Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement

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The trial, conviction, and death of an innocent man 2,000 years ago have particular resonance today. Atrocities from around the world shake us nearly every day, and we all experience trials in our own lives too. In this book the former Archbishop of Canterbury looks in depth at the trial of Jesus, using it to teach readers how to face the challenges of life in today's trying times.

Bringing the biblical accounts of Jesus' trial vividly to life, Rowan Williams highlights what can be learned about Jesus from each of the four Gospel portraits. Mark shows a mysterious figure revealed as the Son of God. Matthew describes the Wisdom of God tried by foolish men. Luke presents a divine stranger. John speaks of the paradox of divinity submitting to judgement. These illuminating discussions are followed by a reflection on Christian martyrdom and a meditation on tyranny, freedom, and truth. A set of discussion questions and a thought-provoking prayer after each chapter make Christ on Trial an ideal book for study groups.

Throughout the book Williams draws not only from the Bible but also from fiction, drama, and current events, pointing up ways in which society today continues to put Christ on trial. Even more, he argues that all Christians stand with Jesus before a watching world. Though we may not be directly confronted with death, we are nevertheless called daily to respond to the falsehood of such lures as power, influence, and prestige.

Several words aptly describe this book by Rowan Williams: Profound. Incisive. Literary. Contemporary. Relevant. Prophetic. Christ on Trial will move and change those who read it.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802824967
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 8/1/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 141
  • Sales rank: 528,983
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.43 (d)

Meet the Author

Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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Read an Excerpt

Christ on Trial

How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement
By Rowan Williams

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2003 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2496-X

Chapter One

The search for truth

We talk quite a lot about trials, in one way or another - not simply the kind that happen in courts of law, but 'trials' as a feature of ordinary life. We learn by trial and error; we give something a trial run. We talk of living in trying times, and say half-jokingly, 'These things are sent to try us.' We read of new drugs being given clinical trials; we hear of friendships being tried and true; people once spoke about trial marriages. What do all these usages have in common?

The simplest answer is that a trial is an attempt to find out the truth. We test a person, a medicine, a method of doing something, to discover what they really amount to, what they can 'deliver', to look beyond first impressions in order to understand more deeply how they work. It is this sense that is buried in our practice of calling proceedings in the law courts 'trials': someone is 'tried' in order to find out what they are really responsible for. The ambiguity in our use of the word is a fruitful one. Although we may talk about the trials of life in a way that suggests we are only thinking of irritating things we have to put up with, there remains an echo of the wider and more serious meaning of the word: if we do indeed have things we must put up with, this fact is bound up with theidea that our moral life is a process in which we shall find out truths about ourselves. The difficult, non-negotiable aspects of being human, in general and in particular, have the capacity to tell us things - often unwelcome things - about who or what we are.

God on trial?

Our religious tradition has much to say to us about this aspect - about trial as discovery. The Old Testament speaks more than once about suffering as a crucible in which the purity of a metal is tested, and its greatest and most disturbing meditation on what we might learn through the shapeless and arbitrary pain of the world is framed by scenes in a heavenly law court. Job does not know it, but he is 'on trial' in God's court so that it may be revealed how far his loyalty to God depends on the assurance that God will reward good behaviour. In this mythical framework, Satan is simply the prosecutor, the one whose job it is to raise doubts and to require evidence (though he is in fact allowed to act as an agent provocateur, goading Job into reaction).

What is remarkable in this strange book is that Job himself increasingly responds by demanding that God comes into court, that God should hear the case for the prosecution against himself. Some of the most anguished protests in the book express human frustration at the fact that God cannot be summoned to defend himself - or that, even if he could be so called to account, the disproportion between human complaint and divine power would make a fair trial impossible.

He whom I must sue is judge as well. If he deigned to answer my citation, could I be sure that he would listen to my voice? (Job 9:15-6) God, you must know, is my oppressor, and his is the net that closes round me. If I protest against such violence, there is no reply; if I appeal against it, judgement is never given. (Job 19:6-)

How might God be brought to trial? How might he be brought to account? The answer given to Job, annihilating in its brutal simplicity, is that there can be no common language shared between creator and creature: there is only the possibility of amazement and silence. Other Old Testament texts go a little further. In Micah 6, for example, God brings Israel into court, but his plea reads more like a defence.

My people, what have I done to you, how have I been a burden to you? Answer me. (Micah 6:3)

God seems to be appealing against a decision by Israel, reminding them of his faithfulness. God, paradoxically, is the vulnerable one on this occasion, even though the prophet imagines God bringing the charges. If God's people will only look into their own history, they will see the truth. The trial of God will bring to light what God has shown himself to be across the centuries of Israel's history. And it is as if the lack of a common language means that it is God - not God's human partners - who is left silenced or struggling for words.

Test of character

All of this is in the background of the Gospel stories about Jesus' trial, and some of the themes I have just sketched out can, I believe, be identified in the way these stories are told, along with a good many other issues. Another book could be written on the whole language of 'temptation' in the Gospels and, indeed, in later Christian thought: when we are told that Jesus was 'tempted' in the desert, the word in Greek is the same as for 'tried'. The temptations are a record of discovery, and the way they are related makes it plain that their fundamental point is to do with who Jesus is.

It was Christianity that developed language about temptation in the sense in which we now use the word - the inclination to rebel against God, the law or goodness, understood as a test of integrity, an experience through which something is brought to light about ourselves. Classical Greek has no one word for what we mean by 'temptation', but, prompted by the vocabulary of the Gospels and the theology of experience as a probing of our truthfulness by God, the Early Church refined the meaning of the straightforward Greek vocabulary of testing until it came to refer fundamentally to the inner struggles of the moral and spiritual self. Peirasmos and similar words in Greek had once meant testing in the widest sense. By the fifth Christian century, they referred primarily to aspects of the soul's dialogue with itself. 'Temptations' could be catalogued and analysed and various strategies defined for avoiding them.

So obvious did this seem, that the petition in the Lord's Prayer, 'lead us not into temptation', came to be understood universally as a plea not to be too easily seduced by wicked inclinations - while its original sense was undoubtedly a plea to be spared the coming test represented by the end of the age. The sufferings that would wind up the existing order would prove a crucible for the testing of hearts, and believers in the earliest generations prayed that their present allegiance to Jesus would be made strong enough for them not to experience the end times as this sort of painful probing.

The chapters that follow attempt to trace the ways in which the evangelists let the truth of and about Jesus emerge in the way they narrate his trial. Since, as the Old Testament begins to suggest, it is also we who are on trial when we attempt to bring God to judgement, these reflections also touch on what it is about us that comes to light when we are faced with Jesus as he stands before his judges. Furthermore, because this double-directional trial, God's and ours, is not simply a matter of historical record but is enacted in every encounter of faith, I have added some thoughts on the trials of Christ's followers, the martyrs, and on some modern re-creations of the character and fate of Jesus' judges.

Historical details

What I have not attempted to do is to offer any sustained discussion of the historical and critical problems around the trial stories. A formidable scholarly literature has built up on this subject, especially in the last 30 years, but no very clear consensus has been reached. Conclusions vary from a confidence that the evangelists were fully and accurately informed of the procedures of Jewish and Roman courts to a radical scepticism about every single detail of the Gospel accounts. The matter has been a good deal complicated by the question of whether the desire to play down Roman involvement in the condemnation of Jesus led the evangelists to give more weight than they should have done (strictly historically) to the role of the Jewish authorities; and by the related question of whether, if Jesus was really executed for sedition against the Roman government, there has been a considerable smoothing over of the political elements in his ministry.

My own view, for what it is worth, is that Mark, Matthew and Luke are not likely to have known all that much about the processes of the Jewish courts and consequently assume that Jesus received from the Jewish authorities a more formal condemnation than was probably the case. John, who does frequently show signs of first-hand knowledge of matters in Jerusalem, is far more likely to be right in describing a hurried and irregular hearing in the High Priest's residence, designed to establish charges. However, the references in the other Gospels to a charge of threatening to destroy the Temple may well reflect a persistent tradition that this was something raised as a possible charge in the high-priestly circle.

No one today is in a position to know what, if anything, in John's extraordinary dialogue between Jesus and Pilate is actually reportage. Here, more than almost anywhere else, a concern about whether this is exact history can distract us from the central issue, which is our dialogue with Jesus through the medium of the inspired narrative. As for the nature of the charges and their political content, we must assume that, whatever was said about blasphemy in the hearings before the priests, the substantive charge must have been related to threats of civil disorder, simply because crucifixion was legally the punishment in such cases - and the charges relating to the Temple are likely to have been decisive here, as a good many modern scholars, both conservative and liberal, have argued.

Drama and challenge

The evangelists are recording a series of events marked by violence and confusion. Even on the most conservative estimate of their accounts, there must have been episodes imperfectly seen or understood, episodes where direct eyewitness evidence was lacking, along with partially conflicting testimonies. To grant this is simply to allow that the inspiration of the Gospel narratives is not the gift to the writers of a miraculous God's-eye view. If Jesus' life is a truly human one, the witness to his life must be human as well, and human witness is seldom straightforward or comprehensive. If the historical trial of Jesus was a rapid blur of events - an arrest at midnight, a hasty series of incomprehensible legal or semi-legal procedures, followed by public humiliation and torture - it should not surprise us that the records are less than calm and dispassionate, that they read like fragments pieced together in the aftermath of a traumatic disaster.

This also means that they are not best read as either good or bad transcripts of proceedings that are taking place or have taken place somewhere else. The evangelists use the very confusion and tumult of the story as an opportunity to involve the reader in the drama. The variations in detail and emphasis between the Gospel accounts represent different ways of involving us, different ways of exposing us to discovery and self-discovery. Faced with the Jesus of these narratives, we are needled and prompted into the kind of response that will tell us what we never recognized about ourselves before, as well as what we never knew about God. The Gospels overall are a contemporary challenge more than a bare historical record, and this is seldom more true than in the stories of the trial and the passion. Some modern scholars have argued that the passion stories began as a series of 'readings' to be used by believers tracing the last hours of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, a sort of primitive 'Stations of the Cross'. It is certainly true that they have always had the character of liturgy and drama; they have always required the reader to stand in particular places, to find himself or herself somewhere in the map traced by the history of Jesus in his suffering, and so to find truth and judgement.

This book is an invitation to read the familiar stories with all this in mind: to be judged, but also to be released by that judgement into the light of truth, and to find in the prisoner at the bar the final clue to what we are and what we may be in God's sight; to find in him also the final clue to the nature of our maker and redeemer and some pointers to where he may be recognized now.


Excerpted from Christ on Trial by Rowan Williams Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

1 Mark: Voices at Midnight 1
2 Matthew: Wisdom in Exile 25
3 Luke: Knocking on the Window 49
4 John: Home and Away 73
5 God's Spies: Believers on Trial 95
6 No Answer: Jesus and his Judges 119
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