What is truth? It’s a fundamental question. Everyone asks it in some way at some point. The answer drives our sense of meaning and purpose and what we pursue. Objective or subjective, our view of truth shapes our interpretation of life.
As important as the answer is, the how and reason why it is asked are just as important. To some, the answer seems so obvious and straightforward that anyone who asks must have a hidden agenda. They assume that it’s asked dismissively and with sarcasm. To others, no matter how many times it is asked, it is a legitimate question asked in curiosity with a sincere desire to know—a humble question in which the asker recognizes the limitations of their own knowledge.
Conversations about the nature of truth are not uncommon. It is discussed in both theoretical terms and in practical and personal settings. It may be that this question has unique significance in current discussions, but it isn’t bound exclusively to our time. And one story in which this question was asked has significant implications for all of us.
Home of Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, circa ad 33.
Jesus and Pilate stood regarding one another. Pilate was the one with official authority. He was the one who could make things happen. He held life and death. In fact, that was the reason the Jewish council had brought this man here in the first place. They wanted him executed (stage two of the plan from the Antagonists section).
Pilate met Jesus as a judge meets a defendant. This was a trial. Judge and accused stood face to face. This hearing revolved around one significant question. Pilate took the direct approach: “Are you the king of the Jews?” The answer to this determined the outcome of this trial: verdict and sentencing.
After a bit of cat and mouse, an answer comes. “My kingdom is not of this world. . . .” Yes, I am a king. But my kingdom isn’t one you’d find on a map. Fastest court case in history. Open and shut. Guilty as charged. If only every court case were as quick and as easy as this. Claim of kingship was sedition against Rome, punishable by death.
But Pilate wanted to release Jesus. “I find no basis for a charge against him.” That stands in direct contradiction to the stated facts of the exchange. Pilate asked directly about the charges, and in essence, Jesus pleaded guilty. Not only was there basis for charge, there was evidence for conviction. But instead of the expected outcome, Pilate attempts to do the opposite.
What made the difference? What would lead a Roman official to suggest releasing someone who claimed to be a king? Perhaps the answer lies in the few lines between Jesus’s claim of kingship and Pilate’s attempt to release him. This is where the question of truth is asked:
“You are a king, then!” Pilate accepts his guilty plea.
“You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?”
What a question! And the fact Pilate asked this to someone who had made some significant claims about truth makes it all the more fascinating. Jesus has prayed for his followers to be sanctified in the truth and said, “[God’s] word is truth” He also told his disciples that he himself is the truth, “I am the way, the truth, and the life . . .” Jesus had a unique and intimate relationship with the truth. Pilate probably hadn’t heard these statements by Jesus, and he may not have understood all the implications of his questions to Jesus.
After asking this fundamental and weighty question (with no recorded response), Pilate returns to the Jewish leaders who brought Jesus to him and pronounces not just a not guilty verdict, but claims that there isn’t even a basis for a charge. This exchange is the hinge between the guilty plea and the suggestion of release. It is the reason for Pilate’s verdict.
It’s possible that Pilate thought Jesus was mentally unstable. Perhaps he was dismissing all charges on the grounds of insanity.
Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world and that if it was, his subjects would fight for him. It’s possible that Pilate saw this as no threat to Rome (a kingdom not of this world cannot threaten the power of Rome). Perhaps Pilate heard this answer and took pity on someone who seemed to be mentally unbalanced. A kingdom not of this world sounds like a kingdom of imagination. How many of us are the rulers of our own imaginary kingdoms?
That scenario is plausible, and if true, it renders Pilate’s question about truth to the first category—dismissive and asked with sarcasm.
But this doesn’t really explain the attempt to release Jesus though. Even a mentally unstable man can pose a threat, especially if he has a following of people. The idea that Pilate would want to release someone who could gather a crowd and motivate them to action simply because Pilate thought they were delusional doesn’t really stand up. Threats to Rome were serious business.
But what if the question was asked sincerely?
Jesus has claimed a kingdom, spoken of his servants, and made a proclamation about those who belong in and to this kingdom (those who know the truth). All of this points clearly and convincingly to a guilty verdict. Rather than wipe his hands at a closed case, Pilate responds with a question.
Pilate’s question is perhaps a mark of genuine curiosity. Jesus probably had Pilate’s interest long before this meeting. It’s highly unlikely that he was unaware of a miracle worker who had been traveling his jurisdiction for three years. Curiosity about Jesus would have been understandable.
In this exchange, Jesus says something that leads Pilate to ignore the charges and tacit admissions of sedition and suggest letting Jesus go. Before the last utterance by Pilate to Jesus (the famous question), Jesus made a significant claim. He said that there is an inseparable connection between his kingdom subjects and the truth.
Pilate’s famous response “what is truth?” has characterized his interaction with Jesus for millennia. It’s tempting to read that as a question in line with a current postmodern mindset. Hearing that question from the 21st century, we’re likely to think that Pilate was suggesting there is no objective truth, that truth is determined in the mind of the subject. But the likelihood that Pilate was that far ahead of his time is quite slim.
What if Pilate was not posing a philosophical question, but instead asking what characterized those who belonged in Jesus’s kingdom? What, Jesus? What is it that those on your side support? Remember that Jesus views both God’s word and himself as fundamental expressions of the truth. In another sense, to the reader, Pilate was asking about Jesus’s identity—Who are you, Jesus?
Pilate may have been curious, not about the nature of truth per se, but specifically about its relationship to those who hear and follow Jesus and about who Jesus himself was. It’s possible that Pilate is trying to reconcile a “not of this world kingdom” with this claim that suggests its subjects are indeed part of this world, and Pilate is wondering how it was that those subjects were identified.
Pilate may not have been interested in becoming someone who listened to the truth or being part of Jesus’s kingdom, but neither was he obviously outright dismissive and sarcastic. He may have been curious enough to ask questions. If sincere, it was a deeply significant question. He wanted to know what was this truth that made people hear and follow Jesus. He wanted to know more about this man before him who had admitted to being a king, to having servants, and who identified those who were part of his kingdom. Pilate wanted to know what it meant to be in Jesus’s kingdom.
Pilate is a lot like us. Whether we are encountering Jesus for the first or the one-thousandth time, there’s something about him that triggers curiosity and questions.
What Jesus said to Pilate is still true. Those on the side of truth listen to him. What Pilate asked remains a significant and important question, not because truth is relative or debatable, but because truth identifies those who are in his kingdom. Those who want to know Jesus continue to ask questions. They continue to seek the truth.