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Saint Pontius Pilate?

A few years ago I visited a wonderful little museum of Russian icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. One detail that caught my eye and intrigued me was a depiction of Pontius Pilate with a halo! This came back to me recently when I ran across a reference to Pilate as an accidental prophet. With his “Ecce Homo,” he presented a mocked king, crowned with thorns, covered with welts and spittle, to a crowd clamoring for his crucifixion. “Behold the human condition,” says Pilate, “this is what fallen man is—a pitiful caricature of the divine image.” This is the king of the Jews.

Early Christianity went easy on Pilate. He was a protégé of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a Roman noble who had by then practically become co-ruler with the emperor Tiberius. It was Sejanus who had Pilate named prefect of Judea in the year 26. Just a few years later, in October of the year 31, Sejanus was convicted of treason and executed. Pilate was recalled to Rome in 36 following the suppression of a Samaritan pilgrimage. Nothing certain is known of his subsequent career. Popular imagination filled in the gap. One tradition has Pilate committing suicide in his disgrace. Another has him testifying to Jesus before Tiberius (cf. the apocryphal Acts of Pilate) and eventually suffering martyrdom because of his testimony. The Gospel accounts are, in general, sympathetic to Pilate. He tries to save Jesus but is bullied by the priests and scribes and finally acquiesces. He does, however, proclaim Jesus the King of the Jews in the inscription on the Cross and refuses to backtrack. When Joseph of Arimathea asks for the body of Jesus, Pilate grants his request.

Tertullian invokes Pilate as a witness to the death and resurrection of Christ and of the truth of Christianity—and explains that this is why he is mentioned in the Nicean Creed. St. Augustine saw Pilate as a prophet of the Kingdom of God (cf. sermon 201). Hippolytus draws a parallel between Pilate and Daniel—in so far as both proclaim themselves absolved from the shedding of innocent blood (Daniel 14:40). Other Church Fathers likened Pilate to the Magi, who also recognized Jesus as King of the Jews. Pilate’s wife is honored by the Greek Church on October 27. The Ethiopian Church venerates both Pilate and his wife on June 19.

What to make of all of this? Modern biblical scholars generally reject the patristic vindication of Pilate as a pious legend. They may be right. But perhaps the wisdom of the Church Fathers and the intuitions of popular piety see things on another level. All of our acts are mysteriously symbolic and interlinked in ways we cannot yet know but which will one day be made manifest. In Pilate, we seem to have a functionary who sympathizes with Jesus but has to operate within the limits of his responsibilities, who is uncertain of a truth that would complicate his duties and allegiances. He pulls out all the stops to save Jesus, whom he did not, of course, recognize as God. But who did? Not the Apostles, who had fled. Nor Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemas, who were simply trying to do the right and decent thing. Nor the good thief (cf. Peter Steinfels's Commonweal article on the Good Thief), nor the myrrh-bearing women. It may have been enough to have mercy on a dead and humiliated God, even if one is unaware of the hidden transcendence of this mercy.


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Well, one dimension of rescuing Pilate from total infamy (if not outright exonerating him) is that it redirects blame for jesus' execution from Rome and onto Jews.

To follow on Abe's point, one of the problematic aspects of this line of exegesis around Pilate's role in salvation history, is that is may not be historically accurate. Jewish scholarship from the time indicates that Pilate was notorius for executing Jewish criminals. So much in fact, that I have read where there is actual evidence that the emperor, Tiberius, had concerns over his governance of the area. Ironically, this fact is alluded to in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Notwithstanding the fact that Gibson follows the intimation of the gospels in painting PIlate in a favourable light.

 In other words, the historical Pilate did not have any panges of conscience or problems with executing someone who he thought might be innocent. That he causes trouble is good enough reason. And he hardly required prompting/manipulation from a Jewish mob.

Now maybe, just maybe, his wife became a convert, maybe she had doubts, and maybe Pilate changed his view in time. But even if we allow some truth to that tradition, that does not mean that the gospel account is historically accurate.Nor does it mean that the hagigoraphy of Pilate is justified from either a historical or theological point of view.

And, yes, the question of who is responsible for the death of Jesus is an important historical question. Paula Fredriksen wrote a good book on this. There is no doubt that the Jewish leadership was involved but the Romans were not blameless and PIlate in particular was hardly this waffling leader who washed his hands of the whole affair (an action by the way which only occurs in one gospel).


Years ago when I was in grammar school I heard about Pontius Pilate. I developed an instant empathy for him. I asked my sixth grade nun if she thought that he was in Purgatory.  She told me that she did not know. I thought he must be in Purgatory, so I started to offer up indulgences for his soul.

When I approach the pearly gates I am hoping that he remembers me and tells S. Peter: “Let her in. One good turn deserves another.”

Even though the execution was carried out by foreign occupiers, is it  really redirecting blame to emphasize that Jesus was killed by his own people? That seems like an important part of the story.

Dante puts Pontius Pilate on the outskirts of hell, I think.

I have much sympathy for his question: "What is truth?" 

Irene, I think it is an important part of the story, but the point is in recognizing the rhetorical dimensions of the story, as well as their potential consequences. When the story is collapsed into and equated with history, then there is a tendency to withdraw from critically engaging with the narrative as something with its own agendas. So let's say that the story emphasizes that Rome (freaking Rome!) is somehow reluctantly cowed into doing the dirty work of its colonized people, and let's say that this story's representation is made even more extreme in later readings (Pilate as saint or quasi-saint)--well, what is strategy behind that kind of representation? And what is the fallout?

I think that the latter element (later readings and subsequent fallout) is key. The story's agenda, if it’s even accessible, won't necessarily be the agenda of later readings and retellings. A narrative may be engaged in some complex negotiations of power dynamics within a culture (e.g., 1st Century Judaism), or between cultures (e.g., between the early Jesus movement and Rome), or it may incorporate some pretty nuanced engagements with theological traditions (e.g., Matthew 27:25)--and yet, all of that complexity and nuance can get hammered into something pretty thin subsequently (deicidal Jews and saintly imperial agents). You don't have to do much reading in Commonweal’s comments before you encounter some sledgehammer remark about group X being Pharisees, if you're looking for a nice example of uncritical appropriation of a complicated trope in the gospel narrative.

In Inferno III, there is a character who made the "great refusal" through cowardice and an unwillingness to take sides, and is therefore among those rejected not only by Heaven, but by Hell itself. But though some have thought this to be Pilate, I think the general opinion is that it's Celestine V, whose resignation from the papacy opened the way to Boniface VIII, Dante's bête noire. Somewhere in Purgatorio, Philip IV of France is likened to Pilate in his arrest of Boniface -- not, of course, that Boniface was a great guy in Dante's book, but the poet nevertheless revered the office.

(Agree (as usual), Abe.  Calling people Pharisees reveals more about the caller than about the callee.)




As to "St." Pontius Pilate?  I don't think there's much danger of his cultus attracting many Roman Catholics.  Too many other saints we're required to venerate, and many of them make it hard to summon up the requisite latria.



(Today's the feast of St. Ursula.  The Company named for her by St. Angela became the Order of St. Ursula.  They've educated and rescued women and girls for nearly five centuries.  The Ursulines were the first nuns to come to North America.  A good day to send some thanks heavenward and to ask for their powerful intercession.)

(Sorry, I meant dulia, not latria.)

Maybe I was privileged to grow up in the post-conciliar environment, but the question of whether the Jews or the Romans were accountable never held much interest for me.  The question of the Passion narrative that we read in the voice of both Romans and Jews every year asks what witness we would've given had we been there.  Who killed Jesus?  Potentially, any of us.  Even the First among the Apostles could deny Him.  So, why bully the Jews or Pilate because they had the misfortune to be put on the spot (and, while we've been let off the hook comparatively easily)?  Other criticisms notwithstanding, something I love about The Last Temptation of Christ is the portrayal of Pilate (wonderfullly brought to life on film, I think, by David Bowie) as a bored Roman bureaucrat who has no inkling he's caught up in the climactic moment of salvation history.  Isn't that any of us?  Grace sits before us, but our whinnying horse in the distance calls us to something we think is more important.  Neither necessarily saint nor sinner, Pilate is us.

I don't know--I'm pretty suspicious of reading ancient texts through a "this is about me/us" lens. I guess that that sort of reading may have its place and time (for devotional or meditational purposes?), but it probably shouldn't be let out of its cage very often.

The “it was we who killed Jesus” take is a line that in one form or another gets trotted out pretty predictably when the discussion of guilt for the crucifixion is at hand. I think it’s a bit of a dodge—and at that, it’s a dodge unavailable to the group most often blamed (and punished) for the crucifixion, for Jews do not buy into the notion that Jesus’ death was the consequence of some sort of shared sin.

This 'Pilate was actually a good guy' stuff is a bit creepy as well as historically incorrect, and I think part of letting Pilate off the hook has had to do with blaming the Jews for Jesus' death.  Here's a quote from Adolf Hitler  that can be found in an  article by JD Crossan ("Who Killed Jesus?" ... )  ....

It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry."
Adolf Hitler (July 5, 1942)

Isn't the Catholic (and, in general, the Christian) view that it was all part of a divine plan for Jesus to be killed? Certainly according to the Gospels (especially John) it was "the Jews" who wanted Jesus killed, but they delivered him to the Romans, and the Romans killed him. 

The events don't truly get set in motion until after Jesus prays, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” So what is going to happen, no matter the roles played by the Jews and the Romans, is what "the Father" wants to happen. It is all foreordained. It has been foreordained (according to the Christian view) throughout Old Testament times, as attested to by numerous verses that the authors of the Gospels claim are "fulfilled." 

If he hadn't had Jesus crucified, Pilate would have thrown off the entire plan. Did Pilate even have a choice? 

Here's a bit more about Pilate from Ctossan's book, "Who is Jesus?", in which he mentions the bad stuff that Jewish writers Philo and Josephys said about Pilate  ... ...

In the New Testament accounts ... Pilate is portrayed as being completely just and fair, desiring to acquit Jesus but forced reluctantly and against his will to crucify him because of the insistence of Jewish authorities and the Jerusalem crowd. But what we have learned about Pontius Pilate from other records is totally at variance with that benign picture. We know quite a bit about the historical Pilate. We have archaeological as well as literary evidence for Pilate ...

[A]fter the disaster of the first Roman-Jewish War, Christians were becoming more and more marginalized as a force within Judaism and were becoming less and less likely to attain the leadership of their own people. The future would lie with Rabbinic Judaism and not Christian Judaism. As described by Mark in the 70s, Jesus' enemies at the crucifixion are "the crowd" from Jerusalem. By Matthew in the 80s, that crowd has grown to "all the people." And by John in the 90s, it has become, quite simply, "the Jews" ....

None of that process, even in its nastiest name-calling, made much difference in the second or the third centuries when Christianity, though by then a religion distinct from Judaism, had no power of reprisal. But in the fourth century, when the Roman empire became officially Christian, those very same crucifixion stories took on the meaning of Christians accusing Jews, and began the long and lethal process that prepared Europe for the Holocaust in the terrible fullness of time.

Sotty - that last paragraph should have been in italics.

I struggle to understand what reasoning allows a person to seriously consider a person, a group, an event or a series of events could have altered the course of Christ's life.  If God and Christ were not in charge during Christ's life on earth the bulk of Christianity hardly makes much sense.  IMHO, at its core Christianity did and does represent a significant break with notions suggestive of a remarkably unmerciful and all too often revengeful God.  Christ's life and death were not in anyway a call to reversing that break.  Blame whom you like.  The point is not to repeat the event.

Pilate is portrayed as being completely just and fair

I don't see that at all. In the New Testament, he is the one who refuses to do what is right in spite of knowing that it is right and of having the power to do it. What good does it do him to know what is just, if he does not act upon it in spite of having power? He is not righteous. I don't see that as "begnin" at all. 

If Pilate were to make it as a saint he would have been better off living in the third or fourth century. At that time people were good at making up stories and claiming fame by possessing their saint. The relics of the true cross multiplied a million fold and Martin of Tour's body was unabashedly venerated in at least ten locations. And Paulinus of Nola would have built him a basilica that would have been for the ages. Even Abe's Pharisees would have had a chance.

If you remove the theological considerations, it really is a puzzle as to why Jesus was killed in the first place. Certainly, the fact that his death was by crucifixion clearly points to the fact that he was viewed as an insurrectionist and a threat to Roman power. But there really is nothing in his teaching that is actually seditious. 

But the puzzlement is that if you take the political revolutionary lead, why was he the only one that was killed? Why not go all the way and clean house and take all of his closest followers.

And if you take the real reason was because of inter-religious squabbling between he and Jewish leaders, why would Pilate have even cared?

But nothing can change the central fact that Pilate had to have give the order.

I just don't know, given his history, why the authors of the gospel treated him quasi-sympathetically.

In any case, it is the Orthodox who seem to push for this whole canonization thing. I am close to much of Orthodox spirituality but on some things, I just think they go off the rails. This is one example and their tendency to canonize Old Testament figures in another. They are great on allegory and the spiritual sense but this is a bit much.

It seems to me that there was a collusion of events. If the religious leaders had not plotted against him, if the crowd sentiment had shifted, or if Pilate had done the right thing, the crucifixion would not have happened at that time. Things needed to come together in just the right way, or rather, in just the wrong way, and all parties share responsibility. It's the kind of unlucky alignment that makes one think of Satan.


When the story is collapsed into and equated with history, then there is a tendency to withdraw from critically engaging with the narrative as something with its own agendas.

Quite so, but what to do? So the historical Pilate had a very different personality from the one portrayed in the Gospels. But when we read them, are we not engaging in the text in such a way that it is hard to distantiate ourselves from it? It's easy to beware of the writer's perspective when we are merely reading a text for information, but when we try to live it, to let it speak to us, isn't it, in a way, counterproductive to be critical?

Maybe it is a bit like listening to a friend telling us about his problems at work. We listen sympathetically, and there is a small voice in the back of our head warning us that what we're hearing is his side of the story, but as we are giving him our full attention and sympathy, yes, there is a tendency to "withdraw from critically engaging with his narrative", but I'm not sure I know how to hold both views at once (what I'm hearing from him, and what I suspect may have happened) and at the same time be in full empathy.

So I recognize that tendency, but am not sure what to make of it. If we step up from the narrative to consider the writer's biases and try to account for them, then where does that lead us in terms of prayerful reading?

It's one thing I enjoy, when I read a paragraph, every now and then, by the fathers of the Church: the freedom with which they embrace the texts and let them lead them to new ideas. They are not afraid of reading what is not there, interpreting according to their own lights, and I find it very rich and colorful, very lively; I also trust that, because they are immersed in biblical texts, their sometimes seemingly whimsical thinking will be essentially correct, most of the time.  I think that there is value in their reflections; even when they ignore historical facts, they still give us insights. But I don't know how to do a lively  reading that is constrained by historical facts. 

" isn't it, in a way, counterproductive to be critical?"

The bottom line about our religious life should be 'truth' I'd think.  Otherwise all we're doing is participating in a fantasy.

Recently I was presenting a mathematical result to some friends. I gave a proof that was intuitive but incorrect; exhibited the subtle hidden flaw; and showed the corrected proof, that was more technical. One friend commented: "I prefer the incorrect proof", meaning that it conveyed more intuition about the mathematical structure. In that way, paradoxically the incorrect proof revealed more truth than the less transparent  correct proof. 

That is, our own reaction to the text is also part of what 'truth' is.

If truth is defined as anything but an accurate representation of facts, it becomes "truthiness"  ;)    Wikipedia  ...

"Truthiness is a quality characterizing a "truth" that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively "from the gut" or because it "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts."

Something not factual can sometimes actually have more meaning for us than what's factual, but that isn't the same as saying it's true. 

Claire, I would hate to fly in an airplane designed with your intuitive but incorrect truth.

To the bigger point: Our church has the Stations of the Cross in painted glass where other churches have scenes from the life of Jesus and/or Mary or abstract art. Because of the architecture of the building, the first and last stations are the tallest windows. So I have Pilate constantly in front of me, washing his hands with his sleeves rolled up, a slave holding the water jug, a scowling soldier standing behind him, and Jesus, with hands bound and a crown of thorns, standing before him. Pilate's expression is more troubled than angry. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what he is thinking, and I have arrived at a conclusion:

I'll never know.

Claire, I just do not think that it is ethically possible to engage with the Bible and Scripture without allowing for the tension that must arise between the text's claims, its context, and its consequences. I suspect that that probably does reduce its spiritual potential, at least at first blush--but, like I said, I'm not sure of an ethical alternative. We allow the needs of others to impinge upon our own convenience in so many other areas, because to do otherwise would be selfish--I do not think that spiritual practice, including Bible-reading, is any different. It is convenient, to use my earlier example, to be able to use "pharisee" as shorthand for "hypocrite" and so forth, but it is not ethical.

I don't think I'm talking about anything that requires much more than awareness: this text teaches this, BUT..." Being aware of the BUT doesn't necessarily mean that you can't let the text teach you, but it will affect how you integrate its lesson into your understanding of things.

(above, first line: * engage with the the Bible as Scripture...")

Crystal: I, too, hate "truthiness".

Tom: fortunately for everyone, I am not an engineer.

Abe: thanks. Food for thought.

I once told my Jewish boss about the nuns in parochial school who told their pupils that every sin they committed increased Jesus's agony on the cross.  My boss was appalled--and being Jewish, she's not exactly unfamiliar with adults who lay guilt trips on children.  

Once again, don't Christians believe that the death of Jesus by crucifixion was planned? 

Also, the day Jesus was crucified is known as Good Friday.

The horror of the crucifixion proceeds because "the Father" wants it to go forward. Jesus prays that, if possible, it should not happen, but then says, "Not my will, but yours." It seems to me that the idea that "the Father" wanted Jesus to be crucified is one of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. 

Comic Relief:

One day in Sunday School the children were asked to draw a picture of what they had learned.  The teacher looked at one of the results: it was a passenger jet with a pilot and what was obviously the Holy Family in the back. The teacher exclaimed: "That's not in the Bible!" The child answered: "Yes, it is! That's Pontius the Pilot and this is the flight to Egypt!           


 But I don't know how to do a lively reading that is constrained by historical facts.

Well you can. But, I think it is a far too lively reading to canonize Pilate and this is the point of the thread. That his position is ambiguous, as is the postion many Jewish leaders.

It seems to me that Rabbi Gamaliel due to his stance towards the burgeoning Christian community is more worthy of veneration that Pilate.

George, I agree. 

Welocme to the world of post-modernism, folks.  We just can't get away from ambiguity, can we.

Ambiguity does not require or indicate post-modernism.

Certainly a central question for our time, and all time. I have heard alternative translations, "What truth?", and "Which truth?", all of which resonate with me. Recently, while I am pondering John Haught and remembering Teilhard, I learned that my 16 year old grandson, a student in a Catholic high school, has a copy of a recent Dawkins book, gifted by his parents. So maybe we should see Pilate in the context of our both/and traditions, perhaps as the iconographers and evangelists.

Abe --

Post-modernism recognizes that the ambiguity of language implies that meanings are never sure -- the meanings we find in texts are our own meanings and not necessarily those of the writer or speaker.  Further, it isn't possible to know whether our interpretations of texts of other speakers in other contexts have any degree of accuracy.  It's why  the post-modernists laugh scornfully the New Critics and all their talk of "close readings of the text".  There is no necessary relationship between word and meaning, there is no "the meaning" of a text because all texts are ambiguous. 

Well, that's a pretty handy digest, Ann. Mind if I use it in a powerpoint some day? I was not denying the place of ambiguity in post-modernism, only that that was a lens anyone had explicitly called for in this particular discussion of how to read the Bible; in fact, if anything, I suspect there has been a call for a basic, preliminary, and thoroughly modern application of historical and rhetorical study.


But the "text" (and everything we encounter is text that we have to read and interpret) does exist. It is a tangible thing and it is the data upon which we base our meanings. The debate then is really a debate around meanings of texts and there certainly can be alternate meanings of "texts" and those meanings have real world implications.

Take the Pilate episode as recounted in the gospels. Even the gospel writers disagree or find alternatives representations of the figure of Pilate and his role.

At any rate 2000 years later we are discussing this after layers of history and mythologies. 

All of that said, there has to be by necessity, a relationship between the reader(s) and the text. Afterall it is the same text so there is at least a common referent. 


George D. --

I think you're looking for a sort of necessary relationship among the words in a texts (physical marks) that a doesn't exist.

When we have reason to think we're speaking a common language, there are at least several things involved:  1) individual words, 2) mental meanings of individual words, 3) meanings conveyed by the sequence of words/marks, which sequence itself conveys meaning besides the mental meanings of individual words, and 4) rules for sequencing the individual words.  3. and 4. are illustrated clearly by the difference between the headlines "Dog Bites Man" and "Man Bites Dog".  In the latter headline the position/sequence of the nouns has changed according to a pre-established rule concerning subjects, and the meaning of the two sentences becomes quite different because of the sequence.  

The only necessary element involved is the *rules* of the language being spoken, but the rules can be changed and, obviously syntactical rules differ from language to language.  The point is that the "necessity" of linguistic rules is only a matter of what we agree to -- that, e.g., in English subjects come first (usually) and the subject position itself *show* what the subject is.  But that is a weak sort of necessity which depends only on our wills -- our choice that that will be the rule.  There is no necessary relationship between "dog" or "man" and their positions in  a sentence.  (The scholastics had a phrase for this sort of necessity -- "consequent necessity".)

Because the rules can change, even the rules we decide to use can change, yielding an ambiguous statement unless you tell the other person that you have decided to use a different rule.  (But *that* statement would also be intrinsically ambiguous, so we can get into an infinite regress.).

 Yes, there is usually (we hope, but only hope) a common set of rules for interpreting the syntactical position of words (the marks), but that happens only when and if we have already agreed on those rules.  Once agreed upon we can then go on to interpret with a bit of confidence, but never complete confidence.

Pragmatically, language systems do work, but there is always the possibility that a given sentence is not being interpreted as the speaker would wish it to be.  (Including the last sentence before this non-sentence :-)


 Most interesting as usual.

However, very theoretical. In the "real" world, the rules of language and meaning are imposed upon us and we have to work within those rules and we judge those who do not mentally ill or it is a symptom of a mental illness. We really do not have the power, even if we want to, to change that.

Let me give you a concrete example and link it back to an earlier thread around schizophrenia. When I first got into the field of mental health I worked In a kind of drop in centre so very close to the people we served. It was not really a clinical service but more of a grass roots kind of housing and support place. It was not, at that time, part of the professional "system".

When I started I knew very little about mental illness but I met one guy who frequently spoke in what would be described as word salad. But here is the kicker, once you got to know him, he was actually quite coherent. Those seemingly random phrases were allusions to feelings or situations and were code about what was happening or how he was feeling. And you could have a conversation and get what he was saying. It was not just me, anybody who spent any length of time with him, could pic up. His code.

Now, this guy commited no crime, was not a threat or danger to anybody including himself. But he was medicated to manage his sympoms which didn't work at caused wicked side effects (tardive dyskinesia).

i also read that James Joyce had a daughter who was psychotic and only he could understand her. He wrote finnegans wake to her one theory goes.

The point is that language and the use of language is not completely free, it has it's own rules and we are required to operate within those rules in order to exist in society. If we do not, we are literally segregated and "cured". In reality, people do not have the right to negotiate their own meanings.

George D ==

Fascinating.  You obviously picked up certain patterns in the man's speech.  Wonder what they were.  Did he mainly leave out the "is" words?  Did he mainly express emotions?  Lots of emotionl language doesn't follow some of the simplest forms of patterns (S is P, S x-es Q) .  Tell me exactly what "Wow!" says!  It's not a narrative, that's for sure.  But logic isn't about that sort of language use,  It's about assertions and denials.  Schizophrenics run into trouble with that sort of speech -- they characteristically don't/can't follow the rule that says you can't both affirm and deny the same thing,  In fact, doing that is a clear sign of psychosis -- saying that, e.g., Jack is Jill (i.e., Jack is and isn't himself).


What is fascinating, to me at any rate, is how language indicates thought process. Now we can, and do,  clinically label th thought process as loosening of associations, flight of ideas, tangentiality, etc. ( I have included a link I provide to students that shows really good examples of actresses illustrating what these sound and look like (just click on the thought process button and the list is below.):

The problem is simply because somebody has thought processes and loosely associated language patterns and/or tangential ones, that does not meant the person has a mental "illness". Check out this video of the poet, Saul Williams, reciting his poem "Coded Language". If you were to see him talking like this on the street with the affect that he is showing at the def poetry jam he would without question resemble any street person you might encounter in any number of shelters. And yet when you listen to the whole poem, there is clearly a logic and coherence and vision. But it is expressed in a way that is reminiscent of loose associations, flight of ideas, tangent. But it is beautiful and not ill. 


Killed by his own people?  No, sentenced and executed by the Romans, and it's right there in the Gospels, who were infamous for crucifixion as a terrot tactic.  As for the blanket "rejected by the Jews" or "killed by the Jews," who were the thousands of people following him around, reverencing him, aching to hear what he had to say, celebrating his entrance into Jerusalem? 

George D. =

Thanks for the sites, but I can't read the first one because my computer refuses to enlarge it, and I can't hear the second one.  Sigh.

From what you say, the word salads of your friends seem to be language problems only -- mis-associations of sign and signified.  But some schizophrenic thinking is not simply a matter of switching the meanings of words.  It's a failure to grasp logical/real relationships.  Very, very sad.  I went into the subject when I started a paper on the logical errors in Nijinsky's Diaries (never finished it).  He makes the errors in classification which are typical of schizophrenics, but he also makes some other ones.  His grasp of metaphysical principles (e.g., a thing is not other than itself) also breaks down.  He was REALLY crazy, poor man.  What a tragedy.


Here is the text of his poem. His recital has a kind of rapid fire approach and his affect drives home the point. The allusions and connections are remote but taken as a whole and in the entire context, the meaning is clear. Where is the boundary point between schizophrenia, poetry. And what do you think of the post-structuralist and their play of language and meaning? 


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Studies show that when a given norm is changed in the face
Of the unchanging the remaining contradictions will parallel the truth
Equate rhyme with reason, sun with season, our cyclical relationship
To phenomenon has encouraged scholars
To erase the centers of periods thus symbolizing the non-linear
Character of 'cause and effect reject mediocrity

Your current frequencies of understanding outweigh that
Which as been given for you to understand
The current standard is the equivalent
Of an adolescent restricted to the diet of an infant
The rapidly changing body would acquire dysfunctional
And deformative symptoms and could not properly mature
On a diet of apple sauce and crushed pears

Light years are interchangeable with years of living in darkness
The role of darkness is not to be seen as or equated with ignorance
But with the unknown and the mysteries of the unseen
Thus, in the name of

Robeson, God's Son, Hurston, Ahkenaton
Hathsheput, Blackfoot, Helen, Lennon, Khalo
Kali, The Three Maria's, Tara, Lilithe, Lourde
Whitman, Baldwin, Ginsberg, Kaufman, Lumumba

Ghandi, Gibran, Shabazz, Shabazz, Siddhartha
Medusa, Guevara, Gurdsieff, Rand, Wright, Banneker
Tubman, Hamer, Holiday, Davis, Coltrane
Morrison, Joplin, Dubois, Clarke, Shakespeare

Rachmninov, Ellington, Carter, Gaye, Hathoway
Hendrix, Kutl, Dickerson, Ripperton, Mary, Isis
Theresa, Hensbury, Justlove, Plath, Rumi, Fellini
Michaux, Nostradamus, Nefertiti, La Rock, Shiva

Ganesha, Yemaja, Oshun, Obatala, Ogun, Kennedy
King, Four Little Girls, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Keller
Biko, Perone, Marley, Magalin, Cosby, Shakur
Those who burnt, those still aflamed and the countless unnamed

We claim the present as the pre-sent, as the hereafter
We are unraveling our navels so that we may ingest the sun
We are not afraid of the darkness, we trust that the moon shall guide us
We are determining the future at this very moment
We now know that the heart is the philosophers' stone

Our music is our alchemy, we stand as the manifested
Equivalent of three buckets of water and a hand full of minerals
Thus realizing that those very buckets turned upside down
Supply the percussion factor of forever, if you must count
To keep the beat then count

Find you mantra and awaken your subconscious
Curve you circles counterclockwise, use your cipher to decipher
Coded Language, man made laws, climb waterfalls and trees
Commune with nature, snakes and bees let your children
Name themselves and claim themselves as the new day, for today

We are determined to be the channelers of these changing
Frequencies into songs, paintings, writings, dance, drama
Photography, carpentry, crafts, love and love, we enlist every instrument
Acoustic, electronic every so called race, gender and sexual preference
Every person as beings of sound to acknowledge their responsibility
To uplift the consciousness of the entire fucking world

Any utterance unaimed will be disclaimed
Will be named Two Rappers Slain
Any utterance unaimed will be disclaimed
Will be named Two Rappers Slain


George D. ==


I read the poem fast, and I"m not sure what Williams meant by all of this, but a lot of it makes perfectly good sense as it contrasts different metaphors of how the world is organized.  Some of it, however, doesn't make sense, and ISTM there is no way to tell from the work itself just what Williams was intending by these parts, except that the title, "Coded Language" might mean (it's ambiguous) that it is purposely presenting a riddle in contradictory form of some sort or hidden inexplicable point or maybe just the ramblings of his imagination.  


How do you tell poetry from other language uses?  Well, there are any number of definitions or descriptions. We can describe the classical kind of Western poetry as rhythmic and or rhymed speech which conveys messages and uses a lot of expressive sounds as well as many metaphors and similes to convey meaning.  The meanings themselves are not intended to break any of the common rules o grammar and thought, though some poets do stretch the rules sometimes (putting a subject last, for instance).


But a great deal of modern poetry is different.  It isn't always meant to convey messages or descriptions.  Some of it is the presentation of images that might or might not *say* anything, but rather are simply meant to *cause a particular  experience in the reader*.  Or at least that's how I understand what the Symbolists and Imagists and those who derive from them are trying to do. Specifically, one of the so-called "objective correlative" theories holds that it is the function of poetry to cause the reader to experience *the feeling(s) of the poet" by presenting images and sounds and rhythms, etc. .  Such poems don't need to make any sense at all because they're not trying to say what is so or not so, they're just trying to make us feel something, and feelings aren't true or false, they're only pleasant or unpleasant.


I must admit, however, that some of the stuff that is called poetry these days is just thoroughly incoherent to me without causing any feeling in me except maybe wondering at why the "poet" thought he/she could communicate anything at all by the "poem".  Too often they're just collections of odd images or juxtapositions of words and phrases which are connected somehow in the poet's mind but which have no connection to other people's lives at all.  On the other hand, it's quite possible that these poets who seem to be uttering gibberish to me are conveying something to other people who have shared their lives somehow and can find the meaning or feeling the poet means to convey.  In that sense, poetry is indeed subjective and can be successful at what it's meant to do..  


Think of, "Oh, they're playing *our song*, where the memory/image of that song will inspire some very pleasant feelings when the other person remembers the song.  That's an essentially poetic use of the song -- it's the song causing shared feeling in two people, so it's a poetic experience in that sense of "poetry".

An interesting New Testament passage that is often overlooked regarding Pontius Pliate is as follows:

There were present at that season some that told him (Jesus) of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. (Luke 13:1)

Add to this the fact that Jesus was considered Galilean because he grew up and lived in Galilee mostly. This is interesting as the only NT passage that actually shows Pilate's bloodthirsty cruelty.

Also note: When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked whether the man (Jesus) were a Galilaean. (Luke 23:6)

And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves. (Luke 23:12).


About the Author

Jerry Ryan joined the Little Brothers of Jesus in 1959. He lived and worked with them for more than two decades in Europe and South America. He and his family now live in Massachusetts.