An apology for anarchist politics in anarchic times: Giorgio Agamben’s “Pilate and Jesus”

What follows is a summary and commentary on Giorgio Agamben’s Pilate and Jesus


Earthly judgement does not coincide with a witnessing of the truth.

Giorgio Agamben, Pilate and Jesus

If a reflection on the trial of Jesus appears anachronistic, or academically esoteric, it is not for Giorgio Agamben, who in his last work continues to pursue an archeology and genealogy of the theological foundations of “western” political thought and practice.  And if the exercise is not novel (e.g. Carl Schmitt), its extent and depth is.  For Agamben, the decisive confrontation between Pilate and Jesus is of the nature of a historical crisis that, “in a certain manner, continues to play itself out”. (p. 30)*

Pontius Pilote’s appearance in the Gospels, both synoptic and apocryphal, and in extra-biblical texts, is for Agamben of more than mere historical interest.  If he served to historically situate the passion of Jesus, his role also carries theological significance, for the trial of Jesus is a decisive moment when “eternity met history”, as a krisis, that is, as a judgement. (8-9)  The term krisis in this instance has a juridical meaning.  But it also bears a medical significance “(krisis as the decisive moment in the evolution of a sickness, when the doctor must “judge” if the patient will die or survive)”, and a theological one (the last judgement). (27)

It is not this term however that is employed in the evangelical narratives.  Instead, we find the word bema, meaning the tribunal or the seat upon which the legal authority takes his place to pronounce judgement, which by extension, Paul uses to refer to the tribunal of Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:10)  Yet for Paul, the judgement of God is explicitly opposed to that of men, who should not judge between themselves. (28) “Why do you pass judgement on your brother? … For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God.” (Romans 14:10)

In the trial that unfolds then before Pilate, for Agamben, “two bemata, two judgements, two kingdoms seem to confront each other: the human and the divine, the temporal and the eternal”, and “it is the world of facts that must judge the world of truth, the temporal kingdom that must pronounce judgement on the eternal Kingdom.” (29)

It is the Gospel of John, with its wealth of detail, that offers Agamben the textual source for reading the trial of Jesus before Pilate.  In the first scene, the Jewish priests, who do not enter the Praetorium so as not to soil themselves before the Passover meal, oblige Pilate to step outside, at which point he asks: “What accusation do you bring against this man?” (John 18:29)  The question corresponds to the structure of roman trials, which begin with the inscription of the accusation, an accusation that must be precise and not calumnious.  The Jews do not formulate an accusation, but limit themselves to declaring, in general terms: “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” (John 18:30)  The injunction that Pilate immediately addresses to the Jews, to take the accused and to judge him “according to your law” (John 18:31), seems to follow equally a juridical logic: the moment the accusation is not formulated, Roman law cannot be applied.  The Jews’ response, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death”, (John 18: 31) brings about a change in Pilate’s behaviour, for he appears to interpret the response as the formulation of an accusation of lèse-majesté. (31-2)  It is then that the first exchange between Pilate and Jesus takes place:

Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.  What have you done?” (John 18: 33-35)

However, instead of answering the last question, Jesus responds to the first:

My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. (John 18:36-37)

The answer is of course ambiguous, for it refuses and at the same time assumes the royal condition.  Pilate is thus right in retorting: “So you are a king?” (John 18:37)  Jesus’ response then suddenly shifts his proposals from that of kingdom to that of truth:

You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (John 18:37)

And it is then that Pilate pronounces what Nietzsche defined as the only saying of any value in the New Testament (The Anti-Christ, § 46): “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

Pilate’s question, often interpreted as an ironic display of scepticism, or sarcasm, is not however necessarily such, for it is with a trial that we have to deal.  And Pilate, having at least learned that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, wants to know the truth and learn of the nature of the kingdom of which Jesus is the witness.  His question does not concern the truth in general, but the particular truth that Jesus speaks of, which he, Pilate, has not succeeded in  grasping.  “It is certainly not truth and scepticism which confront each other here, nor faith and incredulity, but two different conceptions of the truth.” (37-8)

Pilate does not wait for Jesus’ answer, but leaves to address the Jews:  “I find no case against him.  But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover.  Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:38-39)  But since he did not discover any guilt in the accused, Pilate presumably should have rendered a judgement of innocence, or at least suspended the trial, to allow for further investigation.  Rather, he hopes to resolve the matter by appeal to the Passover amnesty, which is to say that Pilate seeks at all costs to avoid pronouncing a verdict, which in fact he never does. (39-40)  The plan of profiting from the amnesty comes to nothing though, with the Jews crying out, in answer to Pilates question: “Not this man, but Barabbas!” (John 18:41)

Pilate then returns to the interior of the Praetorium, whereupon he makes a further effort to avoid judgment.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.  And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe.  They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. (John 19:1-3)

Flagellation was an accessory punishment understood as preliminary to crucifixion, which Pilate endeavours to use as a punishment for a minor or non-specified crime.  Pilate then leaves the Praetorium again, this time with Jesus, to address the Jews anew:

Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.”  So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.  Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”  When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”  Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.”  The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” (John 19:5-7)

To these words, Pilate responds with alarm.

He entered his Praetorium again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?”  But Jesus gave him no answer.  Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me?  Do you not know that I have the power to release you, and power to crucify you?”  Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (John 19:9-11)

The question “where” takes us back to the earlier exchange with Jesus, when he stated that his kingdom was not of this world and evoked a kingdom of truth.  Pilate in other words continues to seek after the truth of the matter.  And Jesus’ answer, to the effect that Pilate’s authority comes equally from on high, seems to convince him of his innocence, as we learn:

From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor.  Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” (John 19:12)

The last scene, outside:

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.  Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon.  He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!”  They cried out, “Away with him!  Away with him!  Crucify him!”  Pilate asked them, “Should I crucify your King?”  The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”  Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. (John 19:13-16)

Until the very end, Pilate evokes the question of the kingdom of Jesus, which is the basis of the Jewish authorities accusation.  As to whether the kingdom in question is mundane or celestial is without an answer until the very end; which is precisely why the last argument of the priests convinces Pilate to hand Jesus over to them.

The question returns one last time in the matter of the inscription that Pilate has placed on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19), to which the Jews object: “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” (John 19:21)  “Here Pilate pronounces his second historical retort that seems to belie that one, also famous, about the truth, and at the same time, his earlier prevarications and supposed scepticism:”(48) “What I have written I have written.” (John 19:22)

Throughout the entire trial, and not only in John, a word is used repeatedly: paredokan, in Latin, tradidit, in English, he delivers, hands over, gives, surrenders.  “It might be said that the event that is at issue in the passion of Jesus is nothing other than a surrendering, a giving, a ‘tradition’ in the proper sense of the term.” (49)

Agamben here turns to the work of Karl Barth, as having noted the theological significance of surrender.  “In effect, to the earthly “tradition” of Jesus corresponds  exactly an earlier celestial “tradition”, that Paul enunciated in these terms: “He who did not withhold his own son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Romans 8:32)  Jesus is conscious of this “tradition” and evokes it explicitly: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him” (Mark 9:31); “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)  In this theological perspective, the earthly “surrender” – the “betrayal”- of Judas, then of the Jews and of Pilate appear as the execution of a divine “surrender”.  … The drama of the passion … becomes accordingly a scenario written forever in the providential plan that the theologians call the “economy of salvation” and in the interior of which the actors only play roles already defined.  The last scene of this drama is a again a “surrender”: the moment when Jesus “surrenders” the spirit.” (John 19:30) (51-2)

The term paradosis, “surrender”, is used in the New Testament in the metaphorical sense of teaching or transmitted doctrine, and establishes an opposition, an opposition that serves as ground for Jesus’ criticisms of the oral, human traditions of the religious authorities of the Hebrews.  To the Pharisees, who ask him why his disciples do not behave according to the tradition of the ancients, Jesus answers in anger, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mark 7:8)  And right after: you make “void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on.” (Mark 7:13)  Beyond this negative value of the term, it carries a messianic sense in the passion.  There is but one authentic Christian tradition, that of surrender, that by the Father, then by Judas and the Jews, of Jesus to the cross, that abolished and realised all of the traditions.  And it is in the perspective of this surrender that is inscribed the episode of Pilate. (52-4)  But Pilate is no simple “executor”. (54)  “The role of the prefect of Judea and of judgement, of the krisis that he must pronounce does not inscribe itself in the economy of salvation as a passive instrument, but as a real character of a historical drama, with his passions and his doubts, his caprices and his scruples.  With the judgement of Pilate, history erupts within the economy and suspends the surrender.  The historical krisis is also and above all a crisis of tradition.” (55)

In other words, what is at stake in the trial of Jesus is tradition: legal, political, religious (this last, as a historical reality) tradition. The surrender of Jesus suspends all of this, without rebellion or abolition; everything remains in place, but now impotent, destituted of power.  “This means that the Christian conception of history as the execution of the divine economy of salvation – or, in its secularised version, as the ineluctable realisation of laws immanent to it – should be, at least in our case, revised.  As a Roman magistrate, Pilate must exercise judgement and exercise it according to his manner, without taking into account the economy of surrender of which he is ignorant and to which he will not cede in the end because he seems to be convinced that a king of the Jews is nevertheless politically problematic.” (56)  He could even understand that there is a divine providence, “however, as prefect of Judea, he knows that he must judge this plan, because it could provoke – has already provoked – very real consequences. … The representative of the terrestrial kingdom is competent to judge the “Kingdom that is not from here” and Jesus – it must not be forgotten – recognises this competence in him, bestowed upon him from ‘on high’.” (56-7)

Yet Pilate does not judge, in the proper sense of the term.  Rather Jesus is surrendered to his fate.  Herein lies Pilate’s simultaneous role of historical and theological figure, and the significance of his role: historical “personage and theological person, juridical process and eschatological crisis coincide without rest and it is only in this coincidence – taken in the etymological sense of “to fall together” – that they find their truth.” (63-4)  In the “trial” of Jesus, in fact, “two judgements and two kingdoms find themselves before each other without bringing to an end their face-à-face.  It is also not possible to know clearly who judges whom, if it is the legally invested judge of the terrestrial power or the judge by derision, the representative of the Kingdom that is not of this world.  It is even possible that neither of the two truly pronounces a judgement.” (66)

That Jesus does not judge is not only consistent with his position of accused, but also with his words.  The radical criticism of all judgement is an essential part of the teaching of Christ: “Do not judge so that you may not be judged” (Mathew 7:1), which is echoed by Paul in the Letter to the Romans (Romans 14:3-4); a criticism that finds its theological basis in the John: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world be saved through him.”  In other words, “the eternal does not want to judge the world, it wants to save it; at least until the end of time, judgement and salvation exclude each other reciprocally.” (67)

If this is the case, then why must Jesus submit to the judgement of a terrestrial kingdom?  A theological-political thesis regarding the “trial” endeavours to reconcile the two kingdoms, the Empire and the Church, by interpreting Jesus’ crucifixion by the universal empire of Rome as confirmation/justification of the latter before the former, while holding the two apart as distinct realities.  (Dante, De monarchia)  But the reconciliation is only possible assuming, postulating, theologically, a doctrine of two wills, two natures, divine and human, embodied in the flesh of Jesus.  It is upon Jesus’ body that is written the legitimacy of Church and Empire.  This dogma however renders incomprehensible the enigmas of Jesus’ testimony before Pilate.  That is, Pilate fails to understand Jesus.  And he fails precisely because the Kingdom of Heaven is irreconcilable with any earthly kingdom.  Jesus does not mobilise a presumed dual nature to move between them according to convenience.  He does not as a human being testify of the divine, nor vice versa. (72)  What renders his words difficult to understand is not his “nature”, but the truth of which he is a witness, that is “the paradoxical fact that he has a Kingdom, but that it is not ‘of here’.  He must testify in history and in time to the presence of an extra-historical and eternal reality.  How can one testify to the presence of a Kingdom that is not ‘of here’?” (74-5)

From the perspective of law, of legal authority, Jesus’ testimony cannot but fail and end in farce. (77)  “Justice and salvation cannot be reconciled, on each occasion they come to mutually exclude and invoke each other.  Judgement is implacable and, also, impossible, because for it things appear lost and beyond salvation.  Salvation is compassionate and, nevertheless, inefficatious, because for it, things appears as impossible to judge.” (78)  And thus we find ourselves before a trial that is not one, a trial without judgement.

“To witness, here and now, of the truth of the Kingdom that is not here, means to accept that what we want to save judges us.  In effect, the world, in its caducity, does not want salvation, but justice.  And it wants it precisely because it does not ask to be saved.  As unsaveable,  creatures judge the eternal: this is the paradox that, in the end, before Pilate, silences Jesus.  Here is the cross, here is history.” (79)

Yet a legal trial coincides with judgement, with a krisis. (84)  But then perhaps what is at stake in the “trial” of Jesus is not a trial at all, but a critique of law, of sovereignty; not however in the name of an opposing law or sovereignty, but in the name of salvation.  For the apologists of a Roman Church, the two were coincident.  The “trial” however testifies to their permanent divorce.  And thus the trial between the two remains unresolved, a legal process awaiting, “forever”, judgement; which because forever forthcoming, suspends and retains judgement.  The krisis, here understood as a judgement in permanent abeyance, becomes a permanent krisis.

“The implicitly irresolvable character of the encounter between the two worlds and between Pilate and Jesus is verified in two central ideas of modernity: that history is a “trial” and that this trial, because it does not conclude with a judgement, is in a state of permanent crisis.  In this sense, the trial of Jesus is an allegory of our time, which as with any self-respecting historical epoch, should have to form an eschatology of a novissima dies, but  of which it was deprived by the progressive and tacit effacement of the dogma of universal Judgement, of which the Church no longer wishes to hear speak. … Like the trauma in psychoanalysis, the crisis, that was removed from its redoubtable place, reappears in a pathological form in every domain and at every moment.  Consequently, the faculty of deciding once and for all disappears and the incessant decision doesn’t properly decide on anything.” (97-9)

Sovereignty, political authority, is the power to decide on the exception. (Carl Schmitt)  Which is to say that it rests upon a krisis.  But in the absence of decision, the uncertainty/repetition that haunts all sovereignty, in other words, a krisis, turns back upon sovereignty itself; the exception becomes the State itself, an “anarchy” of violence.  In “opposition”, Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven is no counter-sovereignty, counter-hegemony, but a destituent “power” that refuses sovereignty.  In the place of a new earthly rule, Jesus exemplifies a mode of life, an ethos, in which it is not for life to be moulded by law, but for life to give to itself its own intrinsic ways of being.  Before the “anarchy” of law-making violence, Jesus incarnates an anarchic divine violence (Walter Benjamin) of a way of life beyond sovereignty; a politics not of conquest, but of surrender.  To give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s is to render possible anarchy.


* Unless otherwise indicated, all references are to: Giorgio Agamben, Pilate et Agamben. Paris: Bibliothèque Rivages, 2014.

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