"You Say So" (II): The Question of Messiahs

Mark Goodacre proposes a distinction between Jesus’ clear response to the high priest in Mk 14:61-62 and his ambiguous response to Pilate in Mk 15:2. In the former he affirms he is the “messiah”, in the latter he refuses to confirm whether or not he is “king of the Judeans”. Yesterday I suggested that Jesus’ ambiguous response signals a “yes” historically, if not in the Markan narrative.

But maybe not. The historical Jesus was hostile to the idea of popular kingship, and the term “king” may have possibly been too restrictive for his messianic role. William Herzog has suggested that the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:23-35) was originally an anti-kingship story — a story that would have come naturally after Jn 6:1-15 rather than Mt 18:21-22. Herzog reads the parable as a “rejection of the messianic ideal, because any messiah who did ascend the throne would be caught in the systematic realities of kingship in agrarian societies and aristocratic empires. Every king is captive of kingship, including the messiah!” (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 239). No sooner would a messiah ascend the throne than he would begin to take on the role of a tyrant himself. That’s the lesson Israel/Judah/Judea learned over and over again. Look at Solomon, Omri, and the Hasmoneans. Look at the king in this parable. (See Herzog’s Parables as Subversive Speech, pp 131-149, “What if the Messiah Came and Nothing Changed?”, for full details.)

I like Herzog’s reading of the Unmerciful Servant, but he uses “messiah” and “king” synonymously, thus concluding that Jesus never thought of himself as the messiah in any way. His reading would certainly indicate that Jesus had no use for popular kingship, or for any who wanted to make him an armed insurrectionist (see Jn 6:15). But messiahs came in all colors. John Collins, in The Scepter and the Star, identifies four kinds of messiahs in first-century thought: kings (the most common), prophets, priests, and heavenly archangels. Jesus was historically a prophet, and in Mark’s understanding he is both a prophetic and heavenly messiah — not the kingly messiah suggested by Pilate’s question. On the point of the latter, Mark Goodacre believes that gospel writer John “is a fine exegete of Mark and he teases out the meaning of the terse, ambiguous ‘You are saying so’ in this way:”

Pilate…asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18.33-36)

Jesus was historically a prophetic messiah, gospelly a prophetic/heavenly messiah. In either case, then, perhaps his retort to Pilate’s question about kingship — “You say so” — was a “no” after all, though no less offensive for it, since it was a disdainful evasion and implied that the prefect was making him a king anyway.

UPDATE: Phil Harland (and in comments below) thinks I was more on the right track with the “yes” interpretation. With regards to the historical Jesus, I think the question hinges on how accommodating an apocalyptic prophet could have been with the word “king” vis-à-vis messiahship. A text like Mt 19:28/Lk 22:29-30 does suggest kingship, though even E.P. Sanders prefers that Jesus envisioned himself more as a “viceroy” than a king. What would “king of the Judeans”, as put by Pilate, have suggested in the minds of most? Probably popular kingship, which Jesus rejected.

If Pilate had used the term “messiah” (as the priesthood is reported doing), Jesus’ “you say so” would easily be interpreted as “yes”, as I suggested in my first post. But I’m on the fence with what Jesus’ retort means in answer to the specific charge of kingship. I can go either way, depending on the phase of the moon.

UPDATE (II): Stephen Carlson discusses Morton Smith’s take on the matter, that in Mk 15:2 translators should “preserve in English the ambiguity of the Greek”.

UPDATE (III): Mark Goodacre elaborates on Mark’s distinction between messiahs and kings.

7 thoughts on “"You Say So" (II): The Question of Messiahs

  1. Hello Loren. Thanks for these thoughts. I think you were on the right track in the first post on the “yes” answer in some ways, but not necessarily in regard to the historical Jesus specifically. You may want to check out my updates to my post where I further address such things. All the best. Phil

  2. “I can go either way, depending on the phase of the moon.” I love that. There was a time when I liked to cite, “O Timothy, protect what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the profane chatter and absurdities of so-called ‘knowledge.'” Later it was, “Are we supposed to alter our thinking every time some new idea comes out of Tübingen?” Now it’s, “It’s up to yourself, buddy, to think this thing through and either resolve the issue according to what you’ve seen and been shown by others, or else confess that you really don’t know.” Confessions that “I don’t know” seem to be easy to come by.

  3. Sorry I wasn’t clear; what I meant is that I’m finding that they’re getting easier for me all the time: what I’m confident that I know seems to be shrinking.

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