Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Saint Pontius Pilate?

Discussing the proliferation of back stories for the Gospels among early Christians Simon Loveday comments: “Pontius Pilate is presented in such a positive light in ‘Paradosis Pilati’ that the Coptic and Ethiopian churches have made him a saint.” (The Bible for Grown-Ups: A new look at the Good Book, 179)

Pilate is indeed commemorated in the Ethiopian Orthodox church (see their synaxarium here under Senne 25), albeit not in the contemporary Coptic Orthodox church (search for Pilate in vain in their synaxarium, e.g., here).

Tibor Grüll examined “The Legendary Fate of Pontius Pilate” in Classica et Mediaevalia 61 (2010): 151–176, and offers some evidence for high regard for Pilate among Coptic Christians. He also notes that the Arabic version of Gesta Pilati has the Jews refer to Pilate as “the wicked foreigner from the land of Egypt.”

According to Josephus, Pilate was removed from his post after sending soldiers to Samaria to suppress a rebellion, resulting in a massacre at Mount Gerizim. The Samaritans complained to Vitellius, legate of Syria, who recalled Pilate to Rome where he seems to have arrived shortly after the death of Emperor Tiberius. (Whether Pilate did in fact have to face any negative consequences is unknown and in Grüll’s view unlikely.)

Within the Christian tradition there seem to be “fifteen texts of various languages, ages and affiliations” that seek to tell us more about Pilate than the Gospels (see Grüll, “Legendary Fate,” 159-160 for a list, from which also the information below is taken). Seven texts mention the later fate of Pontius Pilate; in three he becomes a true follower of Jesus and suffers martyrdom, in four “he is presented as a diabolical figure who was sentenced to exile or death by the emperor” (Grüll, “Legendary Fate,” 160).

The divergence of tradition is also geographical. The four texts that present Pilate as a diabolic figure are Latin documents, except for Tiberii rescriptum (Greek, Old Slavonic – fifth century?). The three that present the later Pilate in a positive light are
  • Paradosis Pilati (Greek; fifth century)
  • Homilia de lamentis Mariae (Evangelium Gamalielis) (Arabic, Ethiopian, Coptic – medieval?)
  • Homilia de morte Pilati (Martyrium Pilati) (Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopian – medieval?)

The Paradosis Pilati has the Emperor condemn Pilate to death for the crucifixion of Christ. Pilate prays to God before his execution, pleading ignorance and bullying by the Jews but acknowledging his sin. The answer from heaven is reassuring:
“All the generations and families of the nations shall count you blessed, because under you have been fulfilled all those things said about me by the prophets; and you yourself shall be seen as my witness at my second appearing, when I shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel, and those that have not owned my name.”
“And the prefect struck off the head of Pilate; and, behold, an angel of the Lord received it. And his wife Procla, seeing the angel coming and receiving his head, being filled with joy herself also, immediately gave up the ghost, and was buried along with her husband.”

I declare ignorance on the fate of Pilate in this world or the next but I observe that Pilate has not been counted as blessed by all that many people in history and that the legendary prayer of repentance is not a good example on which to model our own prayers.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Am I better than Trump?

“Just to be clear, if we’ve understood the gospel, we know we’re no better than Trump. Anything I say about him is true about me. Do I hear an Amen?”
So a friend of mine recently on Facebook.

Disclaimer: This post is not about politics. My friend could assume that there would be wide agreement among his Facebook friends about the characterisation of Donald Trump as depraved. This might even allow for the belief that in some respects Hillary Clinton is more depraved. It only excludes people who see nothing much wrong with Donald Trump.

This got me thinking. Am I better than Trump? Without further qualification the question cannot possibly be answered. Better in what way?
Am I better than Trump at making money?
Am I better than Trump at making women feel uncomfortable?
My friend presumably means something like “better before God” – am I better before God than Trump? To my taste even this question lacks precision but I am inclined to answer yes. From what it looks like across the pond I am in Christ and he is not and this means that I am right with God and Trump is not.

More precisely, what my friend means is that we are “guilty, vile and helpless” apart from Christ. I am no less in need of God’s grace and mercy than Donald Trump or anyone else. Agreed.

And yet I am unsure whether it makes sense to declare that “on our own” we all are (would be) equally bad and wicked. It is hypothetical. None of us is, ever was, or ever will be “on our own”, as far as I can tell. All of us have been shaped by our heritage and upbringing; many people and events have impacted on us long before we can even begin to ask who we are.

To remind myself than in some (many) ways I am “no better than Trump” may strengthen my humility and if it does, it will do some good. (Of course, perverted as our hearts often are, it is also possible to take this along lines that bolster pride: I am so glad that I am aware of how sinful I am unlike this Pharisee over there who thinks himself better than Donald Trump.)

Still, there is something that bothered me and as I reflected on it further I came to the conclusion that it is probably this: the danger of nothing-buttery.

I am a bunch of cells, a mass of molecules. So is Donald Trump. No difference then, eh?

Nothing-buttery is usually a way of avoiding moral and theological questions. "Embryos? Nothing but a bit of tissue." It can be useful in some contexts to simplify and focus by way of deliberately ignoring some of the complexities of a situation, but maybe more often nothing-buttery sidesteps what is most important.

“There but for the grace of God” is a helpful sentiment. I remind myself regularly of my privileges. My upbringing and the contexts in which I lived my life enabled me to become less of a crook than I might have been. And the grace of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, has positioned me differently before God. Not only that but it changed my life down to ways of thinking, relating and acting.

I am what I am by the grace of God. If it helps me to remind myself of my ongoing need of Christ then saying “I am no better than Trump” fulfils a useful purpose.

And yet, precisely because Christ is everything should I spend much time thinking about me apart from Christ? It would be a reductionism, and in the end there can be nothing but the most general answer to the question what I would be apart from Christ. What would I be like if I had not married 24 years ago? Who knows? Who cares? What would I be like if I had not lived half my life in England? Is it not futile to speculate for more than a few minutes?

If I had been born in the USA and spent my life there I would be as American as Donald Trump. But I was not and I have not.

If I had spent as much time in unhealthy locker room conversations as Donald Trump apparently has, my way of relating to women might well be as corrupt as his. But I have not, and I am grateful for that.

I am German albeit maybe not as German as I might be if I had not made my home in England.

My ways of relating to others are less corrupt than Donald Trump’s although my life could have turned out very differently.

If I am better than Donald Trump, it’s not down to a splendid achievement on my part.

And yes, there are ways in which I am no better than Trump; my heart can still be pretty twisted. But I am reluctant to shout about it for fear of dishonouring the one who has begun a great work in me.

If it helps to magnify Christ, I will declare that I am no better than Trump. But to the extent that it obscures the real difference Christ makes in people's lives I will not agree to the proposition. Nor would it bear true witness to God to pretend that he does not know the difference between relative good and evil.