"You Say So"

Prompted by Phil Harland’s post, Mark Goodacre offers an explanation as to why the Markan Jesus acknowledges his messianic status to the high priest but not to Pilate. To the former Jesus says, “Yes, I am the messiah,” while to latter he only retorts, “You say so.”

Then, on the Better Bibles blog, Wayne Leman identifies what I believe to be the crucial problem. He writes:

I have never understood the communicative meaning of Jesus’ answer just from the literal translation, ‘You say (so).’ That is, what was Jesus communicating to Pilate by his answer? Was he saying, ‘You’re the one who has said that, not me.’ Or was he indirectly affirming that the answer to Pilate’s question, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ was ‘Yes.’ Or maybe he meant something else.

Much of the time we don’t mean what we actually say, in English or any other language, and this is quite possibly one of those utterances recorded in Greek. So how should we translate something that doesn’t mean what it says? This is a difficult problem for translators, one which gets at the heart of how humans communicate with each other.

Indeed: “much of the time we don’t mean what we actually say”, and this is even more true in honor-shame societies, where a person’s publicly defined self (“what one says”) is expected to coincide with the in-group defined self (“what one is expected to say”) rather than the privately defined self (“what one really thinks”). On top of this, one’s identity is provided by family and peers, not oneself. In this light, the movement from Mk 8:27-30, to Mk 14:61-62, to Mk 15:2, becomes intriguing.

In the first passage Jesus asks Peter what people are saying about him, and then, in effect, what his disciples are saying about him. Peter tells Jesus he is the messiah. Bruce Malina and Richard Rorhbaugh comment on this heavily misunderstood passage:

“Viewed through Western eyes, this critical Markan passage is usually assumed to signal the point at which the messiahship of Jesus is first recognized by Peter. The assumption is that Jesus knows who he is and that he is testing the disciples to see whether or not they know as well.

“If the passage is viewed from the vantage point of the Mediterranean understanding of personality, however, it is Jesus who does not know who he is, and it is the disciples from whom he must get this information… Jesus wants to find out what his status is… It cannot be stressed too strongly that discovering identity is not self-discovery in Mediterranean societies. Identity is clarified and confirmed only by significant others.” (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p 180)

Peter tells Jesus that he is the messiah, God’s anointed one, and Jesus “sternly orders Peter not to tell anyone this”. As we know, this plays into Mark’s theme of the messianic secret. Historically — if the event is historical — Jesus would have been telling Peter and the disciples to keep their yaps shut because he was appalled at the role they were thrusting on him.

But in collectivist cultures, you eventually accept what your friends/family tell you about yourself (or you won’t have any family and friends), and the disciples, of course, were both Jesus’ friends and (new) family. This brings us back to Jerusalem. In the Markan narrative, Jesus has by this time accepted the messianic role assigned to him by the disciples. In answer to the high priest’s question, “Are you the messiah, the son of the Blessed One?”, Jesus answers, “I am” (Mk 14:61-62). But when Pilate asks him, “Are you the king of the Judeans,” he says, “You say so” (Mk 15:2). Compare the answers given across the synoptic gospels:

Priesthood: “Are you the messiah?”

Mark — “I am.”
Matthew — “You have said so.”
Luke — “You say that I am.”

Pilate: “Are you the king of the Judeans?”

Mark — “You say so.”
Matthew — “You say so.”
Luke — “You say so.”

Goodacre notes that “Pilate’s question is different…Nowhere does Jesus own the title ‘king’ in the Gospel, though it is the one that everyone imposes on Jesus throughout the Passion Narrative, king of the Jews, crown of thorns and so on.” True: gospel writer Mark was comfortable having Jesus — on this one occasion — acknowledge the more general title (messiah) while shunning the specific (king). In this particular narrative, Jesus proclaims himself openly for the first and only time. But Matthew and Luke show Jesus to be as reticent with the first question as with the second. Mark’s “unprecedented yes” (as Harland puts it) sticks out like a sore thumb.

If the so-called “trials” before the priesthood and Pilate are historical, it seems safe to bracket off the “I am” response as purely Markan, and conclude that Jesus refused to answer either question. But this doesn’t necessarily mean Jesus is denying the accusation. Far from it. In honor-shame cultures, men do not answer questions when confronted by hostile challengers. To respond to either of the above questions — whether by “yes” or “no” — would have been weak and shameful on Jesus’ part. Mark, by having Jesus actually answer the high priest’s question, makes him lose the challenge-riposte. I believe this can be attributed (in part) to the way Mark wants to show Jesus “losing” and suffering as much as possible.

If collectively speaking, the gospel reports are at all trustworthy, we may say as follows: Jesus was acclaimed the messiah by his followers, and he was initially appalled. But he eventually accepted the title thrust on him, even if the title had to accommodate his particular prophetic role. By the time of Jerusalem, he was confident about his messianic identity, but he refused to explain anything to hostile authorities. When challenged, he threw the question right back in their faces — “You say so” — refusing to give ground.

So in answer to Wayne Leman’s question:

“What was Jesus communicating to Pilate by his answer? Was he saying, ‘You’re the one who has said that, not me.’ Or was he indirectly affirming that the answer to Pilate’s question, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ was ‘Yes.’?”

The latter. I think Jesus was affirming he was the messiah in the most insulting and aggressive way possible — by refusing to answer the question, and by implying, moreover, that Pilate was the one who “said so”, that is, in effect, who acknowledged it.

UPDATE: See my follow up post, where I now express reservations about Jesus implying he was “king of the Judeans”, depending on how loosely the term “king” could have been used vis-a-vis messiahship. Jesus had come to accept his role as a prophetic messiah, to be sure, but perhaps not a kingly one.

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