Benedict XVI: Jesus, Pilate, and the Truth

How can the dramatic scene of Jesus before Pilate speak deeper to us? While its function in the Passion narrative is Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus to death by crucifixion, what can the thematics of the exchange between the representative of earthly power, governor Pontius Pilate, and the personification of divine power, Jesus Christ, say to us today?

It’s nothing less than an exchange about “truth.”

Jesus before Pilate

To help us, we can look to a subsection in the seventh chapter of Pope Benedict XVI’s masterpiece, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two—Holy Week, entitled “Jesus before Pilate.” It spans nearly twenty pages, doing more than merely summarizing the familiar exchange. One of the trademarks of the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth trilogy (and all of Joseph Ratzinger’s writings) is his ability to take theological and Scriptural analyses right to our own very doorstep, into the immediacy of the everyday, of the world as it has come to be in our own time.

In his analysis of Jesus before Pilate, particularly John 18:38 (“Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’”), Benedict directly takes on the predominant issue of our day: truth. Or rather, the lack of it. Benedict begins by wading into areas that have been mistakenly hailed as the only way to the truth. The first: politics.

Truth in politics and science?

The Pope writes, “Can politics accept truth? Or must truth, as something unattainable, be relegated to the subjective sphere, its place taken by an attempt to build peace and justice using whatever instruments are available to power?” Such questions hit modern readers at a fundamental level, particularly when politics is often hailed as the sole path to modern salvation.

The Pope is referring to the pervading 21st century mentality of relativism — the mindset that there is no real objective foundational truth, only perceptions of it. Opinions. Politics, then, often seizes hold of that. In this truth-less worldview, “the only thing that counts is the power of the one who is stronger and knows how to win over the majority to his views,” Benedict writes.

Benedict himself would not be deterred by what he saw around him. He continually forged into the deep, and those who followed him—the convert, the revert, the lifelong Catholic humble enough to let God handle the storm—were graced with remarkable spiritual gifts because of the wise pope’s insights. In his 2009 journey to the Czech Republic, he declared upon his arrival in Prague, “The Presidential flag flying over Prague Castle proclaims the motto ‘Pravda Vítězí’—Veritas Vincit: the Truth wins!”

Continuing his discussion of truth in Part Two, Benedict then shifts from politics to man’s other fixation: science. He recognizes the lure of science as the criterion for truth. But Benedict’s distinction is paramount:

“The functional truth about man has been discovered,” he acknowledges, referring to science. “But the truth about man himself—who he is, where he comes from, what he should do, what is right, what is wrong—this unfortunately cannot be read in the same way. Hand in hand with growing knowledge of functional truth there seems to be an increasing blindness toward ‘truth’ itself—toward the question of our real identity and purpose.”

There is much weight here. Not only is Benedict reminding us science by its nature only deals with the known world. The great questions humanity has been asking remain beyond molecules and atoms, beyond quantifiable data. Benedict here also suggests the further we drift from God, the further we know what the truth is. He even suggests an “increasing blindness” toward “our real identity and purpose.” The Pope is using the exchange between Jesus and Pilate to convey the urgent warning that mankind is in a modern identity crisis about itself!

What is truth?

Great, serious actors have taken on the role of Pontius Pilate throughout film history, often interpreting the role of Jesus’s judge as a man complex, torn, and wrestling with inner turmoil. Basil Rathbone, Telly Savalas, Rod Steiger, Gary Oldman, and Harvey Keitel have been some of the screen legends who have taken on Pilate. In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Pilate (Hristo Shopov) takes a dramatic step towards Jesus (Jim Caviezel) as he utters the famous line, “What is truth?” Gibson cuts to a tight shot of Jesus as Pilate asks the question — and holds it for a moment before finally cutting away.

Such a moment underscores how Pilate was standing face to face with Truth itself. Did he know this? Here, indeed, a bit of complexity around Pilate surfaces: With his question, “What is truth?,” the philosophy of relativism is thus introduced. For Pilate, however, it would be far too much of a hassle to give himself over to that truth. His commitment was as a good solider to the state, to the secular realm, to the status quo. How many opportunities at conversion are dismissed out of inconvenience and complacency?

But Benedict reminds us that we have been blessed with the answer to Pilate’s question on an intimate level: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). We know the answer to Pilate’s question. No less our Savior. No less than Christ the King. God in the flesh, truth exposed.

“Intolerance and cruelty have occurred in the name of truth,” Benedict admitted to Peter Seewald in Light of the World. “To that extent people are afraid when someone says, ‘This is the truth’, or even ‘I have the truth’. We never have it,” he summarizes. “At best, it has us.”

James Day

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James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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