"What Is Truth?" Pilate's Question in Its Johannine and Larger Biblical Context

Article excerpt

"What is truth?"1 It is hard to imagine a more profound question with more momentous consequences. A quest for truth has driven the world's greatest philosophers and theologians. "What is truth?" is also the question Pilate asked Jesus according to John. Has Pilate therefore gone among the philosophers? Few are prepared to argue this. More likely, Pilate's question has several layers of meaning, which is why it has intrigued commentators over the centuries and continues to exercise a fascination that pays tribute not so much to the one who originally asked the question but to the evangelist and theologian who wove the question into the fabric of his Gospel concerning Jesus, the Christ and Son of God.

In the following essay, I will take a fresh look at the ramifications of Pilate's question, "What is truth?" in John 18:38 in the immediate context of John's account of Jesus' Roman trial (18:28-19:16a) and the larger context of the Johannine passion narrative (18-19) and the farewell discourse (13-17) and ultimately the entire Gospel.2 After a few introductory remarks on the concept of truth, I will, first, assess the historicity of 18:33-38a; second, probe the relationship between the passage and major themes in John's Gospel; and, third, look at the three major characters in 18:28-19:16a. I will close with several observations concerning John's account of Jesus' trial before Pilate, related to Pilate's question to Jesus, "What is truth?"


The term "truth" had currency in Greek philosophy, Roman thought, and the Hebrew Bible (including its many uses in the LXX).3 In Greek philosophy, one of the senses of aletheia involved an accurate perspective on reality.4 Romans similarly spoke of veritas as a factual representation of events.5 In the Hebrew Scriptures, "truth" ('emeth, 'emunah) primarily conveyed the notion of God's faithfulness.6 This faithfulness had been revealed throughout the history of Israel and, according to John, found supreme expression in the life, ministry, and substitutionary death of Jesus (1:14; 14:6).7

In John's Gospel, where the importance of "truth" is underscored by 48 instances of the aleth-word group in comparison with a combined total of 10 in the Synoptics,8 the notion of truth is inextricably related to God, and to Jesus' relationship with God.9 Is Jesus the Son of God, or is he guilty of blasphemy (cf. esp. Matt 26:59-66; Mark 14:55-64; Luke 22:66-71)?10 Jesus claims he is the Son of God, and the fourth evangelist's purpose for writing his Gospel is tied up with demonstrating the veracity of Jesus' claim (20:30-31). The Jewish leaders, on the other hand, consider Jesus a blasphemer (5:18; 8:59; 10:33-36; 19:7).

In John, then, truth is first and foremost a theological, and perhaps even more accurately, a Christological concept.11 Rather than merely connoting correspondence with reality, as in Greek philosophy, or factual accuracy, as in Roman thought, truth, for John, while also being propositional, is at the heart a personal, relational concept that has its roots and origin in none other than God himself. As the psalmist (Ps 31:5) and the prophet (Isa 65:16) call God "the God of truth," so John's Gospel proclaims that God is truth, and that therefore his Word is truth.12 Jesus, then, is the truth, because he is sent from God and has come to reveal the Father and to carry out his salvationhistorical purposes.13 For this reason the only way for us to know the truth is to know God through Jesus Christ (8:31; 14:6; 17:3).


What is the truth about the historicity of John's account of Jesus' trial before Pilate? Did John invent the present passage, as David Friedrich Strauss believed, perhaps, as Ferdinand Baur surmised, to transfer guilt from Pilate to the Jewish leaders, a view recently revived by Maurice Casey, who repeatedly charges John with "rewriting history"? …