American churches cannot make up their minds. Do they serve God or an Uncle Sam who for a long time has been looking a great deal like Mammon? On patriotic holidays the choirs sing that bloodthirsty and nonsensical anthem to war and slaughter ironically titled “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and pastors give sermons extolling, depending on the political party with which his church is affiliated, the Marxist dream of a world without borders or the capitalist obsession with success. What Marxists and Capitalists can agree on is that, politically speaking, democracy is the ultimate good and the one political system compatible with Christianity.
Unfortunately, they find little evidence for their political faith in the Scriptures. The Old Testament does contain warning against turning a decentralized tribal confederacy into a national monarchy, but once the Jewish kingdom is established, King David and King Solomon are held up as Jewish heroes of the highest order. When Christians turn to New Testament, democracy is not so much as mentioned, while obedience to the Roman emperor is enjoined by St. Paul. When there is an apparent reference to the will of the people, as in the accounts of the Passion, the popular will would appear to be manipulable, misguided, and—if we are to be completely frank—evil.
Jesus is apprehended by agents of the Jewish leadership, though on what legal authority, it is hard to say. Witnesses are suborned to slander Him, and when He admits who He is, they ignore Roman law and abuse Him physically. Let us look just at the account in Mark 14.
Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death. And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him, and to say unto him, Prophesy: and the servants did strike him with the palms of their hands.
The High Priest and his henchman are perfectly aware that they are treading on dangerous ground. They have no right to impose a death sentence even for a capital crime, much less for a sin against Judaic correctness. To protect themselves, they have to send Jesus for judgment to Pontius Pilate. Pilate is the Roman prefect—certainly not the governor, since Judaea is managed by in an ad hoc arrangement by a lower level official (of the equestrian order) under the authority of the Governor of Syria. Since Judaea is subject to violent outbreaks and rebellions, the prefect has to be somewhat deferential toward the Jewish religious establishment.
Pilate is a model bureaucrat in every sense. He knows right from wrong, and he appears to entertain little respect for what most Romans regarded as the strange religion of the Jews: Tacitus argued that it was not a religion but a superstition. In John’s account, the weary prefect tells the Jews to judge Jesus by their own laws. But, as they remind him, they do not have the authority to impose the death penalty—though that will not deter the leadership from murdering Stephen. When Pilate returns to the investigation, we have this almost amusing exchange:
Pilate: Are you the King of the Jews?
Jesus: Are you saying this on your own or have
others said this about me?
Pilate: What do you take me for, a Jew?
[Big laughs, as I imagine, from the Roman staff.]
Your own people and the chief priests
have handed you over/betrayed you to me.
Jesus: My kingdom is not of this world…
Jesus’ declaration would have been quite reassuring to the Romans. At last, a Jewish leader who does not want to start a revolution against Roman authority! There is a later story claiming that the Emperor Tiberius was so impressed that he wanted to include Jesus in the Roman pantheon, but the Senate refused, pointing out that he had been executed as a criminal. Whatever the truth of that story, Jesus’ declaration looks to be an explicit rebuttal of all the attempts that will be made throughout history to equate Christianity and the Church with one or another political order, whether monarchy, democracy, liberal-capitalist or socialist. Jesus tamely submits himself to Roman authority, because, as he says, such authority derives ultimately from the Father. So much for “Christian anarchism.”
In all the accounts, Pilate comes across as a reasonable and responsible representative of Roman authority. The trouble is that, like most bureaucrats, he feels himself vulnerable. In John, Pilate finds no basis of a charge against Christ, and in Luke the prefect is warned by his wife not to do anything against that just man.
Then why is He crucified? The first and most obvious reason is that the Jewish leaders threaten to denounce Pilate: “If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend.” Pilate, apparently Sejanus’ protégé, would have known that Tiberius was basically a just and competent ruler, but also that he was suspicious almost to the point of paranoia. The trial is taking place about A.D.30, and only 11 years earlier Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus had died suspiciously in Syria, poisoned—so the widow claimed—by the governor on the orders of the emperor and/or his mother. (I don’t happen to believe it, but many must have). When things got hot for the governor, he had to commit suicide to save his family. If the events take place in 30, it is only a year after the fall of Pilate’s patron Sejanus. If a bit earlier, it was still a very tense period for Tiberius’ top official. Pilate, in other words, has every reason to be afraid.
The Jewish hierarchy—and the crowd that does its bidding—take the initiative in demanding the crucifixion. This responsibility is an historical fact and part of Christian tradition, regardless of what anyone has ever believed or not believed of the bloodguilt of the Jews. Obviously, all Jews cannot bear such a bloodguilt. For one thing, something like a third or a fourth converted to Christianity, while many others must have been indifferent or even sympathetic to Jesus’ teachings without being willing to go all the way. There are Jews today who are quite sympathetic to Christianity without, apparently, feeling the need to convert. To blame such people is akin to hating Russians or Germans because Communist or Nazi leaders did wicked things or to accept the racist superstitions of American leftists who are still blaming dispossessed white males for every misfortune suffered by minorities.
Nonetheless, the Gospels do hold official Judaism—not the Judaism of the prophets but the Temple hierarchy primarily responsible. The leaders not only rejected the Messiah when He came but even overruled ordinary principles of law and justice in order to secure His execution. They refused to heed the wise warnings of Gamaliel, not to second-guess either God or history. It was not Paul who created the breach between Christian and non-Christian Jews, but Caiaphas who declared that it was better for on man to die for his people, an intrinsically immoral argument when applied to anyone but oneself.
If John the Disciple, a Jew himself, stresses the responsibility of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, Mark lays emphasis on another political element, though his is perfectly consistent with the other accounts:
“And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified.”
The Authorized Version is a perfectly good translation, but let us look a bit closer at the words. “To content the people” might be more literally translated as “to make it adequate or satisfying [hikanon] to the mob [ochlos]. Here the contrast is not between imperial justice and the Jewish hierarchy but between traditional Roman legal authority (republican as well as imperial), which always strove to limit excessive popular influence over politics, and the will of the people depicted here as mob rule. Setting aside the question of Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God, Roman law, if allowed to have its way unimpeded by democracy, would have spared Him. It is the will of the people that crucifies Him. It is a good illustration of Aristotle’s warning that democracy—and even law in a democracy—can be as tyrannical as the whim of any dictator.
It is then a mistake to conclude from these accounts either that Judaism—or simply “the Jews”—is uniquely responsible for killing our Savior or that imperial-style monarchy is better than representative government or “democracy”—whatever that word can mean today in the imperial United States. Rather, we can use the Gospels to correct our all-too-human tendency to equate the Christian faith with whatever political system or party we happen to belong to or agree with. Indeed, it is a concatenation of evil political tendencies, when the will of the people is confirmed by a cowardly administrator to kill a just man.
Luke’s account drives this lesson home. Learning that Jesus is not a Judaean but a Galilean—and there are very important implications to this distinction—Pilate sent Jesus to be interrogated by Herod Antipas, who, like others in his family, probably found Judaism amusing. The Herods were not Jews but Nabatean Arabs, and Herod Antipas’ father Herod the Great used to entertain his guests by looking down into the mysteries of the Temple.
Herod Antipas, in interviewing the Christ, hoped to witness a miracle, but, even though he was disappointed, he could find no justification for an execution. He was, however, apparently gratified to have been consulted, because, as Luke tells us [23:12]: “And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.” In this little episode, Roman authority joined forces with an unscrupulous semi-Jewish kinglet to kowtow to a religious establishment they did not respect and gratify a mob. Agreeing that Christ is guiltless, they, for motives of fear and desire to hold onto power, hand Him over to be cruelly executed.
It is a small lesson to learn from the Gospel accounts of the Passion, and most of us should have learned it from the Psalmist’s “Put not your trust in princes” nor in the men who seek to hold authority, for “in them there is no salvation.” The Septuagint’s soteria means both preservation of life and, more broadly, the physical, moral, and spiritual wholeness and safety that will be translated as “salvation” in the New Testament. Hellenistic Rulers were frequently referred to as “Soter,” because they preserved and defended the lives and well-being of their people. It was Christ and his disciples who taught us not to seek our salvation or even our well-being from the Herods and Pilates of this world.
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