Once we begin to see the Passion narrative not as history, but as liturgy that was created to interpret the meaning of Jesus, the literal imprisonment that has been imposed on this story begins to break apart. When that happens the account of the cross reads very differently. Those who know no other way to approach the Bible, except to claim for it the literal memory of a literal history, find themselves in despair. Those who long ago ceased to accept the Bible and its stories as literal truth, and who have dismissed the whole Christian story as a fantasy, begin suddenly, however, to see some new possibilities. Some are moved to question whether there ever was a Jesus of history, while others are encouraged to seek an understanding of Jesus that does not force them to violate their brains in order to become believers. So in this series of columns, which are dedicated to exploring the second of these two options, we now give the screw another turn and look at some of the other figures in the Passion drama.
First there was the Procurator of Rome, whose name was Pontius Pilate. We find no clues in the Hebrew Scriptures that help us to understand the role that he was asked to play. We also know that Roman records indicate that this person actually lived and did serve in Judea at the time of Jesus. I will go more deeply into this story shortly.
Then there are the two thieves, said to have been crucified on both sides of Jesus. There is evidence, however, that does seem to suggest that these thieves were created to give substance to the identification of Jesus with the “Servant” figure, taken from II Isaiah, about whom we have spoken before. Of Isaiah’s “Servant” it was said that he was “numbered with the transgressors” (II Isaiah 53:12).
Next is Barabbas. We have also looked at him earlier in this series. There is evidence that he was created to identify Jesus with the Yom Kippur liturgy. In that liturgy, I remind you briefly, two physically perfect and “sinless” creatures were set before the high priest. One was a lamb that is sacrificed and its blood is smeared on the mercy seat of God in the Temple to suggest that on the Day of Atonement sinful human beings could come directly into God’s presence for they could now come “through the blood of the sinless lamb of God.” The second animal was typically a goat, who became in this liturgy the “sin bearer.” This creature was set free to carry the sins of the people away from the worshipers. Recall that in the Passion story there were also two figures, Jesus, called the Son of God, who was crucified, i.e., sacrificed, and Barabbas, whose name also means “Son of God.” (“bar” means son and “abba” means God), who was set free. The original Jewish readers of the gospels, who were familiar with the symbols of Yom Kippur, would have recognized these connections.
Next we look at the character named Joseph of Arimathea. He came out of the blue in the Passion narrative, having never been mentioned before in any source we can find, to take charge of Jesus’ burial. The name “Joseph” may give us a clue as to his meaning. Joseph was a significant name in Jewish history. He was the primary patriarch of the Northern Kingdom of the divided Hebrew nation. Judah was the name of the patriarch of the Southern Kingdom of that nation. One of the functions that these people looked for in their expected messiah was that messiah must bring together the Joseph tribes with the Judah tribe and thus unify the nation. Once the people of Israel were one, then it would be the task of the messiah to bind together the Jews and the Samaritans, then the Jews and the Gentiles.
Ultimately the messianic role was to heal all of the divisions found in the human family: male vs. female, bond vs. rich, Christian vs. Jew, Catholic vs. Protestant, gay vs. straight, black vs. white, Sunni vs. Shia, Moslem vs. Jew, Buddhist vs. Hindu, Democrat vs. Republican and so on we go.
We saw earlier that Matthew created his character Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, to play the role of protector and legitimizer of Jesus. In his genealogy Matthew had portrayed Jesus as a descendent of the House of David and therefore of the tribe of Judah. So in the birth narrative Matthew brings Judah and Joseph together to make the life of Jesus possible. Is the Joseph who presides over Jesus’ burial another manifestation of this theme? Did Matthew just take the Joseph of Arimathea that he found in Mark and double him by creating the earthly father of Jesus, who bore the same name? A Joseph protects Jesus at birth and a Joseph protects Jesus at death. II Isaiah did say of the “Servant” that he would be with “a rich man in is death” (Isa 55:19). Matthew could identify this Joseph as a “rich man” to tell us where the germ of this story was to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The role of Joseph at both ends of Jesus’ life looks very much like an interpretive clue.
When we come at last to the figure of Pilate, we recognize that here, at least, a person of history lies behind this part of the narrative. We know that this Pilate served as the Roman Governor or Procurator in Judea from 26-36 CE. We know the crucifixion occurred during those years. That much seems very clearly to be history. Is, however, the story of Pilate’s significant and personal involvement in the final moments of Jesus’ life also a matter of history? Would any head of state give this amount of time to a religious prisoner? Would he be receptive to having this prisoner brought to him at 6:00 a.m. in the morning with the demand that he enter judgment immediately? Would the Roman governor engage this prisoner in a long one-on-one dialogue before rendering his judgment? Would the dream of Pilate’s wife be a factor in making the decision? Would this head of state ever do such a thing as to ask a Jewish crowd to tell him what he should do with this prisoner? Would the crowd be allowed to weigh in on the verdict and shout “Crucify him, crucify him?” Would Pilate wash his hands publicly and declare himself innocent of “the blood of this just man?” Would the crowd then accept the guilt for his death as their own and ask for the privilege of bearing it through the generations? Are these parts of the passion story history? Of course not! No reputable New Testament scholar today thinks they are. That realization has not, however, trickled down to the worshipers in the pews, who still read the story as history. It is not.
Pilate, we learn from other sources, was removed from his position by the authorities in Rome in the year 36. His insensitivity to the religious consciences of the Jewish people was ultimately met with riots and civil disobedience. Rome wanted someone else in that post. When Matthew wrote his gospel some fifty years had passed since Pilate’s removal. The details of the conversation with Pilate also continue the theme of the “Servant.” Jesus once again is silent before his accusers.
This text also tells us that it was Pilate’s custom to release a prisoner at the time of the Passover. I can find no reference to such a custom in Jewish or Roman records. It seems to have been created on this one occasion only to allow the interpretive figure we call Barabbas to enter the story. If the Pilate saga is history, then what is the source of the story about the dream of Pilate’s wife? In the text it appears that the content of this dream was shared only between Pilate and his wife alone, so how did it get into the gospel text? The idea that the Roman Governor was in a long and intense dialogue with either Jesus or the Jewish Council serves only the purpose of “whitewashing” Pilate and making the Jews the villains. That purpose was accomplished as history so painfully reveals.
Through the centuries Pilate was said to have become more and more a follower of Jesus. The Jews, simultaneously, became more and more the enemies of Jesus. Surely the purpose of this shift was to separate the followers of Jesus from the Jewish people and thus from those upon whose lives the Romans had placed the cause of the Jewish-Roman War. The Christians played the game that “if your enemy is my enemy then you and I should be friends.” If the Jewish people were responsible for the war and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and if they were also the ones responsible for the death of Jesus, then the followers of Jesus and the Romans had a common enemy and a reason to cooperate.
The strategy worked, but the result was to darken the Christian soul by staining it with the cruel and murderous anti-Semitism that has marked almost all of Christian history. From the Church fathers like Irenaeus, Justin, Polycarp, Chrysostom and Jerome to the Inquisition in which many Jews were burned at the stake, to the expulsion or ghettoization of Jews in every nation of Europe, to Martin Luther, the Reformation leader, who called for the burning of the synagogues, to the Holocaust in which some six million Jews were exterminated, while Pope Pius XII, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany and the nations of the West were looking on with benign neglect, anti-Semitism has been real.
Pontius Pilate became the first of the secular rulers that the Christian Church sought to co-opt into their purposes. Pilate disappeared from Matthew’s text after just 23 verses. That short stay in the gospel, however, is not remove him from the blame for Jesus’ death.
The Romans crucified Jesus. The Jews received the blame for this act. Christianity’s call is never to collect power with which to rule the world. It is, rather, to be a light in the world’s darkness, the yeast or leaven in the world’s bread and salt in the world’s soup. Pilate was a symbol of the Christians’ misunderstanding of their ultimate vocation. We are to bring the presence of God to all of life, not to rule it. We are to love our enemies, not to co-opt secular leaders so that they will help us to destroy our enemies. There is a difference.