Christ on Trial


Rowan Williams. Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgement. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2003.

Rowan Williams

A trial is an attempt to find out the truth,” Williams begins his Introduction to his work on the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. The trial of Jesus is like looking at a mirror to see him and to know ourselves. Williams not only uses the Christian scriptures, he also illustrates with many insights he can find in the several narratives about the trials of Jesus in Gethsemane, in the Temple of Jerusalem, in the palace of Pontius Pilate and in early development of the Christian church. What can we learn from the questions of Jesus as he is tested by the various interlocutors who seek to condemn him to death because he is called the King of the Jews, and the Son of God? Williams finds additional insights in literature, history, art and everyday life.

Williams begins with Mark, the shortest and most direct of the gospel narratives. He calls the chapter Voices at Midnight and develops the themes that Jesus stood his ground in an ongoing story that compels us to accept the present as the place where humans encounter God. Mark is Peter’s scribe and is the earliest narrative to reach the Gentile world.

Matthew, on the other hand, has Jewish roots and tells the story of Jesus as the Messiah promised to Moses and the Hebrew world. Wisdom in Exile appropriately sounds the central event of the Hebrew Bible and the truth that is stronger than fear, the language of faith healing a broken world and attuning us to God.

Luke is a historian. He is Paul’s scribe, “Knocking in the Window,” with a change of perception. He writes a long history of the infancy of Jesus including the story of how God chose a precursor in John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the Messiah while in his mother’s womb, and dying a martyr for speaking truth to power. Luke champions the poor, the hungry, the blind and the lame. He helps us to see truth as freedom, living in the present, understanding the world, seeing the world whole. We are on trial with Jesus.

John is the theologian. His prologue begins where the other gospels ended. Jesus is the Son of God, the Word of God, sent by the Father to save the world. He teaches us to live honestly in the present.

The Acts of the Apostles is the story of martyrs who spread the gospel, the good news of redemption and atonement of Jesus Christ for all. It is the story of the Apostles, especially Peter and Paul and their evangelization and liberation of a world bound in power and obedience, facing the cost, and learning the art of daily life.

In a final chapter titled No Answers: Jesus and His Judges, Williams focuses on the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The suggestion is that we are given a negative vision of the case against Jesus. We are left with a question: What happens to Jesus’ judges? But like the dramatic ending of the chapter titled “The Grand Inquisitor,” we are left with an unavoidable encounter with Jesus on the cross. We stand with the risen Lord and are judged by the world. We seek to make sense of the resurrection and find peace in light.