people know what it is to be driven from our homes for religion’s sake.

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