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Gospel Truths

Did Pontius Pilate offer the people an impossible choice?

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi |
April 7, 2013 9:51:51 pm

Did Pontius Pilate offer the people an impossible choice?

Cleaning out my bookshelves on Easter weekend,I came upon one of those tiny,red Gideon’s Bibles which were once tastefully scattered all over India’s hotels,before we started getting hot flashes about conversion. This copiously underlined New Testament was a reminder that though I am deeply,deeply godless,I was once very interested in the mysteries of religion. The leading mystery: why are otherwise sensible people so willing to read glosses of history,which have been tweaked by interested parties to establish social and moral norms,as founding truths?

Flipping through the little red book — and noting an ironic superficial resemblance with Mao’s communist bible — I found that I have not changed my opinion in the decades since I first read it. The only sections which resonate with a dissolute heathen like me are the Song of Solomon and the Book of Revelations. The former reads like a pagan love song which has inexplicably survived the civilising ravages of organised religion. The latter,St John’s delightfully inscrutable blood and thunder doomsday prophecy,will inspire apocalyptic potboilers all over the world till the end of time. It has even inspired a Hollywood Western,Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider.

But the most inscrutable mystery of the New Testament is the absence of Jesus from the historical record. Rome was an empire. Empires are obsessive about keeping records in triplicate and filing 10 copies with the central archive. The glue of bureaucratic communications holds their far-flung territories together. But Pontius Pilate,Roman prefect of the troubled province of Judaea,crucified the son of God Almighty and left no record at all? Before that,he offered to pardon one of two convicts,the thief Barabbas and the Messiah Jesus,following a tradition of clemency that again,the record fails to mention? Is that credible?

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So what we are discussing here is not history. Repeat,not. For lack of data and the sensitivities involved,it is not possible to establish or deny the historicity of Jesus. But what authorised Bibles contain and what has been edited out do permit us to raise questions. Several academic authors have done so already,and I am amazed that Dan Brown has not milked the mystery as dry as the teat of the Whore of Babylon.

The crucial question is: how many convicts appeared before Pilate for pardon? Two,according to the authorised texts,Barabbas and Jesus. The former was a thief,or perhaps a robber — something has been lost in translation across Aramaic,Greek,Latin and modern languages. The latter was a messiah who was born to take the sins of the world upon himself and expiate it in blood. Only one would be pardoned. The crowd was asked to choose and,at the instigation of allegedly peevish Jewish elders,it voted to sacrifice Jesus.

That is the traditional version. It was convenient to blame the Jews. It absolved the Roman administration of responsibility for a martyrdom that Peter and Paul would soon leverage to take over Rome itself. It had an unfortunate side effect,justifying two millennia of anti-Semitism which culminated with the Holocaust. But the story,true or not,contains inherent complications. The Gospel of Matthew refers to Barabbas as a “notorious prisoner”. Mark,Luke and John suggest that he was a rebel who had killed during a rising. That’s not the thief of the popular sermon. It sounds more like a resistance fighter or a terrorist,tags which can describe the same person from two points of view. And indeed,there were violent resistance movements against Roman occupation in the Middle East. But of course,Jesus stood for peace.

Then,consider the name Barabbas. Bar Abbas,in Aramaic,the language that Jesus preached in,means “the Son of the Father”. That sounds eerily like the Messiah’s description of himself. The first name of Barabbas does not figure in the Bible,but exists in apocryphal and exegetical texts. It is Jesus.

Was Pilate offering his subjects an impossible choice? Choose between Jesus the Son of the Father and Jesus the Messiah,Son of the Father — between resistance leader and religious figure? Two faces of the same coin,at a time when religious identity was sometimes indistinguishable from political identity. Was there only one man in Pilate’s court when he washed his hands and contributed a figure of speech to the world’s languages? Maybe the incident does not figure in the bureaucratic record because the prefect of Judaea was too bizarre for words.

Remember,this is just an intriguing surmise,a quasi-historical riddle. It cannot be termed history. It could just be a yarn. But such a delightful yarn!

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