Pontius, Our Pilot – Part 1

What-is-truth02To those who have, of late, recited to me our old evangelical adage – that the scriptures of the Bible are, despite their manifold authors, truthful and without contradiction – I have countered with my standing response: where would you like to begin?

Today we shall turn to one of our preeminent but unacknowledged allies, one who stands as exemplar of the sorrowing fact that the biblical writers were rather making it up as they went along – our old dear villain, Pontius Pilate. Just like Lazarus and Paul, Pontius can help us to pilot up-current, back through the Channel of No Return, to break the siren spell of rose-tinted apologetics. For the New Testament scenes that feature Pilate offer a front-line case study in non-historical nonsense, the crafting of a literary foil to our own Jesus, and a legendizing inflation of the Nazarene. And Pilate – just like Lazarus – wags a heavy finger at the masked men who penned our Gospels, particularly the fourth, whom we may redub as St. John, the Liar. Yet before all is done, Joseph Smith will re-enact for us just how a tawdry death is exonerated by the pen, and how a martyr is born.

A Succinct Scope

Though much has been stated about the scenes and role played by Pilate, here I shall keep the focus on two primary areas:

  1. The dialogue between Jesus and Pilate
  2. The reluctance of Pilate in judging Jesus

Mark’s Mute Messiah

For the first, we need look to no references beyond the Bible itself. In Mark, the first narrative account of Jesus’ life written, Pilate examines Jesus. The nature of their discussion is succinct, since Jesus essentially refuses to answer Pilate’s questions. During the course of the interview, Jesus makes only a single short statement – a mere two words in the Greek. And Mark makes Pilate’s frustration at the Silent Jesus clear:

And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” And the chief priests accused him of many things. And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.

(Mark 15:1-5 ESV)

From a historical point of view, the reader should ask a very sensible question at this point: how does Mark know what passed between Jesus and Pilate at all? The type of interview that took place was typically non-public, likely taking place in Pilate’s offices. Mark never tells us how word of the proceedings came to be known at all. Apart from any identifiable witnesses or sources of information, one could be forgiven for thinking that Mark was either guessing at the trial dynamics or working from rumors that may have passed around at second or third hand from Roman soldiers or Jewish accusers.

Again we are in no position to say what exactly happened at Jesus’ trial before Pilate. His followers who later told stories about it were not there, and the principal participants, Pilate and the chief priests, would not have made themselves available later for interviews. I should also point out that the Gospel accounts of the large crowds at the trial do not pass the criteria of contextual credibility or dissimilarity.

Ehrman, Bart D. (1999-07-26). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (p. 222). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Yet setting aside (for the moment) the question of historical plausibility, there were good theological reasons for Mark to craft the story the way he did. Jesus was believed to be the Messiah, and a Jesus who did not answer the charges against him would comport with the prophecy of Isaiah, as indeed the author of Acts indicates:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.

(Isaiah 53:7 ESV)

The manner in which Mark portrays the scene would confirm this prophecy, whether Mark actually knew what Pilate and Jesus said or not.

Synoptic Repetition: Matthew and Luke

The silent portrait of Jesus was reaffirmed by the next gospel written, Matthew. He was, of course, working with the gospel of Mark in hand, giving an expanded (and edited) narrative of the earlier account. But his description of the trial remains nearly the same:

But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

(Matthew 27:14 ESV)

In both Mark and Matthew, Jesus effectively takes the 5th.

By the writing of the third gospel, Luke, the emphasis on silence began to wane. Luke portrays Jesus in much the same way, but the examination breaks off with new discussion of Pilate attempting to sidestep a ruling and passing Jesus off to Herod – a new parenthetical event absent from the other three accounts.

Nevertheless, in three gospel tellings, we have a Silent Jesus, who says only two words to Pilate during the entire examination. And that’s how we know Jesus fulfilled Isaiah. Right?

St. John, the Liar

And then comes John. Dear, dear John, who proves ever fluent in his poetic aggrandizements, his mythical embellishments, his carefree coloring outside the lines. Apart from John, we would not have Christianity as we know it. Without John, we could not have a Divine Jesus, we would not have water turned into wine, and we would not have the great “I am” sayings. Nor indeed would we have the confected tale about Lazarus’ resurrection – nor even the existence of Lazarus, for that matter. Because the other three gospel writers have not the slightest knowledge of these things. John’s innovations leave us sitting in a rather awkward chair – for if John is truthful in his gospel, then either the earlier gospel writers were derelict in their portrayals, or they were ignorant of some rather critical information about Jesus.

If John is truthful.

And here, Pontius can help. For in John, our Silent Jesus is downright chatty with Pilate, making a range of theological points through several exchanges. Pilate is no longer the historical judge, but a literary softball pitcher, lobbing slow pitches for a verbose Jesus to swat over the wall. Jesus’ multiple responses outflank his hapless government examiner in every exchange:

Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” … Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” … Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” … Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”

(John 18:34, 36, 37, & 19:11 ESV)

What do these fox-clever responses have in common? They have the shared quality of being entirely unknown to the other (and earlier) gospel writers. Let us return to the sensible question asked about Mark earlier: how does John propose to know what Jesus said? On whose second-hand recounting is this conversation based? Someone present in the room would need to have told John. And here is the sticking point: why didn’t the prior three gospel writers have access to the same information? Mark did not know about this extended exchange. Matthew was ignorant of the theological points that John puts in Jesus’ mouth. Even Luke – who loves to include dramatic narrative content – apparently had no access to whatever eye-witnesses related these events to John. And the gospel of John was completed last. Everyone who had actually been present for the trial was, by that time, dead.

What portrait do they paint? They indicate that Jesus, and not Pontius, controlled the engagement. Far from having Jesus take the 5th, John has Mouthy Jesus showing up Pilate – something to which the prior three accounts never give hint. The Jesus of the synoptic gospels doesn’t lecture his judge or drop any theological three-pointers from half-court.

Like a struggling writer yearning to craft a breakout work, John simply held nothing back in the padding he afforded to his stories. He seems discontent with anything short of grand theater, leading many of his scenes take on the dimensions of runaway parable (think: Lazarus). Even as early as the 2nd century, Origen nodded to the Johannine problems with the kindest possible phrasing:

John does not always tell the truth literally; he always tells the truth spiritually.

~ Origen

A relief, to be sure. Unless we want to know what Pilate actually said or did. Or what Jesus actually said or did. Seat shifting follows.

Nevertheless, the literary brilliance of John cannot be understated, for he wards off such questioning using an old device. John places a quite sensible question in the mouth of the villain:

For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

(John 18:37-38 ESV)

The irony reverberates in the historical hollows of our Jesus stories – we are confronted with four versions of truth – nay, of “gospel truth” – regarding what happened at the trial of Jesus. And in arriving at the unremitting embellishment of John’s fourth telling, We The Readers really ought to be asking – what indeed is “gospel truth”? But this question has been embarrassed away before We The Readers can ask it: by the blindness of the villain, dear Pontius. The Truth stands before you, and you ask, what is truth?

The myth of the Garden warns us off from seeking forbidden knowledge. John’s myth of Pilate embarrasses any serious question about his assertions of embodied Truth. We The Readers ought to ask the unknown author of Genesis: forbidden knowledge according to whom? We The Readers ought to ask the unknown author of John: embodied truth according to whom?

In this case, we have the “truth” according one who, per Origen, doesn’t always tell the truth literally.

We have the right – even the duty – to ask such questions and to persist until we find answers.

Can’t All Be Right

The Christian reader has a choice of paths from this divergence in the wood. We may assume that the first three accounts were essentially correct, and that Jesus was indeed a model of quiet resignation at his trial before Pilate. Yet this would mean conceding the corollary accuracy indictments against John – our dearest John, who grants us the incarnation, the way, the truth, and the life. On pain of relinquishing such tightly clutched prizes, one could instead prefer to believe John and excuse the somewhat misleading omissions of the three earlier accounts. But doing so would mean a loss of Isaiah’s prophecy. Jesus cannot have been both the silent figure of Isaiah and the mouthy figure of John’s gospel concurrently.

Happily, such conundrums rarely trouble the faithful, who so reliably find means by which to either forget or embrace contradiction, thereafter to resume again the mantra that the Bible is without error or discrepancy. And the Jesus of faith, whether a viable historical reality or not, remains an amalgamation of the divergent gospel accounts through the magic of what we call “harmonization.” As does Pilate, or any figure therein appearing.

CONTINUED IN PART 2 >>

Related Sources:

  • Thomas, Robert L, and Stanley N. Gundry. A Harmony of the Gospels, NASB. Harper Collins, 1978.
  • Price, Robert M., John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James D.G. Dunn, and Darrel L. Bock. The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Edited by James K. Beilby, & Paul R. Eddy. IVP Academic, 2009.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). HarperOne, 2010.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. USA: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Borg, Marcus J. Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written. HarperOne , 2012.
  • Bart Ehrman. Lecture on Misquoting Jesus.
  • Debate: Bart Ehrman versus Craig Evans.

Comments

  1. archaeopteryx1 says:

    truthful and without contradiction

    Are they reading the same book as I am?

    Like

  2. Excellent stuff. It’s going to take me a while to piece through the next 3 parts, but keepers they are.

    Matt, have you ever engaged Prayson?

    Like

  3. You have such a way with words. I laughed out loud repeatedly. 🙂

    Considering your source list, I’m figuring you’re not the first person to raise these points. Do you know how Christians/apologists have responded to them?

    Also, do you know what Ehrman means when he says, “I should also point out that the Gospel accounts of the large crowds at the trial do not pass the criteria of contextual credibility or dissimilarity.“? (Emphasis mine.)

    Like

    • Well, thanks. 🙂

      No, I’m certainly not the first to raise these points. However, the major points can sometimes get lost in a laundry list of inconsistencies. For example, I decided to focus only on the scenes with Pilate, neglecting the examination before the Jewish authorities – much to be said there as well. I also stopped short of talking through the inconsistencies of the crucifixion accounts, etc. I wanted to focus on the Pilate connections, since we have notable outsider information about him that we lack for Jesus himself. I also wanted to bring in the comparison with Joseph Smith, etc. And for me, this really all started from the Isaiah + John connection.

      So yes, these points have been raised many times, but I hope to have struck at least a partially originally blend and focal view.

      Harmonizing attempts by apologists tend to veer the focus… instead of conceding just how different the scene portraits actually are, they attempt to argue from a harmony perspective… that is, lets try to find technicalities and such so we can claim the accounts, while different, are not *necessarily* or intractable contradictory. And if they aren’t, well then, we can just sum all the stories together into a MEGA-GOSPEL version. The Fifth Gospel of whole truth. This doesn’t work for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Matthew and Luke very deliberately change and edit Mark’s content in their own… almost like they think he got it wrong when you look at the details. But its all an argument “not to lose”, and its a latitude not afforded to any other historical studies.

      As to Ehrman’s criteria, these are standard criteria for historical studies. Contextual Credibility = does it make sense for the time and culture and practices of the day. Dissimilarity = “The criterion states that if a saying attributed to Jesus is dissimilar to the Jewish traditions of his time and also from the early Church that followed him, it is likely to be authentic.” (wiki)

      Overall, however, there are three main scholarly groups: (1) Inerrantist believers, (2) Critical believers, (3) Critical non-believers. The second and third groups (guys like Craig Evans and Bart Ehrman, respectively) all concede the historical issues with the texts. Only the first group insists on elaborate harmonization and zero contradictions are in the first group. Critical historical research only really happens in groups 2 and 3, where the gospels are treated as historical documents that require serious scrutiny to establish what most likely happened. Maybe that helps.

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    • One other point to make about harmonization attempts in general is that they tend to focus on definitions and technicalities. For the silence question, care may be taken to define what that means… “well, it didn’t mean silence, it meant he wouldn’t fight the charges.” Or suggestions like, “well, that only meant before his Jewish accusers, not the Romans, because the Jews were really responsible.” Or it only applied to his behavior while being scourged or crucified or whatnot.

      This definitional jockeying is all fine, but its clear that the spirit of John’s account simply doesn’t align with the spirit of the Isaiah account. And nobody doing a cold read of John would think that Jesus looked/sounded much like Isaiah.

      Its like on the Nativities. The two accounts don’t match at nearly any level, and the travel itineraries don’t square at all. To harmonize, you have to invent/insert an additional house move or two, and so they will argue that the accounts are therefore feasibly compatible, even though they don’t approach telling similar stories. But to square the circle, you are left “adding to scripture”, which leads to its own seat shifting.

      Its fun how they deal with the geneaologies of Jesus too, or the day on which he was crucified, etc. Its a runaway game of track covering in the end.

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      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        You left out the discovery of the empty tomb. Anybody ever wonder, if he was magic enough to come back to life, why the stone had to be rolled away for him to get out? Couldn’t he have just blinked, or wiggled his nose, or something and be transported out? Boy, THAT would have opened some eyes!

        Like

        • Yes, so I did. I’ve been thinking seriously about doing a post on the Minimal Facts argument, and tackling that head on. Shame I have a day job.

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        • Clarification: yes, I did leave it out, didn’t I?

          Sorry if that last comment was ambiguous.

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        • Charity says:

          Hey Arch and Matt, I believe Mak went into the whole “empty tomb” account some months back on his blog. He basically looked at the obvious flaws of that story, noting that all “eye witnesses” only had second hand information.

          Matt, reading this series has me thinking about the whole Garden of Gethsemane story. Only three disciples were with him in the dark. They all fall into a deep sleep, yet we have written record of Jesus sweating and crying so intensely he’s bleeding. Who would have heard him or seen him do this? And if one of the three guys had witnessed this, why didn’t he or they console Jesus in some way? So strange!

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        • “You left out the discovery of the empty tomb. Anybody ever wonder, if he was magic enough to come back to life, why the stone had to be rolled away for him to get out? Couldn’t he have just blinked, or wiggled his nose, or something and be transported out? Boy, THAT would have opened some eyes!”

          After the resurrection, when he walked around appearing to people, he walked through walls and locked doors, so I’m guessing a boulder wouldn’t have been a problem. No, I think the stone had to be rolled away because it was women who “discovered” the empty tomb and, well, how were they gonna get that rock moved? Let’s not quibble over the fact that the were going there to anoint his body with spices. How were they planning to get in to begin with?

          Like

        • When he was on the cross, his clothes were divided by lot. He left the material he was buried in at the tomb. Did he run into a 24 hour Woolworths to buy clothes or god went naked after leaving the grave?

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      • Overall, however, there are three main scholarly groups: (1) Inerrantist believers, (2) Critical believers, (3) Critical non-believers….

        This definitional jockeying is all fine, but its clear that the spirit of John’s account simply doesn’t align with the spirit of the Isaiah account. And nobody doing a cold read of John would think that Jesus looked/sounded much like Isaiah.

        As I read what you wrote in this “Pilot” series (admittedly, without counter-arguments), it seems pretty damning for both groups 1 and 2.

        From a distance and within the framework of Christian thought, there are many differences of “presentation” of the stories of Jesus that I could likely accept–even the synoptics’ portrayl of (mostly) silent, vs. John’s portrayl of the shrewd–if that were the end of the story.

        However, as you noted, the Bible itself (in Acts 8:32 quoting Isaiah 53:7) claims Jesus’ silent treatment as an instance of prophecy fulfillment–and yet this very thing is contested by John’s portrayl. As I search and try to discern whether Jesus was resurrected as the Bible claims, I can/could “allow” for many “gymnastics” to harmonize other discrepancies, but I don’t see how either category (1 or 2) of believers can claim enough consistency in this case to have faith in the Bible’s claims of prophecy fulfillment, internal consistency, and thus its overall trustworthiness.

        And then you proceed to bolster your claim of internal biblical inconsistency with external evidence from a disinterested third party (Josephus)–whom, IIRC, Christian apologists also use to support other claims!

        All of this leads me to a few questions. I will wonder aloud…

        To Matt (1&2):

        1. What are your thoughts on inviting opposing criticism on this series of yours–perhaps even from notable scholars? (The idea here is that I perceive a strong argument, and I wonder if it will withstand the same sort of scrutiny to which I am attempting to expose my own long-held beliefs.)

        2. To 1, perhaps we can/should begin with someone(s) lower on the totem pole. Ideas?

        To any/all/none (3):

        3. In a broader view: what other prophecy fulfillments do Christians (apologists) claim as proof of Jesus’ legitimacy (/deity/resurrection/etc.), and to what extent do they stand up to scrutiny?

        Like

        • @ratamacue0,

          Sorry, seem to have let this comment slip through. I think these are some astute questions/thoughts.

          “…I don’t see how either category (1 or 2) of believers can claim enough consistency in this case to have faith in the Bible’s claims of prophecy fulfillment, internal consistency, and thus its overall trustworthiness.”

          I think trustworthiness is a major point to all of this. We’re being told a big fish story, after all, but being told that in this special case, its all actually true, and that these particular tale weavers were telling the gospel truth.

          One thing that may help is to watch a debate between Category 2 and 3 scholars. Try the Evans/Ehrman one here:

          Yes, the internal/external collapse points work to erase credibility. Its the same everywhere though… the Exodus account is internally discrepant, and it turns out to be falsifiable on the evidences outside the bible too. Same with the creation accounts. And the nativity accounts. Its the same everywhere. We can readily find both internal and external collapse points, and these are pervasive.

          As to your numbered points:

          1. Notable scholars will argue with each other, and we get to watch that through the books and publications. But I doubt very much than any would spend their time responding to one small-time blogger. 🙂 But I’m entirely public here… anybody can comment.

          2. There are other bloggers out there, we’ll see.

          3. The most common encapsulation I would think is the Minimal Facts argument for the resurrection, popularized by Habermas, Craig, Licona, etc. They are called minimal for a reason – these are the points they feel they can nail down with the most certainty while being sufficient to certify the central claim of salvation. But I don’t believe these stand up to scrutiny at all. (1) The minimal facts don’t meet the requirements to be facts (i.e., they are themselves explanations of facts, and even so they do not enjoy anything like scholarly consensus). (2) Even if they did, the resurrection is still not the most likely explanation of them.

          But once again, I’ll just point it all back to The Fall. It didn’t happen. That’s not where evil and suffering and sin and death came from. The good old fashioned theodicy that permeates Paul and the Gospels is thoroughly rooted in very bad assumptions. Humanity has problems, but that diagnosis is false. And since that isn’t our disease, the proposed cure becomes nonsensical and irrelevant. We may as well be seeking a broad-area crop spray to banish the current Fairy Blight which the country is suffering.

          My 2 cents…

          Like

  4. Charity says:

    http://maasaiboys.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/for-the-ark/

    Hey guys, this is it. Hope everyone has an amazing week.

    Like

  5. @JERICHO BRISANCE

    “From a historical point of view, the reader should ask a very sensible question at this point: how does Mark know what passed between Jesus and Pilate at all?”

    It is a good question; a good idea.

    Like

  6. @JERICHO BRISANCE
    “or (Mark) working from rumors that may have passed around at second or third hand from Roman soldiers or Jewish accusers.”

    I agree with you.

    All NT Gospels consist of the second and or third hand (nobody know for sure how many hands?) information or rumors.

    Like Matthew says that all the disciples of Jesus fled away from the site of Crucifixion of Jesus; then either he himself was not a disciple of Jesus to narrate the events or he was narrating it on the “evidence” of rumors he liked most.

    Regards

    Like

    • Amazing. The NT is just like the Qu’ran in this regard. All made up.
      Written by liars with a political agenda that included war, genocide, misogyny, oppression and all those other lovely Human Rights traits that are the ‘Mark’ (sic) of every good religion. And with Islam you get to blow shit up! How cool is that?

      Like

      • No matter what we imagine about the original textual origins, redaction certainly took place later. And how old are the oldest extant copies? How much happened between version 1 and version X? Where is the paper trail? Where is the certification of origin?

        These are all entirely unanswerable.

        Like

        • Matthew uses around 600 verses of Mark’s text. Why?
          At my school this was called copying. As an author it is called Plagiarism.

          If you do it with religious text it is called “Inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

          We know the writers weren’t eyewitnesses.
          We know the gospels are not autographs
          We know the names were tagged on later…..by whom?
          We also have a pretty good idea why there are four gospels.
          We know ‘Mark’ was fiddled with.

          At what point in time will the Catholic Church tell the truth ( officially) I wonder?
          .

          Like

    • Yup.

      Like

  7. @archaeopteryx1 says: March 22, 2014 at 4:19 pm
    “You left out the discovery of the empty tomb.”

    Jesus could himself roll out the stone and get out of the tomb; after treatment of his wounds by the physicians in the tomb; that could be the “mystery” of the empty tomb.

    Regards

    Like

    • But per Luke, Jesus could pass through walls. The more consistent explanation would be that the tomb would be found shut, and when opened found to be empty. But if it was found open, that sounds a bit more like other people opened it before the women got there.

      Like

      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        “The more consistent explanation would be that the tomb would be found shut, and when opened found to be empty.”

        Now if THAT had happened,even I should have considered it a miracle!

        Like

    • archaeopteryx1 says:

      You’re right, Paarsurrey, I had forgotten that they had stuffed physicians into the tomb with him.
      BTW, how is that proof coming along that there is no other god but allah?

      Like

  8. Reblogged this on A Tale Unfolds.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] << Continued from Part 1 […]

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  2. […] recent post series on Pontius Pilate illustrates at greater length that the gospel writers were “men with faces”. They got […]

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  3. […] I would have to include the posts on dinosaur blood, the New Testament timeline, Justin Martyr, and Pontius Pilate as strong […]

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Michael Seidel, writer

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