Pilate and the Cosmic Order in Mark — 2

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by Neil Godfrey

An earlier post here discussed thoughts arising out of the unlikely combo of Carrol’s “Existential Jesus” and Patella’s “Lord of the Cosmos.” One set of responses was too lengthy to be carried out in the tiny comment boxes so am extending the discussion here.

I had written:

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.

“dods” replied:

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.

My response:

Thanks for your comments. I enjoy this sort of discussion.

Firstly, on what textual or other evidence do “commentators” “generally accept” Pilate’s words as a taunt? I see no reason to interpret his words this way from the evidence in the text itself. I suspect this interpretation is spawned by a post-Markan theology that holds “all humanity” responsible for the death of Jesus. I don’t see that theology expressed in the gospel of Mark, however. In fact, the commentators who interpret Pilate’s question as a taunt are implicitly in conflict with Mark’s subsequent explanation of Pilate’s motive for crucifying Jesus. The implied narrator of the gospel uses Pilate to inform readers that the Jewish accusers of Jesus were motivated by envy, and that Pilate himself was motivated by a desire to please the crowd. This is the narrative portrayal of Pilate and we need to accept and work with this Pilate — the Pilate as he has been drawn by the author for his readers. To impute other motives that are not in the text itself is to attempt to go beyond Mark and work with another text of our own creation.

Besides, if Pilate was taunting his prisoner then we can reasonably assume he did not care if he died, even probably wanted to execute him. If so, his decision to execute Jesus was not prompted by a desire to please the crowd as per the text.

Having said all that, I am quite prepared to accept the Pilate’s question can be seen as a taunt if it can be demonstrated that the scene is borrowed from other literature where a taunt is clearly indicated. (That may not be as unlikely as it sounds.) But as for Pilate attempting to stir up the crowd with the high priests, this just does not sound right when we read that he was attempting to please the crowd — unless there is a bit of special pleading to rationalize the implied oddity or convolution.

Secondly, how can one explain why Pilate would turn around to playing the innocent pawn if he had no problem opening up proceedings with a public taunt. If he showed his colours from the start what explanation can there be for him wanting to hide them near the end of the proceedings which one must conclude have finally gone his way. A taunt at the beginning implies a hope to see Jesus condemned. Why act the innocent? But most importantly, what evidence is there in the text or related closely to the text for any argument we make? The narrator uses Pilate to alert his readers to the evil motivation of the chief priests, without once hinting that Pilate’s motive itself was anything remiss — until the chief priests stirred up the crowd.

Thirdly, you draw on Leviticus to argue that the charge of the high priest against Jesus would not have been considered blasphemy. But this again is interpreting Mark through a broader theology not found in Mark itself. Mark elsewhere indicates he is not so interested in “OT” scripture interpretations as we are. He lists “do not defraud” as if it were one of “the (ten) commandments”. He interprets the “OT” scriptures allegorically to rob them of their literal and original meanings. He sets up Jesus as the one to be heard in place of Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, at the Transfiguration. So I suspect we are making a fundamental error if we attempt to interpret Mark’s Gospel through a literal reading of any of the OT.

Fourthy, Mark’s gospel has structures in common with ancient novels. Episodic narrative, prophecy-led action, elaborated dramatic details in the final episode, and confusion and resolutions of true identity of main character/s. The final scene of the novels was often about an attempt to establish the true identity of a lead character, and a gradual unfolding of that character’s identity through a series of gradually revealed clues. The dramatic conclusion with its stress on “who is this Jesus” is a classic novelistic finale. Reading Mark’s gospel in the context of what I believe are contemporary novels makes sense of Pilate’s question without having to inject later theological assumptions into the interpretation. It interprets the gospel in the context of the literature of the time.

If we accept Dennis MacDonald’s reading of the centurion’s statement about Jesus being the son of God — that it is modelled on the well-known and often imitated and even more often emulated Homer who has Achilles mock the dead Hector by his ironic claim that he was a mortal to whom people prayed as a god (see “My Turn” at http://iac.cgu.edu/drm/index.html) — then that would suggest that the centurion’s remark is the mocking one, not Pilate’s.

This again is to interpret Mark in through the prism of contemporary literature, not later theology, including the subsequent theology of Matthew, John and Luke.

Whether one accepts MacDonald’s interpretation or not, the series of non-recognition scenes at the end of the gospel indicate that the author is doing an ironic twist on a well known trope in his day. What should be happening is that suddenly everyone is beginning to recognize who Jesus really is. Even Peter, representative of the Twelve, when asked if he knew Jesus, replied he did not know him at all!

Mark has done a twist on the expected outcome. Instead of the story ending with a final recognition of who Jesus was, all fail to recognize him — except the readers.

Mark’s irony is not being diminished by this interpretation. It is being acknowledged within the terms of the text and literary genre itself, and not in terms of our “re-writing” of it.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Pilate and the Cosmic Order in Mark — 2”

  1. OK

    I have only recently begun studying the Gospel of Mark in depth. The version I have primarily been using is “The Scholars Bible” by Daryl D. Schmidt. He translates Mark15:2 “YOU are the king of the Judeans?” He states in his footnotes that the “you” is emphasized. I incorrectly assumed that the pronoun in Greek was also emphasized. His footnote for 15:9 states, “The king of the Judeans” used mockingly as in v. 2. He does not state how he arrived at these conclusions.

    Coupled with the above, I have also been reading “Binding the Strong Man” by Ched Myers and “The Gospel According to Mark” by Marie Sabin – both of them attack Pilate.
    Unfortunately, I got carried away with their arguments.

    As to whether Pilate (as portrayed by Mark) is a weak pawn or a shrewd manipulator, I will leave that question to the experts. Jesus entered Jerusalem with the intent to suffer and die, so it may very well be a mute point.

    take care,

  2. Grammatical details about any emphasis on the “you” in the sentence can be followed up via the Biblical Greek link on the Early Christian Writings Links of Interest page. How to interpret any possible emphasis would be another question, I think.

    I can understand character discussions about Hamlet who belongs to literature intended to be an exploration of human character, but am still to be persuaded of the relevance of similar discussions about characters in what I see as essentially a theological and parabolic story. We know that Mark’s Pilate is not the Pilate of history, but a literary agent for plot fulfillment.

    The question of his “real character” belongs to those who read the gospels as history or biography. I’ve given reasons for rejecting this approach in other posts.

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