Sometimes questions you had not thought to ask just leap out at you and sometimes they are prompted by the reading of a text new to you. That happened with me this week with regard to the question of what it meant that Pontius Pilate washed his hands of responsibility for the execution of Jesus. Washing your hands of a matter meant to me that the person doing the washing was unconcerned about the collateral damage that might result from a bargain fulfilled. Pilate did what the Elders wanted so as to maintain their political support and so was indifferent to whether Jesus was especially holy or even the Messiah. How could he be indifferent to that? The event is a metaphor for the utmost cynicism. I had become so used to thinking of the event as a metaphor, that I had not focussed on the act itself until I came across a reference, in Bart Erdman’s "Lost Christianities", to an apocryphal gospel, "The Gospel of Peter", where Pilate washes his hands but the Jewish elders who met with him refused to. What could this mean? So let us engage in a bit of speculation about the significance of Pilate’s action.
We know from the Gomorrah, which describes Jewish practices during the time of Jesus, that Jews washed their hands upon arising, upon taking bread, after urinating, and after leaving a cemetery. The act made them ritually clean. These practices are still followed by Orthodox Jews. So what act had Pilate and the Elders taken part in that might make them decide to wash their hands--or decide not to. They had ordered an execution and that might be thought an unclean act requiring a washing of hands. But then why did the Elders refuse to wash their hands? It might be that they did not think themselves complicit in the execution and so only Pilate should take responsibility for it, which he does by washing his hands. So the meaning of the event is just the opposite of what we conventionally take it to be. Pilate is not diminishing his responsibility but acknowledging it while the Elders are saying that they are free of any taint for the sentence passed on Jesus. That would, however, reverse what Erdman considers the anti-Hebraic tone of many of the apocryphal gospels and letters. According to Erdman, the Jews didn’t do it; it was the Romans, just as had been claimed by the Christian kids I knew when I was a child who didn’t want me to have to share a collective guilt with the rest of my people, and they accomplished that by blaming the Romans, none of whom were around to blame because they came to an end as a people in the early Middle Ages.
But probe further. It might be that the Elders thought that they had nothing to feel guilty about. Jesus was indeed a rebel and a blasphemer who deserved his fate and so they did not have to cleanse themselves of an impurity. But in that case the elders would either not be respecting a ritual to be undertaken by those who sit in judgment of others or else there is no need to cleanse oneself even after so serious a matter as sending someone off to death. And in that case, Pilate was mimicking and mocking Jewish ceremony when he washed his hands, borrowing the ritual as a metaphor for being free of guilt. That is in keeping with the idea that Pilate, who knew better, was more guilty than the Elders, who did not know what they were doing because they did not believe that Jesus was the messiah but was someone worthy of condemnation. Support for that interpretation comes from the fact that Pilate washing his hands appears only in "The Gospel According to Matthew", which is generally accepted as the gospel which was addressed to the Hebrews and so aimed at winning them over to the cause of Jesus. That appeal would be stronger if the Jews were not to be blamed for the death of Jesus, and that is what is offered up here. They were blind rather than evil spirited. They were sinners only if they knew somehow, deep in their hearts, that Jesus was the Messiah, which is something it would be easy for someone taken with the Jesus group to believe, but that is something that, though not in so many words, Matthew denies. The guilt belongs to Pilate who, therefore, has to wash his hands of it.
But probe even further. Look at the politics of the time, not as they might really have been, but as they are portrayed to be in the Gospels. Pilate, the Roman Governor, and the Jewish Elders are in collusion with one another. It is in the interests of both to keep unrest to a minimum, the one so as to serve Rome’s interest in pacifying a colony, and the other so as to retain their power in the community. So to their equally cynical points of view, it doesn’t much matter whether Jesus is the Messiah or not. Politics has its own demands. But they both betray Jesus in that they do not believe his claims or the claims made for Him because it is not in their natures or their callings to do so. They have become unclean in that they deny their spiritual selves. Pilate should wash his hands of his many impurities, the most significant of which is that he is without belief, even as he mocks the idea of ritual purification by indulging in it. He doesn’t really mean it.
If that is the case, then the Gospels are indeed probing for or pushing towards a radical reinterpretation of the meaning of religion, which is indeed what most analysts of Christianity have been saying ever since the times of Jesus, who was asking not only for brothers to become separated from sisters, and for people to give up their wealth to the early Christian community, but for them to put aside whatever have been their secular roles so as to fully take on the mantle of this new role, of being a Christian, in all its exclusivity. Just as a disciple was no longer a tax collector or a fisherman or a snake handler however much they might make use of the skills learned in that way in the service of their new master, so too a political figure is no longer to be just that but treat their official capacity as a means to the end of helping the Jesus group to prosper. That is very different from what happens in most religion, the religious figures reauthorizing what the secular authorities do or at least come to terms with what the secular authorities do, which is what Christianity has done ever since Constantine. You always make a deal with the devil even if Jesus would not have and even if the counsel of the Gospels is not to do so either. Religion, in this way, is not a reaffirmation of the status quo or the powers that be, however much Marxists and Durkheimians would make it out to be just that. Rather, religion is a radical rejection of ordinary life, even of the bourgeois life that was important in the proto-capitalist economy of Jesus’ Palestine, where farmers were always preparing crops for market and figuring out how to make their production more profitable. The importance of Mary Magdalene reemerges. Far from simply being a prostitute redeemed from her calling so as to lead a more socially acceptable life, she is a person who has been transformed because she has come to Jesus. It is not a matter of what she once was but that it doesn’t matter what she was so long as she is now a follower and worshipper of Jesus. The world is turned topsy turvy, the old values thrown out, even if Jesus remains true to Jewish ritual and doctrine about most things, such as reporting the cure of a leper to the rabbis who act as the public health officials of their time. The important thing, at least according to the Gospels, is that Jesus transcends the law by abolishing any roles other than that of being a Christian as important.
I don’t know how seriously present day Christians take that point to be. They have evolved doctrines whereby social action or engaging in the sacraments is enough to make them Christians. Max Weber thought the routinization of religious practice occured when children were born to believers. People had to accommodate their beliefs to this new fact and provide easy ways for the children to become among the saved.
Even Kierkegaard was not really willing to live up to the challenge of the Gospels in that he wanted to do away with the panoply in which the self-righteous churchgoer basks by saying that you cannot tell a Christian from a non-believer in any way by looking at them. To Kierkegaard, you only know a Christian is that by the state of his soul, and only God knows that, which is to make religion radically enough purely a matter of faith. But what the Gospels are saying is even more radical. You can tell the difference between a believer and a non-believer because everything a believer does, whatever his social rank or position, is to be done in the service of Jesus. Do not trust your Christian servant and, similarly, do not trust your political officials, even if they have been given their positions by Rome, if they do not believe. Belief separates Christians in the most fundamental way from all other people. Religion is an umbrella only for believers in that everybody else is out in the rain, and good riddance to them. Religion is not what brings all people together, everyone united by having a faith of their own choosing and so able to recognize the humanity of all their fellow creatures, even if that is what an American inflected doctrine of tolerance would presume.
David Konstan, the classicist, makes a convergent point. He says that the Christian idea of sin is not available in the ancient world, where sin had more to do with error. Rather, sin in the New Testament means a lack of trust in Jesus to be what he claims to be, which is a miracle worker. People are cured not because Jesus has forgiven their sins but because their only sin might have been that they did not believe in his miracle working, and so their believing He can work miracles is reason enough to cure them (though that does not deal with the question of why Jesus doesn’t just cure everybody; it is like Superman here and there helping one person rather than another, but never getting around to building housing for the poor in a flash.)
Konstan and I are, in our different ways, both noticing how peculiar is Christianity, that it is a modern religion in that it is not at all caught up in ethnicity or custom, which was characteristic of prior religions. It strikes out as an exclusivist religion in that it is very demanding of its adherents both psychologically and actually, separating them from all other peoples and asking fidelity to an idea that somehow this miracle worker is not a fraud but the actual son of god. Prior cults had required people only to show up at a sacred site so as to be sanctified by the blood of a sacrifice; here, one’s makeup as a person is to be transformed and the person is put at the disposal of the group. So Konstan and I converge, him from addressing the question of the psychology of faith and I from the vantage point of the meaning of human behavior when it is done through the eye of religion. In either case, the perspective, I think, is scary and fraught with the evils that will dominate the Middle Ages: intolerance, fanaticism, the neglect of reason, superstition, all these evils living into the twentieth century and beyond. Maybe Pope Francis can take some of the sting out, but maybe not.