“‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate Asked him, ‘What is truth?’”
Is there a graver, more searching challenge to Christian faith than the one posed by Nietzsche concerning the exchange (quoted above) between Jesus and Pilate in Chapter 18 of The Gospel According to John? About Pilate’s famous question Nietzsche wrote that it is the “annihilation” of the New Testament.1 Reduced to its components, the exchange contains (1) Jesus’ portentous claim to have come “into the world to testify to the truth” followed by (2) Pilate’s request for Jesus to testify to the meaning of truth; then (3) silence.
Walking in on such an exchange—as posed here—one would likely suspect that it had exposed a charlatan. Occurring in a book written to support the portentous claim (John 20: 30-31), one may well suspect that the text commits a monumental faux pas. Did this seemingly scandalous silence motivate Nietzsche’s notorious comment on the exchange in The Antichrist: “The noble scorn of a Roman confronted with an impudent abuse of the word ‘truth,’ has enriched the New Testament with the only saying that has value—one which is its criticism, even its annihilation, ‘What is truth?’”2
There is a problem with pinning Nietzsche’s comment to the seeming faux pas. Pilate “does not wait for an answer,”3 a view the Phillips translation makes explicit: “…Pilate retorted, ‘What is truth?’ and went straight out…”4 That simple addition turns a scene in which Jesus looks like a charlatan into one in which Pilate looks impatient and imperious before a man the text identifies as the divine Logos. (Talk about “impudence!”) Moreover, if those who belong to the truth listen to Jesus’ voice, Pilate enacted judgment on himself by not waiting for Jesus’ reply. There can be no doubt that the author of The Gospel According to John intended to convey the irony of Jesus’ judge bringing judgment on himself as he judged Jesus: As we will see, this and other ironies are used throughout the Johaninne passion narrative to maintain a consistent portrayal of Jesus as the divine Logos.5
But this second pass also proves misleading. A gifted philologist, Nietzsche would have been unlikely to have overlooked the intended irony. Thus, it makes sense to look for other grounds specific to his disdain of Jesus’ grand claim—grounds that align him with the scornful attitude toward an “impudent abuse of the word ‘truth’” that he assigns to Pilate. In Concerning Truth and Falsehood in an Extramoral Sense Nietzsche identifies precisely the needed grounds.
Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions, worn out metaphors now impotent to stir the senses, coins which have lost their faces and are considered now as metal rather than currency.6
The application is clear. If truths are illusions, the Jesus of The Gospel According to John was deluded. Thus, for those who share Nietzsche’s point of view, the Johannine narrative still commits a monumental faux pas: The grand claim becomes an artifact of a philosophical naivete that makes Jesus once again look like a charlatan. But this time Pilate’s failure to listen has no bearing on the appraisal. Moreover, the Gospel commits the same faux pas elsewhere. (John. 1: 9; 14: 6) Yet Scripture seems silent throughout about what the claim means, unless one accepts the Prologue of the Gospel as a contextual explanation, that Jesus is the divine Logos. (John 1: 1-18) For a modern skeptic, however, that contextual “explanation” only makes things worse.
Before noting why, some likely rhetorical gambits should be noted and disposed of. First, asking whether Nietzsche’s view that “Truths are illusions” is truer than Jesus’ claim to have come “into the world to testify to the truth,” and second, asking whether a statement attributed to the divine Logos might be taken as seriously as Nietzsche’s opinion. A brief consideration of what Nietzsche meant shows that such comments miss the point.
Nietzsche disparaged metaphysical truths—views of truth that attempt to connect it to realities beyond the mundane world, such as the realm of Platonic ideas or, more directly to the portentous claim that inspired Pilate’s famous question, the divine Logos. In the same breath it is important to note that he did not deny ordinary truths of a kind that everyone is familiar with. For example, that a whole is equal to the sum of its parts or that it is true for me now that I am writing these words on Monday, January 28, 2008. Being a truth of reason and a matter of fact, respectively, such mundane “truths” require no grounding outside of human experience to understand.7 Accordingly, what Nietzsche denied is that there is any kind of truth grounded in a deeper or higher or more enlightened perspective than is available to human beings who are investigating this world. Bluntly, he denied that there is any grand truth that requires a divine Logos to come “into the world” to reveal it. That is the rationale behind Nietzsche’s venomous comment.
Though I do not share Nietzsche’s view of truth, I do think that his challenge to the meaningfulness of Jesus’ grand “truth claim” is crucial. For if a man speaks of having come “into the world to testify to the truth,” an explanation is needed, and no amount of ironic plot intervention can alter that. Admittedly, that Pilate walked out on Jesus before he could respond may have prevented Jesus, at that juncture in the narrative, from testifying to the truth. Nevertheless, the Gospel purportedly records Jesus’ teachings, and that makes it extremely odd that if his stated life purpose was to come “into the world to testify to the truth,” that the truth to which he came to testify is nowhere directly explained. The point can be stated simply. Jesus’ grand claim sounds philosophical, but philosophical explanations are nowhere to be found in the New Testament.
Nor will it work to say that the author of John did not intend to make a philosophical point with Jesus’ words. Written at a time when Stoicism and Neo-Platonism would have leant considerable prestige to Jesus’ claim, the Gospel could have used it to good effect. But the intervening 2,000 years have exposed—even burlesqued—grand metaphysical claims as empty in the eyes of many intellectuals. For many today it is science which informs our “higher” understanding of truth, and science borrows no meanings from religion or metaphysical speculation.8 In short, a modern intellectual might well be expected to respond to Jesus’ claim just as the Phillips translation depicts Pilate to have done. Again, “…Pilate retorted, ‘What is truth?’ and went straight out…” Nietzsche was clearly correct in this sense: The scene of the exchange between Jesus and Pilate can be seen to depict the same dismissive attitude toward religious and metaphysical claims that one expects from many intellectuals today.
In a sense we have arrived again where our first reading left us: Jesus’ portentous claim followed by Pilate’s question followed by a silence which suggests a charlatan. Only now we understand the “silence” as a historically-rendered void that a metaphysically-informed religious meaning used to fill. For in spite of the fact that the text presents us with an exculpatory irony in Pilate’s failure to listen to Jesus, the culpability remains at a deeper level: Nowhere does Scripture explain Jesus’ grand metaphysical and religious claim to have come into the world to testify to the truth, at least in a way that will satisfy many Post-Enlightenment intellectuals. In that case Scripture’s culpable silence in response to Pilate’s famous question can be seen to remain, and Jesus as the divine Logos who came “into the world to testify to the truth” remains the object of that culpability for that silence. Thus, the famous exchange between Pilate and Jesus can still be viewed as a scene that depicts a monumental faux pas by way of Jesus’ silence, because it can be seen to function as a metaphor for a wider Scriptural silence.
Or does it? In fact, the purpose of this little book is to accept Nietzsche’s challenge and show that Scripture does respond. The purpose of this introduction, then, is to frame a skeptical point of view to which Scripture provides the counterpoint. In stark contradistinction to Nietzsche’s perspective on the exchange, Into the World shows that a careful examination of the Gospel text, in light of a full biblical context, reveals not only an answer to Pilate’s famous question, but to what William James called “the radical question of life.”9 Ironically, the “answer” is embedded in the very passion narrative from which the exchange with Pilate is taken. As shall come to light, to speak of Jesus as the truth is to say that the passion narrative portrays the answer to the core question of what it means to be a human being. That is, Scripture presents Jesus as the true revelation of ourselves to ourselves.10
CHAPTER ONE NOTES
1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, Passage 46, tr. Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable
Nietzsche, (Penguin Books, New York, 1982) p. 627.
3. R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1983) p. 142.
(I would have missed this point without Dr. Culpepper’s help.)
4. The New Testament in Modern English, tr. J. B. Phillips, (Copyright © The Macmillan Company 1952, 1957).
5. Chapters Six and Seven.
6. Friedrich Nietzsche, tr. Arthur C. Danto, in Arthur C. Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher,
(Columbia University Press, New York, 1965) p. 39.
7. “Truths of reason” and “matters of fact” derive from the famous passage that ends David Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Charles W. Hendel (Macmillian Publishing Company, New York, 1989): “If we take in our hand any volume—of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance—let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” (p. 173)
8. Chapter 6 of Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God contains a good discussion of scientific reductionism as it is held by some notable scientists today and pitted against religious belief. (HarperCollins, New York, 1999).
9. William James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in
Popular Philosophy, (Dover, New York, 1956) p. 103.
10. Obviously Christians will argue against a reductive view of truth (for instance, see But Is It All True? The Bible and the Question of Truth, ed. Alan G. Padgett and Patrick R. Keifert, (William B. Eerdmann’s Publishing Company,