“Truth.” What is it? We’re probably used to thinking of truth as an either-or property of statements and propositions. When we make a declaration, it must be either true or false, fact or fantasy. Not both. Not something in the middle.
Unless, of course, you’re a politician like Pontius Pilate. Then “truth” becomes subject to whatever the people in power want it to be.
Who was Pilate? His greatest historical claim to fame, unfortunately, is his role in the crucifixion of Jesus. He was appointed by Tiberius as procurator (basically, governor) of the entire region of Judaea — which meant that he was there to protect the interests of Rome.
Pilate’s usual residence would have been the lavish city of Caesarea, on the shore of the Mediterranean. During Jewish festivals like the Passover, however, he would live in Jerusalem to keep order. The empire typically allowed conquered people a considerable amount of freedom in governing themselves — but when the city swelled with pilgrims, the presence of the procurator would help keep any revolutionary nonsense in check.
As we saw earlier, however, Pilate was being backed into a political corner by the Jewish leaders who wanted Jesus dead. He was no friend of the Jews, and provoked them repeatedly throughout his tenure. But he also served at the pleasure of Rome, and would answer to the emperor if he made the wrong move.
Pilate thus had Jesus brought for interrogation and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18:33). The question followed naturally enough from what the Jewish leaders had already said about Jesus (Luke 23:2), and he needed to determine whether Jesus posed a legitimate threat. But the grammar of the sentence may also imply a bit of wry disbelief on Pilate’s part: “You??? You’re the one they’re calling ‘the king of the Jews’?”
Jesus answered Pilate’s question with one of his own: “Is that your idea, or did you get that from somebody else?” But eventually, he answered the question in his own fashion: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36, NRSV).
Jesus was not describing any kind of kingdom that would matter to a man like Pilate. The answer reassured Pilate of something he probably already knew: whatever Jesus’ “kingdom” was, it wasn’t a military threat. What Jesus emphasized, however, was that his kingdom doesn’t originate from this world or follow its priorities. This King, after all, let himself be handed over to the authorities without a fight. What other king would?
Pilate pounced on the only part of the answer in which he was interested: “Aha! So you are a king, then!” Jesus’ response was ambiguous: “You say that I am a king” (18:37). The sense may be, Those are your words, not mine. After all, in John’s gospel, others thought of Jesus as king (e.g., 6:15; 12:12-15), but he never claimed the title for himself.
Jesus then turned the conversation to the real issue: the nature of truth. “For this I was born,” he said, “and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (18:37), underscoring again that neither he nor his kingdom were from this world. His whole mission was about the truth.
But not just about speaking the truth. His mission was to embody the truth, to live truly, to be truth incarnate (John 14:6). And this was something Pilate could not comprehend. “What is truth?” he asked in response. It was not, I think, the question of a seeker, not, Jesus, please tell me what truth is — I have to know! Rather, I imagine Pilate’s rhetorical question being filled with all the world-weariness of a man who spent every day navigating the treacherous waters of political expediency.
I think John wants us to feel the irony: Pilate could ask “What is truth?” and not recognize for a moment that Truth itself was standing in front of him, in the flesh.