John chapter 18, verse 38 of the Gospel of John, is often referred to as “jesting Pilate” or “What is truth?“, of Latin Quid est veritas? In it, Pontius Pilate questions Jesus’ claim that he is “witness to the truth” (John 18:37).
Following this statement, Pilate proclaims to the masses (“the Jews” referring to the Jewish authorities) that he does not consider Jesus guilty of any crime.
|SBLGNT 2010||Nova Vulgata 1979||KJV 1611||NIV 2011|
|37 εἶπεν οὖν αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος· Οὐκοῦν βασιλεὺς εἶ σύ; ἀπεκρίθη ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Σὺ λέγεις ὅτι βασιλεύς εἰμι. ἐγὼ εἰς τοῦτο γεγέννημαι καὶ εἰς τοῦτο ἐλήλυθα εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα μαρτυρήσω τῇ ἀληθείᾳ· πᾶς ὁ ὢν ἐκ τῆς ἀληθείας ἀκούει μου τῆς φωνῆς.||37 Dixit itaque ei Pilatus: “ Ergo rex es tu? ”. Respondit Iesus: “ Tu dicis quia rex sum. Ego in hoc natus sum et ad hoc veni in mundum, ut testimonium perhibeam veritati; omnis, qui est ex veritate, audit meam vocem ”.||37 Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.||37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”|
|38 λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος· Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια; Καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν πάλιν ἐξῆλθεν πρὸς τοὺς Ἰουδαίους, καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· Ἐγὼ οὐδεμίαν εὑρίσκω ἐν αὐτῷ αἰτίαν·||38 Dicit ei Pilatus: “Quid est veritas?”. Et cum hoc dixisset, iterum exivit ad Iudaeos et dicit eis: “ Ego nullam invenio in eo causam. ”||38 Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.||38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”|
The exact intention of Pilate has been subject to debate among scholars, with no firm conclusion. His statement may have been made in jest that the trial was a mockery, or he may have actually intended to reflect on the philosophical position that truth is hard to ascertain. The Greek word rendered as “truth” in English translations is “aletheia”, which literally means “unconcealed” and connotes sincerity in addition to factuality and reality.
This verse reflects the Christian tradition of the “guiltlessness of Jesus” in Pilate’s Court. The innocence of Jesus is important in the Gospel of John, given that it emphasizes Jesus as the Lamb of God.
Note that Jesus, although he does not respond to Pilate’s question (perhaps because Pilate “went out again” before giving him a chance to) knows the answer. During his prayer in Gethsemane, Jesus tells God, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” (John 17:17)
In addition to the guiltlessness of Jesus this verse also reflects the rejection of the truth of God: Jesus, the witness to truth was rejected, ignored and condemned.
This verse has been widely quoted and alluded to in culture and literature, particularly in that of philosophical nature. While Pilate’s question — whether intended philosophically, jestfully, rhetorically, or born of frustration at the lack of a plain answer — is by no means the only incident of someone questioning the nature of truth, it has been drawn upon many times as a significant occurrence thereof.
Francis Bacon uses this musing to open his essay Of Truth, saying that Pilate “would not stay for an answer”. He uses this to introduce his theme of truth as an affirmation of faith.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of the line and extended praise to Pilate:
“Do I still have to add that in the entire New Testament there is only one solitary figure one is obliged to respect? Pilate, the Roman governor. To take a Jewish affair seriously – he cannot persuade himself to do that. One Jew more or less – what does it matter ?… The noble scorn of a Roman before whom an impudent misuse of the word ‘truth’ was carried on has enriched the New Testament with the only expression whichpossesses value – which is its criticism, its annihilation even: ‘What is truth?…” (Nietzsche, writing in The Antichrist, §46)
Mikhail Bulgakov fictionally expands on the relationship between Pilate and Jesus in his novel Master and Margarita. Specific reference to John 18:38 comes in Chapter 2 of the novel entitled “Pontius Pilate”, in which he asks the very question “What is truth?” to Jesus (“Jeshua Ha-Notsri” – “Jesus of Nazareth” in Hebrew).
J. L. Austin, the ordinary-language philosopher, in a symposium on truth, comments:
‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. Pilate was in advance of his time. For ‘truth’ itself is an abstract noun, a camel, that is, of a logical construction, which cannot get past the eye even of a grammarian. We approach it cap and categories in hand : we ask ourselves whether Truth is a substance (the Truth, the Body of Knowledge), or a quality (something like the colour red, inhering in truths), or a relation (‘correspondence’). But philosophers should take something more nearly their own size to strain at. What needs discussing rather is the use, or certain uses, of the word ‘true.’ In vino, possibly, ‘veritas,’ but in a sober symposium ‘verum.’
In his novella (and play) Home Truths, David Lodge lets the writer Adrian Ludlow quote “What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer” when he is interviewed by the journalist Fanny Tarrant, known for her vicious and perhaps not entirely truthful interviews.
- The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: The Complete New Testament by Warren W. Wiersbe 2007 ISBN978-0-7814-4539-9 page 303
- Ask Augustine by Paul A. Tambrino 2006 ISBN1-59781-894-1 pages 192-194
- NET Bible notes on John 18:38Textual note: Or “the Jewish authorities”; Grk “the Jews.” Here the phrase refers to the Jewish leaders, especially members of the Sanhedrin. See the note on the phrase “Jewish leaders” in v. 12. The term also occurs in v. 31, where it is clear the Jewish leaders are in view, because they state that they cannot legally carry out an execution. Although it is likely (in view of the synoptic parallels) that the crowd here in 18:38 was made up not just of the Jewish leaders, but of ordinary residents of Jerusalem and pilgrims who were in Jerusalem for the Passover, nevertheless in John’s Gospel Pilate is primarily in dialogue with the leadership of the nation, who are expressly mentioned in 18:35 and 19:6.
- The Gospel of John by Francis J. Moloney, Daniel J. Harrington 1998 ISBN0-8146-5806-7 pages 488-489
- Austin, John Langshaw (1950). “Truth”(PDF). Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. Supplementary Volume XXIV.
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