. . . Pontius Pilate

. . .

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

Bacon's melodious sentence is itself an example of the triumph of grace over truth. His personal experience of judgment halls may have overpowered his biblical studies -- or could he be foisting away a too-close kinship of philosophical inquisitors, so vehemently as to call attention to the resemblance he denies?

"I was the justes judge that was in England these fifty years; but it was the justes censure in Parliament that was these two hundred years."
What I asked was what most folks call a "rhetorical" or a "leading" question (and some folks call "proof"). I phrase it as a question so that you'll draw the answer up from your very own store of cleverness -- "Yes!", fist pumped up then inwards -- and then it's personal, you're committed, you've sworn your allegience.

But honestly turn the question back to me, and what can I say? I can try to answer it myself, losing my advantage. Or I could meet it with rhetorical silence, glaring as if dumbfounded by your rudeness or your clumsiness, and then let my more pliant disciples rip you apart while I approve them: a bullying technique of group enforcement favored in playground and classroom both. ("O, I say, here's a fellow says he speaks as a hegemonic subject!" "O, I say, here's a fellow says he doesn't speak as a hegemonic subject!")

Or I could do something I can't even picture. It's not like I have a lot of pictures.

At any rate, we chiefly emulate Pilate (uncredited) when we wash our hands of the whole affair, and chiefly criticize him (by name) for his question. Among English speakers, Pilate's reputation was made by Bacon's vivid tableau, even though the source gospel hardly bursts with japery:

Then led they Jesus from Cayphus into the hall of judgment. It was in the morning, and they themselves went not into the judgment hall lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the paschal lamb. Pilate then went out unto them & said: What accusation bring ye against this man? They answered and said onto him: If he were not an evil doer, we would not have delivered him onto thee. Then said Pilate to them: Take ye him, and judge him after your own law. Then the Jews said onto him: It is not lawful for us to put any man to death. That the words of Jesus might be fulfilled which he spake, signifiying what death he should die.

Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, & called Jesus, and said unto him: Art thou the king of the Jews? Jesus answered: Sayest thou that of thy self, or did other tell it thee of me? Pilate answered: Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and high priests have delivered thee unto me. What hast thou done? Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my ministers surely fight that I would not be delivered to the Jews, but now is my kingdom not from hence. Pilate said unto him: Art thou a king? Then Jesus answered: Thou sayest that I am a king. For this cause was I born, and for this cause came I into the world: that I should bear witness unto the truth. And all that are of the truth hear my voice. Pilate said to him: What thing is truth.

And when he had said that, he went out again onto the Jews and said onto them: I find in him no cause at all. Ye have a custom that I should deliver you one loose at Easter. Will ye that I loose onto you the king of the Jews? Then cried they all again saying: Not him but Barrabas.

That Barrabas was a robber.

If someone tells you that everyone who hears him knows the truth, and you don't actually feel much of anything when you hear him, is it really so wrong to ask him to elaborate?

Nor is it all that clear (in translation, anyway) that Pilate terminated his laugh line by turning on his heel and exiting stage left to scattered applause. Later, the same gospel shows Jesus refusing to acknowledge another direct question:

We have a law, & by our law he ought to die: because he made himself the son of God. When Pilate heard that saying, he was the more afraid, & went again into the judgment hall, & said unto Jesus: Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him none answer. Then said Pilate unto him: Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, & have power to loose thee? Jesus answered: Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above. Therefore he that delivered me unto thee is more in sin. And from thenceforth sought Pilate means to loose him: but the Jews cried saying: If thou let him go, thou art not Caesar's friend. For whosoever maketh himself a king, is against Caesar.

Pilate's patience is remarkable. Like later totalitarian regimes, neither imperial Rome nor Tudor England held truck with silence; self-incrimination was their favorite evidence, and they had no scruples about getting it.

In fact, the reader can't help but be struck by the gospels' generosity toward Pontius Pilate, increasing over time as the early Jewish cult became more reliant on Roman gentiles for protection and converts. The Romans weren't going to take the fall for this one.

The Gospel of John, being written last, sketches an especially sympathetic portrait (elaborated by Bulgakov, among others), of a colonial bureaucrat hamstrung into damnation by politics, confusion, and self-fulfilling prophecy.

A final unanswered question, then: When Jesus said that Pilate's power was "given thee from above," just which authority was he talking about?

Further deponent saith not.

Quotes from the Gospell after Saynt Johan the Euangelyste
translated by William Tyndale, 1525


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