What is truth?

Published on: 1 June 2019

Pilate's famous question is the focus of Susanna Gunner's Soul Space article from the current issue of The Magazine.

“Truth” is a word which features with significance in John’s Gospel. At the end of his famous prologue, John tells us that Jesus, the Word made flesh, is “full of grace and truth” (1:14) and later, Jesus uses the word “truth” to describe himself: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6).

Later still, as he stands on trial before the Roman governor, the word crops up again. Pilate is quizzing Jesus about his “kingship”. That’s your word, says Jesus. I’d rather talk about truth: to testify to the truth is why I was born. And then comes Pilate’s famous question: “What is truth?” (18:38)

The question comprises three small words of one syllable each. Deceptively simple. But if you have ever been asked to read this part of John 18 – on Good Friday, for example – you may well have wondered how Pilate said them.

The Russian artist, Nikolai Ge, captures the very moment of Pilate’s question (see the painting on this page). He paints the two men on a smooth tiled floor. The thin, battered figure of Christ stands with dishevelled hair and beard in front of a bare wall. His hands are behind him, presumably tied.

Pilate cuts a completely contrasting figure. He is smoothly shaven and coiffured and, unlike the man he questions whose “kingdom is not from this world”, Pilate is clearly worldly-wise. The lavish folds and drapes of his toga take up twice as much space on the canvas as Jesus’ threadbare tunic.

Does this late 19th century painting help us when reading Pilate’s question? Tolstoy says this: “What can such a ragged beggar say to Pilate, the friend of Roman poets and philosophers, about truth?” For an educated sceptic like that, “truth was an empty word”.

Others have looked at Ge’s painting and seen a mocking contemptibility in Pilate’s manner, his question a thoughtless, throwaway remark. They have looked at Pilate’s face, dulled by a life of luxury, and recognised the chasm that separates him from the silent peasant Jew standing in the shadows. They have seen in his powerful back and sweeping arm a smug cynicism that lords it over the apparent naivety of the prisoner’s words.

So how would you read Pilate’s three little words? With what emotion would you charge them? Would you prefer a more thoughtful, profound Pilate than the one which Ge depicts? Could it be that he was not so much dismissive and cynical as wistful and intrigued? Was he hoping for an answer?

One thing is sure: John’s sense of irony is keen! Much is stated throughout his gospel by those who do not know the real force of what they are saying, and in his headquarters, we see Pilate querying the nature of truth with the one whose very nature is Truth!

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