AuthorPatten, Jonathan K. Van
PositionReligion and politics

    The trial of Jesus, for many reasons, is different. From the standpoint of those within the Christian faith, God was on trial. (1) What transpired became an essential part of the story of salvation. The binding-over of an innocent man for execution is, therefore, less tragic, in light of this perspective. Thus, the ironic term, "Good Friday." (2)

    From a lawyer's perspective, the records of the proceedings are problematic, to say the least. There is no contemporaneous account of what happened. What little we have was written many years later, by different writers, and clearly with a religious viewpoint. (3) Some have questioned the veracity of these accounts. (4) Although the trial and crucifixion are understood within the Christian faith as indispensable elements in the story of salvation, this narrative has also generated, over the centuries, horrible recriminations against the Jews. (5) These are problems that will not go away. Why not leave this trial alone and move on to a safer topic? Confining conversation to safe topics reflects a modern sensibility of not giving offense. Politics and religion have traditionally been considered taboo topics of conversation, (6) although politics is less so in the age of Twitter. There is an argument that we are better off if we keep religion out of the conversation. (7) It is hard to argue freely when religion is around; showstoppers are everywhere, both for the speakers and the listeners. And yet, some of the deepest, and freest, conversations are marked by the absence of taboos. All things considered. Conversation requires listening, true listening, not just waiting until the other person stops talking. There is power that can accompany free-ranging discussion. One of my heroes, Carroll Hinderlie, a missionary in China in the early 1940s, was held prisoner for several years in a Japanese camp. Carroll was never short for words, often arguing with his captors. When asked "Who will win the war?" his answer was characteristically spirited, and wise: "Whoever is not afraid to hear what the other side has to say." (8) Willingness to listen is a strength, not a weakness. (9)

    The religious wars of the past, and the present, are caution enough against the assertion of religious truth as the basis for social policy. How do we get along in modern society without religious differences destroying the basis of community? (10) Yet social policy unmoored from religious insight has serious problems as well. (11) Can modern society sustain itself without a moral infrastructure infused with religious elements? (12) One answer, given in the Constitution, and a first in modern politics, is that no religious test can be made a requirement for public office. (13) The First Amendment's religion clauses are another vital contribution to this balance. (14) Toleration of differences is a positive aspect of religious liberty, not just an indulgence for the weird. (15) It leaves space in the public square for religious-based contributions. (16) The religious grounding of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is one such example. (17)

    There remains another objection to consideration of this particular trial. Why now? Hasn't this all been covered before? The nineteenth century saw some sixty thousand books on the life of Jesus. (18) There should be nothing new. Indeed, there is nothing new presented here. But the familiarity of the religious narrative may have overwhelmed recollection of the details and hence understanding of some of the trial's complications. Consider some basic questions. What was the motivation for the arrest of Jesus so soon after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? Was the use of an insider to betray Jesus necessary? Why the arrest at night? Who made the arrest? What was the point of the initial meeting held at the chief priest's house? Who was there at the meeting? What were the charges? Who were the witnesses? What was Jesus's response? What was the resolution? The meeting resumed early the next day. What was the outcome of this proceeding? Why did the matter then move to the jurisdiction of the Roman prelate, Pontius Pilate? Were the charges the same? What was the response of Jesus? What do we understand from Pilate's actions? What was the role of the Jewish participants before Pilate? What was the point of sending the matter to Herod Antipas? What was the basis of Pilate's final decision? Who carried out the execution of Jesus? The answers come with more difficulty than might be commonly supposed.

    The Biblical narrative has special power for those within the Christian faith. As a result, it may cause trusting acceptance of contradictory accounts of the same event. The narratives in this case are not unified. There are significant differences among the Gospel writers. The differences do not have to be resolved, but they must be accounted for. The facts do not speak for themselves; they are embedded in a setting. Our understanding of the facts, and with that, our ability to recall details, will be enhanced with context. The narratives must be understood in context.

    The trial of Jesus is a fascinating story, with undeniably historic consequences. It has shaped our history, for good and ill, like no other trial. The negative consequences of the accepted narrative, or at least parts of it, have been borne inordinately throughout history by the Jewish people. (19) And so, there must be special attention paid to the issue of culpability. It cannot be avoided. The story supplies clues to an understanding of that issue, not only for the particular, but also possibly for the issue of group culpability in other contexts. In this sense, the Gospel narrative, rightly understood, may provide good news for all.

    There have been many layers of religion, history, interpretation, and controversy laid upon this familiar narrative. It is difficult to know at this distance in time what actually happened. We do not need to know, however, what has been the resolution, if any, of the many issues that have occupied scholars and skeptics. (20) Let us consider the narratives as if they were reports of a regular trial--and be open to what they show. Although the story is familiar, there are many points that are not self-evident from the text and which become more comprehensible, once the context is considered. There is still much that can be learned as we follow along the familiar narrative.


    Because jurisdiction is an important aspect of this story, it is necessary to begin well before the familiar narrative to establish the legal and political context in which the events took place. Where to start is always a matter of judgment. (21) We must, of course, start with the Jews, but when and where are not so self-evident. While it would make sense to begin with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, (22) or Jacob, who gave Israel its name and, through his sons, the twelve tribes, (23) or perhaps Joseph, who led Jacob's family to Egypt, where they prospered until later Pharaohs subjected their increasing numbers to slavery, (24) it is probably best to start with Moses because this is a story about law.

    Moses was a great leader of the Hebrew people. He led them out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai, and, eventually, to the edge of the land of Canaan. (25) In the early days of the exodus from Egypt, before he received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, (26) he had a talk with his father-in-law, Jethro, who had some very practical suggestions for Moses as a leader and administrator. Moses had been complaining to Jethro about the inordinate amount of time he had to spend, from morning until evening, hearing and settling matters of disagreement among the people. (27) Jethro said to Moses: "What you are doing is not wise.... The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone." (28) The practical advice to Moses was that he needed a set of laws and regulations and honest people to implement them. (29) Moses heeded this advice and thereafter he began to collect and codify Jewish law. (30) Much of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) contains these laws and regulations.

    The Hebrew people entered the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua and, after conquest and consolidation, enjoyed a period of national sovereignty under kings, like David and Solomon. (31) Important achievements from this period included not only the consolidation of power as a nation, but also the construction of a sumptuous royal palace and an enormous Temple, which held the Ark of the Covenant. (32) Ultimately, the kingdom began to fall apart. When Solomon died, people in the north refused to retain his successor in a united kingdom. (33) "[T]he northerners broke off and reverted to their own royal house, and in an age of rising empires--the Babylonians followed by the [Persians]--both these small kingdoms, Judah in the south, Israel in the north, went to their doom separately." (34) Beginning at least from the time of the Babylonian exile, the Jews were not fully in control of their own destiny. (35) It seems that God's Chosen People either had to sing their songs in a strange land (36) or at least sing them under foreign domination. (37) After the Babylonians, there were the Persians, (38) then the Greeks, (39) then a period of Jewish nationalism led by the Maccabees but marked by internal conflict and instability, (40) leading, finally, to the Romans. (41)

    The effect of exile and foreign domination had fundamentally changed Jewish social and political structures from the days of David and Solomon. With the decline of kings and other Jewish rulers (judges), prophets gained in influence. Prophets like Elijah and Elisha, and later, Jeremiah, Isaiah and others, called on the children of Israel to remain true to their special relationship with their God, Yahweh. (42) Priests also emerged as important cultural figures for Jewish society seeking...

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