The Trial of Jesus as a Trying of Human Law, Justice, and Truth

The trial of Jesus serves as a marker of two types of interpretive frames and two types of theology. A theology built upon abstraction will interpret the trial such that it cannot discriminate between the intent of Pilate, the Jews, and Christ, so that good and evil are fused into a singular purpose. In this understanding, Roman law and God’s law are united to bring about the death of Jesus. God is simply working out his providential intent to punish Jesus under the law so that he might be punished for all. Rome, with its god-Caesar is not being judged, but Rome’s law and justice are perfectly adequate for God’s purposes.  After all, Rome and the Church will unite under Emperor Constantine and this Constantinian Christianity imagines that human law, justice, and government, are in accord with God’s purposes in Christ. In this understanding the economy of salvation works with the economy of human cultures and nations so that salvation comes through Constantinian Rome – or Christian America. As Dante will describe Jesus’ trial, it was under a lawful procedure bringing about a just punishment, therefore, one cannot pronounce its proceedings evil. 

The practical outworking of law as its own absolute is continually before us in the present political climate. Jeff Sessions tells us that children and parents crossing the border illegally will be separated, by law.  People fleeing violence and poverty are subjected to a law, which anyone vaguely familiar with the teaching of Jesus would seem to condemn as evil. Gina Haspel, testifying before congress as to her fitness to run the CIA, illustrates the immediate pertinence of this issue (she is testifying the day of this writing). Since she worked at a “black site” in Thailand where terrorism suspects were waterboarded, Senator Kamala Harris quizzed her about the morality of water boarding. Haspel, in her reply, continually refused to judge “enhanced interrogation” unethical, as it was legal. When Harris presses the question, Haspel answers with a tautology: “We have committed ourselves to the higher moral standard we hold ourselves to.”  (As Jacques Derrida notes, all human law reduces to some form of the tautology, “the law is the law.”)  In the most chilling part of the exchange, after Harris insists she answer the question “yes or no,” Haspel’s response seems to come from the darkest annals of history.  “We should hold ourselves to the moral standard outlined in the Army Field Manual.”

Adolph Eichmann, on trial in Jerusalem for playing a key role in the holocaust, uses as his primary defense that he was just a bureaucrat following Hitler’s orders. When pronounced guilty his last words were, “I had to obey the rules of war and of my flag!”  Law is law, and in this very German-Lutheran version of theology, even Jesus death will be explained according to this absolute. The divine economy is not an intervention into, what appears to be unmitigated evil (Hitler is hailed by German Christian’s as God’s spokesman); rather, salvation is being worked out according to codified human moral standards. Given the theological understanding that human law and God’s law are one, there is no end of “divinely sanctioned” evil.

Luther, as representative of this understanding, imagines that when Pilate wants to free Jesus and when he declares there is no case against Jesus, this is a temptation posed by Satan. He explains Pilate’s wife’s dream (as a result of which she tells her husband to have nothing to do with this man) as a demon’s intervention seeking to impede the crucifixion. That is, to halt the trial or prevent the death of Christ would be to subvert the divine economy of salvation. In this understanding, Pilate, Judas, the Jews, the Romans – all line up as part of God’s effort to have Jesus punished. Rather than seeing the trial of Jesus as a clash of powers, this reading presumes that God is the puppet master pulling the strings and human law is the instrument he employs. Good and evil are not really opposed to one another, as “all things are working together for good” (to misquote Paul). In this understanding, God’s sovereign purposes are always being worked out, regardless of the particulars, as the eternal trues of heaven render the particular facts of history largely irrelevant. All of history is a “revelation” of the divine and no particular events can be pivotal.

The alternative interpretive frame and theology is to see the human economy, human government, human notions of law and justice, as coming into conflict with the divine economy of salvation. If ever there were a point in history where two worlds (two notions of truth, two economies, two notions of justice) stood opposed, it is the trial of Jesus. In this understanding, there are pivotal or significant events in history which pertain to eternity.  Christ is confronting evil in the form of Pilate (Rome’s representative), in the form of the leading Jews (misrepresenting Jewish law and religion), and all of these forces unite in the death of Jesus. This is not the law of God but is the culmination of the outworking of the law of sin and death. Christ has not come to fulfill this law but to expose it for an abomination. Under this law man passes judgment on God incarnate, but the very purpose of the incarnation and this “trial” are to overturn human judgments. Judgments of truth, the nature of God’s kingdom, sovereignty, and justice are to be found in the details of this trial.

Where the previous understanding may have some interest in the historical details, these particulars are subsumed into eternal truth abstracted from the facts. Structure, law, and logic reign over events, and events (historical particulars) are a manifestation of these structures and not revelatory in and of themselves. This would, in fact, accord with Pilate’s Roman theology in which Rome and Roman law are determinate of significance. Pilate’s regard for Rome is on the order of Hegel’s (Lutheran?) regard for Christ: Christ/Caesar is a symbol of humanity whose particular humanity will inevitably disappear but this disappearance is itself proof of the absolute nature of the Roman/universal Spirit. One cannot have regard for particular people, especially a Jewish peasant, as all value transcends the fate of any individual.

Yet, Pilate is the one who clues us into the nature of the conflict, as he engages Jesus he is thrown into an agonistic struggle. He declares Jesus is innocent, blameless, and that there cannot possibly be a trial as he has already rendered judgment – “there is no case against the man.”  Yet Pilate, despite his temptation to really consider Jesus’ claims, can only deal with him according to the dictates of Rome. For Pilate, Roman law and the sovereignty of Caesar order all things – law is Rome and Rome is the law and Caesar embodies both.

If Pilate were merely a cog in the execution and punishment of Christ, why this prolonged encounter in which he and Jesus discuss truth, alternative kingdoms, and alternative notions of sovereignty? John seems to highlight these details as they contain the substance of that which the Spirit will bring to remembrance. The community of the Spirit, the Church, does not appear on the basis of the disappearance of this concrete individual (contra Hegel, the Spirit does not work on his own accord), but draws all things from Christ.

This gets to the center of the confrontation – Jesus claims that “everyone who belong to the truth hearkens to my voice.” Trials are all about finding the truth and Jesus makes an absolute truth claim: “I was born for this Kingship and this Kingdom and I am testifying to the truth.” This notion of truth cannot float free of the historical fact of Jesus. If you dwell in the truth, Jesus argues, you will “hear” and this hearing already entails a reconfigured relationship between events and truth. Hearing in the NT includes events themselves which are now part of the Word to be appropriated. “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands,” all constitute what is absorbed in this hearing.  Facts, events, and meaning, converge in what “was manifested” in Christ and this Truth pertains to “eternal life” (1 Jn 1:1–2). The individual man, Jesus, and the events of his life bear ultimate meaning and are revelatory –  he is the Truth.

In the trial then, two kingdoms are clashing, two notions of sovereignty are being contested, and truth itself, as it relates to kings and kingdoms, is argued by the defendant and the Roman Prefect.  Pilate’s “What is Truth?”, given this context, reflects, a failure to grasp the that truth is not an impersonal, eventless, “what.” With the preponderant claim of Rome upon his sense of order and justice, Pilate could not discern that Jesus was Truth incarnate. His misdirected question betrays his incapacity, despite his prolonged subsequent attempt, to assess the truth of the case. What is ultimately tried and found wanting in the trial of Jesus are human notions of law, justice, and truth.

(The Gospel of John is Ploughshares Bible Institute’s next class.)

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.