What Does the Death of Socrates have to do with the Death of Jesus?

I had not been back in this country very long until I was frustrated with the teaching profession. At the time, I doubt I would have blamed it on the caliber of students, because I had not yet been able to discern any caliber, other than one. Then one day in a theology class a towheaded eighteen-year-old (Ryan, as I would learn), who I had not noticed at all in the large class, posed the question, or something like it, in my title above.[1] There is no aspect of the Christian faith to which this question does not pertain. For example, the word from which we get “apology” (apolegein in Greek) means defense, as in the defense Socrates would present in his trial in Athens and the word specifically applies in the New Testament to the trial of Jesus. How we understand these two trials and the two deaths, or how we understand the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation, law and salvation, is determinative of our understanding of the Christian faith. What I slowly recognized in Ryan’s question, is that the way in which Jesus’ trial and death contrasts with that of Socrates brings out the peculiar nature, not only of the defense of the gospel, but of the gospel itself. So here is a succinct answer to the drawn out course of study Ryan’s question demands.

The trial of Socrates (399 BC) was held to determine the philosopher’s guilt on two charges: impiety against the pantheon of Athens, and corruption of the youth of the city-state. His answer to both charges is to show that it was in devotion to Apollo that he sat out on his course of dialogic questioning. He had been told by a friend that the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi had revealed he was the wisest man in Athens, which caused him to try to prove the Oracle wrong by finding someone wiser. He was simply on a mission to sort out what people actually knew as he assumed he had no great wisdom. He acknowledges his own ignorance but is surprised that this insight alone set him above his contemporaries, most all of whom presumed to have special knowledge. It was in searching for a man wiser than himself, someone who knew his limitations, that he earned the reputation of being a social gadfly. His argument is that he is a good, pious citizen, and not guilty of either of the charges. He is, nonetheless, found guilty and he accepted death by suicide rather than fleeing into exile.

Socrates clung to the city, with its laws, religion, and even its right over his own life and death.  It was his attachment to the city which explains his acquiescence to drinking the hemlock; he could not imagine a world beyond this corporate identity. He died secure in his citizenship without questioning the laws, tradition, or religion, of the society into which he was born. His final words demonstrate as much; “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; pay it and don’t forget.” Asclepius is the god of health and Socrates presumed, as every good Greek would, his prayer was answered in being cured of the disease of life.

In summary, there is no argument about the role of law, religion, or about the foundational role of the city in the trial of Socrates. To read Socrates’ trial and death as parallel to that of Jesus is to misread Christian apologetics and theology (and this is the way it is often read). Jesus trial, and certainly his death, is not an affirmation of the laws and reason of the city but is a challenge to both, so that a Christian defense and theology would undo and reorder human thought and imagination.

In the trial of Jesus in the Gospel of John no judgment is ever formally declared. Beyond this, there is an ambiguity as to who is acting as judge. Jesus is not being judged by Pilate, at least in any formal sense, as Pilate is going to refuse to pronounce judgment.  Pilate attempts to follow his wife’s advice, to “have nothing to do with this man,” and so he “washes his hands” of the affair by simply turning the matter over to the Jews. He suggests to the Jews, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him” (19:6, NASB). This is more of a taunt on the part of Pilate, for he knows they have no power to crucify and are precisely forbidden by Roman law to try capital cases and their own law forbids crucifixion.  Pilate repeatedly claims there is “no case against the man” and so he cannot pass judgment and there is to be no trial. When the Jews begin to yell, “Crucify him,” Pilate reiterates that there is “no case against the man.”  The Jewish leaders then suggest that, though he may not have broken Roman law, Jesus has broken Jewish law by claiming to be the Son of God.  For Pilate, this is one more turn of the screw, he becomes “even more afraid.”  Pilate, seems to suspect he is the one undergoing trial and judgment. 

After Pilate declares there is no case and he cannot judge, he has Jesus paraded out in his royal purple robes and his mock crown and declares, “Behold the Man.” Jesus has been beaten and is bleeding, and  Pilate seems to be attempting to reduce Jesus’ importance in the estimate of the crowd, perhaps to save his life through his humiliation. Of course, it is Pilate’s own life that has now slid onto the scale of judgment. The Jews explanation that he claimed to be the “Son of God,” Caesar’s own claim as to source of his authority, directly pits the claims of Jesus against those of Caesar and Pilate.  Pilate’s attempt to reduce Jesus to bare human life, devoid of the dignity accorded the “real” sovereign, and his use of the royal robes and mock crown works against his purpose.  The “mock king” raises questions as to the power and claims of the “real thing.”  “Look at the Man, there is nothing there – right?” The trick not only does not work but seems to backfire.

Pilate asks, when he returns to the Praetorium, “Don’t you understand I am the one with the power in this situation,” and the question behind the question is who is really calling the shots? Jesus clarifies, “You have no power over me whatsoever that is not given to you from the very source from whence my kingdom comes. Your powerlessness is evident, so the ones who delivered me to you bear the greater guilt.” Pilate’s concerted effort not to pass judgment stands in contrast to Jesus’ ready willingness to pronounce judgement. His judgment concerns not just human law, he presumes to announce eternal decrees as to who is more guilty of sin. As he has claimed throughout his ministry, judgment is determined by what you do with him.  “Certainly, those who have delivered me to you are worse off according to eternal judgments, but Pilate, your claims to power are clearly illegitimate. Beyond that, all claims that follow in your stead (those of every human sovereign) are now thrown into question.” At least, this might be implied from the conversation.

When Pilate asks if Jesus is King, Jesus replies, “You are the one who has said I am a king,” and Pilate’s every move says as much.  Jesus acknowledges that his kingdom is not from this world. The tradition surrounding this statement, from Augustine to Aquinas, is not that Jesus is establishing his kingdom elsewhere; rather, it is not established in the mode of this world’s kingdoms.  It is a heavenly kingdom in its origins, but the incarnation and this very moment in the trial are witness to the earthly nature of the kingdom. Their brief exchange leaves Pilate in a panic and he attempts to have Jesus released. The Jews then pull their trump card: “If you release this man you are not a friend of Caesar.”

What happens next heightens the ambiguity as to Pilate’s response.  Jesus stands robed in royal purple and a crown of thorns as a prolonged debate about sovereignty unfolds.  The one who is supposed to represent Caesar is now threatened with the power of Caesar.  Subsequent to John 19:13 (the verse in question), Pilate will change his, “Look at the Man” to “Look at your King.” Pilate, Caesar’s representative, provides the strongest testimony as to Jesus sovereign identity.  At this point, the Jews seem to grow frantic and drop all pretense of a Jewish legal proceeding: “We have no King other than Caesar.” The words on the lips of the chief priests, the representatives of the theocratic government of Israel, is nothing less than blasphemy – the charge they are bringing against Jesus.  Here is the final denouement of their turn from God to kings, as now God does not figure at all into their view of sovereignty. They are abdicating their Messianic hope so as to excel even Pilate in their singular loyalty to the god-king Caesar.  The implication is that they would set aside Jewish tradition and law in their blasphemous absolutizing of Caesar. 

Following the Textus Receptus, John 19:13 is usually translated as, “He [Pilate] brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat” (NASB). However, there is an alternative reading which says, “He led Jesus outside and sat him [Jesus] on the judge’s bench.” In this reading Jesus, and not Pilate, is seated so as to exercise judgment.  Pilate is not simply refusing to judge but is declaring Jesus the rightful judge as well as king, which fits his statement at this point: “Behold your king” (19:14).  Though the people began to shout for his death Pilate is not dissuaded as to Jesus identity, “Shall I crucify your King?” he asks. The one who has been seated in the place of judgment, the one declared “King of the Jews” by the representative of the earthly sovereign, the one pronouncing judgment on both the Jews and Pilate, is the one “handed over” in lieu of judgment.  No judgment is passed by the earthly judges but the succession of people to whom Jesus is handed over declare him innocent (repeatedly in all four Gospels). Ultimately, at the crucifixion, in three different languages, Pilate pronounces Jesus is “King of the Jews.” When told that the sign should read, “he claimed to be King of the Jews,” Pilate refuses to change it.

This reading fits with the accounts of Matthew and Luke in which Jesus is also dressed in a purple robe, given a scepter, hailed as the “King of the Jews,” and it fits the sign Pilate has affixed to the Cross in all four Gospels. It explicitly fits with the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (c. 190 CE), in which the people “put on him a purple robe, and made him sit upon the seat of judgment, saying: ‘Give righteous judgment, thou King of Israel’” (3:7). In each of the Gospels Pilate declares him innocent and refuses to declare a judgment. Jesus is crucified outside of the City of Jerusalem and outside Roman and Jewish legal codes and no judgment is ever passed.

The trial of Jesus serves as a marker of two types of interpretive frames and two types of theology. A theology built upon the notion that Jesus is legally sentenced to death (a strange but common understanding) 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 within 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. 

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.

This Constantinian, Roman, American, Christianity, will account for evil as a necessary outworking of law. For example, Adolf 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 Christians 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.

The alternative interpretive frame and theology is to see the human economy, human government, human notions of law and justice, and human reason 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 (representing 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.

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 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.

In contrast to Socrates, Jesus literally and metaphorically died outside the city. Unlike Socrates, Jesus stands in judgment of the logic of the city (of Pilate and Herod, of Rome and Jerusalem), at the same time he witnesses to a truth beyond the city. Socrates accepted his death according to the law while Jesus questioned the authorities and he did not die according to, or within, the laws of the city, but beyond their purview as his was a death of banishment from the city, beyond its walls, beyond its laws, beyond its protection.

The failure to grasp the contrast is evident in arguments, such as those I was taught in seminary, which would presume a universally shared rational foundation (Athens leads to Jerusalem). One need not rely upon revelation to follow Anselm into his greatest thought that can be thought, and Kant suggested that all of the arguments for God were founded in the same ontological presumption. By the same token, a theology which works within the parameters of the law (Jewish, Roman, or a universally shared morality) will interpret the trial of Jesus and his crucifixion (a central part of the gospel), as a direct outworking of a conjoined human and divine will, rather than a clash between the human and divine. Those who take up the cross and follow Jesus, however, do not share the Socratic acquiescence to the city of man and its laws, but join Christ outside the city gates in an alternative kingdom, an alternative logic, and an alternative imagination.


[1] This changed many things in my teaching. I began to notice the occasional bright spots and Ryan helped Faith and I develop an honors program and went on to conquer the world of academia and academic publishing, another story, but we have remained friends over these past 15 or so years. His question was not unlike that of Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” with similar implications.

The Semiotics of Church

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Plato presumes writing is a step removed from meaning in that the memory and mind of the reader are disengaged and that the sign system, the dead letter, absorbs the living word of speech. Plato notes that writing is offered as a remedy (a pharmakon) by the Egyptian god of writing but the word contains a warning in its three possible meanings: remedy, poison, and scapegoat. Perhaps in the pharmakon reside the very origins of meaning with the remedy to the poison summed up in the scapegoat (the problem of violence overcome in scapegoating violence). Plato privileges speech over writing, but Derrida notes that Socrates would counteract the pharmakon of writing with the knowledge “graven in the soul.” In other words, Socrates is offering another pharmakon to counteract the pharmakon and he can do this as poison and its cure are always contained in the sign system – whether of writing or speech. Meaning arises in this medium of signs through what Derrida calls différance, in that the play of the differences (soul/ body, good/ evil, inside/ outside, memory/ forgetfulness, speech/ writing, etc.) playing off of one another, not simply as opposites but as a point of comparison, is the resource of the dialectics of meaning.

René Girard, in appreciation of Derrida’s analysis, connects the pharmakon to a prior original violence (the scapegoat, like the pharmakon, contains both the poison of violence and the cure). The surrogate victim or scapegoat symbolically bears all the weight of evil (the chaos of total violence) and its cure – the sacred – in which the victim becomes the god. According to Girard, the invocation of the sign of this event – the original signification – opens up the symbolic space giving rise to human language and society.

To describe the process in biblical terms is to posit an even more ancient origin, prior to Derrida’s identity through difference and Girard’s scapegoating mechanism, or prior to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and prior to the first murder and the first city. Two signs and two symbolic orders are represented by two trees in the Garden of Eden. The first tree contains life as the sign of God’s presence. It is under the sign of this tree that the ordering and naming activity of Adam, in what is sometimes described as the role of co-creator, is carried out. In this differentiating there is not an identity through a violent difference, as all difference (male/female, and the difference of the creatures from one another) are part of a unity of life and creation.

One can project forward and recognize unity, nonviolence, peace, and love are part of this original creative Logos (the semiotics of Adam) restored in the church. That is, the semiotics of the Logos will bring about an end to meaning built upon difference (light/dark, life/death, Jew/Gentile, etc.). The sign of the tree of life restored in the future kingdom brings about a unified humanity – “the healing of the nations.” The curse of death and violence are undone under the sign of this tree (Revelation 22:3-4). In Paul’s depiction, this unified humanity is represented by Jew/Gentile unity which comes about in a new mode of doing identity in the church. No longer do the binaries of Jew/Gentile, slave/free/, or male/female serve as a mode of doing identity through difference, but in the church, there is unity that contains these differences (as in the first and final appearance of the tree of life).

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as Derrida noted, is the original sign of the semiotic order of identity through difference. This system of signs is deadly in that it becomes its own origin of meaning, the first foundationalism, which cuts off from the meaning contained in the semiotics of life. Here in the biblical picture, as Girard recognizes, there is a sign system of death in which the first city arises from the original murder (Cain kills Abel and founds a city). The cultures of death are built upon a meaning and power of death established through violent and sacred difference – sacrifice or founding murder.

The understanding that culture is built upon a founding murder and that Christ reverses this order, is inclusive of a new order of meaning – a semiotics of life. I believe this provides the proper context for understanding Paul’s conviction that apparent dualisms (former modes of doing identity) such as death and life, present and future, height and depth, are no longer able to separate us from the love of God (Ro 8:38). Life has overcome death, Christ has filled the heights and depths (Eph 3:17), and time itself is now intersected by the eternal one. These things, taken as the foundation of an order of meaning, did indeed separate from God. Now, in Christ, they are taken up in a new order which comprehends or encompasses these differences and fills them with a love which surpasses this knowledge (Eph 3:17-19).

This is an order of meaning which confounds “the rulers of this age,” as they cannot understand it. It was, after all, in their own wisdom, their own order of meaning, that they “crucified the Lord of glory” (I Cor 2:8). As Louis Berkhof has described it, the crucifixion exposes the deception behind what was presumed to be ultimate reality. The scribes were assured that the law necessitated his death; the priests crucified him to honor the temple, and the Pharisees crucified him in the name of piety. “Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself.  Obviously, ‘none of the rulers of this age,’ who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, ‘for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8).” With the crucifixion this false order of meaning is unmasked (unmasked as false absolutes and false deities) through their encounter with the Truth; they are made a public spectacle. The power of his resurrection defeats the “rule and authority, power and dominion,” of these rulers as they depended upon the power of death which he has defeated (Eph 1:20-21). Resurrection is inclusive of a new order of meaning no longer bound by the identity through difference, the lie or false wisdom which killed him.

This is why, for Paul, grace works in and through truth, as it is defeating the obstacle of meaning founded upon a lie (Col 1:6). Paul refers to this lie as “empty deceit,” which may be articulated through “philosophy” or “human traditions” (Col 2:8). These meaning systems, deployed by “the principalities and powers,” are coercive – passing judgment in regards to time (new moons and sabbaths), in regard to food and drink, through “elemental principles,” ordering life through a perishable order of meaning (Col 2:16-17).  The principles and wisdom of this world are the means by which rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world, exercise their power. Theirs is a power for darkness in the two-fold sense that it obscures the truth through a lie and it deals in the darkness of death. Christ has blotted out this hostile semiotics (“handwriting of ordinances” in the KJV) which “was against us, which was contrary to us.”  “He has taken” all of this “out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” and simultaneously “He disarmed the rulers and authorities” and “made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through the cross” (Col 2:15).

Summing up Paul’s notion of the principalities and powers, operating according to a failed wisdom, a deceived philosophy, a disobedient world order ruled over by a spirit of disobedience (Eph 2:1-2), this amounts to a semiotics of death. The logic and wisdom of this world are challenged by “the manifold wisdom of God” and this wisdom, through the Church, is “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10). The witness of the church to this alternative order of meaning continues to unmask the quasi-divine authority of those structures – those world powers, those realms of religious and ethical rules and rulers, those orders of thought that deal in oppression and death. Christ has unmasked those powers and the church (where it is truly the church) ensures, through its alternative order of meaning, that the exposure continues.1


[1] Thank you to Tim who gifted me with the book that sparked this line of thought – though I am still working through it: Virtual Christian by Anthony W. Bartlett.