What is truth?
The quest for an answer to this proposition is arguably the driving force behind all human endeavour, sitting at the heart of scientific, artistic, philosophical, historical, cultural and ideological pursuit. Certainly in literature it forms the central narrative drive, propelling action and informing the struggles and motivations of protagonists and antagonists alike. It seems to represent the core struggle and mystery of life’s frustrations.
Significant in literary and historical record, these words are attributed to Pontius Pilate, a question asked during the trial of Jesus of Nazareth in an exchange between the two men that has long been the source of much commentary and analysis.
However one approaches Good Friday, whether it be a day of religious, philosophical or simply social significance, the events that form the basis of our cultural recognition of Easter bear some consideration. As with any historical episode that has become part of cultural identity, the story of Good Friday is as significant for its wider implications as for its immediate context.
Within the many layers of narrative and religious symbolism, Pontius Pilate is one character that lends the narrative a deeper resonance of meaning. Confronted by his subjects, whose laws and customs he did not share, to execute a seemingly innocent man on the eve of their most important religious festival, Pilate faced one of the most bizarre and confusing moments of recorded Roman government.
Roman prefects were not known for their light hand or mild manners. They were inevitably promoted to office because of their proven military strength, adherence to judicial code, and practical understanding of the intricacies of political strategy and rational decision-making.
Pilate’s apparent disinclination to condemn Jesus is clearly represented in all recorded accounts of the event, but is illustrated most intimately in the canonical book of John where Pilate questions the Nazarene to ascertain a reason for the Jews’ sudden and unanimous call for his death.
Caught between the politically serious accusations of treason, the increasingly violent demands of the crowd, and his personal unwillingness to convict a man who had seemingly done no harm, Pilate asks Jesus point blank: “Are you the King of the Jews?” This is the question that initiates their short but compelling exchange, a conversation that is unlike any other recorded between an accused criminal and the man who legally controls his fate. Far from defending himself, Jesus remains strangely obtuse.
Commentators and narrative adaptations have portrayed this interaction from many different perspectives, some interpreting that Pilate was questioning Jesus in jest or that he was supremely disinterested in the whole proceeding and in the affairs of Jews in general. However other glimpses into Pilate’s nature provided by the canonical, apocryphal and historical records portray him as a man who wouldn’t have hesitated on a conviction had he not had cause to doubt Jesus’ guilt. This belies a much greater political if not personal investment in the situation than some commentators would claim, indicating, in fact, the very opposite of indifference: a deep and enduring reluctance to condemn the Nazarene.
It is this reluctance that leads to Pilate’s persistent questioning, an effort to determine if Jesus does in fact believe himself to be a King. Jesus’ simple but confounding responses eventually elicit from Pilate the startlingly personal and equally rhetorical question: “What is truth?”
The proposition is famously left unanswered. Nietzsche considers this to be further evidence of Pilate’s scorn for Jesus, and yet Pilate’s direct response is to publicly declare: “He is not guilty of any crime.”
Furthermore Pilate attempts a political move to dissuade the angry crowd, by appealing to the ritual of releasing a prisoner on the eve of Passover. In an almost comical comparison he presents them with the choice between releasing Jesus or Barabbas, a convicted murderer. The crowd, as we know, chooses Barabbas.
Pilate continues to try, even then, to dissuade the Jewish leaders, repeatedly stating his lack of conviction and famously washing his hands of the situation in one account. In light of the context it does not seem likely that Nietzsche and similar commentators were correct in believing that Pilate held Jesus in scorn, much less that he had no interest in the man’s fate.
In his last recorded exchange with Jesus, Pilate tries a final desperate question, strange for its superfluity, perhaps in an attempt to clarify Jesus’ earlier statement that his kingdom is “not of this world”, the one caveat that prevented Pilate from ruling a conviction of treason.
Pilate asks him “Where are you from?” but, as John records, “Jesus gave no answer.”
The same void of response is what makes our titular question so lastingly perplexing. For some reason, in this narrative, we see Pilate thrust into the role of the Everyman. A public figure of great authority, and vested with political power, suddenly in a private aside is reduced to the fundamental human condition where he wrestles with the logic and meaning of his own situation.
“What is truth?”
The lack of an answer does not serve to undermine the significance of the exchange, as some have posited. Instead it carries a much more essential purpose: to force us, like Pilate, to continue in the asking.