‘You are the king of the Jews?” says Pilate to Jesus. The Roman governor addressing the Jewish street preacher is being sarcastic, or so the context of their exchange in the Gospel of John gives us reason to think. The question mark (it looks like a semicolon) in Greek manuscripts tells us that Pilate speaks the sentence in a certain cadence, to make it sound interrogative, but we might infer that much, too, from the context.
Which syllables does he stress? We don’t know. Let’s try some possibilities.
“You are the king of the Jews?”
“You are the king of the Jews?”
“You are the king? Of the Jews?”
Jesus is not yet bloodied and beaten by the Roman soldiers, but he probably looks bedraggled. He has come off an all-nighter spent in dread. He sweated something like blood. Did the posse who arrested him, outdoors, on a hillside outside the city walls, ask him whether he wanted to shower and change clothes before his arraignment at the praetorium? Ha.
“You are the king?”
As for that part about “the Jews”: It’s a translation of a plural form of the Greek word Ioudaios, which can have one or more of several related meanings that, again, depend on the context:
a member of Judah, one of the twelve tribes of Israel;
a person who is assumed to be descended from any of the twelve sons of Israel and therefore to belong to the ethnic community that, though geographically dispersed, looks to a single location, Jerusalem, as its spiritual and cultural capital;
a Judean, a resident of Judea, territory that includes and surrounds Jerusalem and roughly corresponds to what was the southern kingdom that split from the northern kingdom, Israel, after the death of Solomon.
The second meaning in that list comes closest to the common, everyday definition of the English words “Jew” and “Jewish” in our day. Modern readers of the New Testament tend to be less mindful of the third meaning, “Judean.” It’s based on geography and would make more sense in many instances in which translators write “Jews.”
Take John 7:1, a striking example. There we read that Jesus decides to preach on his home turf in Galilee for the time being, not down south in Judea, as Judeans have designs on his life. Here’s how the verse is rendered in the King James Version: “After these things Jesus walked in Galilee; for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him.”
Tension that boils over to become overt hostility between Jesus and, as the translators write, “the Jews” pervades the Gospel of John. The strife described there is real, but that identification of Jesus’s antagonists seems baffling — he is, after all, as Jewish as they are, in our modern understanding of the word. The key is to remember that he’s a Galilean, not a Judean, and therefore not Ioudaios, or “Jewish,” in the geographical sense, although in the ethnic and religious senses of the term he is. (He is Judean by birth, in Bethlehem, and is descended from Judah, as readers of the gospels know, but evidently most of his contemporaries don’t.)
Moreover, in John we find the name “Israel” in many references to what modern readers understand by the term “Jewish,” which relates to a religion and an ethnicity encompassing more than members of one tribe and more than residents of one region. In John we read that the crowd in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday greets Jesus with shouts of “Blessed is the king of Israel,” not “of Judea.”
The geographical difference between Judea and Galilee entailed a world of social discord, religious quarrels, and political conflict. In the eyes of Judeans, Galilee was the hinterland, from which a trip to the Temple usually took several days. Galileans were suspected of being loose in their religious practice, prone to assimilate into the gentile culture of the Hellenized towns that dotted their district.
“You are the king of the Judeans?” is what the crowd standing outside would have heard had they been privy to the exchange between Pilate and Jesus. Is it what Pilate meant? He used the term Ioudaioi but implied the broad sense of it, to mean approximately what we mean by “Jewish”: “Your own people,” he tells Jesus, “have delivered you to me.”
So not in every instance would we gain a more accurate picture by substituting “Judean” where we find “Jews” or “Jewish” in translations of the New Testament. Given that we’ve been so seriously misled by older translations in which almost no instance of Ioudaioi is rendered as “Judeans,” the temptation to err in the opposite direction is great. Scholars and translators who succumb to it can be forgiven. We should never stop trying to refine our understanding of Jesus’s ministry in light of the conflict as well as of the common bonds between south and north, between Judea and Galilee. We might think of it as a narcissism of small differences, or sibling rivalry.
Throughout his ministry, bad blood between north and south provides much of the subtext of the disputes between Jesus and his critics. Quick-witted and sharp-tongued, he wins his battles of words with them, as a rule, until now, the hour of his trial and execution. The Father, his power source, has begun to withdraw.
Fencing with Pilate, Jesus demonstrates his signature mental agility one last time. He turns Pilate’s question “Therefore you are a king?” sideways, ignoring the interrogative tone of voice and answering the literal meaning of the sentence.
“You say that I’m a king,” Jesus notes. Touché.
From that point to his death a few hours later, his rhetorical strength continues to recede and abandon him, like air leaking from a balloon. Silence forms a large part of his response to the insults, verbal and physical, that add up to a spectacular public humiliation, by now the most famous in recorded history.
It’s a convention, when meditating on the mystery of the cross, to dwell on the question of guilt — ours. Jesus assumed our sins, taking them off our shoulders, and off our souls, so that we might pass God’s judgment: I leave it to others to decide whether that understanding of atonement is sound theology. What comes to mind more than guilt when I think on the crucifixion is the shame.
Anyone who lives long enough has been accused of offenses that he didn’t commit. He finds himself as well to be in general misunderstood and misrepresented, a victim of bad translations. Friends and strangers hear him express a thought that’s new to them, and in their impatience they translate it into one that they’re familiar with but that’s not quite what he means. He would explain himself, but when you’re explaining you’re losing, or written off as having already lost, so he bites his tongue and carries a burden of resentment with him to the grave. No one ever knew him, or knew him well enough, though many assumed that they did, compounding his loneliness.
Let him find comfort in the knowledge that he’s in company better than himself. Jesus suffered something similar throughout his short life. On Calvary, it was taken to a new level. Pilate, in what could be read as a twisted proclamation of contempt for Jesus as well as for the Temple establishment and the local population, orders a sign to be affixed to the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Judeans.” That’s how people in Jerusalem would have read it. Nazareth is a town in Galilee.
Jesus rose from the tomb, lingered for a few weeks, and then left but not before promising to return, vindicated and victorious. You who believe that you are destined for a parallel fate are destined for a parallel fate. The faith is both too deep and too exalted to be comprehended. By comparison, the consolation of Jesus’s companionship in the pit of shame, whether we stumbled into it through our fault or, like Joseph, were cast into it by jealous rivals, is a minor grace, but I’ll take it.