Thursday, December 6, 2007

Anti-Judaism in Mark's Roman Trial Narrative

by Ioanes Rakhmat

The question, to what extent do the gospel trial narratives represent a seedbed of Christian anti-Judaism, should be answered by examining the text of the Roman trial narratives of the NT canonical gospels themselves. With regard to the death of Jesus, do the authors of the gospels set the Roman governor Pilate totally free from blame and judge the Jewish leaders and populace as the culprits? Do all the Roman trial narratives of the canonical gospels contain sharply anti-Jewish elements? This is the first of four studies concerning elements of anti-Judaism in the Roman trial narratives of the NT gospels, focusing on the Roman trial narrative of the Gospel of Mark.

In Mark’s Gospel, throughout the Roman trial of Jesus (15:1-15) the interchange between Pilate and Jesus takes place only once, in 15:2. It is noted there that the prefect, in accordance with the Roman trial procedure, commenced his investigation with a straightforward question to the prisoner,
[1] Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (pars. Matthew 27:11; Luke 23:3; John 18:33); and to this query, Jesus ambiguously answered, “You say so” (sy legeis).

Pilate’s question clearly indicates that Jesus was accused of claiming to be the “King of the Jews.” In a land under Roman control, such a claim could lead to an uprising. The title itself is formulated from Roman point of view, as is shown by the use of the term “the Jews” instead of “Israel” (cf. 15:31-32). Mark, in 15:12, has Pilate ask the crowd, “What do you wish me to do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?” The phrase “whom you call” does not mean that the crowd and the Jewish leaders acknowledge Jesus to be their King; but rather it suggests that the Jewish leaders, representing the people, employed the title in the charge when they first brought Jesus to Pilate; it thus clarifies 15:2, namely, how Pilate got the information to ask Jesus about this title.
[2] In the crucifixion scene, the chief priests along with the scribes themselves used the Jewish title for the crucified Jesus when they, having “defeated” Jesus in the Roman trial, mocked him: “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.”(15:31-32).

The “You say so” answer is a qualified, nuanced one, indicating both true and false aspects of identifying Jesus as King; it is not a denial nor is it an unambiguous affirmative.
[3] It is therefore open to Pilate to take it either as an affirmative answer or as a negative one. Because of this ambiguity, the chief priests immediately reacted by accusing Jesus again of many unspecified things (15:3), presumably in a vehement way. But to these, Jesus gave no reaction at all. Pilate therefore tried to push Jesus to answer by asking “Have you no answer?”and warning him that they had brought many charges against him (15:4). Jesus, however, as Mark notes in verse 5, gave no further reply; and this made Pilate amazed.

The silence of Jesus in the face of many other unspecified Jewish accusations denotes that, for Jesus, the only crucial matter concerning his identity to be settled was that of his kingship: in what sense he was the Messiah-King and in what sense he was not. It is, however, absolutely unlikely or useless for Jesus to clarify his messianic, kingly status before Pilate, because the Jewish leaders, Jesus’ chief accusers, had long set a plan to arrest and kill him (3:6; 11:18; 12:12; 14:1-2); moreover, in the Jewish trial which had been conducted before the Roman one occurred, they already condemned him as deserving death (14:64b); and then they gave Jesus over to Pilate (15:1b) to be tried by the prefect, and, finally, during the Roman trial they induced the populace decisively to reject him and demand his death (15:11f.).

The fact that after questioning Jesus regarding his identity in 15:2 till the end of the Roman trial (15:15) Pilate does not probe Jesus with further queries relative to the title “King of the Jews” and that the prefect still mentions the title for the second and third times during the exchanges with the Jewish populace (15:9, 12) should lead one to the conclusion that Pilate definitely viewed Jesus as one claiming to be King, and tried him accordingly. Thus, the “You say so” was interpreted by Pilate as Jesus’ affirmation of his kingly status. Pilate therefore needed further clarification no longer from Jesus concerning his own identity. Putting “the King of the Jews” on trial during the Paschal festival, however, could raise a riot among the crowd (14:2). In all likelihood, Pilate had been made well-informed concerning Jesus’ popularity with the populace (e.g., 3:7-8; 6:14-16; 6:31b; 11:18b, 32) that made the Jewish leaders dare not to seize him in public (12:12; 14:1-2). This knowledge had caused Pilate to see the necessity for conducting exchanges with the crowd in order to know of their current actual position with regard to Jesus whom once they admired but now was put on trial on the charge of insurrection, and to implicate them in his final decision. To avoid a disturbance, shrewdness in advancing tactical steps during the trial is absolutely needed; Mark indeed portrays Pilate as an astute judge throughout the trial.

After 15:5, clearly Pilate would want to know whether the crowd is for or against Jesus, and then he would endeavor to influence the crowd to stand in agreement with what he sees as necessary to maintain control of the situation. Exchanges between Pilate and the crowd occupy the remainder of the narrative (15:8-9, 11-14) which reaches its climax with Pilate’s decision to have Jesus crucified as “the King of the Jews,” a decision seemingly in accordance with the crowd’s demand (15:15, 26; cf. 15:32).

The Messiah-King of Divine, Not Human, Order

As the Roman state’s representative in the Jewish land, Pilate was of course interested only in a political messianic kingship. In this political sense, he therefore viewed Jesus as an insurrectionist who aspired to political rule over the Jews, thereby potentially undermining the Roman domination over the colonized land of Israel. The titulus on the cross (15:26) bears witness to this political evaluation of Jesus’ activities. As we shall see, Jesus, however, understood his own identity as the Messiah-King in a completely different sense. Jesus’ nuanced or ambiguous reply to Pilate indicates that Jesus knew with certainty that there was a sharp difference in the cognizance of his identity between himself and the representative of the Roman state. But in what sense he was the Messiah-King was to be defined, in the name of God, by Jesus himself, not by Pilate, nor by the Jewish leaders who were his chief opponents, nor by his disciples who were constantly depicted as not understanding Jesus’ sayings and deeds. The sharp difference in the understanding of the identity of Jesus that existed between the Roman judge and the one tried resulted in a Roman trial marked by misunderstanding throughout, and this continued even up to the crucifixion (15:18; 15:26; 15:32). In what sense was Jesus the Messiah-King? The narrative of the gospel provides Mark’s answer.

“Are You the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?”

In the Jewish trial, when the high priest posed a query to Jesus concerning his identity, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed one?”, Jesus answered, “I am” (Mark 14:61-62a). This answer certifies the correctness of the titles proposed by the questioner and it indicates unequivocally that Jesus accepted that he was truly the “Messiah and Son of God”― the identity which Mark introduced at the beginning of his gospel (1:1). But Jesus, wishing to define the content of his messiahship and divine sonship appropriately, immediately went on to refer to himself as “the Son of man” being “seated (in the future) at the right hand of God and coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:62b; allusions to Psalms 110:1 and Daniel 7:13). This means that his messiahship and divine sonship would be decisively manifested to the world in imminent future events, namely, after crucifixion, in Jesus’ vindication by God through his resurrection and exaltation, and then in Jesus’ carrying out of the apocalyptic role of the “Son of Man” of OT prophecies at his parousia in the end of time, which, the Markan community believed, was to happen soon: that is, exercising final judgment on all, whether to salvation (Mark 13:13b, 27) or to condemnation (8:38; 9:43-48; 14:62), and ushering in the consummated Kingdom of God (Mark 8:38-9:1; 13:24-27).
[4] Thus, according to Mark, the messiahship or divine sonship of Jesus is that which could not be separated from suffering, death, resurrection, exaltation, return, final judgment and the coming of the perfect divine Kingdom in imminent future. Clearly, Jesus the Messiah and Son of God was not a would-be king of the Jewish nationalistic kingdom who would defy militarily and politically the control of the Roman state over the land of Israel.

Jesus’ Glory and Power

When Jesus speaks about “glory” (doksa) and “power” (dynamis), he is not referring to that which a worldly order bestows on a king or a Caesar; rather he is referring to the “apocalyptic glory and power” of the Father which will surround the return of the Son of Man in the end of time (8:38; 13:26; cf. 14:62). To be sure, throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus’ apocalyptic power or authority (exousia) was already exhibited and made operative, and this is an indication that, for Mark, the earthly works of Jesus were an epiphany of the glorious, apocalyptic Son of Man.
[5] But, the present earthly manifestation of his power and authority was not aimed at worldly political and military gains; in actuality, his power and authority were wielded for teaching and preaching “the way of God in accordance with truth” (1:22, 27; 12:14), for commanding and casting out demons and unclean spirits (1:26-27; 9:25), for healing and curing people (5:30; 6:14b; 6:56), for forgiving sins (2:10), for raising the dead (5:30, 41-42) and for performing miracles (6:2). It is important to note that, as suggested by Mary Ann Tolbert, Mark created a plethora of “secrecy passages” (i.e., passages which contain Jesus’ injunction to keep his identity as Messiah and Son of God secret) in his gospel not in order to suggest that Jesus remained unknown and did not attract crowds, but rather in order to verify that Jesus did not seek for himself worldly renown or glory. This is true even though the spread of his fame and the increase of the multitudes attracted to him were surely inescapable, given who he was and what he did; these were not his desire but his fate.[6]

After asserting in public that he had the authority to forgive sins (2:10), namely the authority of God (cf. 2:7), Jesus immediately used this authority to heal a paralysed man (2:11-12), whose sins Jesus earlier declared to have been forgiven (2:5). This man stood up, immediately took up his mat, and left. When many saw what had been going on, they all were amazed and “glorified God,” not Jesus (2:12). Clearly, for Mark, because Jesus had acted in the authority of God, glory was therefore to be given to God himself, the source of Jesus’ power. Furthermore, in 10:35-40, Mark relates that, after Jesus’ third and most detailed prediction of his passion in Jerusalem, two of his disciples, James and John, came to him privately to ask a favor: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). To them, Jesus immediately replied, “You do not know what you are asking” (10:38a), thereby warning them that their idea of Jesus’ glory differed from that which Jesus himself held. Jesus went on to explain that the glory in which they asked for a share was the one which would be manifested at the time he “drank the cup and was baptized” (10:38); that is, at the time he suffered (= “drinking the cup”) and then died (= “baptized”)
[7] (14:34-36; cf. Luke 12:50). Also, Mary Ann Tolbert has found a reference to the crucifixion in Jesus’ statement to James and John that he was not able to grant their request, because to “sit at his right hand and at his left in his glory” was only “for those for whom it has been prepared” (10:40). In Tolbert’s view, this is a reference to the two bandits, who were crucified together with Jesus “one on his right and one on his left.” (15:27) Thus, Tolbert concludes, the Jesus with whom James and John asked to sit in his glory is the Jesus crucified on a cross; in other words, Jesus’ glory is Jesus’ crucifixion.[8]

Peter’s Confession: “You Are the Messiah”

When Peter confessed “You are the Messiah” (8:29b), Jesus uttered no denial of this confession, but only gave order to keep it secret. This means that he accepted this confession as correct,
[9] but, of course, only insofar as it relates to his identity as revealed to the disciples throughout Mark 1:14-8:26, that is, the identity of Jesus as preacher, teacher, forgiver of sins, raiser of the dead, healer, and exorcist. Because Jesus immediately began to teach the disciples about his suffering, rejection, death and resurrection (8:31), one should conclude that Jesus, in Mark’s narrative from 8:31 onward, desires his identity as the Messiah to be understood in the sense of the suffering and rejected Messiah, who finally will be vindicated by God through his resurrection. Passion and resurrection were understood by Jesus as the dei, that is, as the “divine or scriptural necessity” (8:31; cf. 9:12, 31; 10:33-34; 14:21a; 14:35-36) which was manifested in the events, foretold in Scripture, which, in obedience to God, he had to undergo.[10] Because the Petrine confession did not include the dimension of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, it was an “insufficient” confession.[11] For Mark, then, the recognition of Jesus’ messiahship which does not include this dimension of his passion and resurrection does not fully satisfy God’s will. Such recognition is not false in itself, but it is still insufficient; for it has not yet attained its full depth and authenticity. Using Vernon K. Robbins’ words, for Mark, “the role of a suffering, wise teacher was an essential part of the role of an authentic Messiah-King.”[12]

That his messiahship incorporates the aspects of the cross and resurrection was said by Jesus “quite openly” (8:32a); but Peter and the other disciples did not understand because they still harbored an insufficient conception of Jesus’ identity, one that did not include his destiny on the cross and in the resurrection (8:32b-33; 9:9-10).
[13] This insufficiency is intimated by the negative reaction of Peter (himself the representative of the disciples) to Jesus’ open teaching when it is noted that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him (8:32b). In 8:33, a messiahship which encompasses the elements of passion and resurrection is described by Jesus as a messiahship that belongs to “the things of God” as opposed to “the things of man.”

Clearly, there is nothing political or military which would endanger or undermine Roman hegemony over the land of Israel which can be found in the notion of messiahship which Jesus retained. He was not a glorious, nationalistic Messiah who aspired to gain political rule over the Jews in order to overthrow Roman control of Israel; rather he was God’s Messiah who would suffer greatly, be rejected by his own nation, killed and then vindicated. His messiahship therefore belonged to divine things, that is, to God’s order, God’s politics, not to a human order, neither Jewish nor Roman.

“Blessed Is the Kingdom of Our Father David that Is Coming”

In the triumphal entry episode (11:1-11), Mark relates that when Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem, the multitudes welcomed him with the shout: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!” (11:9-10; a quotation from Psalm 118:25-26). With this greeting, and with the earlier introduction of the title “son of David” for Jesus in 10:46-52 (on this passage, see below), Jesus was acknowledged as David’s descendant in whom the eschatological expectations associated with King David came to fulfillment. That here Mark is presenting Jesus as the Davidic Messiah-King, is strongly suggested also by allusions to OT messianic and kingship passages that fill the episode of the triumphal entry: e.g., allusions to 1 Samuel 8:10-11, 17 in Mark 11:2-3 (concerning the king’s prerogative to take animals); to Zechariah 9:9 (cf. Genesis 49:11) in Mark 11:7 (concerning the messiah riding a colt); to 2 Kings 9:13 in Mark 11:8 (concerning the spreading of garments before the king).

However, in Mark’s view, the Davidic sonship of Jesus and his kingly status, position and authority have no connection at all with, or even surpass, David’s position and authority as the “ideal” king in the history of the Israelite national kingdom.

In the pericope on the healing of Bartimaeus (10:46-52), the identity of Jesus as the “son of David” is disclosed publicly not in military or political expressions such as those found in the writing known as Psalms of Solomon from the first-century BCE. In that work, the son of David is depicted as a “warrior” messiah-king who will place his royal authority in the service of the political and military struggle intended to crush Israel’s unrighteous Gentile enemies, purge Jerusalem from hostile nations, and vindicate Israel (chapter 17).
[15] But, in the Bartimaeus pericope, the blind beggar is depicted as one who, in great faith, persistently cries out to Jesus to have mercy on him by restoring his sight: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (10:47; repeated in verse 48); “My teacher, let me see again.” (10:51b). Here, the royal authority which Jesus had as the son of David is wielded not to gain, in an imperial manner, political or military advantages and achievements, such as would have been necessary had he desired to found the Jewish nationalistic kingdom; his authority was used to liberate people from illness. Thus, the eschatological expectations connected with King David were fulfilled in Jesus’ healing human illness and restoring physical disabilities, not in the restoration of the greatness and glory of the Israelite nationalistic kingdom which was definitely past.

In 12:35-37 Mark has Jesus, while being in the Temple together with the scribes and the large crowd, present a conundrum in which the question is raised concerning how it is possible for the Messiah to be both the “son” of David (this being the scribes' view which Jesus espouses
[16]) and the “lord” or “master” of David (this being the view Jesus derives from the inspired speech of David recorded in Psalms 110:1 [109:1 LXX]). The answer to this question is that Jesus, the Messiah, is the son of David because he is descended from David (11:9-10); by the same token, Jesus the Messiah is also the “lord” or “master” of David because Jesus is the Son of God (1:1; 1:11; 9:7; 12:6, 7) whose rights, station and authority far exceed those of David of old, given their divine, not ancestral, origin[17] (11:27-33; on this passage, see below). Being God’s Son, the superiority of Jesus over David is manifest, however, not in military or political sway and might, but in his being “seated at God’s right hand until God puts his enemies under his feet” (12:36, a quotation from Psalms 110:1); that is, in his exaltation and heavenly enthronement and in his sharing of God’s victory over the kingdom of Satan (see 3:23-24, 27), the enemy of Jesus and his disciples.[18] Again, this presupposes his crucifixion, his death as “a ransom for many,” as stated in 10:45, the most explicit statement in Mark’s Gospel about the meaning of the death of Jesus.[19]

“Who Gave You this Authority?”

The day after Jesus disrupted the commercial and monetary activities in the Royal Portico of the Jerusalem Temple (11:15-19),
[20] while he was walking in the Temple, the chief priests, the scribes and the elders came to him and posed these two questions: “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” (11:27,28). These questions arose because of Jesus’ abusive actions against the Temple and his words which seemed intended to interpret his actions: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’ [Isaiah 56:7]? But you have made it a den of robbers” [Jeremiah 7:11] (11:17). The Jewish leaders were asking for the source of the authority Jesus felt he had so to disrupt the established commercial activities in and around the Temple and then to quote scriptural passages which, either implicitly or explicitly, could be interpreted as opposing such activities by attempting to realign the function of the Temple.

The basis for the reaction of the Jewish leaders would have been twofold. Firstly, the activities of the merchants and money-changers were necessary if people were to be enabled to take part in the sacrificial system to obtain expiation for sin. The daily whole-offerings in the Temple were the “most important rite of the Israelite cult”; for this reason, concludes Jacob Neusner, “only someone who rejected the Torah’s explicit teaching concerning the daily whole-offering could have overturned the tables” and “no Jew of the time who deemed the temple the place where Israel atoned for sin can have understood the meaning of the action of Jesus.”
[21] Thus, as David Seeley puts it, Jesus “would have been seen, not as offering a trenchant critique of Jewish religious life, but as madly assaulting one of its indispensable foundations.”[22] Secondly, the leaders of “messianic” movements in Palestine before and after the time of Jesus railed against and took action against the Romans (e.g., Psalms of Solomon 17:22) and their henchmen (such as the Herodian) and not against the Temple, which they too honored as the center of Jewish religious life.[23] Moreover, there was no tradition (in the Hebrew Bible, Pseudepigrapha, and Apocrypha) of a messiah overtly opposing the Temple.[24] As Seeley has suggested, without the stimulus of the events of 70 CE in Palestine, it would seem improbable that anyone would have imagined a Messiah violently assaulting the Temple.[25] It is also important to note that, during the period prior to the first Jewish revolt against Rome, the Jewish people strongly felt the necessity of supporting and maintaining the integrity, even the inviolability of the Temple.[26]

Jesus responded to the Jewish leaders, not by answering their questions, but by asking them this question: “I will ask you a question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Because this counter-question from Jesus unavoidably placed the Jewish leaders in a dilemma (11:31-32), they evasively answered, “We do not know” (11:33a). Jesus, in return, responded in a similar manner, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (11:33b). Although Jesus did not answer the Jewish leaders’question, by making the focus of his counter-question the origin of John’s baptism, Jesus was implicitly claiming that, like John’s baptism, which so many of the people seemed to have accepted as divine in origin, Jesus’ action against the Temple originated in the divine will and not in human authority of any kind. We can agree with Paul-Gerhard Klumbies that all Jesus’ words would have led to the collapse of the Jewish leaders’ challenge.
[27] Even though Jesus’ actions and words could then not be taken as related to any political or military authority, those actions and words resulted in the determination of the chief priests and the scribes to keep looking for a way to kill Jesus (11:18). In the light of this, it is important to ask what was Jesus’ actual purpose in taking those actions and speaking those words in the Temple?

In trying to answer that question of Jesus’ purpose from the angle of history, at least seven opinions have been put forward. Noting Jesus’ followers, the crowd he excited and the revolutionary character of his movement, the first opinion is that Jesus was indeed attempting a direct takeover of the Temple as the religious-political-economic center of the Jewish life.
[28] This opinion is challenged by Richard A. Horsley because, if Jesus were attempting such a takeover, it would mean that his “actions were naïve and abortive” and that “he would appear to have had no sense whatever of the actual power relations in the society....”[29] The second opinion is that held, for example, by Crossan: by stopping the liturgical, sacrificial, and fiscal activities in the Temple complex, Jesus intended the symbolic destruction of Judaism’s most sacred site; and Jesus did so because, as a Jewish peasant, he had come to view those sacerdotal activities as totally incompatible with the vision and program of spiritual and material egalitarianism and anti-hierarchicalism which he espoused.[30] The third opinion is that found, for example, with Richard A. Horsley. Jesus was acting as a prophet whose radical actions and words symbolized God’s imminent judgment of destruction, not just of the building, but also of the entire Temple system.[31] Fourthly, there is the opinion, as contended by E. P. Sanders, that, as a reformist prophet of apocalyptic persuasion, Jesus was announcing that the Herodian-built Temple had to be destroyed before the eschatological Temple would be given by God from heaven.[32]

Fifthly, in the opinion of Jacob Neusner, Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the Temple because he was determined to eradicate the Temple system radically and establish as its replacement another rival table replete with soteriological import, that is, the Eucharist, by which atonement and expiation for sin were to be achieved in a new way; this table was to be established at the Last Supper. Neusner writes, “[O]ne table [was] overturned, another table [was] set up in place, and both for the same purpose of atonement and expiation of sin.”
[33] But David Seeley finds Neusner’s interpretation to be awkward, problematic and eisegetical; furthermore, it rests upon the assumption that tables were used at the Last Supper, something not at all certain.[34] Bruce Chilton’s view seems close to that of Neusner when Chilton writes that “Jesus’ practice at meals after the [failed] occupation of the Temple [was] an attempt to establish a surrogate for the sacrifice of thanksgiving”[35] and that “In essence, Jesus made his meals into a rival altar”, “an alternative cultus.”[36]

The sixth opinion is actually the traditional view which has recently been revived, among others, by Craig Evans: Jesus’ actions arose out of his dissatisfaction and anger with corruption in the Temple priesthood, and were therefore intended to cleanse and purify the Temple by calling for an end to such corruption.
[37] Similar to Evans is the view of P.M. Casey, namely, that by his actions in the Temple, Jesus was not symbolically destroying the Temple nor attacking its sacrificial system, but, espousing this sacerdotal system, he was purifying the Temple and refunctioning it as the place for prayer. Casey asserts that the practical effect of clearing out traders and money changers would be to permit the throngs of Jewish people present for Passover to pray anywhere in the Temple area; Jesus did so because there was not room for all of them in the inner courts.[38]

The seventh opinion is simply that the narrative of Jesus’ actions and words in the Temple is fictional account, composed by Mark; in actual history, there were no such actions and words as described in the narrative. As David Seeley puts it, on the one hand, a major obstacle to considering the Temple act historical is that Jesus’ actions, as they are described and without further explanation in Mark, are hard to understand,
[39] and, on the other hand, the Temple act makes a great deal of sense if it is to be considered simply as a Markan composition rather than an account based on a historical event. In favor of this view, Seeley contends that the theme of the Temple is carefully woven through the last chapters of Mark where many signs of artifice can be found.[40] Robert J. Miller agrees that the Temple account is unhistorical and describes the literary method he uses in his analysis of the account by writing: “If a scene is composed entirely of themes and narrative designs essential to the gospel’s plot, the deed in that scene should be considered unhistorical.”[41] On this point, Miller is in agreement with Mack who has stated that “The temple act cannot be historical. If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence. The anti-temple theme is clearly Markan .... The conclusion must be that the temple act is a Markan fabrication.”[42]

Of course, analyzed from the narrative point of view, the purpose of Jesus’ actions and words in the Temple is clearly stated in Mark’s Gospel. As Tolbert points out, by contrasting the proper function of the Temple with the current situation, quoting Isaiah 56:7 (“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations”) Jesus redefined the Temple’s proper function, not in political or military, but in religious, terms. For the Markan Jesus, God’s house was not for the Jews alone but for all nations, and it was not a commercial venture, “a den of robbers” (Jeremiah 7:11), but a “house of prayer.” Just as the fig tree that offered nothing to Jesus’ hunger except leaves was symbolically cursed with death (11:12-14, 20-21), so also, without the repositioning of the function of the Temple as was desired by Jesus, the fruitless Temple that offered not a “house of prayer” but a “den of robbers” was cursed with destruction; time would run for the prayerless Temple, as it would for the fruitless fig tree. The incident in the Temple and Jesus’ repositioning of its proper function, publicly demonstrated Jesus’ jurisdiction over the center of Jewish religion. In Tolbert’s judgment, Jesus’ right to effect such a realignment shows that his power extended beyond the nationalistic boundaries of Davidic Messiah’s kingdom into the universal religious domain of priest and scribe.
[43] To be sure, this interpretation can easily be dismissed “as simply reductionist, failing to take into account dimensions other than the religious”, as has been done.[44] Still, seen from the angle of the Markan Jesus, not that of the reconstructed historical Jesus, Tolbert’s interpretation is justified. Although the realignment of the function of the Temple as Jesus symbolically had demanded was truly religious in character, the Jewish leaders nevertheless decided to set a plan to kill him. This means, the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus as a spiritual or religious leader, but gave Jesus to Pilate to stand trial under the charge of sedition.

“Give to the Emperor....”

To some Pharisees and some Herodians who had tried to trap him in what he said by asking him whether “it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”, Jesus responded, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (12:13-17). The answer which Jesus gave merely endorsed what all Romans would have taken for granted, namely, the obligation of the Jews, as a subject people, to pay tribute. To question this obligation was seditious, and the actual refusal to pay was a declaration of revolt.
[45] It is then clear that Jesus, in Mark’s presentation, was not an opponent to Caesar. In this respect, Mark presents Jesus as apolitical.[46]

Two Opposing Views of the Messiahship of Jesus

The discussions above have shown that in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is depicted as the Messiah-King, Son of God, of divine order, not of earthly order. He is the Messiah-King and Son of God who possesses the authority of God to teach and preach the true way of God, to forgive sins, to heal and cure the people, to perform miracles, to exorcise, and to raise the dead; and, most especially, he is the Messiah-King who must suffer a great deal, will be rejected by the Jewish leaders, killed by the Gentiles, and then vindicated by God through his resurrection and heavenly enthronement; with his death being a ransom for many. Jesus the Messiah-King and Son of God was not a political or military revolutionary; nor was he a would-be king of the Jewish nationalistic kingdom who would violently defy the sway and might of the Roman state that overpowered the land of Israel. In short, Jesus was truly an apolitical, religious Messiah-King who would not endanger Roman control of the Jewish people and land. Nevertheless, although the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus as a religious figure, they handed him over to Pilate as a claimant to a political Jewish kingship. Accordingly, the prefect tried Jesus as an aspirant to a political kingship in confrontation with Roman rule. This misconception about the identity of Jesus as Messiah-King coloured the entire Roman trial and continued to do so up to Jesus’ crucifixion.

For Pilate, There Was No Reason to Set Jesus Free

The misunderstanding about Jesus as a would-be political Messiah-King of the Jews meant that, for Pilate, Jesus was a possible, or even likely, leader of a rebellion. Because of this, it is difficult to see how Pilate could have found any reason to set Jesus free. It is true that Mark notes that Pilate realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over (15:10).
[47] However, the fact that this awareness did not motivate the powerful prefect to release Jesus, indicates, again, that Pilate viewed the charge of sedition as serious indeed. During the Roman trial, besides Jesus’ nuanced answer (“You say so”) which was interpreted by Pilate as an affirmation, nothing was said or done by Jesus which could move the prefect to conclude that the accusation against Jesus was false.

At the same time, Pilate had to remember how volatile things were in Jerusalem during the Paschal celebrations; trying and condemning a Jew during those celebrations could very well have led to a riot. Because of this, he needed a way, as it were, to involve the crowd in condemning Jesus. As Mark narrates, Pilate’s opportunity came when the crowd demanded that, in keeping with the prefect’s Paschal custom, he release a prisoner; to this demand, he responded with the question, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” (15:6-9). The question should of course not be taken at face value, for it is most unlikely that, at that point, Pilate would ever have set Jesus free. Rather, it should be seen as part of his astute maneuver to involve the crowd in his final decision. In the light of 15:10 (see the preceding paragraph), Pilate could be confident that the Jewish leaders would incite the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas, rather than Jesus. When this occurred (15:11), Pilate, wishing to implicate the Jewish populace decisively, threw out another question: “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” (15:12). Under the influence of the chief priests, the crowd, rejecting Jesus, quickly shouted back, “Crucify him!” (15:13). Clearly, Pilate’s strategy to definitely implicate the crowd succeeded. Prior to the (Jewish and Roman) trials, the populace were for Jesus; but now, confronted with the prefect’s question and under the Jewish leaders’ control, they took the side against Jesus, demanding his death.

Pilate’s last question to the crowd in Mark 15:14 (“Why, what evil has he done?”) can easily be seen as heavily ironic, because it tends to place the prefect in the position more open to Jesus’ innocence than the crowd.
[48] However, the “Why, what evil has he done?” is not an affirmative Roman statement of Jesus’ innocence; rather, it is an exploratory question (ti gar epoiēsen kakon;), posed in order to know how the crowd perceived and evaluated Jesus: whether he was a good man or a bad man. In C.H. Dodd’s opinion, it “is not a verdict, but an expostulation.”[49] Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the reaction of the crowd to this question. In fact, the crowd’s reaction made it much easier for Pilate to make the decision to hand Jesus over (paradidōmi) to be crucified, for the crowd shouted even more strongly, “Crucify him!” (15:14b). Here again, they determinedly rejected Jesus, demanding his death. For the crowd, being under the control of the Jewish leaders, there was no need to reflect on the morality of Jesus, and actually it was very unlikely for them to do that. The crowd’s rejection is not an anti-Jewish note; it is part of the general Christological theme of the abandoned Messiah that runs through Mark’s passion narrative.[50] The populace abandoned Messiah-Jesus and thereby were implicated in the sending Jesus over to be crucified; this was in keeping with Pilate’s overall strategy in handling Jesus’ case at Passover. And this development then made it much easier for Pilate to realize his “desire to satisfy the crowd” by releasing Barabbas and, after “flogging” (phragellōsas) Jesus, to send him over to be crucified (15:15).[51] The depiction of Pilate as wishing to satisfy the crowd is, on the one hand, not different from the portrayal of Pilate in Josephus’ writings, especially in the accounts concerning the iconic standards (Jewish War 2.169-174; Antiquities 18.55-59): there also Pilate acceded to the demand of the populace, regardless of his own wishes. On the other hand, in the Roman trial of Jesus, Pilate could comply with the populace’s insistence because it was in complete agreement with his own will.


It can be stated that Mark clearly lays primary guilt for Jesus’ death upon the Jewish leadership. In the Jewish trial, they all condemned Jesus as deserving death (14:64); and then they sent Jesus over to Pilate to be tried as a rebellious figure (15:1); in the Roman trial they brought accusations against Jesus; they stirred up the crowd so that they demanded Jesus to be crucified. But Pilate is not exonerated; he played a vital part in the chain of events leading to the crucifixion: Judas gave Jesus over (Mark 14:42; see also 3:19) to the Jewish authorities; the Jewish authorities gave Jesus over (15:1) to Pilate; and then Pilate gave Jesus over (15:15b) to be crucified. In this chain, all share in bringing Jesus to the cross. In Mark’s theological vantage point, not only was Jesus deserted by his closest supporters but the whole political world of first-century Palestine, both Jewish and Roman, sided against him: the Jewish leadership took him into custody and Pilate condemned him to be crucified.
[52] The Markan Jesus received just treatment from no one in authority. Still, it must be emphasized that there is no sweeping anti-Judaism to be found in Mark’s Roman trial narrative.[53]


[1] A. N. Sherwin-White, “The Trial of Christ” in History and Chronology in the New Testament (Theological Collections 6; London: SPCK, 1965) 105 [97-116].

[2] Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.824.

[3] Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.720, 729-30.

[4] Jack Dean Kingsbury, The Christology of Mark’s Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983) 168-176; Douglas R. A. Hare, The Son of Man Tradition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990) 207-211, 230; J. R. Donahue, Are You the Christ? The Trial Narrative in the Gospel of Mark (SBLDS, 10; Missoula, MT: SBL, 1973) 149, 171, 177-81.

[5] Donahue, Are You the Christ?, 182, 184-85.

[6] Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989) 227-28.

[7] James D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977) 158-59, 210, 319-20; cf. Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, 210, 215, 240; Herman C. Waetjen, A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989) xii, 68 n.8.

[8] Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, 31-32.

[9] For an ingenious discussion concerning the correctness or the incorrectness of this Petrine confession, see Kingsbury, Christology of Mark’s Gospel, 92ff.,147ff.; cf. Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, 201; Waetjen, A Reordering of Power, 221; Adela Yarbro Collins, The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) 63.

[10] Collins, Beginning of the Gospel, 64ff.

[11] Kingsbury, Christology of Mark’s Gospel, 95, 102, 148; cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, “Mark as Interpreter of the Jesus Traditions”, Interpretation 32/4 (1978) 348 [339-52].

[12] Vernon K. Robbins, Jesus the Teacher: A Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation of Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992 [1984]) 190.

[13] For a different explanation of the disciples’ ignorance about this Jesus’ open saying, see Collins, Beginning of the Gospel, 63ff.

[14] Kingsbury, Christology of Mark’s Gospel, 107; Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, 248.

[15] In Psalms of Solomon 17:21-24 the “son of David” as the messiah-king (17:32) is pictured as one who will rule over Israel, shatter unrighteous rulers, purge Jerusalem from the nations that trample (her) in destruction, destroy the arrogance of the sinner as a potter’s vessels, and with a rod of iron shatter all their substance. See the selected passages of Psalms of Solomon in Marinus de Jonge, “The Psalms of Solomon” in Marinus de Jonge, ed., Outside of the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 159-177.

[16] Kingsbury, Christology of Mark’s Gospel, 109.

[17] Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, 249; Kingsbury, Christology of Mark’s Gospel, 112f.; idem, “The ‘Divine Man’ as the Key to Mark’s Christology―The End of an Era?”, Interpretation 35/3 (1981) 255 [243-257].

[18] Collins, Beginning of the Gospel, 70f.

[19] Collins, Beginning of the Gospel, 68.

[20] The determination of the location of Jesus’ Temple action as in the Royal Portico, is generally accepted by scholars; see E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 B.C.E. – 66 C.E. (London/Philadelphia: SCM Press/Trinity Press International, 1992) 68.

[21] Jacob Neusner, “Money-Changers in the Temple: The Mishnah’s Explanation”, New Testament Studies 35/2 (1989) 288-90 [287-290]; idem, “The Absoluteness of Christianity and the Uniqueness of Judaism: Why Salvation Is Not of the Jews”, Interpretation 43/1 (1989) 24-25 [18-31]; see also E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM Press; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985) 61-76; idem, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 77-92.

[22] David Seeley, “Jesus’ Temple Act”, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 55/2 (1993) 265 [263-283].

[23] Richard A. Horsley & John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1999 [19851) 88-134; Burton L. Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1991 [19881]) 52, 282.

[24] David Seeley, “Jesus’ Temple Act Revisited: A Response to P. M. Casey”, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62/1 (2000) 61 [55-63]; idem, “Jesus’ Temple Act”, 276 [263-283]; see also the literature cited there.

[25] Seeley, “Jesus’ Temple Act”, 273.

[26] For detail, see Marcus J. Borg, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 5; New York/Toronto: Mellen, 1984) 38f., 55, 163-199.

[27] Paul-Gerhard Klumbies, Der Mythos bei Markus (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2001) 248.

[28] See in particular, S.G.F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967) 332-334.

[29] Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993 [19871]) 298.

[30] Crossan, Historical Jesus, 303-53; esp. 332ff., 355, 360; Jesus, 133-36; Who Killed Jesus?, 65.

[31] Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, 300.

[32] Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 61-76, 363-69. But Sanders cannot find a tradition linking the Temple’s destruction and its restoration. For a good rebuttal of Sanders’ opinion on the basis of literary evidence, see Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, 289ff.

[33] Jacob Neusner, “Money-Changers in the Temple”, 290; idem, “The Absoluteness of Christianity”, 26.

[34] Seeley, “Jesus’ Temple Act”, 265 n.11.

[35] Bruce Chilton, A Feast of Meanings. Eucharistic Theologies from Jesus through Johannine Circles (Leiden, etc.: Brill, 1994) 74.

[36] Bruce Chilton, “The Trial of Jesus Reconsidered” in Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans, eds., Jesus in Context: Temple, Purity, and Restoration (AGJU 39; Leiden, etc.: Brill, 1997) 494f. [481-500]. This article has been republished under the title “The So-Called Trial before the Sanhedrin” in Forum, New Series 1,1: On the Passion Narratives (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1998) 163-180.

[37] Craig A. Evans, “Jesus’ Action in the Temple and Evidence of Corruption in the First-Century Temple,” Society of Biblical Literature 1989 Seminar Papers (SBLASP 28; ed. D. J. Lull; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989) 522-39; idem, “Jesus’ Action in the Temple: Cleansing or Portent of Destruction?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 (1989) 237-70.

[38] P.M. Casey, “Culture and Historicity: The Cleansing of the Temple”, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 59/2 (1997) 312, 331-32 [306-332].

[39] Seeley, “Jesus’ Temple Act Revisited”, 56.

[40] Seeley, “Jesus’ Temple Act”, 271ff.

[41] Robert J. Miller, “Historical Method and the Deeds of Jesus: The Test Case of the Temple Demonstration”, Forum 8 (1992) 22 (5-30); see also idem, “The (A)historicity of Jesus’ Temple Demonstration: A Test Case in Methodology”, Society of Biblical Literature 1991 Seminar Papers (SBLASP 30; ed. D. J. Lull; Atlanta: Scholars, 1991) 235-252.

[42] Mack, A Myth of Innocence, 292.

[43] Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, 192f., 249; cf. C. A. Evans, “From ‘House of Prayer’ To ‘Cave of Robbers’: Jesus’ Prophetic Criticism of the Temple Establishment” in Evans & Shemaryahu Talmon (eds.), The Quest for Context and Meaning: Studies in Biblical Intertextuality in Honor of James A. Sanders (Leiden: Brill, 1997) 439 ff. [417-442].

[44] Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, 297.

[45] Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots, 224, 271.

[46] Collins, Beginning of the Gospel, 36.

[47] In Greek: eginōsken gar hoti dia phthonon (“for he realized that it was out envy and zeal....”). The word phthonos has two meanings: envy and zeal. The chief priests were envious of Jesus’ popularity with the people, and they were zealous for the law violated by his threats against the Temple and his blasphemy. See Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.803.

[48] Cf. Bond, Pontius Pilate, 115; Cf. Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.825.

C.H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963) 99.

[50] Bond, Pontius Pilate, 111 n. 79.

[51] Brown notes that in Mark 15:15 the Greek to hikanon poiēsai (“to do enough”) is a Latinism equivalent to satisfacere (“to satisfy”); and the Greek phragelloō is another Latinism equivalent to flagellare, “to flog”. Thus he concludes that in this verse one finds “a deliberate imitation of Latin style to supply atmosphere for the Roman governor’s legal decision.” (Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.850).

[52] Bond, Pontius Pilate, 117.

[53] Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.387.