Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bennema on Pontius Pilate

In his analysis of Pontius Pilate in the Fourth Gospel (Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John [Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009], 183–89), Cornelis Bennema makes an interesting argument. Scholars sometimes describe the Johannine Pilate as weak, lily-livered, indecisive, easily manipulated, etc. This, of course, conflicts with the portrait of Pilate in Josephus and Philo, where he appears strong, cruel, and ultimately too harsh to remain in charge of Judea (Rome removed Pilate from power in 36 CE).

Bennema, however, recognizes (I think rightly) that Pilate in the Fourth Gospel isn't the push-over some have read him to be. Bennema refers to Pilate's "politically motivated game of mocking and manipulating 'the Jews,'" by which Pilate gets "the Jews" "to admit their allegiance to Rome" (187). I think this is exactly right. On the next page Bennema explains,
In our reading of the Johannine Pilate we differ from the majority of scholars who portray Pilate as weak and indecisive. While we generally agree with scholars who view Pilate as a strong character, they seem to overrate Pilate's control over the situation by downplaying the force of 19:12 where "the Jews" finally get a grip on Pilate. Pilate is a competent, calculating politician who wants to show "the Jews" he is in charge while also trying to be professional in handling Jesus' case. But he is unable to achieve either aim because he underestimates the determination and shrewdness of "the Jews." (188)

I imagine Bennema would include me among those who "seem to overrate Pilate's control over the situation," since I'm not persuaded by his reading of John 19.12. I don't think Pilate genuinely sought to release Jesus out of any appreciation for Jesus' innocence; I do think that Pilate simply wanted to reinforce for "the Jews" that he doesn't do their bidding, even if he does ultimately put to death the man they handed over to him.

And I'm not sure what Bennema means when he refers to Pilate's efforts to be "professional." Nothing I've seen about the expression of Roman power and its domination over subjugated populations suggests professionalism was ever a concern for those in charge. Even so, I am reminded of a description of Pontius Pilate I wrote for my freshman Gospel Narratives course:
[According to the gospels,] The Jewish authorities only wanted to get rid of Jesus. Pilate probably wanted to get rid of Jesus as well, but he also needed to avoid the impression that he did what the Jewish authorities told him to. When we recognize that Pilate most likely did not want to release Jesus but rather wanted to affirm and strengthen the Jews’ subjection to his authority, the significance of his actions changes considerably. . . . When we re-read the accounts of Jesus’ trial before Pilate with an eye out for [the story's] political dynamics, it becomes clear that the evangelists portray the Jewish leaders on trial as much as Jesus is on trial. The difference, of course, is that Jesus refuses to acknowledge Rome’s power and is handed over to be crucified, while the Jewish leaders proclaim their loyalty to Caesar and deny the reign of Israel’s God.

Just my two cents.

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