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Why was Pilate’s statement, “What is truth?” (18:38) included in John’s Gospel?

In John 21:25 John wrote that Jesus did much more than what was recorded in his Gospel. Thus, John was selective in what he included. John gives the purpose of his Gospel as:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30–31, RSV)

Thus, one would expect the inclusion of Pilate’s question to relate to this purpose. First, what did Pilate mean by his question, “What is truth?” Initially it sounds like a question expressing truth as relative. However, what Pilate found out questioning Jesus was inconsistent with what the Jewish leaders were telling him.

The Jewish leaders (specifically the Sadducees) apparently did look at Jesus as potentially leading a revolt against Rome:

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “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.” (John 11:49–50, ESV)

Thus, they expressed this believed danger to Pilate:

If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” (John 19:12, ESV)

But, Jesus’ convincing testimony was that he was no threat to Rome:

My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36, ESV)

Does Pilates question, “What is the truth?” support Jesus being the Christ?

P.S. Further clarification of this question: Truth is an important theme in John's Gospel, but he could have easily ended with:

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.” (John 18:37, ESV)

leaving out Pilate's question. Pilate's question makes an abrupt and open-ended ending to the conversation. As common in Jesus' conversations with people in the Gospel of John, Pilate seems to side-track from Jesus' spiritual meaning to concerns about his present situation. But, here Jesus doesn't address this question.

It may have no relevance to this question, but note the similarity:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27, ESV)

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  • @Dottard -- does the PS I added help?
    – Perry Webb
    Jan 14, 2023 at 12:07
  • Thanks - now I can answer.
    – Dottard
    Jan 14, 2023 at 22:02
  • Beyond recognizing Jesus' innocence, I don't think Pilate ever saw the truth of who Jesus really is. IMO his question shows how little weight the truth had on the outcome of the hearing and reflects Pilate's indifference toward the truth given the political realities that governed his decision. Rather than supporting that Jesus is Christ, his question ultimately reflects a fundamental inability to discern the truth, not only on the part of Pilate but also of all who were responsible for what happened that day. The question serves therefore as a fitting ending to Jesus' trial.
    – Nhi
    Jan 17, 2023 at 18:52

6 Answers 6

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For the purpose of making John's readers think about the answer, with particular reference to the statements in the gospel identifying Jesus himself with "the Truth".

"Full of grace and truth"- ch1 v14. "Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ"- ch1 v17 The discussion in ch8 vv32-46 I "I am the way , the truth, and the life"- ch14 v6

The exchange in ch18 v37 is the climax to this theme. We need to read it as a dialogue between Jesus and ourselves. Jesus identifies his mission as "I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." This is an invitation to the reader to hear the voice of Jesus and recognise the truth, but it's essential that the reader should have some grasp of what Jesus means by "the truth". Pilate's question is the question every reader should be asking at this point. Jesus remains silent, because we need to think the answer through for ourselves.

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  • It also narratively reveals Pilate's heart. Far from recognizing Jesus as the truth, Pilate doesn't even know what truth is supposed to be. Before long, he will sacrifice what he believes to be true (Jesus is innocent) to what he believes to be expedient (the crowd needs to be calmed). Also, the whole sentence can be read rhetorically differently: What does truth count? (Compare the device: What is man that you should spare a thought for him? What is truth that I should spare a thought for it?) Jan 14, 2023 at 20:06
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    And it reminds us of one of the core themes of the mystic fourth gospel: the ease with which we miss the truth. Everyone around Jesus constantly misunderstands him, including his disciples ("they thought he meant... but he was speaking of..."). Pilate's question is representative of the confusion people feel in general when faced with a deeper than ordinary truth. Jan 15, 2023 at 4:23
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In John 18, V38 should never be divorced from V37; so let me list the two together:

37 “Then You are a king!” Pilate said.

“You say that I am a king,” Jesus answered. “For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice.”

38 “What is truth?” Pilate asked.

And having said this, he went out again to the Jews and told them, “I find no basis for a charge against Him. ...

The famous, "What is truth?" statement of Pilate, I believe is intended to provide the following information to make a deliberate contrast between the two men:

  1. Jesus is the "way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6) and Pilate does not recognize this when it is placed in front of him.
  2. It is a statement of political contrast - Jesus was king of a spiritual kingdom and Pilate was ambitious Roman political acolyte. As such, he understood that truth was a very "flexible" term as facts could be easily manipulated and "adjusted".
  3. Pilate recognized that Jesus was innocent and saw through the obviously trumped-up charges against him (the evidence was inconsistent and scant, etc. That is, Jesus was not guilty of insurrection and was no threat to Rome); despite this, he refused to recognize this superior king of a greater kingdom.
  4. Pilate ultimately, using the "flexible" understanding of truth, released a man guilty of insurrection, Barabbas, and convicted a man he knew was innocent of the same charge.
  5. It is also a statement of Pilate's refusal of the gracious offer of salvation contained in V37. Jesus says, "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice." However, Pilate asks the question "What is truth?" but does not wait for an answer - ie, he does not listen to Jesus' voice! (Again, another contrast with John 10:27.)
  6. It appears to be a literary contrast with John 3:21 where Jesus says: "But whoever practices the truth comes into the Light, so that it may be seen clearly that what he has done has been accomplished in God.”
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Remember who the Romans are. They inherit all the Greek wisdom. Think of Socrates. Socrates finds God by searching for the truth. God has now advanced mankind beyond Egyptian Hieroglyphs and he uses the 30 Egyptian hieroglyphs to explain himself to Moses, the Israelites, and us. Now he has the Greek language much more explicative. The Greeks call God Apollo. Apollo is the god that identifies sin in man and purges it and makes a man whole and True. See Britannica about the god Apollo. Everything is about belief, then that leads you to the truth. Belief is what changes your epigenetics and who you are and all your decisions. I hope this helps you. For 63 years I have been fascinated with the truth.

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Op asked,

"Why was Pilate’s statement, “What is truth?” (18:38) included in John’s Gospel?"

A good place to start is with the definition of truth. Here is a definition of truth from Strongs.

alétheia: truth

Definition: truth Usage: truth, but not merely truth as spoken; truth of idea, reality, sincerity, truth in the moral sphere, divine truth revealed to man, straightforwardness. HELPS Word-studies 225 alḗtheia (from 227 /alēthḗs, "true to fact") – properly, truth (true to fact), reality. [In ancient Greek culture, 225 (alḗtheia) was synonymous for "reality" as the opposite of illusion, i.e. fact.]

Thayers definition. I. objectively;

  1. universally, what is true in any matter under consideration (opposed to what is feigned, fictitious, false):

So in front of Pilate he hears two opposing voices. He must decide which is an illusion and which is the truth. The high priest has an appearance of representing the Jewish God and His laws.

On the other side here is a man standing before him, all alone and now being asked if He is the King of the Jews.

Pilate went back into the Praetorium, summoned Jesus, and asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”

So here is a Gentile Governor deciding if Jesus is a king, the king of the Jews when his own nation and religious leaders have rejected him. After all they should know, right?

Pilate can see through all this, and realizes that Jesus is not going to overthrow the Roman government to set up his kingdom now. Because of that he now wants to set Jesus free. He knows that Jesus is innocent of all their accusations.

In this particular situation, The context of truth being asked, It's for Pilate to decide who is speaking truth and who is speaking falsely, what is the illusion and what is the reality.

Another question the OP asked is; "Does Pilates question, “What is the truth?” support Jesus being the Christ?

Pilate is part of the foreordained process in which Jesus is going to be crucified. He does not want Jesus to be killed and does everything he can to prevent, it because he knows He's innocent of the accusations against him. Nevertheless he succumbs to the mobs pressure and to keep peace within the city he finally gives up.

You take Him and crucify Him,” Pilate replied, “for I find no basis for a charge against Him.” John 19:6

I think the truth that's being revealed through this whole story is to reveal how much the rulers and nation hated Jesus and wanted him dead.

From then on, Pilate tried to release Him, but the Jews kept shouting, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who declares himself a king is defying Caesar.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat on the judgment seat at a place called the Stone Pavement, which in Hebrewa is Gabbatha. It was the day of Preparation for the Passover, about the sixth hour.And Pilate said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” At this, they shouted, “Away with Him! Away with Him! Crucify Him!” “Shall I crucify your King?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” replied the chief priests.

We see Jesus humbly going along with everything which is definitely demonstrative of who He is in the mist of so much hatred and evil being thrust upon him. Someday they will see whom they have pierced when their eyes are opened to see that He was their Christ all along and what he did on their behalf.

At time it was hidden from them.

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  • Isn't John pointing to how Jesus was falsely accused and innocent. That he his hated is only to emphasize that. How does Pilate's question point to this.
    – Perry Webb
    Jan 15, 2023 at 12:16
  • @PerryWebb Thanks for your dialogue. Pilate did not have ears to hear His voice as he was asking, what is truth? However his conscience gave him light to see Jesus was innocent. That was the only truth he could operate in at that time. It also revealed that the Sanhedrin and Pharisees did not have ears to hear Him either, as well most of Israel at that time. They too did not know truth. It is Interesting that Pilate became more afraid when he heard that He made himself out to be the Son of God in vs 7,9. Pilate was given a great truth in vs 11 which shows that he believed His words.
    – Sherrie
    Jan 15, 2023 at 16:18
  • (Were his ears opened?) Like Peter and the rest of the disciples, fear of man was controlling them. Truth is given as ones ears are opened, and then eyes to see , and believe truth and then able to bear it as God alone can make one stand in the truth. Here the Son of God, the embodiment of Truth was standing right in front of Pilate. It makes me wonder if he became a believer after Jesus was resurrected.
    – Sherrie
    Jan 15, 2023 at 16:18
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The question is being asked by a Roman from the Stoic era [Marcus Tullius Cicero] to a Jew from the time of Philo of Alexandria.

The Gospel of John does not report any response by Jesus to Pilate's question, so it is understandable that Jesus' silence is understood within Cicero's thinking to Pilate:

“suppose he had not made a decree, but had only issued an edict, who could have found fault with him with truth?”

“They ask how God can make those things probable which appear to be false; and how it is that He cannot make those appear so which plainly come as near as possible to truth? Or if He can likewise make those appear probable, why He cannot make the others appear so too, which are only with great difficulty distinguished from them?”

“If a vision is brought by God before a man asleep of such a nature as to be probable (probabile), why may not one also be brought of such a nature as to be very like truth (verisimile)? If so, then why may not one be brought which can hardly be distinguished from truth?”

“But is that the truth? for I shall not contest your happy life, which you think the Deity himself does not enjoy unless he languishes in idleness. But where is truth? Is it in your innumerable worlds, some of which are rising, some falling, at every moment of time?”

“Then Roscius said many other things with a view to encourage me, and in truth, if he were to say nothing he would still move any one by the very silent affection and zeal which he felt for his relation.”

“ I promised that I would make that plain by witnesses, who both must know the truth, and who had no reason for speaking falsely.”

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  • Do you have a source for this information? A link to an online source would help others that come across this answer.
    – agarza
    Jan 16, 2023 at 4:49
  • Hi, the book Delphi© Classics 2014 The Complete Works of MARCUS TULLIUS CICERO. I apologize again to this community. 1) I don't know how to use the platform correctly 2) I don't speak English. 3) I post for love, not academic recognition. Again I apologize.
    – Betho's
    Jan 16, 2023 at 5:06
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"est veritas Christi (2 Cor. 11:10 VUL)" and est veritas in Iesu (Eph. 4:21 VUL)! The Truth is in Christ. His essence, the "I am" tabernacled in the flesh, the logos of truth, which is not of this world, for it is Spirit, and the Spirit is the truth (1 Jn. 5:6 YLT)

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