An unsettling Gospel – Rowan Williams on Jesus' trial

By Alison Goodlad
August 24, 2007

Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (London, Fount, 2000), 141 pages.


Though Rowan Williams’ Christ on Trial is part of a Lent Series, intended for personal or group use (there are questions for discussion at the end of each chapter), since it was first published seven years ago it has become something of a classic – one which goes to the heart of the Gospel message.

The book focuses on the trial of Jesus as seen from the perspective of each of the four gospel writers. It is not intended as a comfortable read, something to offer easy consolation. As the sub-title (How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement) suggests, it is a disturbing read, and involves a process of ‘stripping away’ layers of deceit to reveal the truth about who we really are and who God really is.

So although it is a relatively short book, and written for the thoughtful onlooker rather than an academic audience, Christ on Trial contains ideas and perspectives that require time to ponder and consider, to "hold still" using a characteristic Williams term (pages 36, 37). But it will repay the effort involved.

Williams makes it quite clear in his introduction that this book is not going to concern itself with academic debates over the exact historicity of the trial narratives. The focus of attention is instead on the trial as a two-way process: for when Jesus is brought to court the priorities of those who sit in judgement becomes evident and they open themselves up to judgement in turn.

This dynamic recurs in faith encounters with Jesus through the whole fabric of life. So a characteristic of the book is that it draws on the resources not only of biblical narrative but also of Christian history and fictional narratives. There is a significant mention of Job in the introduction. The themes found in the Job story are developed in Williams' book – including the aforementioned two-way trial, the motivation for loyalty to God, the nature of God, and communication between creator and creature.

Rowan Williams shows how we meet the Jesus of Mark through a swirl of confusion, where the trial is, in fact, a mock trial, and justice cannot hope to be done. This distorted world cannot have the language to adequately describe Jesus, hence the Messianic secrecy theme found in Mark. It is only at the trial that the silence is broken and Jesus declares his identity. Yet the trial and crucifixion story told in Mark is one of unrelieved gloom, so how can a God who is identified as one in control and having all power be found in such a place? Exactly the point, says Williams. For this overturns all we thought we knew about transcendence, and challenges simplistic conclusions about the link between right behaviour and reward.

St Matthew, Williams demonstrates, delights in picking up connections between the Jewish scriptures and traditions, particularly those relating to Wisdom, and the person of Jesus in whom they are fulfilled. When the High Priest asks Jesus if he is the Messiah, but fails to appreciate what his own words signify, it is ironic that the very one, given his position, who should have recognised Jesus, fails to do so. The danger highlighted in Matthew's story of the trial is the danger of having the words but failing to appreciate their significance, or perhaps using them as a weapon of destruction.

The point brought out from the Lucan version of the trial concerns what happens when communication fails for a number of reasons. When this failure occurs it should prompt us to not only to examine our attitude to those thus excluded, but also to look inside and recognise our own poverty.

As with Matthew's gospel, St John exhibits signs of the tensions evident in the communities for whom the gospels were first written. However Williams suggests that we use the resulting texts in a constructive way to allow them to probe the way we construct our own religious identities.

Pilate's questioning assumes that there is only one way to live – and that is in terms of power and territory, defended by violence. The idea that there can be a sort of authority derived from complete transparency to God, a living in truth, which is not concerned with territory, makes no sense to him.

God does not erect barriers. Rather, these are erected by a world hostile to him, and so those who live in communion with Jesus will be vulnerable to the hostility of a world that has defined itself over against God. Nevertheless Christians are called to live as "bearers of God's hospitality" (p. 92), in the here and now of their earthly lives, whatever the cost.

That cost is evident in the stories of the martyrs. But those stories display how even in the most apparently self-giving lives, the desire to play the same power games as the world can come in through the back door, and so require rigorous self-awareness.

Lastly Williams concludes with two fictional stories, the chapter ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

In the former, Christ returns to earth at the time of the Inquisition and ends up before the Grand Inquisitor, who accuses Jesus of overestimating what humanity is capable of. The notion is that Jesus only speaks to the strong, whereas the Grand Inquisitor is more realistic and shields people from the truth. "The requirement to love and believe without miracle and problem-solving can only spell despair." (p. 123). The Inquisitor gets no answer to his questions, but rather a kiss on the lips from the prisoner.

In the second narrative, Bulgakov tells the story of Pilate, suspended between this world and the next, who does not find release until given the freedom to continue his conversation with Yeshua. The novelist in the story, and his mistress, also find release – but to a different kind of place, one of security rather than re-creation.

Williams concludes the book by reminding us that although it turns out that we are the ones who have been on trial, this does not mean condemnation but rather the response should be one of trusting surrender to the only one who can give life and who loves us.

It is quite understandable why Williams declined to get involved in debates over the Jesus of history/Christ of faith in this book, as it is a book about the engagement of faith for a general readership. Nevertheless it is scholarly understanding that undergirds his writing. For it is the fruits of those labours which have made it evident that each one of the gospel writers has their own theological perspective.

If Jesus is mediated to us through these gospel writers, about whose agendas we may have reservations (as Williams' comments relating to Matthew and John have indicated), then some readers will have more difficulty than others in finding the biblical words of Jesus as authoritative for their lives. There is a provisionality to the findings, but this is not inimical to Williams' theology.

Williams' approach to the trial narratives does indicate that he has not taken them as the initiating point out of which his reflections have sprung, but rather as texts which distil the understanding he has derived from other sources, such as the gospel narratives as a whole, general scriptural reading, Christian tradition and reflection, and wisdom derived from poetry and fictional works.

This does lead to some chapters working better than others as far as linking into the trial narrative is concerned. The chapter on Luke, for example, takes Jesus’ refusal to engage in conversation as being an identification with all those whose language cannot be heard, for a variety of reasons.

Luke's gospel does have a concern for the outsider and therefore it is not inappropriate for that whole area to be explored. However Jesus' silence at the trial is because "his world is larger, not smaller, than theirs." (p. 66) and therefore although he could have found the words to communicate, they would not be hearable because of the limits of the hearers. This does not strictly parallel all the other examples given by Williams.

The most powerful chapters are probably the first, on Mark, and the last, exploring the ideas of the two iconic Russian writers. The chapter on Mark works so well because the Markan narrative brings to the fore exactly the same things which Williams wants to emphasise.

The final chapter takes up these themes again and is in part a justification of the type of gospel that Williams presents. "This cannot be gospel, surely? It does not sound like good news." (p.15) could be a criticism levelled at him. Does Williams expect too much of people like the Jesus accused by the Grand Inquisitor? However Williams makes it clear that to opt for everlasting peace and security over against the risks of encounter with the one who loves, like the novelist in Bulgakov's story, is a diminution of what we could be.

Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement compresses a great many thoughts into a short space. This can make it difficult to recollect the thread of the argument running through each chapter. Nevertheless it has the power to take the thoughtful reader through a process where inadequate and deceptive solutions and understandings are exposed in order to be freed to go forward with God in truth, openness and trust.


© Alison Goodlad. The author is a member of St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Exeter, (www.exetercentralparish.net). She has worked in university administration and is currently engaged in theological studies.

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