Irony and Silence: How Jesus??? Trial before Pilate Gives Hope to Activists (c) John Winston Powell (December 2010)

Hi All, This is my first academic paper in 19 years (since graduating with my MA from Barry University), written for Father Sean Martin’s Aquinas Institute class “Did Jesus Have a Sense of Humor?”  It will make more sense to you if you read John 18:33-38 and 19:9-11 first as those are the verses I am examining in the paper. I was going to wait to post it during Holy Week but the Incarnation should always be connected to the Passover Mystery so enjoy! John


     After two and a half years of heading a small movement of Jewish peasants and artisans, speaking of the Empire of God and showing signs of that Empire, Jesus faces the Roman governmental social structure in the person of Pontius Pilate.  Pilate and Jesus jostle with each other for awhile; Pilate comically vacillates between talking with Jesus inside the praetorium and appealing to the crowd outside, and finally, in the face of Jesus’ enigmatic comments and silence, condemns to death this revolutionary as he had many others.  The scene of Jesus’ trial in front of Pilate gives activists a wry smile, standing in front of the dark cross of discipleship that demands action to the bitter end.   The existential irony present in John 18:33-38 and 19:9-11 shows activists the penultimate example of speaking truth to power in suffering for justice.  

           Existential irony is defined as “the disparity between the way things are and the way they are supposed to be” (Martin, Double Entendres…).  O’Day says that these verses are the best example of “the fourth evangelist’s use of dramatic structure, irony and symbolism in the service of theological interpretation” (813).  That interpretation is to show Jesus as the divine Son of God who will triumph over evil.  John’s Christological focus shows that “both ‘the Jews’ and Pilate are brought to judgment by Jesus, who is the eschatological judge and king” (814).  Raymond Brown agrees, saying that Pilate is actually on trial before Jesus (357). By using intricate staging, the reader is drawn into a “cosmic reversal of judgment” (O’Day 814).  The irony of “the Jews’” judgment of Jesus during Passover belies the Jewish leaders’ declaration of who is their true God when matched up against their prosecution of Jesus by using a declaration of allegiance to Caesar (Pazdan 66).   The theological irony is set up when the Jewish leaders will not enter the praetorium because they would ritually defile themselves; by 19:15 they will have denied the claims of their faith (815).  Vawter points out that it’s a double irony–not only are they repudiating their national/religious heritage, it is also historically ironic since the Zealots’ rebellion had resulted in the destruction of the limited autonomy the Jews had had under Rome during Jesus’ time (460).  Pilate questions Jesus and Jesus responds or does not respond, respectively.  Initially, Jesus does not abandon what Gandhi called “an experiment in truth.” He offers Pilate an opportunity to assume his own stance toward Jesus; Pilate’s prejudice blocks him (Vawter 459).  Pilate’s mockery is stood on its head in the trial scene; Rensberger calls the trial Jesus’ “royal epiphany” (94).  Activists can look to the Johannine community for inspiration–the trial of Jesus probably represents that community’s model for dealing with Roman authorities at the end of the first century (96).  As Jesus did, take the opportunity to use the obstacle to one’s movement in a positive way–by creatively turning it around to show the injustice of the persecutor. 

            Looking at the first dialogue (John 18:33-38) with Pilate, Jesus is using his chance to talk with Pilate.  Despite his fatigue, Jesus shows he is up for challenge-reposte with Pilate (Martin, Did Jesus…).  The word “king” (basileus) is very important as it is used nine times in the trial before Pilate…it underscores the intersection of politics and religion in the narrative as the evangelist plays these different meanings off one another (O’Day 816).  When asked by Pilate whether he is the King of the Jews, Jesus responds to the question with a question, becoming Pilate’s interrogator (816).  Pilate’s question in v. 35a is also an example of theological irony.  John is showing how Pilate is like the Jews in his rejection of Jesus through “false certitude expressed in the question” (817).  O’Day points out the similarity in a question posed by the Pharisees before Jesus’ passion in John 9:40 (817).  When Jesus points out the difference in their definitions of “kingdom” in v. 36b, he contrasts his followers (hyperetai) with the temple police; his kingship is not secured by force but the truth (817).  Jesus’ methods of ruling are not the world’s because the source of his authority comes from outside the world (Rensberger 97) When responding in v. 37, Jesus shows Johannine irony again; Pilate doesn’t really believe Jesus is a king but Vawter says that Jesus shows that as “king,” he implicitly calls on Pilate to take a stand on the side of truth and life (459).  This way, John shows the reader that Jesus is political in the sense of “kingship” but that he transcends the term by having Jesus talk about ultimate truth (Rensberger 97).  Jesus shows the double meaning of “coming into the world:” it denotes God “becoming” a human, but also God’s direct engagement with those who sin (Howard-Brook 401). When Pilate asks, “What is the truth?” in v. 38, the prefect does not really expect an answer because he doesn’t think an answer is possible–the cynical skepticism of the Roman mind equals rejection of Jesus (459).  Pilate shows that by asking Jesus who is the truth (14:6), he does not belong to the truth; the question becomes a prime example of Johannine irony according to O’Day (818), hanging in the air for all of history. Jesus’ kingship is to present things the way they are to people who are wrongly committed to the way things seem to b
e, thus saving the world from itself (Howard-Brook 401).  Christian social activists, as priests/prophets/kings through baptism, also operate as truth-tellers and engage with their persecutors in hope, a hope that is often cynically pushed aside because it challenges the powerful to change their ways to correspond with the Truth.

In the second dialogue (John 19:10-11), Jesus shows his total control of the situation through his silence and short response (Vawter 460).   O’Day posits that this conversation supports the interpretation that the potential loss of power is why Pilate is fearful as he reenters the praetorium to confront Jesus about where he is from (821).  Jesus says nothing.  Howard-Brook says that it’s hard to penetrate Jesus’ reasoning here but that for the writer of John, it is a way to show Jesus’ ultimate control (407).  Perhaps the most powerful thing activists can do when confronted by those in power is to say nothing but stand on their previous answers.  This civil disobedience of not responding will frustrate the powerful; witness Pilate in v. 10, who then feels like he has to lecture Jesus on authority.   Then in v. 11, Jesus doesn’t remain silent. He plays with Pilate again, using another metaphor.  In Jesus’ response, the double entendre of “from above” means “from Caesar” for Pilate; for Jesus, it’s “from God” (Howard-Brook 408).  Jesus shows his authority over Pilate and is in control of the situation with such a statement.  Pilate does not respond to this statement, but we can assume that he probably thought Jesus was delusional.  Christian activists will also be seen in such a way–as fools for Christ (1 Cor. 4:10).   Pilate saw Jesus’ silence and words as weak, but Paul reminds activist Christians that such strength in weakness is the paradox of being a nonviolent activist. 

What can activists learn from the irony that Jesus, through John’s account, used in dealing with Pilate? In light of the 1960s activism against “The Man,” it should make us all smile when Pilate says to us “Behold, the man!” (19:4). Obviously, “Son of Man” as a title is used by Jesus to denote his ultimate humanity and divinity; he is “the man,” not Pilate, and represents the best of humanity.  In fact, Pilate undercuts his very authority by unwittingly presenting Jesus as the eschatological judge in this way (O’Day 820).  Vawter points out that Jesus sees himself as the “mediator in whom heaven and earth meet” (427).  Perhaps this knowledge gives Jesus the final strength to witness to truth; for although all looks dark, the ultimate triumph of those who work for justice is assured in the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus knew so well.  The world is on trial and is judged by its response to Jesus’ witness (O’Day 817). John turns a mirror on us, especially the social activists, and invites us to join the court and judge the oppressor, Pilate, as Jesus does in relationship to his own statement of identity/purpose in 3:16-18 (Griffith-Jones 373).  Activists should take heart; Rensberger says: “There is here a clear refusal to acknowledge the authority of Rome, as a power limited to this world, over those who by believing in Jesus have become children of God and so gain ascendancy over this world” (98).  Jesus’ transcendence of the first century CE definition of “kingship” is not apolitical–his witness to the truth confronts Pilate with a challenge beyond his grasp and in the end strips him of the authority he thinks he has (98).  If one considers what Stephen Patterson would call Jesus’ “Empire of God” vision, the disciple, according to Wayne Meeks, “will always have to decide vis-a-vis the Empire whether Jesus is his king or whether Caesar is” (qtd. in Rensberger 98).  Jesus presents a third way for activists in his appearance before Pilate–beyond zealotry and collaboration–an Empire vision that bears witness to the truth that is political but transcends the political (Rensberger 100).  All Christian activists, and others who advocate through a spiritual lens, such as Gandhi, have understood this “way.”  But as Dietrich Bonheoffer would remind us, this way is costly; picking up one’s cross will be difficult and there is only the solace that one is planting a seed with one’s suffering.

Like Sophie Scholl and the German university resisters during Hitler’s reign twenty centuries later, Jesus is not defeated but is glorified in laying down his life for his friends (John 15:9-17); this love that is rejected by social sin continues to inspire us into the future.  Jesus cunningly shows that Pilate does not have real power and authority.  Although Jesus does not get the final word in on this challenge-reposte, he would through the resurrection and the movement that would become a new religion and, more importantly, a new vision of justice. 

                                              Works Cited

Brown, Raymond E.  An Introduction to the New Testament.  New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Gandhi, Mohandas K.  An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. 1927. 

 Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. Reprint.    

Griffith-Jones, Robin.  The Four Witnesses.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.  

Howard-Brook, Wes.  Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship.

Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1994.

Martin, Sean Charles. Class Lecture. Did Jesus Have a Sense of Humor?  Aquinas Institute of


Theology, St. Louis, MO.  4 October 2010.

Martin, Sean Charles. Class Lecture. Doubles Entendres and Irony: Jesus in the Gospel of John.


 Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis, MO. 9 November 2010.


O’Day, Gail R. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.”  The New

             Interpreter’s Bible. Volume IX.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995. 

Patterson, Stephen J.  The God of Jesus. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998.

Pazdan, Mary Margaret. The Son of Man: A Metaphor for Jesus in the Fourth Gospel.

             Collegeville,MN:  The Liturgical Press, 1991.     

Rensberger, David.  Johannine Faith and Liberating Community.  Philadephia: Westminister

 Press, 1988.     

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha. Eds. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E.

Murphy.   New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.                    

Vawter, Bruce. “The Gospel According to John.”  The Jerome Biblical Commentary. Eds.     


Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy.  Englewood Cliffs      


NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.


About johnpowell1020

Middle-aged theology teacher who believes in the best of life's paradoxes. Loves God, Lisa, his family, The Beatles, Wilco, great music, the Chicago Cubs, the University of Florida , Barry University, teaching, photography, the piano, documentaries, Autumn, Clover & India, peacocks, and so much more....
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