What is truth? (part 1)

“Once Upon a Time” — Book sculpture by Su Blackwell

When you watch a movie or read a book, you have an advantage over the characters in the story. You can see the big picture. You know the motivations of the different players; you know their secret intentions. In other words, you know what’s really going on beneath the surface of events (or at least, what the author wants you to know!), while the characters are doomed to muddle through with their own limited plans and perceptions.

It is something like this, I believe, that helps makes sense of Pontius Pilate’s enigmatic and possibly cynical question to Jesus: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). We’ll take three posts to play that idea out.

First, however, we must deal with those who brought Jesus before the governor, seeking the death penalty:

Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.) (John 18:28-32, NRSV)

We know from the other gospels that Jesus has endured a sleepless night in the high priest Caiaphas’ kangaroo court, in which he was found guilty of blasphemy. By Jewish law, that verdict merits the death penalty. According to John, however, the Jews do not, under the ever-watchful eye of Rome, have the authority to execute anyone.

But wait…didn’t people try to stone Jesus earlier in the gospel? What, then, could it mean that they were “not permitted to put anyone to death”?

Commentators propose various answers. Perhaps the earlier attempts at stoning were just the impromptu reactions of an angry mob. Or perhaps the rules distinguished between religious executions and political ones.

Whatever the case might be, the story seems to highlight the canny political maneuvering of both sides. The Jewish leaders want the death sentence, a solution proposed by the high priest himself (John 11:49-50). But Pilate is in town, and so are a large number of Galileans; killing Jesus could bring trouble from either side. Moreover, Pilate has the authority to oust Caiaphas if he so chooses.

Thus, I imagine that it is Caiaphas, a shrewd politician himself, who reasons that the best outcome would be for Rome herself to be responsible for the execution. The Jewish leaders therefore come to the Praetorium to try to force the issue — even as they hypocritically stand on their scruples, refusing to enter a Gentile’s home so that they can remain ritually pure for Passover.

Pilate, for his part, probably already knows a thing or two about Jesus, and he can smell a setup. He naturally asks them for the charges against Jesus, and receives an evasive answer. He wants no part of this — not because he has a keen sense of justice, but because he prefers to stay out of a potentially messy in-house affair. The Jewish leaders, however, insist. In fact, Luke 23:2 tells us that they accuse Jesus of seditious behavior, and Pilate is forced to hear the case.

The calculated speech of both parties represents their attempt to stay in control of the situation, while to them, Jesus is the pawn. But John’s parenthetical “big picture” observation at the end of that conversation is important. What they don’t understand is that they are the pawns, and that Jesus, who is silent and seemingly powerless, is paradoxically the only one in control.

John will make that even clearer as Jesus is interrogated by the governor. More on that in the next post.