Review – Agamben’s Political Reading of the Trial of Jesus (Ryne Beddard)

Agamben, Giorgio. Pilate and Jesus (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics). Translated by Adam Kotsko. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015. ISBN 10: 0804794545 Hardcover, paperback, e-book. 88 pages.

Why is it the case that the divine incarnation, the meeting place of earthly and heavenly authority, should, in its climactic moment, assume the form of a trial? What can be said of this mysterious occurrence? This is precisely the problem which Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben seeks to address in his work Pilate and Jesus, which was published in English in 2015. This short book – which, at only 58 small pages, is really more of a long essay – focuses most of its energies on one of the most enigmatic characters in the New Testament: Pontius Pilate.

The structure of the book itself is worth remarking on here. There are no footnotes, only a short section of glosses that make up the last eleven pages of the book. The main body of the book is divided into nineteen short numbered sections and is 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.

But why is it that Pilate is so important for Agamben? He starts with the very simple and seemingly unremarkable observation that Pontius Pilate is the only non-Christian mentioned in the ancient Christian creeds. But why is this pagan figure, who seems so out of place, present? Pilate is not mentioned in the Nicene Creed formulated in 325 CE, but his name is added in 381 CE by the Council of Constantinople, as Agamben writes, “in order to also fix the historical character of Jesus’s passion chronologically.”

The historical character of the Passion events is crucial for Agamben because it is precisely here that the radical historical contingency of eternal divine authority, in its worldly manifestations, is revealed. Thus what Agamben proposes to offer with his short investigation of the role of Pilate in the trial of Jesus is nothing short of a wholesale critique of the Western legal tradition that exposes what is at stake in our attempts to negotiate between the historical and the eternal – between justice and salvation.

This is the difficult problem which Agamben addresses in Pilate and Jesus, which was published in English right around the same time he was finally wrapping up his decades long Homo Sacer series. And while Pilate and Jesus is not a part of that series it is, perhaps, the most concise and approachable depiction of what I take to be at the heart of the Homo Sacer series – a project that entails not merely accepting the emptying of theology into the political (as legal theorist Carl Schmitt famously said, “Today everything is theological, with the exception of what the theologians talk about.”),[1] but rather challenging contemporary liberalism on the very basis of its implicit theological assumptions.

Agamben devotes a considerable portion of the book to Pontius Pilate as a character both in the Gospels and in the Christian tradition. He suggests that, while the Gospels tend to be littered with static characters, with Pilate, “The evangelists reveal perhaps for the first time something like the intention to construct a character, with his own psychology and idiosyncrasies.” That Pilate is the most complex character in at least some of the Gospel narratives is, for Agamben, once again indicative of the historical contingency and complexity of the trial of Jesus.

Interwoven with external accounts of Pilate’s character is Agamben’s running commentary on the trial of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels, specifically in John. It is worth making a methodological critique here – while Agamben pulls almost exclusively from the Johannine account of the trial for supporting evidence, his remarks tend to conflate John with the three synoptic gospels in a way that does not do justice to the particular autonomous account that the particular community that produced the Gospel of John presents.

In my view, the most serious oversight of Pilate and Jesus is that it fails to take into consideration the contemporary Biblical scholarship on Johannine community and the political and theological forces that the Gospel of John responded to and helped shape in the lived reality of the community living under imperial oppression that produced it.

Nonetheless, Agamben offers an insightful reading of the Johannine passion. He keys in on the crucial role of judgment in the narrative. He observes that the Gospel of John never uses the Greek word κρίσις, the noun form of κρίνω, which means to judge or to pronounce a legal judgment or decision. Instead the word that appears is βῆμα, which refers to a seat or throne from which one makes legal judgments.

That it would be βῆμα and not κρίνω emphasizes the ritualistic character of expressions of sovereign judgment, which remain foundational to the contemporary theopolitical imagination of the West.

However, for Agamben, it is indeed a crisis (from the Greek κρίσις) that the narrative confronts us with. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, Jesus famously responds that his kingdom is not from this world. Here, Agamben draws attention to the long tradition “from Augustine to Chrysostom up to Aquinas” who all “insist unanimously on this point” – that because the Kingdom of God is not from this world in no way means that it is not for this world. It originated elsewhere but, as the incarnation itself makes clear, it is bound for this world, and it is in this world that it makes its home.

What is at stake here is two competing claims of sovereignty: the empire of humanity and the kingdom of God.

In the narrative, what follows is more back and forth between Jesus, Pilate, and the crowds outside wishing to have Jesus executed for not only blasphemy against the Hebrew God, but – and more importantly in the context of a Roman trial – sedition against the empire. It is only after this that Pilate takes his place on the judgment seat, indicating that it is precisely then that a formal legal trial begins.

Yet it is here that Agamben keys in on an ambiguity, in both the texts and the tradition, as to whether Pilate makes a legal judgment, properly speaking, in regards to the fate of Christ. Near the conclusion of the trial (if it can, in the end, be called that), John 19:13 reads in the Textus Receptus “ἤγαγεν ἔξω τὸν Ἰησοῦν καὶ ἐκάθισεν ἐπὶ τοῦ βήματος,” which is usually translated as something like, “He [Pilate] brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat” (NASB).

However, there is, an alternative reading, to which Agamben draws attention, saying, “an exegetical tradition that draws its authority from Justin (Apology I, XXXV, 6) and, among modern authors, from Harnack and Dibelius, understands ekethisen in a transitive sense: ‘He led Jesus outside and sat him on the judge’s bench.’” That it would be Jesus, and not Pilate, sitting on the judge’s bench, suggests Agamben, may fit with the accounts of Matthew and Luke in which Jesus is dressed in a purple robe, given a scepter, and hailed as the “King of the Jews,” as it explicitly fits with the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (c. 190 CE), in which the people “put on him a purple robe, and made him sit upon the seat of judgment, saying: Give righteous judgment, thou King of Israel” (3:7).

This reading also helps explain the way in which, in Mark and Matthew – just as in John’s particular narrative – there is no judgment declared by Pilate, but only a “handing over” (παρέδωκεν). Ecce_homo_by_Antonio_Ciseri_(1)

In lieu of this reading it would appear that, while there is a trial, there is no judgment. However, a trial without a judgment can hardly be called a trial at all. It is a contradiction in terms. A judgment is more than the focus of a trial, it is the sole operation. The trial is merely the form that the judgment takes. The “trial” of Jesus, then, is an enigma. And this enigma extends itself to the crucifixion, which, without a proper legal judgment, cannot be considered a legal punishment.

If the crucifixion of Jesus is not a properly legal punishment, asks Agamben, then what is it? It can only be an abandonment, a handing over (παρέδωκεν) to death. If there is no judgment then a legal execution is impossible, which is to say that there cannot be a political ritual sacrifice. Thus, in being abandoned to death by Pilate, Jesus is able to be killed, but not sacrificed. Jesus, then, becomes, to use Agamben’s terminology, a type of homo sacer, banished by the sovereign.

But what does this all mean? It is only in the final glosses that Agamben finally plays his hand. He writes,

That there is a trial but not a judgement is, in reality, the most severe objection that can be raised against the juridical order, if it is true that the juridical order is in the last instance trial and the latter is, in its essence, judgement.

Agamben then turns to a 1949 study by Salvatore Satta titled The Mystery of the Trial, in which Satta reflects upon the enigmatic power of the trial. If the trial is, in its essence, judgment then it can be said that the trial is just the process of a judgment. The trial, then, becomes, in a sense, an act without a goal. Thus the process unfolds until it is interrupted and the judgment is substituted for truth and justice. This, for Agamben, is how we should see the trial of Jesus because, “in it the mystery of judgment and the mystery of life just barely touch, and then they are separated forever.”

Dante, writing over a millennium later, sought to legitimize the universality of the Christian event by legitimizing the universality of the Roman Empire under which Christ’s execution took place. As Luke 2:1 reads, “Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth” (NASB, emphasis added). There is a parallel between the empires role in the economy of salvation in God’s plan for Jesus and its continued role in advancing God’s kingdom in Dante’s De Monarchia.

In short, what is at stake in the legitimacy of Pilate’s judgment, then, is the legitimacy of a theological justification of the empire’s power and the Church’s union with it.

Pilate’s failure at this impossible task – his Hamlet-like indecisiveness – has set the stage for the impossibility of any theological justification of the State. We are left in a constant state of κρίσις, not only in the legal sense but the also the medical sense of the “decisive days” in which “the doctor ‘judged’ whether the sick person will survive.” This reading coincides with the modern idea that history is a trial or process and that “this process or trial, insofar as it does not conclude in a judgment, is in a state of permanent crisis.”

He proceeds to write the following:

In this sense the trial of Jesus is an allegory of our time that, like every historical epoch with respect to itself, should have the eschatological form of a novissima dies but has been deprived of this by the tacit, progressive exhaustion of the dogma of the Universal Judgment, which the Church no longer wants to hear about.

Thus, what becomes at stake in the Western legal tradition is not the pronouncement of justice but rather the managing of life and death and, when it is necessary – which is to say wherever the exception which has become the norm – the strategic and calculated handing over of life to death. It is under these conditions that, as Agamben writes elsewhere, “everything again becomes possible.”[2]

Ryne Beddard is a graduate student in religious studies at the University of Denver.  He is the author of “Lycantheopolitical: The Sovereign and the Werewolf, or Christ and Sirius Black”, Resonance (May 2016).


[1] This line comes from a letter Schmitt wrote to Armin Mohler in 1958, in which he attributes the idea to Jacob Taubes. See: Jacob Taubes, To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 26.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 38.

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