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Antonio Ciseri’s 1871 Ecce Homo

The narrative of John 18:33-38 is fascinating to me. It is a short dialogue between Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect of Judea, and Jesus of Nazareth, a candidate for the role of Jewish Messiah. The Jewish rulers want Jesus crucified, but according to the narrator the decision to procede with capital punishment is Rome’s alone. Pilate had told the Jewish ruler to judge Jesus according to their Law, but the narrator seems to suggest that this would limit their options. Pilate is presented as somewhat bothered that he must focus upon this insignificant man at such a tense time as Passover. Since Pilate represents Rome he must procede with making a decision about Jesus.

Jesus is brought before Pilate. The reader comes to this scene with knowledge given by the narrator earlier (14:6): Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” The reader knows this. Jesus knows this. Pilate does not know this.

Pilate enters the room and his encounter with Jesus begins:

Pilate: YOU are the King of the Judeans?

Jesus: Are you saying this from yourself or did others tell you about me?

Pilate: I am not a Judean, am I? Your people and chief priest handed you over to me. What have you done?

Jesus: My Kingdom is not from this world. If my Kingdom was from this world my servants would be fighting in order that I not be handed over to the Judeans. But now, my Kingdom is not from here.

Pilate: So then, you are a King?

Jesus: YOU say that I am a King. For this I have been born, and for this I have come unto the world: in order that I testify to the Truth. Everyone who is from the Truth hears my voice.

Pilate: What is Truth?

Jesus and Pilate are engaged in an intense discussion here. Neither commits much by way of answering. Both begin by asking questions of the other. Pilate seems a bit surprised that this man is being called a King by some: “YOU are the King of the Judeans?” Seriously, you?

Immediately, Jesus aims to make Pilate uncomfortable: is this something you think yourself based on your own evidence and observations or did you listen to the Jewish rulers then take their word for it?

Pilate is aware of Jesus’ rhetorical strategy, so he matches Jesus’ question-for-a-question with his own: I’m not Judean, right? Your people disliked you enough to bring you to me, so what did you do?

Jesus doesn’t answer with another question here, but he is indirect: My Kingdom doesn’t emerge from this world–see, my servants don’t fight to establish my Kingdom. You know a bit about establishing a Kingdom through warfare, right?

Pilate wants to end this conversation. Are you a King or not? Jesus doesn’t say: “YOU say that I am a King.” The dialogue began with Pilate’s emphatic response to Jesus: “YOU are the King of the Judeans?” Jesus ends it the same way: “YOU say that I am a King.” Then Jesus tells what he was born to do: testify to Truth. Pilate becomes Socratic: “What is Truth?”

These questions are aimed for the reader though the dialogue is between the two characters. Pilate will disappear from the narrative soon, but if the reader continues to read then the question remains: What is Truth? Good Friday asks us this question: What is Truth?

Who is Truth?

In 19:5 Pilate will tell the crowd: “Behold, the man!” The narrator asks you to do the same: Behold, this man, who embodies the Truth. What will you do with him?

__________

For a helpful commentary on the use of questions in this narrative see Douglas Estes, The Questions of Jesus in John: Logic, Rhetoric, and Persuasive Discourse, 118-123

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