Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday

Mark 15.1-5
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Like Pilate, Pliny the Younger was a Roman governor. And though he served some seventy years after Pilate, little had changed in the intervening years. Governors were conservative by nature, intensely loyal to Emperor they served, and chiefly concerned with keeping the peace.

Our interest in Pliny is twofold: he was an active letter-writer, and many of his letters survive, and he was active in the earliest persecution of Christians. Now, you might think this would make him a villain, like Nero or Diocletian, but the opposite is true. Pliny was a moderate in the application of the law, and through his letters we learn about the early church.

He is perhaps most famous for his description of our spiritual forebears, again, a moderate description considering his role. Writing to his Emperor he notes:

They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds [and] not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of a meal--but ordinary and innocent food.

In this he reads like an anthropologist, and while he was no friend of the fledgling church, a hint of respect shines through. Some would make the same argument looking back at Pilate, a hint of respect in the midst of tumultuous events.

Now, expanding empire and a culture dedicated to order meant rules, and in the judicial realm there developed a system known as cognito. In modern terms we might call it a bench trial, trial by judge alone, and it fit the idea of the all-powerful military governor perfectly. And Pliny gives us a description:

In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have [been] denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.

The key idea here was the three questions: defendant dragged to court, someone brought a charge, and the magistrate asks the defendant three times to defend themselves. We hear an echo of this in Peter’s denial, the cock crow convicting him in perpetuity, but for today it is Jesus on the stand, with Pilate in the judgement seat:

First question: “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus: “You say so.” (a non answer)
Second question: Have you answer to these charges?
Jesus: No answer.
Third Question: Do you see how many charges are brought against you?
Jesus: No answer.

Oh yes, in the cognito system, refusing to defend yourself guaranteed a conviction. But there is something else: Pliny saw something in the early church that Pilate saw too.

For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that stubborn refusal to comply with authority and inflexible obstinacy deserved punishment.

In other words, believers were a stubborn lot who seemed to answer to some higher authority and therefore deserved to die. So maybe this is the theme for the day: rational men meet obstinate believers and someone must die.


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