Why Mark Created a Gospel Role for Pilate

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by Neil Godfrey

Wenceslas Hollar - Jesus before Pilate 2
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The earliest Christian records make no mention of Pilate. It is only with the composition of the Gospel of Mark that he first appears. And when he does appear, he is certainly not the bloodily efficient “historical Pilate” but almost a hapless figure who has no argument with Jesus at all.  Thinking through the narrative of Mark’s Gospel while walking home from work this afternoon it suddenly occurred to me that Pilate’s appearance fits a tidy theological-literary pattern that is introduced and sustained throughout the first part of the Gospel. Mark wouldn’t be Mark if he didn’t have a balancing book-end arrangement so that this pattern is repeated at the end to complete the full impact of his theological message.

Pilate missing from the earliest record

The New Testament epistles (excepting the Pastorals) are earlier than the Gospels according to widespread scholarly agreement. There are only two passages in these epistles that identifies those responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion:

  1. 1 Corinthians 2:8  — “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
  2. 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 —  “. . . the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus . . .”

The first of these passages consists of terminology that both outside the Bible and in other biblical books refer to demon spirits or other angelic powers over the nations and this ‘present evil age’. (Some scholars who acknowledge this meaning behind “rulers of this age” suggest that the evil powers crucified Jesus through their human agents such as Pilate. I avoid a detailed discussion of this for now. But it should be kept in mind that elsewhere Paul and the other epistolary authors speak well of civil rulers and insist that they cause the righteous no harm.)

Excursis: — Hey, I have sometimes toyed with the possibility of Paul’s letters being second century products, but it just hits me now that this is unlikely to the extent that second century Christians knew of state persecution.

The second passage is thought by many scholars to have not been part of the original letter but a later interpolation. For the sake of argument, though, let’s leave the interpolation option aside and notice what happens if we accept it as is. If the Jews killed Jesus then the Romans are left out of the picture. Again, as with the “rulers of this age” passage, the only way to bring Pilate into the picture is to assume the passage is a circumlocution.

So there is no mention of Pilate or Roman involvement in the death of Jesus in the earliest epistolary evidence.

Mark’s theology and narrative structure

A couple of months ago I posted notes from a Werner Kelber’s book about six “sea/lake of Galilee” voyages undertaken by Jesus: /2011/06/02/the-story-of-jesus-history-or-theology/

This criss-crossing narrative is easily understood as Mark’s way of conveying Jesus bringing salvation to Jews and Gentiles equally. The final voyage contains dialogue in which Jesus harks back to the previous miracles of multiple loaves feeding multiple thousands and stresses the (symbolic) sufficiency of a single loaf for all. Jesus had been replicating miracles — miraculously feeding large numbers of Jews with a few loaves, the crossing over to gentile regions to perform the same miracle for gentiles. The one loaf symbolizes the unity of Jews and Gentiles into one Church.

Jesus’ life is threatened in this early section by a combination of religious and secular power, but it is the Pharisees working with the Jewish “king” Herod:

Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (Mark 3:6)

All the opposition to Jesus comes from the Jews. There are no heated theological disputes between Jesus and the Gentiles. There is a tense moment after Jesus exorcises the demon/s Legion (who possessed the pigs and made them act like lemmings): the people of the nearby villages came out to fearfully request Jesus leave them alone. It is the Jews who have the legalistic contentions with Jesus.

Jesus is the epitome of Old Testament men of God. As such, he must be rejected or cast out or yielded up by his own family and his own people, just as were Abel, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Jephthah, Samuel, David . . . .

So Jesus is the one destined to be cast out or delivered up by his own; but he is also sent to unite Jews and Gentiles into one body in him.

In the last section of the Gospel we see Jesus acting out irony after irony. All worldly expectations are reversed. Jesus, the spiritual king is the mock king on Golgotha’s cross (Golgotha, the place of the skull/Latin Capitol hill) having marched to this “glory” as spiritual conqueror through his mock triumphal procession.

At the same time all that Jesus had been preparing his disciples for comes to fulfilment as a spiritual reality, thus overturning worldly understandings. James and John who had expected to reign either side of their Master in glory are replaced by two rebels crucified either side of him who had been substituted for the rebel Barabbas.

Jews and Gentiles are brought together again over Jesus, but this time in sacrificing him to God as their saviour — in ignorance, of course, of what they are doing.

The final scene shifts to the rulers of those to whom Jesus had ministered earlier. The Jewish leaders, offended over  Jesus reject him and hand him over to death; the Gentile leader has no argument with Jesus but is fearful enough to get rid of him. The same roles as befitted Jew and Gentile in the opening of the Gospel are carried over into their respective leader representatives at the story’s end.

Do we see here an inevitable narrative cum theological logic that compelled “Mark” to decide to give Pilate an active part in his Gospel?



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Neil Godfrey

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    2011-08-18 23:23:11 GMT+0000 - 23:23 | Permalink

    “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (Mark 3:6)”

    When you read this sentence alone, you cannot help reflecting: But how can Mark possibly know? He is supposed to be writing in Greek sometime 30 to 40 years after the event, and somewhere in Syria, terribly far from the place. Not only does he know the physical movements of the characters, but he can read the intentions of the group of Pharisees, and determine it was a conspiracy “plotting” the death of the hero.
    In those days, and in our days as well, without spies directly infiltrating the group and secretly reporting to the outside, and some irrefutable documents for evidence, it would be impossible to know the movements and the intentions of the group, and to detect a conspiracy in the making. Even today, with all our means of recording and communication, it is infinitely hard to discover a conspiracy in the act, or to confirm its existence after the fact, when in possession of a huge quantity of material.
    You cannot help concluding that this Gospel is a nice script with its action invented by the know-it-all writer, a complete fiction, acceptable as history only to a non-critical age.

  • 2011-08-19 02:21:15 GMT+0000 - 02:21 | Permalink

    We’re told that respectable mainstream NT scholars aren’t at all like apologists. However, one trait they share in common is the urge to salvage as much as possible from the texts to use as reliable sources. Of course, once committed to this path, they have to explain the many missing features in Paul’s Christianity that appear later on. But which sounds more likely? — (a) “Legendary figures grow over time” or (b) “Paul either wasn’t interested in or didn’t think it important to mention these things”?

    Besides Paul’s letters I’m inclined to believe that some of the sermons in Acts represent traditions from an early source. Or at least they’re composites of speeches or teachings by figures in the early Christian movement. The recurring accusation: You (Jews, Men of Israel, etc.) killed Jesus “having hanged him on a tree” — seems to be unaware of Roman complicity, let alone that of Pilate himself.

    It strains credulity to argue that:

    1. Pilate killed Jesus.

    2. Early Christians didn’t want to mention it (30 CE to 70 CE). Pilate is all but forgotten.

    3. The gospel writers remembered Pilate’s role and pushed it forward again (70 CE – 120 CE?).

    I can understand why apologists cling to the Pilate myth, but why do mainstream HJ scholars hang onto it? What makes so many of them certain that Jesus’ crucifixion by Roman authorities (viz. Pilate) c. 30 CE is bedrock historical fact?

  • 2011-08-19 07:59:49 GMT+0000 - 07:59 | Permalink

    When the epistles were written, their writers understood that Jesus Christ had experienced a crucifixion, burial and resurrection on the Firmament. Those three events were seen in a mystical vision by the first Christians who climbed to the top of Mount Hermon.

    Looking at Jesus Christ being crucified was a purifying experience. Just as the ancient Hebrews had been healed from snake bites merely by looking at an elevated, bronze sculpture of a snake, so likewise the first Christians were purified merely by looking at an elevated Jesus Christ, hanging from a tree or from a cross. This comparison was made explicitly in John 3:14-16.

    The purification of the ancient Hebrews did not require that they have any knowledge of the preceding events that resulted in the elevated, bronze statue of the snake. The bronze snake was elevated, and the poisoned Hebrews looked at it, and the looking sufficed for the purification. It did not matter how the statue came to be made out of bronze and came to be elevated.

    The same concept applied to the first Christians who climbed to the top of Mount Hermon and saw the mystical vision of the three events on the Firmament. The vision began with the sight of Jesus Christ hanging from a tree or a cross. How it came to be that Jesus Christ was hanging there was an irrelevant question. Merely by looking at the crucified Jesus, the people viewing the sight were purified.

    Then Jesus was buried, and then he rose from the grave and ascended into Heaven. And that was the end of the mystical vision.

    Therefore, the very first Christians did not have any story about Jesus being arrested and tried and convicted and flogged and brought to the crucifixion site. There was no story about Pontius Pilate, because there was no story about any trial — because the story began with Jesus already being crucified. The crucifixion was the very start of the mystical vision. It was a story that began in media res with the crucifixion and then ended three days later with the resurrection and ascension.

    When James agreed to join the Christians’ leadership, one condition of his joining was that the mystical visions ended. There were no more trips to the top of Mount Hermon and no more mystical visions of the three events on the Firmament. People who joined Christianity afterwards could not obtain any validation for such mystical experiences, and so they simply had to believe the accounts of the people who did experience the vision before James prohibited further visions.

    And so some of the later Christians began to invent “gospels”, which were happy-ending stories about Jesus descending to Earth and revealing himself and consoling and healing the people who never were able to experience the mystical visions. As more and more of these gospels were invented and elaborated, they gradually developed the passion story, which included the trial and a role for Pontious Pilate.

  • John
    2011-08-19 08:02:52 GMT+0000 - 08:02 | Permalink

    Eisenman suggests that Mark’s portrayal of Pilate (and other Romans) could have something to do with what Josephus says of others of writing in his time, whose accounts were “falsified either to flatter the Romans or to vilify the Jews, eulogy or abuse being substituted for factual record” (War Preface). “Having said this,” Eisenman writes, “he then goes on to indulge in the same conduct hmself” (JBJ pg. xxii). Flattering the Romans, like Paul, the gospel writers, Josephus and Rabbi ben Zakkai did, was how you survived in this time period.

    Why Pilate? Who knows. Maybe he simply fit the time period Mark had in mind.

    Neil wrote:

    “But it should be kept in mind that elsewhere Paul and the other epistolary authors speak well of civil rulers and insist that they cause the righteous no harm.”

    But Paul says that “none of the rulers of this age understood [his gospel]; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord.” It was a “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor 2:7-8). The only other time that Paul uses the word “rulers” he means it in an earthly sense (Rom. 13:3, 6). And is the “debater of this age” in 1 Cor. 1:20 a heavenly debater?

    Acts also understands these rulers in an earthly sense: “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (3:17).

    Whether it is a reference to Jesus or to the righteous poor in general (which could at least include Jesus), James 5:6 says that the earthly rich “killed the Righteous One,” and the same word is used to describe Jesus in Acts 3:14-15, “you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Author of life.” If nothing else, it is evidence that James’ group had problems with the elite and were condemned and killed by them.

    However 1 Cor. 2:7-8 is understood, and whatever Paul or his followers may have believed, Josephus says that John the Baptist was “a good man,” but he was killed “lest the great influence [he] had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion” (Ant. 18.117-118). This shows that it a “good man” could be considered a threat to civil rulers.

  • 2011-08-19 09:44:21 GMT+0000 - 09:44 | Permalink

    This criss-crossing [of the Sea of Galilee] narrative is easily understood as Mark’s way of conveying Jesus bringing salvation to Jews and Gentiles equally. The final voyage contains dialogue in which Jesus harks back to the previous miracles of multiple loaves feeding multiple thousands and stresses the (symbolic) sufficiency of a single loaf for all. Jesus had been replicating miracles — miraculously feeding large numbers of Jews with a few loaves, the crossing over to gentile regions to perform the same miracle for gentiles. The one loaf symbolizes the unity of Jews and Gentiles into one Church.

    The story about the feeding of the multitude at the foot of a mountain is an extraordinarily early gospel. One indication of its early date is that it appears with very similar contents in 1) the synoptic gospels and 2) in John.

    Another indication of its early date is that the story addresses the original problem that motivated Christians to begin creating gospel stories. The original problem was that the Christian leadership stopped authorizing the practice of guiding new believers up to the top of Mount Hermon in order to experience a mystical vision of Jesus Christ being crucified in the Firmament.

    This gospel essentially is about a multitude of enthusiasts that follows Jesus Christ and the twelve first disciples to the foot of a mountain. There, the disciples want to send the multitude of disciples away, but Jesus admonishes the multitude to let the multitude stay and wait. Then Jesus and the twelve disciples climb to the top of the mountain. Eventually, Jesus and the twelve descend back to the foot of the mountain, where the multitude continues to wait.

    Again, the disciples want to send the multitude away, but Jesus insists that the multitude be fed before it is sent away. Apparently, the twelve disciples already have eaten their fill on the mountain and still have a little food left over. Jesus takes that small amount of left-over food and feeds the multitude, which eats its fill too.

    In this story, the two distinct groups are not 1) Jews and 2) Gentiles. Rather, the two distinct groups are 1) the very first Christians who personally climbed to the top of Mount Hermon and experienced the mystical vision and 2) the later Christians who were not allowed to climb the mountain and experience the vision, but were supposed to satisfy themselves by experiencing the vision only vicariously from the stories told by the very first Christians.

    In a gospel story, Jesus Christ descends from the Firmament to the Earth and consoles the later Christians. Jesus rights the wrong in a clever manner, and so there is a happy ending. Jesus cannot undo the Christian leadership’s decision to prohibit further mystical visions, but Jesus can arrange an alternative resolution. He can climb down the mountain with the disciples and insist that they at least feed the multitude that waited at the mountain’s foot. When the disciples protest that they do not have enough food to feed the multitude, Jesus takes the small amount of food and feeds the multitude miraculously.

    The original story subtly depicted the first disciples as the villains and depicted Jesus as the kind deity who confounds the old disciples in order to comfort the young converts. The story subtly and subversively expressed a resentment that was felt toward the older generation by the younger generation within the Christian movement.

    When the story was invented, everyone in the Christian movement understood the story’s references and moral. Just a few, now older people had climbed Mount Hermon and experienced the mystical vision, and the younger multitude resented being deprived of that experience. Jesus sympathized with the deprivation and resentment that younger generation felt. If Jesus came down to Earth, he would right the wrong in some clever manner.

    Everyone knew that the story was not a real event. It did not really happen that Jesus came down the mountain with his disciples and used their leftover food to feed the multitude. It was just a made-up story. It was fan-fiction.

    This was one of the first gospel stories, and it was so popular within the Christian movement that it became a classic gospel story that survived and that inspired the creation of other gospel stories by young Christians.

  • Robert
    2011-08-19 18:51:12 GMT+0000 - 18:51 | Permalink

    “Do we see here an inevitable narrative cum theological logic that compelled “Mark” to decide to give Pilate an active part in his Gospel?”

    It had to be the gentiles that actually sacrificed the lamb, as they were to be the recipients of the blessings.

    • John
      2011-08-20 03:49:47 GMT+0000 - 03:49 | Permalink

      Another incisive comment from you, Robert.

      As Neil mentioned, the earliest evidence points the finger at “the Jews” (perhaps interpolated) and “the rulers of this age” (whatever that might mean), and possibly also the “rich” (in James). But whether it was an earthly crucifixion or not, I like what you are saying here.

  • BillWarrant
    2011-08-19 20:51:18 GMT+0000 - 20:51 | Permalink

    So if “Mark” created the Pilate story then it must be the case that authors like Ignatius and Justin Martyr either knew the Gospel of Mark or a Gospel dependent (directly or indirectly) on the Gospel of Mark or oral traditions dependent on any of these Gospels. In any case, the Gospel of Mark must predate the writings of Justin Martyr and Ignatius.

  • 2011-08-20 07:17:07 GMT+0000 - 07:17 | Permalink

    What I find curious is that in both the writings of Justin and the [shorter] letters of “Ignatius” Pilate appears to be introduced as a chronological marker rather than as the responsible party. Justin’s view appears to be very consistent with the scenario we find in the Gospel of Peter: Pilate walks away leaving it up to Herod and the Jews to do as they wish. Pilate’s role there is to allow the Jews themselves assume full responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. Mark makes it a joint-affair. the Jews bring the charges and the Romans carry out the penalty.

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