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 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.”
- 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 crisscrossing 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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