Pilate and the cosmic order in Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

This is a disorganized collage of thoughts stimulated partly by the unlikely combo of John Carroll’s The Existential Jesus and Michael Patella’s The Lord of the Cosmos.

John Carroll likens Mark’s and John’s Pilate to Captain Vere in Melville’s “Billy Budd – Sailor”. He is a victim of the civilizing order (cosmos) he is responsible to uphold.

Focusing on Mark, however, I fail to see this in the same sense that Carroll suggests.

Mark opens with idyllic order. The whole of Judea went out to John the Baptist in response to his call for repentance (1:5). But the order is fragile because we are told that someone greater than John is coming. How can that order pulled together by John then hold? How can there be anything but a disruption to that order?

Jesus then enters with a cosmic shattering of the heavens. They are split apart (1:10) at his emergence from the chaos of the water. All others came through that baptism into the order that was focused on John. Jesus’ emergence means a tearing apart of the natural order.

Cosmic order was maintained among mankind on earth via the rulers. The King of the Jews, Herod, is torn against his natural inclination to rescue John by the pressures initiated by his own personal folly (6:26). He had been prepared even to tear apart his kingdom in his human lapse (6:23) but instead he was responsible for using his power to destroy the forerunner of the heavenly King of the Jews.

Pilate is not a victim of his responsibility to uphold the cosmic order in Mark, but he is the victim of the forces of chaos overwhelming him. The wild mob cries out for a setting aside of due process and justice and Pilate caves in to this mob chaos. The cosmic associations are underscored by the offer to release Barabbas — a custom not found in Judea but one related to ancient ceremonies of the turning of the old year over to the new through the gateway of momentary chaos.

And Jesus procession to his crucifixion is another association with the new year festivals and establishment of a new order via the bloodying of the old, given its mock Roman triumph allusions.

In Isaiah 13 the falling of the stars of heaven is a metaphor for the fall of kingdoms, and in Daniel the king is the kingdom. Both books are central to the literary content of Mark. Jesus foretold of the collapse of the cosmos with the fall of the stars from heaven, and Pilate’s being overwhelmed by the mob that is as treacherous as a stormy sea is surely the beginning of that time. Following Herod’s shadow, Pilate kills the heavenly King of the Jews, the king of order that is beyond the order of of this age. The temple veil, studded as it was with the stars of heaven, is torn apart at the death of Jesus. The silence of Jesus is broken with the destroying-conquering shout at the climax of the cosmic war (15:37-38).

The gospel opened with a reference to Psalm 2 as the King from heaven was declared the Son of God and it closed with another Psalm 2 reference with him being kissed. And the Psalm also points to the kings and peoples raging and opposed to the new order, the new cosmos that tears apart the old.

Was this the reason Mark brought in Pilate to be the focus of the death of Jesus? Other gospel authors appear to be politically embarrassed by this Roman governor’s role and attribute more responsibility to the Jews. Some noncanonical gospels even attributed primary responsibility of Jesus’ death to King Herod (see Justin, GPeter, Slavonic Josephus, Luke’s attempt to fit in Herod).

Mark was not embarrassed however at all. Was this because his gospel was not political so much as it was a cosmic allegory?

There are other reasons for reading Mark as allegory, and later gospel authors rewriting Mark appear to have missed this point. Mark has always been an odd one out in the gospel trajectory despite clear signs it was the original gospel. It’s Jesus is a cosmic order shattering power. Perhaps Pilate’s role was initially part of this grand allegory, too.

(Especially so if we see (1) Mark as a derivative of Paul’s thought and (2) Paul’s thought being influenced by Stoicism, with its cyclic cosmic order paradigms. And not to forget the possibility of Patella’s (and Ulansey’s) precession of the equinoxes possibilities in Mark.)

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Pilate and the cosmic order in Mark”

  1. Hello,

    I enjoyed reading many of the articles on your great site, so I’m sorry to say that my first response to one of them will be in the form of a respectful disagreement.

    From the article above you state:

    Pilate is not a victim of his responsibility to uphold the cosmic order in Mark, but he is the victim of the forces of chaos overwhelming him. The wild mob cries out for a setting aside of due process and justice and Pilate caves in to this mob chaos.

    It is my contention that Pilate, in fact, instigated (along with the Jewish authorities) the crowd to shout for Jesus’ crucifixion.

    Mark 15:1-15 (New American Bible)

    As soon as morning came, the chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council. 1 They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.
    Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” 2 He said to him in reply, “You say so.”

    Pilate’s question, “Are you the king of the Jews?”, has generally been accepted as a taunt by most commentators.

    The chief priests accused him of many things.
    Again Pilate questioned him, “Have you no answer? See how many things they accuse you of.”
    Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.
    3 Now on the occasion of the feast he used to release to them one prisoner whom they requested.
    A man called Barabbas 4 was then in prison along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion.
    The crowd came forward and began to ask him to do for them as he was accustomed.
    Pilate answered, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?”

    By asking the above question, Pilate is, in fact, asking the crowd, “Do you want me to release a Roman Rebel or a Roman collaborator?” The statement – king of the Jews – is also a jab at the high priest, as shown in verse 10 below.

    For he knew that it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed him over.
    But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.
    Pilate again said to them in reply, “Then what (do you want) me to do with (the man you call) the king of the Jews?”

    Note the wording in Pilate’s question – “the man you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate is the only one who had been calling Jesus by that title. The high priest (Ch. 14) only asked Jesus if he considered himself anointed and the son of the Blessed One (neither of which would be considered blasphemy as defined in Leviticus).

    5 They shouted again, “Crucify him.”
    Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Crucify him.”

    Pilate now acts as if he is an innocent pawn.

    6 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged, handed him over to be crucified.

    Mark’s subtle irony can be very difficult to recognize.


  2. Sorry to blab on here, but I wanted to clear up something. I differentiate between Pilate calling Jesus “king of the Jews, and the high priests saying Jesus accepted the title of “Anointed son of the Blessed One”. Remember that the Roman appointee ,Herod, was known as “The King of the Jews” and he certainly was not anointed.

  3. Thanks for your questions. I enjoy this sort of discussion. But my response began to grow as long as my original post and I can scarcely see what I am doing in this little comment box. I might take your query and response and start a new post with it — if only to make it easier for my to see what I’m typing.

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