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LENT 2010 - The Narrative of the Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus according to John, part I


We read the Passion according to John every Good Friday (on Palm Sunday we read the Passion from the Gospel that is being read on the Sundays of that year – this year it’s Luke’s account).
Mt, Mk and Lk are known as the synoptic gospels.  They follow a similar structure, with some things added from traditions specific to the author and some things taken out.  Sometimes language is edited and different words, phrases and images used to convey the theology specific to the writer (e.g. Matthew writing for converts from Judaism, Luke writing for converts from paganism).
There is something different about the IV Gospel.

  • Christians have always regarded it as being more theological, more symbolic, more spiritual.
  • Even non-Christians appreciate its esoteric character.
  • The IV gospel has suffered because of this: some would regard it as the only gospel worth reading, the others being of lesser quality.  Others would regard it as too removed from human experience, too spiritual.  Jesus seems too disengaged from human experience and his long speeches are too esoteric.  This is most obvious in the account of the trial and crucifixion where Jesus does not suffer, shows no human weakness, and is completely in control of events.
  • Why is the IV Gospel different?  Are parts of it made up?  Perhaps.  Is the author drawing on different traditions about Jesus that Mt, Mk and Lk didn’t know about?  Perhaps.  The IV Gospel was written at a later date, towards the end of the first century, so it represents a later stage in the reflection of the Christian community on the life of Christ.

The IV Gospel is a highly dramatic text.  An atmosphere of struggle pervades the entire Gospel.  Everywhere there is tension.  Right from the very start, there is tension, opposition and struggle: there is no welcome or recognition for the “Word” (1,10-11).  The entire Gospel is presented as a struggle for the Truth, where the forces of darkness constantly try to prevent the Truth from being manifested in Jesus of Nazareth.  The reader becomes engaged in this struggle and constantly finds him/herself faced with a choice which is more of an ultimatum – choose Christ (and therefore Truth) or choose darkness. 
Presenting the IV Gospel in terms of a struggle between light and darkness might cause one to think that we are talking about Star Wars and not a Gospel, as though Jesus were a type of Luke Skywalker and Pilate, Caiaphas, etc. like a type of Darth Vadar trying to lure Jesus to the “dark side”!  There is one essential difference: when we watch Star Wars we are spectators, but when we read the Gospel we are participants!  The reader becomes a participant in a dramatic struggle and cannot avoid having to make a choice either for or against faith and life.  The climax of this drama is the trial before Pilate where the author engages the reader in a final crucial struggle, forcing the reader to decide for or against the Truth.  As readers, we are therefore participants in the unfolding drama – we cannot remain neutral.

The author uses many literary devices to construct his dramatic text:

  • Dramatic tension (already mentioned)
  • Symbol: objects, times and places take on huge symbolic meaning (e.g. the seamless garment, the time of the trial, the place of the trial).  This is where we link with last week’s talk: the Jewish narrative of the saving events of their history, those moments when God intervened to save his people, are taken and given new meaning by John.  The main events are the Passover and the Exodus from Egypt, but also the life of King David.  For the author of the IV Gospel, there is a new Passover, a new Exodus and a new David.  He transforms the old narrative and creates a new narrative.  He does this through the very subtle use of images and symbols.
  • Irony: Not in the sense of humour.  Rather, in the sense that everybody thinks that something is happening but yet something altogether different is happening and we know because we have been given the clues to interpret what is really happening.
  • Allusion: by subtle allusion to biblical texts, the author constructs a new narrative and transforms the meaning of the old narrative.
  • Characters: the different characters draw us into the drama so that we too become actors/participants.  The most significant characters, apart from Jesus, are Pilate and “The Disciple Jesus Loved” / “Beloved Disciple”.

John 18,1-12: arrest in the Garden

  • Jesus and his disciples cross the Kedron valley: Allusion to King David fleeing from Jerusalem following his betrayal by his son Absalom (2 Sam 15,30).  Jesus is the new David, the long awaited Messiah, who will show himself to be the Lord’s anointed, the true King, not just of Israel but of the the world.  Perhaps also an allusion to the crossing of the Red Sea?  Jesus and his followers are taking part in a new exodus, in which God will lead his people through death to new life.
  • Judas and the soldiers (Roman and Jewish) come in darkness and need lanterns, torches and weapons.  Jesus does not need light.  He is the light and is completely in control of what is about to happen.
  • The reply of Jesus “I am” (in Greek ego eimi)Å  Alludes to the revelation of God’s name to Moses in the burning bush: “I am” (i.e. the verbal form rendered as the name Yahweh).  At the sound of the divine name, the powers of death and darkness wilt.  It is only Christ’s willingness to be taken that allows them to arrest him.
  • “Am I not to drink the cup …?”  The synoptics present Jesus as struggling with the cup he has to drink.  John puts Jesus entirely in control.

John 18,13-27: Jesus before Annas and Caiaphas

  • Annas, former high priest (6-15 A.D.) but deposed by the Romans.  His son-in-law Caiaphas succeeded him (18-36 A.D.), but Annas was still considered a man of authority.  The trial before Annas is omitted by the other Gospels which have an extended dialogue between Jesus and Caiaphas (but this is omitted by John).
  • Contrast: Between Jesus and his opponents and between Jesus and Peter
  • In the IV Gospel, witness to the Truth is always a public act, and it costs.
  • Contrast between the fierce public witness of Jesus to the truth and the weakness of the disciple.  Peter had underestimated the power of darkness and the cost of discipleship.  Jesus denies nothing, Peter denies everything.

John 18,28 – 19,16: Jesus before Pilate
Much of what went before in the narrative was directed towards this climactic moment.  Symbolism, dramatic tension and irony are all at their height in this scene but it is primarily through the interplay of the characters that the reader is challenged to decided for or against Truth.  Raymond Brown has said that “nowhere does the interplay between historical tradition and the interests of theology and drama become more apparent than in the scene of the trial before Pilate” (Anchor Bible, p.857).  Everything is being brought to a dramatic conclusion in this scene – not just in terms of John’s plot but also in terms of the history of salvation. 

The plot

The Jews send Jesus to Pilate because they have decided that they want him to be put to death but they are not allowed to administer the death penalty.  Not only that, because of the proximity of the Passover feast, they do not want to defile themselves.  The irony of it: they do not want to render themselves impure before the celebration of the Passover, yet a new passover is taking place.  Jesus is therefore brought before Pilate.  The theme of the trial is kingship but it opens into the theme of truth.  The scene alternates between the exterior of the governor’s palace where the Jews are gathered and the interior where the trial takes place.  During the course of the trial, Pilate questions Jesus about being a king but finds no evidence against him.  Three times he declares Jesus innocent but the Jews demand his death.  Eventually in the face of possible political unrest at a sensitive time, Pilate gives into the demands and hands Jesus over to be crucified.  It is obvious that this scene is at the service of the overall thematic plot of John by the manner in which it addresses the central themes of kingship, truth and the identity of Jesus as well as by implicating the reader in having to make a choice for the truth.  While the trial of Jesus is the obvious trial, Pilate and the Jews are also on trial.

The characters

Usually in John’s Gospel, the characters are at the service of Jesus – they have no role except in relation to Jesus and separated from him they disappear from the account.  Let us look at the characters in this scene: Pilate, the Jews (including the chief priests), the soldiers.

Pilate:  John gives a much more significant role to Pilate than do the Synoptics.  He shuffles between the interior and the exterior of the praetorium, symbolic of his own indecision and thereby challenges the reader to operate his/her own discernment and to choose for or against Jesus, for or against the truth – neutrality is not an option.  If the reader has been trying to steer a neutral course thus far, Pilate will show that this is not possible and that refusal to choose the truth leads to personal tragedy. 
John uses Pilate as a vehicle for his theology of kingship and truth and in a highly ironic twist, Pilate will on more than one occasion proclaim the truth.  It is at the behest of a question by Pilate that Jesus declares that he is king, that his kingship is a witness to the truth and that his birth was the coming into the world of divine truth.  Those who are on the side of truth listen to his voice – this not only challenges Pilate, it challenges the reader to ask if he/she is on the side of truth.  Pilate then asks, “Truth?  What is that?”  Whatever the many possible interpretations of this question, from a narrative perspective, if a question is asked, it deserves an answer and Pilate will go on to be the means by which the answer is revealed.  Three times Pilate declares the innocence of Jesus (18,38; 19,4.6).  Three times he declares Jesus to be King of the Jews (18,39;  19,14.15) and a fourth if we include the inscription on the Cross.  He is the master of ceremonies at the coronation ceremony of the Messiah.  He presents Jesus to the Jews, dressed in purple, crowned with thorns and declares, “Here is the man!”  The dramatic context lends importance to this declaration and it is hard not to see here an echo of a messianic title (c.f. Is 53,3;  Zach 6,12-13;  1 Sam 9,17).  Pilate is effectively saying to the Jews, “Here is the one in whom you hope” and Israel’s long wait for its messianic king comes to an ironic fulfilment. 
The account notes that Pilate was frightened when the Jews said that Jesus had said he was the Son of God.  So he asks the very johannine question: “Where do you come from?” (1,38;  8,14;  9,29-30).  The implied reader knows immediately the answer to this question by virtue of his/her pact with the implied author – Jesus is the “Word” and comes from God. 

Pilate then brings Jesus out onto the balcony.  The ambiguity of the johannine account allows the mock coronation cermony to be carried one step further: the text is unclear as to whether Pilate or Jesus sit at the Dallage (i.e. seat of judgement).  Pilate may well have made Jesus sit there in mockery and then sarcastically declared to the Jews: “here is your king”!  This would be totally in keeping with the irony of John.  Pilate taunts the Jews, “Will I crucify your king?” and in a final ironic twist, the Jews renounce their faith and their messianic hope and declare, “We have no king except Caesar”.  Raymond Brown captures the irony and the drama: “Israel had proudly claimed Yahweh as its king (Judg 8,23;  1 Sam 8,7).  From the time of Nathan’s promise to David (2 Sam 7,11-16), according to the theology of Jerusalem, God’s kingship was made visible in the rule of the Davidic king whom he took as his son (Ps 2,7).  In post-exilic times a mystique had grown up around the unique anointed king of the House of David, the future Messiah, who was to come and establish God’s rule on earth (Is 26,13).  But now hundreds of years of waiting had been cast aside: “the Jews” had proclaimed the half-mad exile of Capri (i.e Tiberius) to be their king.  “The Jews” had renounced their status as God’s people.  It is an ironical touch of the writer to have “the Jews” renounce the Covenant at the moment when their priests are beginning the preparations for the feast that annually recalls God’s deliverance of his people” (Anchor Bible p.895).
The final stage in the coronation ceremony comes on Calvary.  Jesus is “enthroned” on the cross and once again it is Pilate who is at the service of the truth and who declares (as opposed to the Synoptics) “Jesus the Nazarean, King of the Jews”.  It is written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek – it is therefore a universal declaration and John mentions that it was seen by many Jews.

The Jews:  Much has already been said about the Jews in the analysis of the Pilate character.  They too are unwitting servants of the Truth in John’s gospel in that they allow the Truth of Jesus to emerge.  The trial before Caiaphas is not very developped and in terms of the plot seems to serve only as a reminder to the reader that it was Caiaphas who had said that “it is better that one man die for the people” (18,14; c.f 11,50).  By having Jesus brought before Pilate they are choosing crucifixion as the preferred form of death as opposed to stoning which they could administer themselves.  They think crucifixion will disgrace Jesus.  They do not know (but the reader does!) that this is the chosen form of death by Jesus who has stated that he must be “lifted up” as Moses lifted up the serpent.
The Jews illustrate the meaning of the words of Jesus in the dialogue with Nicodemus (3,19-21): “This is judgement: the light has come into the world and men have preferred darkness to light … but he who does the truth comes into the light”.  And also the reference to judgement according to truth in 8,16.  The Jews therefore judge themselves by their refusal to accept Jesus as the light and the truth and by their rejection of him as King.
Pilate – always a servant of the truth – proclaims in language that is weighted with theology: “your own nation and your chief priests have handed you over to me” (18,35)
The irony is massive: the Jews will not enter the praetorium because they do not wish to be defiled before they spill the blood of the lamb in remembrance of the covenant.  Unwittingly, they are about to spill the blood of the Lamb who will establish a new covenant.
When Pilate brings out Jesus crowned with thorns and clothed in purple and presents him in messianic terms, “Here is the man!”, the Jews (i.e. the chief priests and guards) shout “Crucify!” (19,6).  Later, however, when Pilate once again presents Jesus (presumably still dressed in purple with crown of thorns) and presents him to the Jews with the words “Here is your king”, the Jews shout “Crucify him!” (19,15).  Is there a significance in this slight difference in detail?  Perhaps John wishes to intensify the atmosphere of impending doom.  It is also possible that the first call for crucifixion wasn’t so much a call for the death of Jesus as a call for an end to be put to the messianic hope of the people.  The second call for crucifixion is a call for an end to be put to the specific messianic hope as expressed in Jesus of Nazareth.  Not only, therefore, do the Jews reject Jesus – they also reject their basic messianic hope and thereby their very identity and status as the people of God.
As already mentioned, the final ironic twist comes when the Chief Priests declare, “we have no King except Caesar!” (19,15).  The very people who daily in the Temple proclaim Yahweh as King have apostasised.
By their rejection of Jesus, the Jews have shown that he is the truth because they have brought judgement on themselves.  Perhaps most importantly from a literary perspective, the Jews are a metaphor for the reader who rejects Jesus – by rejecting Jesus you bring judgement on yourself.

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