John Milbank on the Historicity of Jesus Trial Narrative

#JohnMilbank #NewTestament #Scripture #history #RadicalOrthodoxy #review

I should start with a full disclosure that I make absolutely no pretensions of being a biblical scholar or a New Testament historian. I am thoroughly implanted more within the “theology” stream of religious studies — even dabbling more into philosophical theology than biblical studies. However, the question of the historical Jesus always manages to grab my attention. Even more meta-historical debates, such as what it even means to quest for a “historical” Jesus or whether that's a worthwhile pursuit, manage to allure me. Recently, I came across a line of argumentation that I had not previously seen, so I would like to make sense of it by writing out a summary of the argument here. Perhaps some real historians or biblical scholars could easily blow through this line of reasoning, but I found it interesting enough to at least ponder.

In a previous post (link below), I attempted to map out John Milbank's objections to the “Radical Evil” theory of the ontology of evil, which is in his book Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon from Routledge press. In a later chapter of his book, titled “Crucifixion: Obscure Deliverance”, Milbank goes on to discuss the historicity of the trial and execution of Jesus, which sets up his discussion of the atonement. All cited page numbers are from that chapter.

Setting the Stage: Common Objections to the Gospel Narrative

Milbank first summarizes the common objections against the historicity of the trial and condemnation narratives presented in the Gospels. Of course, the belief that an influential religious person named Jesus was crucified by Romans is something that almost all scholars believe, regardless of religious affiliation. However, the particularities found within the four gospel accounts are often called into question.

According to Milbank, the general skepticism rests within the belief that the narratives themselves contain too much material that is exceptional to the first-century world, both with regard to Christ and Roman law (pgs. 82, 92). These scholars maintain that the gospel materials contain many details not corroborated elsewhere in what we know about first-century Palestine and Roman history. Examples are as follows: the Passover amnesty (the releasing of Barrabas) (p. 82), Pilate making concessions, and the nature of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin combined with the fact that Jesus died a Roman death (p. 83). Regarding the Sanhedrin, it seems unlikely for Jesus to be charged with blasphemy since, according to many scholars, the typical charge for blasphemy was improperly uttering the secret name of God (p. 83). Even if Jesus had been condemned for blasphemy, it seems likely that the Sanhedrin would’ve just stoned Jesus, which they did with other prophets (p. 83). Regarding the trials of Jesus, it also seems unlikely that any followers of Christ would be privy to the private conversations between Jesus and Pilate (p. 83).

So what, according to many scholars, accounts for the narrative invention of the gospel writers and their act of downplaying Roman involvement? The most popular theory is that the new Christian communities wanted to distinguish themselves from Judaism after the destruction of the temple to avoid incurring Roman wrath upon themselves (p. 83). In this view, the narratives utilized were a type of survival technique. More severely, some scholars also theorize that the Gospel narratives downplaying Roman involvement are the result of anti-Semitic attitudes within the early Christian writers (p. 83).

Milbank Strikes Back

In contrast to these views, Milbank provides a counter-proposal.

Milbank’s chief contention is that, regarding the gospel narratives and Roman law itself, exceptionality is the point. The whole reason why the Gospel writers wanted to record the story — why Christianity was developing as a movement — is because they believed the events that unfolded were exceptional (pgs. 84, 92). Of course, from the Christian perspective, these events were exceptional because they were unique events of God’s interaction in the world — especially the unparalleled event of the Incarnation.

But beyond the theological exceptionality of Christ’s life and death, there is also a degree of historical exceptionality to the events that should not cause one to dismiss them right away. After all, exceptions to historical norms do occur, and so according to Milbank, exception in itself is not sufficient grounds for dismissal (p. 84). Furthermore, extraordinary events are often the most likely events to be recorded (p. 84). In Milbank’s assessment, it seems that the scholars basing their dismissal of the Gospel accounts historicity on exceptionality beg the question against the very exceptionality presumed by the Gospel writers (p. 85). Instead, we ought to admit that bigger events in history that have complex origins (p. 84). Milbank points to WWI as an example (p. 84). The start of WWI is not reducible to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Instead, it was brought about by many complex situations that compounded upon each other, gaining a sense of maddening acceleration (p. 84). Within the complex web of unfolding history, effects can often exceed their cause (or web of causes), which Milbank thinks is exactly the case of Christ’s death on the cross (p. 85).

Finally, Milbank makes an interesting (albeit offhand) comment about privileging non-gospel sources over and against the gospel accounts. Of course, there's some rational sense in privileging non-gospel sources for historical inquiring. The Christians who wrote the gospels had an invested interest in promoting their agenda and thus are far from unbiased reporters. Therefore, scholars want corroboration with non-gospel accounts of events because one could more plausibly claim that certain events took place if the evidence was accepted by all parties involved. However, Milbank notes that we should not get too carried away with this. He says: “... the issue arises of why one should treat Josephus and rabbinic texts as independent background sources, and not accord the gospels the same status; is this to privilege official and established literature over insurrectionary and emergent voices?)” (p. 86). This is an interesting remark I had never considered. In our modern context, Christianity is an established global power — most often a majority voice in many parts of the world. However, in the first century, this was not the case. Christianity was far more insurrectionary, whereas the established historians (perhaps with some exceptions) were often writing as one aligned with the Roman Empire, and thus could even fall into a reactionary perspective. At the very least, Milbank reminds us that no writers are unbiased, and it gives a different light on the gospel writers and their emergent social position.

After arguing against the scholarly dismissal of exceptionality, Milbank replies to the objections directly. Regarding Pilate’s role as portrayed in the Gospels, Milbank notes that is common for tyrannical rulers to occasionally allow the people to have their way as appeasement in order to maintain order (p. 86). Furthermore, concerning the objection to the trial dialogue between Pilate and Christ, it is somewhat possible for word to have leaked out regarding what Pilate said to Jesus (p. 86). More likely, however, the dialogue is a reconstruction by the four Gospel writers. Nonetheless, a reconstructed dialogue that abides by the ancient practices of history qua sacred story-telling does not mean that the events should be immediately discounted as anti-historical (p. 86). The dialogue might very well be fitting to the real events that took place, even if they are not literal word-for-word transcriptions. After all, we do this all the time for biopic films, but reconstructed dialogue with purposeful, literary incentive does not cause us to assume that such an event never took place.

Regarding the Sanhedrin, Milbank argues, citing Philo, that the charge of blasphemy could depend on context, and the use of certain phrases by Jesus (THE Son of Man, if Jesus ever claimed to be the Son of God, etc.) could qualify for blasphemy. Furthermore, it’s possible that Jesus’ threats and prophetic denouncements at the Temple could’ve been the real issue over his trouble with the Sanhedrin (p. 86).

Furthermore, we have other existing examples of the Sandehrin attempting to have self-appointed prophets put to death, which were recorded by Josephus (pgs. 86-87). Milbank notes that Pilate had the ability to “try the crimes of non-Roman citizens by a process of personal cognitio that was exceptional” to the regular rule of law, allowing Pilate to try “without jury-courts or specific criminal laws and with absolute personal license as to the punishments that could be meted out” (p. 86). Milbank notes that this usually happened within the “margins” of the Empire and served to keep “good order and appeasement” amongst the subjugated people (p. 87).

Of course, there is still the question of the gospel writers wanting to distinguish themselves from Judaism and as well as the charge of anti-semitism. In response, Milbank says that we don't know for sure to what degree the gospel writers thought of themselves as distinct from Judaism and the Jewish people (p. 87). Even the Gospel of John, which receives the most charge of anti-Semitism, “attributes a great deal of blame to Pilate” — and the Synoptics attribute even more blame to Pilate (p. 87). Pilate is depicted as cruel, playful, unwilling to release an innocent man, and an ironic witness to the truth despite himself (p. 87). Likewise, the gospel narrative does not depict the Jewish people as executing their own sovereign will, as if Jesus' death rests solely on their shoulders (p. 87). For example, the author of Luke-Acts is quite careful to state that the Jewish individuals who had problems with Jesus were the leaders within Jerusalem, not all Jewish people (p. 88). As Milbank says: “What Luke stresses is the division of Israel with regard to Jesus, just as in Acts he stressed the division of the whole of the known world” (p. 88). Additionally, Luke 23 depicts large numbers of people both condemning Jesus and also weeping for Jesus' condemnation (p. 90). The author of Luke, in a sense, maintains that all parties (indeed, the whole world, as is stressed in Acts) share some of the blame for Jesus' death, while also noting how many Jewish people were against Jesus' execution. If this is so, then Milbank argues that this sounds quite far removed from the charge of the gospel's narrative being a mere ideological construction (p. 88). From Milbank's perspective, if the gospel writers were wanting to exonerate Rome, they could have done a better job (p. 87).

I'll throw in my own comment here and say that, regardless of whether or not Milbank is correct, Christians still need to make a great effort to denounce anti-semitism and critique the ways in which the Gospel narratives have been used to persecute Jewish people. Such practices are unacceptable, and in our current political climate in which anti-semitism is on the rise, we must be above reproach and make a stand to help our Jewish neighbors and friends.

Finally, Milbank responds to the position that the Passover Amnesty is ahistorical. Following the work of scholars like Simon Legasse and Jean Colin, Milbank believes that Pilate, being formerly located at the free city of Caesarea, borrowed a practice called “epiboesis” to deal with the strange situation of Jesus. Epiboesis was a practice in ancient Rome utilized amongst “'free cities' of the Oriental empire” where “people could be condemned and executed by popular vote and acclamation (including instances of preference between two people accused),” and it is a practice for which we have other recorded instances (p. 89). Milbank postulates that both Pilate and Herod were familiar with the practice of epiboesis, given that Pilate was from Caesarea and Herod from Decapolis, “the ring of free cities surrounding Galilee, where Herod held sway” (p. 89). Thus, we have two actors within the narrative who plausibly knew about epiboesis and, according to the Gospel narratives, invoked this practice in dealing with Jesus. The other option is that Luke, being from the free city of Antioch, invented this aspect of the narrative based on his own experiences. However, Milbank disagrees with this proposition, saying that it “conflicts with the structural consonance of the four gospel accounts, and the general accepted historical secondariness of the Lukan version” (p. 89).

Milbank Develops His Case

Milbank notes that, according to late antique grammarian Pomeius Festus and the scholar Giorgia Agamben, there was a practice within Roman law that allowed for citizens to kill someone after condemning that person as a mob. The person killed would be labeled a “homo sacer.” The “sacer,” which means “cast out,” was a truly unique and exceptional instance of bloodshed that was outside typical classification, being understood as something different than homicide, punishment, sacrifice, or the death penalty (p. 90). The sacer killing has parallels to other facets of Roman law, such as “patria potestas,” something common to both Jewish and Roman law, which gave the father absolute right over the life of his son (p. 90).

Keeping with his common theme on exceptionality, Milbank contests that, for Rome, exception is the rule (p. 91). Law was the “self-bestowal of normativity by the de facto possessor of power” (p. 91). This results from the nature of Roman sovereignty, whereby a singleness of sovereign power requires others to execute one's orders, hence having systems in place for mob justice in cases like a sacer (91).

How does all of this relate to Jesus and the Gospel narratives? According to Milbank's reading of the texts, Jesus is passed off in a sacerian fashion 3 times: from Jerusalem leaders to the Romans, from the Romans to the mob, and then from the mob to the Roman executioners (p. 92). The mob then lynches Jesus via Roman execution under the power of cognitio, such that “the necessary exception of mob lynching coincided precisely with regular execution” (p. 93). All of this seems to fit within “the structures of Roman law and the interactions between incompatible yet forcibly supplementary Roman and Jewish jurisdictions” (p. 93).

Concluding Thoughts

I'm not sure if Milbank is correct on this matter, simply because I'm not a New Testament historian, so it would be foolish for me to make absolute proclamations on the matter. Nonetheless, I certainly found this a fascinating article, and I was surprised by how I had not come across any of the material before. Up until reading Milbank's essay, I had assumed that most of the trial narrative was a theological invention by the authors which, though it might convey something about the theological significance of Jesus' death, wasn't exactly historical in a strict sense. Milbank's essay was a great challenge to that assumption. Regardless of whether his theories hold up, I think his best point is about the importance of exception within the narrative. I think he's right about how, too often, scholars are quick to label material in the Gospels as “ahistorical” based on their exceptional character, when the Gospel writers themselves seem to be preoccupied with Jesus' death precisely because it was exceptional.

Anyways, I hope this was a helpful summary of Milbank's essay. At the very least, it helped me wrap my head around what he was talking about, and it exposed me to some cool new ideas.