This essay deals with the scene of Pilate and the crowd in Mark and Matthew. In it I suggest that the scene presents a classic, universal, and timeless trope of subaltern-dominant discourse in which the subaltern plays the role of the dominant, and the dominant unsuccessfully attempts to play the role of the subaltern. The presentation is idealized, not naturalistic or realistic. The narratives are disguised to contain hidden messages intended to be understood by subaltern Jews but not by dominant Gentiles/Romans, lest the subalterns be subjected to punishment. Rather than being anti-Jewish, as has been commonly held, the narratives, when correctly understood, are, like all subaltern portrayals of subaltern-dominant relations, partisanly pro-subaltern/Jewish and anti-dominant/Roman.
The literary genre is Roman mime with an additional strong influence from Pharisaic-style parody in a foreign setting, and specifically Esther as the template. In Mark, the actors and the scene portray Caesar and the crowd at the Roman games. The idealized message is that Jesus' trial is quintessentially illegal. In addition to mime, Matthew's far more sophisticated psychological narrative draws on classical Greek drama and hidden allusions from rabbinic law. In Matthew, Pilate's performance of the Jewish hand-washing ritual is a farce that ironically results in the crowd acclaiming Jesus by providentially accepting Jesus' same-day offer of his blood.
I. Pilate and the Crowd as Dominant and Subaltern
African-American actor Pigmeat Markham had a signature courtroom routine, "Hre Come De Judge," in which black actors performed in the most over-the-top, [End Page 733] buffoonish, demeaning, embarrassingly inappropriate racial stereotype imaginable. I always attributed this to the demands of white audiences, until I discovered that Markham and his troop played the Chitlin Circuit to overwhelmingly black audiences.1 Why would blacks have enjoyed seeing blacks depicted in such seemingly extraordinarily unflattering and demeaning ways? The reason is that white and black audiences saw the scene differently. Whites saw blacks acting extremely badly, but blacks saw the actors portraying the quintessentially white court system. It is no coincidence that the actors in Jean Genet's Les Nègres portray royalty and aristocrats. Nor is the genre confined to race. For example, the Keystone Cops may be viewed simply as buffoons, or as cops. The different perspectives of different constituencies in the audience is akin to Bakhtinian hetero- or polyglossia.2
These tropes are not in any way unique to blacks or whites, Jews or Romans, or any particular time but are universal among oppressed subaltern peoples for expressing their relations and dealings with dominant oppressors.3 James C. Scott explains: "[F]or any subordinate group, there is tremendous desire and will to express publicly what is in the hidden transcript, even if that form of expression must use metaphors and allusions in the interest of safety. . . . [P]olyvant symbolism and metaphor lends itself to disguise. By the subtle use of codes one can insinuate . . . meanings that are accessible to one intended audience and opaque to another audience the actors wish to exclude." The "seditious message" may be "clothed in terms that also can lay claim to a perfectly innocent construction."4
Mark seems to use this technique: on a superficial level for Gentiles, the scene is meant to be perceived as a Jewish crowd acting extremely badly. But the evangelist's meaning (to be understood by Jews, not Gentiles) is that the Jewish crowd is not acting as Jews; they are acting as Romans in the quintessentially Roman activity of calling for the freeing, sparing, or condemning of gladiators at the games— an activity (particularly from a Jewish perspective) so depraved as to be the very [End Page 734] antithesis of a trial at which justice is dispensed.5 Yet the circumstances of the day brought the connection to mind. "For I think God has displayed us apostles last, like men condemned to death (in the arena), because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men. We are (made) fools (of, baited) for Christ . . . like scum, filth" (2 Cor 4:9-10).6 The Talmud contains elaborate prohibitions relating to festivals of idolaters...