Reconstruction of the Pilate scene in the Gospel of Mark

Summary

The Passover Privilege—the choice offered by Pilate to the multitudes of Jerusalem—has long been problematic. Mark invoked a name, “Pilate,” that had meaning to the audience of his play, in Rome 90-95 CE. We can assume that Mark expected the audience to bring their knowledge of Pilate, that he was hard (at minimum) or even cruel. But the Passover Privilege presents Pilate as a hostage to his earlier promise to submit to the will of the Jerusalem multitudes. Such a “Passover Privilege” has no historical attestation and is generally acknowledged to be fictional. I propose that in the play, Pilate did offer the crowd a choice, but he had (and communicated to the audience) a different reason. Later, an editor of the text replaced it with the Passover Privilege. The editor probably wanted to avoid the appearance of criticism of a Roman official. A whitewash of Pilate also explains the removal of two lines that a chiastic reconstruction suggests were first written in the Gospel of Mark, now Matthew 27:24-25 (Pilate’s hand-washing and the crowd’s response).

Introduction

In the following, I build on my book The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. There and here, I assume the following: Mark wrote a play about a heavenly Jesus who came to earth to die and rise. The play was performed on a stage for an audience in Rome 90-95 CE. Mark wrote a secondary, narratized text that preserved the experience of the play: that text is the original version of our received Gospel of Mark.

In the book, I do not discuss the Passover Privilege explanation for Pilate’s offer of a choice. I take the Passover Privilege for granted. I do mention the possibility that the man with a pitcher of water showed up in the Passion, but I do not discuss how that scene would have been played. My focus in the book was on arguing for the stageability of the play behind the Gospel of Mark. I could not afford a lengthy digression on a single scene. Here, I discuss the Pilate scene (Mk 15:1-15)—fully, I hope. This post should be seen as a supplement to the book.

Part 1: The Passover Privilege, considered

Pontius Pilate was the prefect of Judea for about 10 years (c. 26-36 CE). He was not sympathetic to Judean sensibilities (Philo of Alexandria, Embassy to Gaius). How unsympathetic was he? The sources do not agree. It is fair to say that he was a hard man—provincial governors were known to be rapacious—and his reputation was somewhere between harsh and cruel. Mark, when he chose to name the character in the play after a real person, must have expected his audience to know Pilate’s reputation. Perhaps it was proverbial. In any case, when the audience heard his name spoken in the play, they expected a decisive character, at minimum unsympathetic to the local Judeans.

Why then does Mark have his Pilate character seemingly defer to the crowd, when he offers them a choice between Barabbas and Jesus?

On a purely technical level, the offered choice delays the action and raises the dramatic tension. That is a sufficient reason for its existence. But the rationale for it must be plausible within the world of the story. It should also be integrated into the play: if it comes out of nowhere, that is a sign of a beginner playwright. Which Mark was not.

To set a baseline for discussion, following is the approximate staging and dialogue of the Pilate material in the received text (Mk 15:1-15) (KJV).

Pilate scene in the play, according to the received text

Scene: The praetorium (center of upper stage).

PILATE and SOLDIERS are present. Some SOLDIERS, to the side, are holding bound prisoners including BARABBAS. SERVANTS, accompanied by CHIEF PRIESTS, haul JESUS, bound, to the praetorium, and deposit him there. The CHORUS waits on the lower level.

CHIEF PRIESTS: Honorable Prefect, hail. We bring you this man who claims to be the king of the Jews, and sole interpreter of our laws. He does not accept our authority. He is a troublemaker.

PILATE (to JESUS): Are you the King of the Jews?

JESUS: You are the one who says it.

CHIEF PRIESTS: You can see what a rascal he is. (CHIEF PRIESTS accuse JESUS of many things. JESUS is silent.)

PILATE (to JESUS): Do you still keep silent? Look at how many things they witness against you! (JESUS remains silent)

CHORUS: Give us a choice, as you always do at this season of the year. Let us choose a prisoner to release!

PILATE: Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?

(CHIEF PRIESTS are whispering to the CHORUS, pointing at BARABBAS, obviously trying to influence the CHORUS)

CHORUS: No, free Barabbas!

PILATE: Well, then, what shall I do with him whom you call the King of the Jews?

CHORUS: Crucify him!

PILATE: Why, what evil has he done?

CHORUS: Crucify him! Crucify him!

PILATE: It shall be done. (PILATE directs the SOLDIERS, who release BARABBAS to the crowd. PILATE or a SOLDIER scourges JESUS, then SOLDIERS lead him downstairs into the orchestra for the mocking.)

Discussion of the staging of the received text

The first dramatic problem with this scene is the sudden appearance of the Passover Privilege. It makes Pilate a passive character, hostage to a promise he made at least a year ago to give the Judean multitudes a choice at Passover. The Passover Privilege removes agency from Pilate. It contradicts the audience’s expectation that the prefect of Judea is a hard man. One must ask: Why did Mark give this character a historical name? That name must inherently have had some dramatic value, and very likely that value was a reputation for harshness.

The statement that a Passover Privilege exists is in 15:8, “And the multitude crying aloud began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them. I suggest that these words in the text were not by Mark; during the performed play, the multitude demanded something else.

Look at the following line, 15:9 “But Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?” That “But” means that Pilate’s answer contradicts the request made in 15:8. However, in the current text, Pilate’s answer is consonant with the multitude’s request, not contradictory.

I suggest that the text of 15:8 was originally something like, “And the multitude crying aloud began to say “Pilate will sentence him. He is going to die!” Then the “But” makes sense. “But” means that the multitude’s expectations may not come to fruition. “But Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?”

My proposal that 15:8 was originally different is supported by 15:11 “But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them.” The chief priests moved the people, that is, the chief priests changed the people’s minds. 15:11 implies that the multitudes in the performed play had been pro-Jesus. Let me repeat that: 15:11 implies that the multitudes in the performed play had been pro-Jesus.

Now, let me discuss Pilate’s subsequent offer to the multitudes of a choice. As stated, I think an offer of a choice is a good dramatic effect. It creates suspense. That offer of a choice, however, could be grounded in different motivations. The Passover Privilege was not the only possibility. I note that Pilate was responsible for keeping the peace. Jesus is a new character to him. Pilate may be concerned that Jesus is highly popular, and that executing him will cause civil unrest. So he offers the crowd a choice to free Jesus or a murderer. Their choice will tell Pilate if they are attached to Jesus. (Ironically, in either case, the crowd is punished: If the crowd chooses to free Barabbas, a murderer roams free. If they choose to free Jesus, they incur the enmity of the anti-Jesus Council (Sanhedrin). Mark could even have had the Pilate actor play the scene as a sadistic game “they think I am giving them a choice, but they are the losers either way! Ha ha!”)

Proposed original Pilate scene in the play

Now, I modify the Pilate scene in the received text, as I approximately reconstructed it above, to conform with the above discussion. I do not assume that Pilate is vicious, though he could be. I think this sketch of the action and key dialogue is closer to Mark’s staged play:

Scene: The praetorium (center of upper stage)

PILATE and SOLDIERS are present. Some SOLDIERS, to the side, are holding bound prisoners including BARABBAS. SERVANTS, accompanied by CHIEF PRIESTS, haul JESUS, bound, to the praetorium, and deposit him there. The CHORUS waits on the lower level.

CHIEF PRIESTS: Honorable Prefect, hail. We bring you this man who claims that he is the king of the Jews, and sole interpreter of our laws. He does not accept our authority. He is a troublemaker.

PILATE (to JESUS): Are you the King of the Jews?

JESUS: You are the one who says it.

CHIEF PRIESTS: You can see what a rascal he is. (CHIEF PRIESTS accuse JESUS of many things. JESUS is silent.)

PILATE (to JESUS): Do you still keep silent? Look at how many things they witness against you! (JESUS remains silent)

CHORUS: Pilate will sentence him! He is going to die!!

(PILATE wants to avoid unrest by these supporters of Jesus, so Pilate devises a plan.)

PILATE: (to SOLDIER) Bring forth the murderer. Yes, Barabbas, that’s the one.

(SOLDIER brings forward Barabbas)

PILATE (to CHORUS): I’m going to give you a choice. (He points at JESUS and at BARABBAS.) Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?

(CHIEF PRIESTS are whispering to the CHORUS, pointing at BARABBAS, obviously trying to influence the CHORUS)

CHORUS: No, we want you to free Barabbas!

PILATE: Well, then, what shall I do with him whom you call the King of the Jews?

CHORUS: Crucify him!

PILATE (testing the CHORUS to see if they are really committed to crucifying JESUS): Why, what evil has he done?

CHORUS: Crucify him! Crucify him!

PILATE: It shall be done. (PILATE directs the SOLDIERS, who release BARABBAS to the crowd. [Their reaction—are they happy with their choice?—is significant but impossible to reconstruct. So is PILATE’s satisfaction at his trick.] PILATE (or a SOLDIER) scourges JESUS, then SOLDIERS lead him down into the orchestra for the mocking.)

Why would an editor of Mark’s text have changed Pilate’s motive for presenting the crowd with a choice? The edit softens Pilate, makes him less harsh. Probably the editor wanted to remove an apparent criticism of a Roman official. That might have been seen as prudent after the death of Flavia Domitilla and her family.

Yes, this is all speculation. But it explains the puzzling elements in the received text: the Passover Privilege that contradicts Pilate’s known character, and the “But” in 15:19.

Part 2: Adding Matthew 27:24-25 to the mix

Here, I will discuss adding Mt 27:24-25 into the performed scene I have just proposed. First, I will build on the revised scene. Here, I will summarize the action of this scene in chiastic format:

The received scene’s action (with my changes from above)

A Chief priests deliver bound Jesus to Pilate
  B Pilate listens to the chief priests’ charges and interrogates Jesus; he doesn’t respond
   C Jesus’s failure to defend himself alarms the pro-Jesus crowd, who cry out that he will be killed
     D Pilate worries that the crowd will cause trouble, so offers them a choice
     D’ The chief priests incite the crowd (to demand the release of Barabbas)
   C’ The crowd now demands the release of Barabbas
  B’ Pilate releases Barabbas to the crowd.
A’ Soldiers deliver bound Jesus to be mocked.

The problem is that the B’ bracket is not parallel to the B bracket. B has action of some length and dramatic weight. B’ is cursory. It happens that Mt 27:24-25 provides a B’ bracket that adequately parallels B.

I propose that the original action in Mark’s play was this:

A Chief priests deliver bound Jesus to Pilate
  B Pilate listens to the chief priests’ charges and interrogates Jesus; he doesn’t respond
   C Jesus’s failure to defend himself alarms the pro-Jesus crowd, who cry out that he will be killed
     D Pilate worries that the crowd will cause trouble, so offers them a choice
     D’ The chief priests incite the crowd (to demand the release of Barabbas)
   C’ The crowd now demands the release of Barabbas
  B’ Pilate washes his hands of the decision; the crowd responds (“His blood be on us…”)
A’ Soldiers deliver bound Jesus to be mocked.

Now the B and B’ brackets both have the same weight.

I note that in Mt 27:24 and 27:25, characters speak about “blood.” The verses are parallel:

A So Pilate took water, and washed his hands before the multitude,
     B saying, I am innocent of the blood of this man: you see it.
A1 Then answered all the people, and said,
     B1 His blood be on us, and on our children.

Whoever wrote one of these verses, wrote both. If an editor wanted to delete one from GMark, s/he had to delete both. I propose that that is what happened.

I think that the rectification of my proposed chiasm is the strongest argument that Mark wrote Mt 27:24-25. But there are additional ‘benefits’ to the play if Mark wrote Mt 27:24-25. First, these verses are good dramatic writing—they include a physical action rather than just talk. Second, as I discuss in the book, Pilate’s hand-washing provides the pretext for the presence onstage of the man with a pitcher of water (who [in the book] I propose played a role in the march to the cross). Third, the crowd’s demand “His blood be on us and on our children” displays Markan irony. The crowd members think that they are committing themselves to the execution of an anti-Council rebel. The audience knows better: the crowd is actually asking to be saved by Jesus’s blood sacrifice!* This Markan irony is so typical of Mark’s style that I find it hard to imagine that another author—Matthew—wrote these verses.

So, to sum up, my reconstruction of Mark’s original Pilate scene finds three places where I believe editing has occurred in the received text. There are no theological implications. But it looks like the crowd during the Pilate scene was clearly pro-Jesus. (Which has implications for the relationship of Jesus and the Chorus in prior scenes.) Still, some of the Pilate scene remains impossible to reconstruct: the “accusations of many things” and the promptings of the chief priests. But with my proposed changes, the scene is better theater, the chorus’s attitude is clearer, and a Markan irony appears to be restored to its original place.

*This brilliant insight came to me from Robert M. Price, in The Bible Geek podcast 19-014. During minute 15, he says, “this wording seems to reflect, I think, what the Israelites say when Moses sprinkles the sacrificial covenant sealing blood on them; that blood be on us and our children. Now, since Jesus’s blood is what seals the new covenant in Matthew, I wonder if somehow it is actually invoking the redemptive blood of Jesus on Jews. Keep in mind the author of Matthew had to have been a Jew, and it’s conceivable that both of these things are true…” I differ only in thinking that the author of this line was probably Mark. I note that Acharya S, in The Christ Conspiracy (1999) p. 206, says substantially the same thing, and probably prior to Dr. Price, “The blood of the scapegoat was sprinkled upon the congregation or audience of the [Passion] play, who would cry, “Let this blood be upon us and our children,” a standard play and ritual line that was designed to ensure future fertility and the continuation of life. This ritual is reflected at Exodus 24:8, when Moses throws the oxen blood on the people to seal the Lord’s covenant with them…”

version August 23, 2020

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