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When Jesus is brought before Pilate, he asks him if he is a king. When Jesus admits that he is Pilate says

“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.”

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. (John 18:37-38)

Does Pilate actually believe Jesus, or is he simply being dismissive of Jesus' "naivite" in assuming there is such a thing as truth?

I'd like answers that pull from the tradition of mainstream Christian factions and scripture.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

History records that Pilate was not the most even tempered of men. Considering this, I find that it is quite probable that the words would have been intended more as mockery than anything else.

Traditions related to Pilate are a good deal more vague. While the apocryphal "Passion (or Gospel) according to St. Peter" exonerates him, the majority of writings which come from the post-apostolic writers suggest that the writings of Philo may very well be correct as to the nature of his character.

Of course, there is no way to know, but it seems far more probable that he was not acting as Christ's friend in that conversation.

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I'm inclined to agree that "What is truth?" was intended as mockery, but this mockery may have been favorable to Christ. Pilate seems to be expressing the opinion that Christ is not to be taken seriously, but that's a good thing when the charge against Christ is claiming to be the king of the Jews. From Pilate's point of view, a "king" who, at his trial, philosophises about "truth" is no threat to Roman rule and can safely be acquitted. –  Andreas Blass Nov 16 '13 at 1:58

Scripture doesn't explain what Pilate was thinking when he said "What is truth." I know that Pilate has always been portrayed by Catholic moral theologians as the archetype of the man who wants to please everyone, of the pusillanimous man who doesn't have the courage to take a tough stand because of the personal costs.

Perhaps the best dramatization of this "want to have it both ways, woe is me, I can't make up my mind" concept is from the movie The Passion of the Christ:

It is ironic that Pilate would address the question "what is truth?" while looking Truth itself right in the eye.

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I've always read this as irony looking at John 14.6, yes. –  lonesomeday Jan 14 at 14:45

You are asking this from the perspective of a Christian. Now step back, and consider it from the perspective of the observer, here re-phrased a bit:

  • (19) the religious authorities ask some questions
  • (20-21) the defendant refuses to answer them
  • (23) the defendant retorts "charges or I walk"
  • (24) the defendant is sent to the high religious authority; what was discussed is not recorded, but presumably relates very much to the charges
  • (28) the defendant is sent in front of a judge
  • (33) the judge asks a question, that relates to why is he is being handed over
  • (34) the defendant does not answer the question
  • (35) the judge re-asks about the nature of the incident
  • (36) the defendant answers, saying something which could very well be treated as incoherent or delusional, but which seems to answer an indirect affirmative to the original question
  • (37) the judge, exasperated, exclaims that the original question finally has some kind of half answer
  • (37) the defendant claims this exasperated outcry as an affirmation (actually, it was simply a restatement of the defendants words in (36), where it is the defendant who says this)
  • (37) the defendant claims to be about truth, and claim everyone in support of truth supports him (I'm reminded here of "...available in all good book stores", and "all decent people agree..." - as a device, it makes it sound like anyone who simply disagrees with him disagrees with "truth", but... this is not a reasonable claim for any person; and remember he is judged and tried as human)
  • [key point] (38) the judge, tiring of the whole thing, with little "truth" coming from those who sent the defendant, and the defendant being uncooperative while setting logic traps about "truth", snarkily retorts that the "truth" here isn't worth knowing
  • (38) to his credit, the judge remarks there is no clear case to answer, and suggests (within the rules available) to acquit
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Hard to believe folks here are ignoring the contribution of the other Gospel writers who provide more threads to this cloth. Pilate was not in the dark about Jesus and knew of His truth claims as well as what had been reported about Him. It seems unreasonable to restrict hos comments to so narrow an interpretation ("What is THE truth?") when the article is absent and the issue at hand is much wider. He was adept in his acquisition of the throne and just as adept in defending it (as being under the watchful eye of Tiberius in Rome for his assault on the Jews earlier). Truth as a category did not matter to him. He knew it did not matter to Jesus' accusers, either...the presumed guardians of Truth.

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I'm not arguing the validity of what you say, but this would be a much better answer if you had supporting references. As it is, it reads like a personal understanding rather than an established teaching. See What makes a good supported answer? and How we are different than other sites? I bet you could find such references fairly easily, an I'd encourage you to do so and help by sharing your knowledge! –  David Nov 16 '13 at 3:35

I've been considering this conversation, since watching the movie "Hellbound?" -- After reading the scripture and many commentaries, I've come to the conclusion that Pilate was referring to what Jesus answered about Truth... that Truth was "true" for those who were "from" the Truth. What does it mean to be "from" the Truth? THAT is what I think Pilate was referring to... the idea that Truth in fact, in his own experience, depended upon what a person did or did not accept as the Truth, period.

Therefore, in Pilate's view, in this life, Truth is what you think is True, and there is not a reliable way to know what is Truly True - which "Truth" corresponds to reality.

Truth may be an objective thing - there can only be one Truth, ultimately. (I think...LOL) But in the context of spiritual matters, such as what Jesus taught, versus the Jews, versus Pagans, there is no way to objectively conclude what is Truth. It is a subjective decision... we all decide to be "from" one Truth or another.

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This answer would be a lot better if you could add references showing that this is a common understanding, and who teaches/believes it. On this site, we're not looking for personal interpretation, but rather focusing on what various Christian groups teach. See How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Apr 21 '14 at 15:23

What did Pilate mean by asking “What is Truth?”

John 18:37-38 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.
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.

Because right after Pilate asks his question he goes out to address the Jews, we might surmise that his question was rhetorical.

This moment has to go down in the irony hall of fame. "What is truth" was asked of him who is truth.

In the social circles Pilate traveled in he probably had more than his fill of Hellenistic philosophers that would wax on and on about truth, beauty, and other ethereal subjects. He might be forgiven for tuning Jesus out as soon as the subject was mentioned.

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