“What is truth?” Pilate asked of Jesus at his trial, shortly before sentencing him to death. Jesus had claimed to be a witness to the truth and that all who were of the truth would listen to his voice. Interrogated by a Roman Governor, surely aware that his life hung in the balance, his response to Pilate’s questioning was both audacious and mysterious.
Pilate had the ultimate authority to execute or liberate him. Now was not the time for flippant remarks. Yet when asked whether he was the King of the Jews, Jesus chose that very moment to challenge Pilate’s perception of world government, effectively throwing down the gauntlet and ultimately leaving the Governor with no option but to crush the man for fear of political rebellion.
No longer could he write Jesus off as a benign religious preacher. A distinct threat to the Roman way had crept into the conversation and if report got back to Caesar that Pilate was entertaining treason, it would be his downfall.
Nervously he enquires, “So you are a King?” Perhaps he was giving Jesus a final opportunity to see sense and renounce this ridiculous claim. “You say that I am a King,” Jesus points the finger straight back at Pilate. There is no denial. Jesus allows the affirmation to stand. “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth.”
The political tension had been developing for some time. Jerusalem was governed by several warring tribal groups. On the one hand, the ruling Sanhedrin Council, largely comprised of the 70 or so Sadducee religious leaders who had both wealth and influence, controlling the day to day religious affairs of the people, with little interest in upsetting the de facto arrangement with the occupying Roman powers.
Alongside the Sanhedrin, also content to maintain the delicate balance of power for as long as it benefitted them, was the Herodian dynasty. As the equivalent nominal Head of State of the day, the Herodian family were vestigial rulers of the Palestinian region; having long ago surrendered true authority to Rome in matters of military might and monetary governance.
Then there were the challengers: the Pharisees; the religious zealots who gave the people hope — the hope of change, and a better life.
Unlike the Sadducees who’s interpretation of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures did not allow for belief in life after death, the Pharisees proclaimed imminent renewal in both here and now through the eschatological fulfilment of age-old prophecies which pointed to the overthrow of a despotic kingdom on earth, as well as teaching of resurrection beyond the grave to a future heavenly realm.
The Pharisees might very well have embraced Jesus as one of their own, as a man who clearly had some sort of charismatic following and the potential to lead a popular uprising against the Romans, were it not for the fact that he did not adhere to or condone their strict religious laws — and because he was quick to point out their hypocrisy in requiring an exacting standard of others whilst being far from righteous in their own internal conduct.
Whilst on the one hand Jesus was a useful ally, teaching about life after death and inviting the people to live for another Kingdom, his insistence on publicly shaming the Pharisees and undermining their agenda troubled them. “If we let him go on like this,” they complained to the Sanhedrin Council, “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
But the high priest, Caiaphas, responded ruthlessly, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”
And so it was that when the opportunity came to arrest the man Jesus, he was tried on blasphemy grounds before the Jewish court and found guilty, before being handed over to Pontius Pilate who alone could sentence to execution.
Which is why it was so curious that when he was dragged before the Roman Governor, not only had word gotten to Pilate that others were calling him the Messiah and true king of the people of Israel — not something Jesus is reported as teaching during his lifetime — but that when he was asked the direct question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” instead of denying it he responds, “Do you ask this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”
At least, the words of this conversation are what are recorded to have been said in the 18th and 19th chapters of the Gospel of John. And if you can read Greek, you can see an extract of this dialogue from a near original copy on the front cover of this book — more on that later.
But before considering the claim Jesus made to having a kingdom not of this world, and taking the moment when his life hung by thread to declare, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice”, it’s worth pausing to examine whether the above is even an historic account in the first place.
Essentially this is both the heart and crux of the Christian faith; not a religion based on a higher revelation to a discrete few, or a moral philosophy built on supremacist ideal, but a way of life grounded in following a person who considered it his own life’s purpose to point toward the Ultimate Reality — and who, it is attested, survived death in a most remarkable way, making what he said about truth worth listening to.
Yet what point is there in following that thread of truth to which he alluded, if we are unsure as to whether he really existed, and whether he really said what he is said to have said, and done what he is claimed to have done?
We must find our way to base camp, before beginning the steady ascent up the mountain. If it turns out we are not on a sure foundation, there is little point in attempting the climb ahead.