Pilate and Jesus
Originally published in Italian in 2013 as Pilato e Gesú, Giorgio Agamben’s Pilate and Jesus examines Jesus’s trial under Pontius Pilate and its role in the development of judgment in Western society. This edition was translated by the respected interpreter of Agamben, Adam Kotsko, and published in 2015. With only fifty-eight pages of text and physical dimensions of 4.75 x 7.25, the book’s miniscule appearance suggests a succinct yet poorly developed argument. The argument of Pilate & Jesus is underwhelming and interspersed with a myriad of underdeveloped points.
The description on the back cover claims that “this book takes Pilate’s role in the trial of Jesus as a starting point for investigating the function of legal judgment in Western society and the ways that such judgment requires us to adjudicate the competing claims of the eternal and the historical.” But Agamben hardly writes as much. In his review for Religious Theory Ryne Beddard is rather generous, describing Agamben’s book as “little more than a literature review of the Christian traditions surrounding Pilate and his role in the trial of Jesus and a running commentary of John 18 and 19” (“Review–Agamben’s Political Reading of the Trial of Jesus,” July 21, 2016). In my opinion, however, this book is less of an exegesis of any sort, and more of an anachronistic imposition of Agamben’s political theory onto the Gospels. In this way, it serves more as an introduction to Agamben’s prolific thought than as a commentary on the Gospels or examination of judgment in Western society.
The closest Agamben comes to fulfilling his back cover’s claim to the historical development of judgment in Western society is a very brief mention of article 4 of the Napoleonic Code: “A trial without judgment is therefore a contradiction in terms. This is so true that modern codes of law, beginning with article 4 of the Code Napoléon … unanimously confirm the obligation of the judge to pronounce a judgment” (49). A handful of other references to modern jurisprudence or legal scholarship are employed to justify his interpretation of the encounter between Jesus and Pilate.
I was disappointed in the latter portion of his thesis, thus let me turn to his reading of the encounter between Jesus and Pilate. Agamben’s main argument about this encounter is that it does not fit the “technical” definitions of a Roman trial because, among other things, no judgment is made in the trial. While judgment was something of a telos in Roman jurisprudence—especially during the formulary system, c. first century BCE through third century CE—his assertion that Pilate makes no judgment is poorly argued.
While Agamben’s “no judgment” interpretation is not wholly unfounded, his argument needs more content to have a chance of convincing this reader. In particular, in his terseness, Agamben ignores the possibility of two judgments, rather than no judgment, by positing that επικρίνω “is never used in a trial-related sense” (47). On the contrary, we see this word used “in a trial-related sense” in Plato’s Laws 6:768a: ἐὰν δὲ μὴ δύνησθον κοινωνῆσαι τῆς ὁμολογίας αὐτοί, τὴν βουλὴν ἐπικρίνειν αὐτῶν τὴν αἵρεσιν (emphasis added). In Plato, and it seems also in Luke, that the word means to “make a second judgment,” or to “reevaluate”—which presumes that some sort of judgment, however ambivalent, has already been made. Given this lacuna, Agamben’s argument leaves the reader wanting. There is a very real possibility for two judgments, thereby dramatizing the inefficacy and unreliability of human rule.
In the context of first-century Judaism, it is not “enigmatic and arduous” for Jesus to lay claim to “a kingdom but that it is not ‘from here’” (42). It was, of course, scandalous for Jesus to claim to be the king of that kingdom, but it was not so scandalous for him to claim the “presence of a kingdom that is not ‘from here’” (42). To wit, the Septuagint often translates the Hebrew for “Adonai” and the tetragrammaton to Ὁ κύριος ὁ θεὸς (Lord God), which suggests that God for the Israelites—at least as early as the Septuagint, c. third century BCE, but likely earlier as well—was “Lord” of the world; of a kingdom not “from here.” In the Greco-Roman context, it is possible that such a claim might be taken as paradoxical, but Agamben simply claims as much without much substantiation or even a citation of someone else who discusses it at length.
Furthermore, Agamben’s argument is at odds with the soteriology of the New Testament. He concludes his main section with a false dichotomy between salvation and justice: “To testify, here and now, to the truth of the kingdom that is not here means accepting that what we want to save will judge us. This is because the world, in its fallenness, does not want salvation but justice. And it wants it precisely because it is not asking to be saved” (45). He continues on to reduce “not asking to be saved” to “unsaveable”: “as unsaveable, creatures judge the eternal: this is the paradox that in the end, before Pilate, cuts Jesus short” (45). As an interpretation of the Gospels, this conclusion is easily disproven. In John 3:17, for instance, we read: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
While one might be able to infer what Agamben’s analysis means for the development of trial and judgment in the Western world, this is not spelled out in any length. Given that it is already a short text, it seems to be a disservice to his argument to not expand on this point if it is so important to the book’s thesis. In conclusion, I would only recommend this text as a quick introduction to Agamben’s political theory, and not much more than that.
Katherine Apostolacus is a graduate student at Claremont Graduate University.
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