The Passion and Pilate

I read with some interest an article in a diocesan newspaper about the Oberammergau Play, a live performance of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is staged in a small town in Bavaria, and it is performed only one year in every ten.   To the credit of the writers, the content of the play has been modified in the past few decades to reduce any anti-Semitic overtones.  Passion plays have, prior to the Second World War, instigated violence against Jews.

The Second Vatican Council went a long way towards encouraging renewed and stronger ties between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community.  The Vatican II document Nostrae Aetate is something of a blueprint for this improved relationship.  Besides rejecting the argument that the death of Christ can be attributable, across the board, to an ethnic group, the Church states that

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

Admittedly, Christians have at times ‘back-slid’ in their commitment to the principles expressed in this passage.

On the other hand, it has always struck me as rather embarrassing that, at times, our own church leaders say things like “it was Pontius Pilate’s fault that Christ was crucified.”  Hmmm. The Roman Catholic Church officially teaches that anti-semitism is deplorable, and that we cannot assign blame to an entire ethnic class.  But I know of few biblical scholars, outside of the Jesus Seminar, who actually attribute blame for the crucifixion to Pilate.

In fact, the Gospels tell another story.  Mark 15:8-10, Matthew 27:15-24, Luke 23:6-7 and John 18:28-40 state explicitly that Pilate was unconvinced of the guilt of Jesus.  What Pilate did wrongly do was to act as an accessory to murder – by allowing a man he strongly suspected of having done no wrong to suffer crucifixion.  In fact, he betrayed Roman Law in allowing the crucifixion to proceed without a credible case against Jesus.  But the Gospels do not tell us that he instigated the prosecution.

There are sound theological reasons for being suspicious about the premise that the death of Jesus was all about that “evil” Pontius Pilate.  First of all, it undermines the Christological character of the Gospels. Christ claimed to be, and is – according to Christians – the Son of God.  The red-herring argument that Pilate was the principal antagonist is used by some secular critics of the bible to suggest that Jesus was not the Son of God at all, but merely an anti-Roman revolutionary or civil brigand.

Pilate acts as a necessary foil in the Passion of Jesus. He represents civil and secular power, whose authority to influence events foreordained by God is limited.  Pilate also represents moral indifference.  His inability to advocate and defend the innnocence of Christ played into the hands of those who actively called for Jesus’ crucifixion.   If we read the Gospels closely, it is Jesus, and not Pilate, who is in control of the situation.  Consider the counsel of Jesus to Pilate as he faces certain death, you would have no power over me if it were not given from above.  John 19:11

And Jesus is not a civil brigand.  In Matthew 22:21, Jesus says  “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  In the Gospel of John, we have an extended discourse in chapter 10 on the Good Shepherd, where Jesus clearly aligns himself against the brigands who would wage war against both Roman rule and the Sanhedrin. In John 10, the sheepfold is also a euphemism for the Courtyard of the Temple of Jerusalem, since the Greek word for temple and courtyard is the same – aule.  Jesus tells the story of the good Shepherd on the steps of the Temple courtyard, and his reference to thieves and robbers is a contemporary commentary on insurrectionists like Barabbas.

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; 2 but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. 9 I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

In fact, if there is ever a strong case against the theological invalidity of the culpability of the Roman Procurator, it is the entire Gospel of John.  Noted scholars such as Schnackenburg and Raymond Brown are in agreement that the Book of Signs – the entire first half of the Gospel of John – is an account of mounting tension between Jesus and some members of the Temple Sanhedrin, who view Jesus as a “problem.”

But more to the point, the passion of Jesus is not about assigning blame, and anyone who thinks we should assign blame has lost the plot.   Jesus had to die in order to rise. He had to die in order to fulfill the promise made to all of mankind, For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16]

Thankfully, we have the opinion of two contemporary Rabbis to help clear things up.  With regard to the Oberammergau Play, Rabbi Noam Marans reminds Christians that the the Tanakh (the Old Testament) is a religious book in its own right.  For Jews, the accounts of the Old Testament have theological meaning in their own right – it is not a book that prefigures the coming of Jesus the Messiah. This is a legitimate hermeneutic difference in Scriptural study that both Jews and Christians should always keep in mind.

Rabbi Gary Greenbaum has suggested that the Temple high priests of Jesus time – Annas and Caiphas – are just plain petty and evil. They should not be regarded as representative of Jews of the time.  Quite right, since most of the people Jesus preached to in Galilee were Jewish, as were virtually all of the Apostles, and Mary, Nicodemus, and Mary Magdalene.

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