There are many ways to view the passage leading to, containing, and immediately follow in Pilate’s famous question. (John 18:1-19:16)
To begin, note that Jesus prompted Pilate’s question. In response to queries from Pilate—as to whether he was the King of the Jews and why he had been arrested—Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world. …” To that statement Pilate sensibly inquired, “So you are a king?” The text of the Gospel reads, “Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. 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.’” (John 18:36, 37)
Pilate’s “What is truth?” follows, and one can be forgiven, I hope, for thinking that it is a good question, given the immediate context. Indeed, it reeks irony that Jesus did not take the opportunity to testify about “the truth,” since he claimed that very thing as his life’s purpose. Nor can we simply excuse The Gospel According to John for Jesus’ silence following Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” on the grounds that Pilate chose to walk out on Jesus rather than wait for an answer. For as we have seen, Scripture’s seeming general silence in providing an answer to Pilate’s questions is—if anything—even more troubling, and that silence can not be so easily dismissed.
Earlier in Chapter 18 of the Gospel Jesus replies to questions from his arrestors about his ministry, saying, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in the synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me?” Having just been arrested, the point of Jesus’ comments is obvious. His arrestors should have known why they had arrested him. For making his comments, however, “one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face.” The larger context of Jesus’ arrest, then, provides a vivid rationale for any reticence he displayed. (John 18:19-24) Furthermore, it seems to indicate that the answers we seek will be recorded elsewhere, if we only look—though that rings false with reference to the crucial question at hand.
But a further layer of context again places the exchange in a different light. We return to the enigmatic remarks made after Pilate asked Jesus, “So you are a king?” First Jesus said, “You say that I am a king.” (John 18:37) The reply seems evasive, since Jesus prompted the question. Now an evasive reply can be an attempt to avoid truth, in which case it can be seen as a form of dishonesty, the opposite of truth. The text, however, does not support that interpretation. Jesus’ comment about his kingdom was that it “is not from this world.” (John 18:36) Thus, the words rebut the intended thrust of the accusation, which the accusers pressed against Pilate later in the text: “‘… Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’”1 (John 19:12)
Further, the remark indicates that Jesus did not advance the claim to be a king, an important point, if he was to be seen as a threat to the emperor. Rather, his accusers advanced the claim. Given this fuller context, then, the implication is that Jesus would not have come to the attention of Pilate as a rival of
Adding the next layer, since Jesus prompted the question, fairness to Pilate (as a character in the text) requires us to ask whether he had any justification for turning from the judicial question at hand to a philosophical one. Again, Jesus said, “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.” (John 18:37) A miniature philosophy lesson will be helpful here.
“Truth” is a common noun. It shares that status with a great many other words, such as “dog” and “circle.” And as the words “dog” and “circle” have clear applications to objects of reference most of the time, so does “truth.” Accordingly, to ask what the truth is in a particular instance—say, whether it is true that Spot is a dog for someone familiar with a particular barking, tail-wagging companion named “Spot”—is almost always a matter beneath serious consideration. But as an educated man, Pilate may well have known philosophy, or perhaps been influenced by the opinions of persons who did. And for a philosopher in Pilate’s day, the conceptual standing of a common noun—especially one as near to the heart of philosophy as “truth”—will have been an important point to consider.
Plato’s “doctrine of recollection” was (and may still be) the most famous account of how we are able to understand the meaning of common nouns—such as “truth,” “dog,” or “circle.”2 It held that human souls identify kinds of objects in this world by a recalling their ideal forms. Plato assumed that the human soul is eternal and became familiar with the “ideal forms” of objects in an eternal realm beyond this world. Basically, objects in our world are imperfect copies of their eternal forms, and we “recall” the eternal forms so that they can serve as exemplars for the purpose of making judgments about objects in our world. Plato’s Meno provides a rationale for this view. And it informs his famous “allegory of the cave” from The Republic.
This aspect of Platonism influenced Western thought so heavily that through the Middle Ages to be a realist meant to believe in the reality of these eternal forms, in one philosophical or religious version or another. More significantly, this view influenced the early Christian Church heavily too. For one thing, it contributed to the philosophical perspective behind Gnosticism, Christianity’s first “heresy.”3 In part, Gnosticism arose within Christianity because one cannot believe both that objects in this world are imperfect copies of eternal forms from beyond this world and that Jesus was God incarnate who really came “into the world.” Nevertheless, it is plain that the Platonic view bears on the remarks that prompted Pilate’s question. Did Jesus mean to say that he came into the world to bear testimony to eternal truth in a way that could be compared with the teaching of philosophical schools with which Pilate may well have been familiar? If so, Jesus—not Pilate—shifted the focus from jurisprudence to philosophy.
Furthermore, it is clear that Pilate was not friendly toward those who had arrested Jesus, and the text also makes it clear that he saw no substance in the charge brought by the accusers. It seems possible, then, that he hoped to have an erudite conversation with Jesus; that he hoped to find in Jesus a fellow sophisticate with whom he could strike an understanding against the accusers. On this supposition, had the accusers complained to Rome that Pilate did not crucify this man who set himself against the emperor, Pilate could have produced a cultured, urbane man who was too much of a sophist to be a leader of zealots. Of course this is only a speculation, albeit one that the text leaves open. On the other hand Pilate may have scorned Jesus and his comments along with the accusers, just as Nietzsche claimed (though with unjustified confidence). One cannot say more on the point, since the text does not intimate Pilate’s thoughts to us.
Yet the text suggests a further indication of Jesus’ thoughts. A feature of his statement should jump out at us: the word “the.” Use of the definite article (in contrast to the indefinite article, “a,” or a usage which excludes the use of an article) indicates that what follows “the” is understood. The question that should animate us, then, is “Was there a definite truth that Jesus could presume that Pilate would understand him to mean?” We find a possibility by viewing yet another facet of the context surrounding the famous question. The accusers arrested Jesus not as a threat to the emperor, but as a man whom they claimed violated Jewish religious law. In trying to release Jesus, Pilate was confronted with the fact that the accusers were intent on seeking Jesus’ death: “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” (John 19:7)
(In passing we can note the slipshod deal that the accusers were trying to force on Pilate—to find Jesus guilty according to Roman law so that they could have him crucified for breaking a Jewish religious law.)
Accordingly, the possibility that Jesus might have expected Pilate to know is that his claim to be the Son of God would explain his relationship to “the truth.” This contextual layer raises an especially strong point of view because it merges the philosophical aspects of the text with the actual charge for which Jesus’ accusers wanted him put to death.
The charge, “he has claimed to be the Son of God,” animated the accusers. It also informed the comment that prompted Pilate’s question, “For this…I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” In Platonic terms we would interpret Jesus’ coming “into the world” to mean this: The eternal, exemplary Son of God came into the world to give us direct testimony to “the truth” about God.
Is this the definitive perspective on the exchange, or is it just one more layer of context? The Prologue of The Gospel answers that question explicitly:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came in to being. …grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:1-3; 17, 18)
“Word” in this text is a translation of “Logos,” which to the Ancient Greeks and Romans meant the divine ordering principle of the world.4 The Prologue sets the context of Pilate’s interaction with Jesus in the broadest possible sense, then, and not only for interpreting the text of the Gospel itself, but for interpreting the text’s theological and philosophical implications. Accordingly, we can be sure that we are to read the philosophical implications into the text of Jesus’ dialog with Pilate. “The truth” that Jesus illumines, according to the full context of The Gospel According to John, is undoubtedly the truth about God.
Yet in a sense the problem of interpreting the text just got far more difficult. For “the truth” about God does not look at all like what we expect the truth about God to be. “Here is the man!” said Pilate, bringing Jesus out for the accusers to see. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” they cried. (John 19:5, 6) To be subject to human judgment and condemnation could not be further from God conceived as the “Supreme Being,” or as the “Almighty,” or as “Lord,” or as the Being “than whom none greater can be conceived,” much less as divine “Word”—the “Logos”—the divine ordering principle of the world. The view of God that the text of The Gospel According to John opens to the reader, then, is God as Supreme Irony, not God as Supreme Being. If one seeks to understand “the truth” about God through Jesus, what does one make of that?
The central point must become this, for there is no other way out if there is to be any hope of an answer: We must ascribe the irony to ourselves, not the text. Why? Because the truth about God in the Gospel is represented by a man about to be crucified! And if we give that representation hypothetical status as “the truth” about God for the purposes of trying to understand it, we are left to assume that it is our view of God that produces the irony, not the text itself, which again, ex hypothesi, depicts the truth. In short, we create the Supreme Irony by our false view of God, or there is no coherent way to view the text as representing the truth about God.
This possibility puts a central aspect of Christian faith in interesting light. “Belief” in Jesus—as has been proclaimed throughout the world for two millennia—is necessary for salvation according to Christian Scripture. Apparently, then, the point of belief in Jesus is to correct our false view of God, the false view that presumably produces the Supreme Irony. That, accordingly, must be the reason why Scripture holds that belief in Jesus is essential for salvation: Belief that Jesus is the divine Logos, the Word of God, would provide the correct view of God to those who believe.
On this hypothesis, the main thrust of the message is to reform our false view of God by giving us Jesus’ testimony to the truth. But this immediately confronts us with a challenge: Jesus—God incarnate, “Christ,” famous teacher, blameless man—standing before a judge deciding whether to have him killed, remained silent in order to testify to the truth about God. And here the irony certainly is embedded in the text as a glaring challenge to the reader. (To make sense of the text, one must act on the assumption that the text does make sense, meaning that we must now “push back” on the view that the text commits a monumental faux pas—metaphorically, at least—by Jesus’ silence.) We address that irony by asking how Jesus’ silence at that crucial moment depicts divinity. We will not press that question yet, but it will, of course, form the centerpiece of the grand perspective to be gained—the mountain’s peak whose successive levels we are forming by adding contextual layers to our understanding of the core text.
It would have been a cheap trick to begin by quoting the Prologue of The Gospel According to John in order to say that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh according to the text, and therefore, his silence in the face of Pilate’s question is the de facto expressed “testimony” of the Word of God. But having examined the faceted context surrounding Pilate’s famous question, we are led back to that very assertion. It is as though the Prologue was placed at the head of the text of the Gospel to make sure that we don’t miss its central point, the crux of Christian faith, that the Supreme Being came into the world as the Supreme Irony to teach us the truth about God.
CHAPTER TWO NOTES
1. A king whose kingdom is not of this world does not set himself against an emperor whose reign is of this world.
2. For a good overview see Frederick Copleston’s chapter on Plato’s doctrine of forms in Volume I of his A History of Philosophy (Image, 1962).
3. For a good overview see the second chapter of Paul Tillich’s A History of Christian Thought (Simon and Schuster, 1967).
4. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Ed., 1996.