It’s an interesting exercise to look at Jesus the man (sans any theology or christology) on trial and see how he behaves. And equally if not more interesting to see how the apparent psychology resonates with his more dedicated followers throughout history since.
The first hearing
At his first hearing before “the high priest, the chief priests and all the council” (Mark 14:53, 55), one of the accusations against Jesus was:
“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.’ ” (14:58)
The narrator of this trial claims that this was just one fragment of testimony against Jesus and that all these testimonies were contradictory or false. Nevertheless, this is the one claim that he singles out for reporting, and in response the high priest challenged Jesus to respond to this allegation:
And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, saying, “Do you answer nothing? What is it these men testify against you?” (14:60)
So Jesus did not respond to a single allegation, nor even to this final chance from the high priest to reply:
But he kept silent and answered nothing. (14:61)
How would that be seen in any normal human discourse? (I am looking a Jesus as a normal character with a normal human psychology in a common human narrative.) The one charge singled out for mention cannot but help hit the reader with a ring of truth, however esoteric that truth. Yes, we think we know Jesus DID claim he would destroy a human made temple and build another non-human one. That was true, wasn’t it? But of course we also know that Jesus meant to pose no personal threat to the Jerusalem temple of stones.
So why did Jesus not make peace with his judges quickly and explain what we know he meant? Was he secretly seeking to die? Did he want to be misinterpreted, falsely accused, so that he could end his life? Were his teachings really an expression of a death-wish? Is that why he taught that he would destroy the temple of human provenance? Was this teaching meant to be picked up and act as a self-fulfilling prophecy through knowing how easily it could be misrepresented?
We are working within the limits of the narrative here, but reading Jesus as a man, sans any knowledge of Christianity. His experience of claims to divine sonship, at baptism and transfiguration, are thus seen as temptations to see himself as more exalted than any man can rightly be. Does he deep down know he has been guilty of hubris and deserves to die?
So when Jesus is asked the next question that the narrator’s audience knows is the one that will incriminate him, by the rules of the narrative, the one to which all the previous allegations have been designed to lead and support: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14:61), he answers with his certainly known death-warrant: “I am” (14:62).
There are no further need of witnesses (14:63) — they were only brought in to provide evidence for this self-assertion. Now that Jesus has testified of his guilt to the charge, he knows he must die.
The second hearing
His second hearing sees him determinedly rushing in to cement the misunderstanding and guarantee the victory of the false charge against him — just so he could die, and in dying condemn the state and his people to eternal infamy!
Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered and said to him, “It is as you say.” (15:2)
He is not a man of truth here. He knows that Pilate has the wrong end of the stick and misunderstands, but is determined to let the lie stand. He wants to die. And in dying he knows he will leave his people, the Jews, and Pilate, in disgrace. He could redeem them if we wished. He could make peace and resolve all misunderstandings. He could behave like a normal, healthy, civic minded and well-intentioned human being. Or he can continue to seek a death wish that will drag down others in infamy with him.
And in his death he cries out in acknowledgement of his sin, his hubris:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34)
The God who tempted him to see himself as more than human, as the divine son on earth, the authority of the voice from heaven, has left him to face his human fate, the just consequence of any mortal claiming such affinity with the divine. Was he not seeking by his life, and even more by his death, a self-justification at the expense of the reputation of the legitimate authorities and guardians of civil order? And perhaps at the final moment also a touch of self-recrimination from deep-down knowing his guilt?
Is not this the stuff of Greek tragedy? I have long planned to write a piece here about the parallel psychologies and myths of Achilles and Socrates, and compare them both with Jesus. It’s not an original piece (the Achilles and Socrates psychic-mythic comparisons have been done before) but I’ll explore how closely they echo the Jesus story. (This piece is a section of that to prompt me to start soon!)
And what does it say of his followers? Do his most dedicated and radical followers find a resonance with the same inner sins, and consequent personal destinies of a ‘self-justified martyrdom’?
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