Into the World--Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience

Prologue and Abstract
Chapter One: Introduction
Chapter Two: The Layered Gospel Context
Chapter Three: Today’s Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Five: A Primer—The Bible’s Broadest Theme

Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience

Chapter Seven: The Voice of God
Chapter Eight: The Message of the Cross as Supreme Answer
Chapter Nine: The View from Enlightened Self-Interest
Chapter Ten: The Challenge from Kantian Autonomy
Chapter Eleven: The View from James’ Radical Question
Chapter Twelve: The View from Sartre’s Bad Faith
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—First Part
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—Second Part

[A recapitulation may be helpful: Chapter One accepts the challenge to Christian faith expressed in Nietzsche's view that Pilate's "What is truth?" is the "annihilation" of the New Testament. Chapter Two digs into the text of The Gospel According to John to see whether the irony of Scripture's silence following Pilate's question can be explained, but a much bigger irony is encountered instead: A man subject to human judgment and condemnation does not look like "the Son of God." It is immediately apparent that the irony must rest in our view of God or the view of God presented by the trial and crucifixion of Jesus cannot depict the truth about God. Chapter Three uses compelling quotes from Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Isaac Asimov to show that Pilate's famous question still animates vocal modern critics of Christian faith. In Chapter Four the Apostle Paul's contrast between godly and worldly wisdom places the irony of the divine Logos tried and crucified in us, but we are still left wondering what precisely the truth about God is that Jesus came into the world to reveal. Finally, in Chapter Five we discover that the passion narrative precisely foils the Serpent's view of God as represented in the Genesis story of the fall, and the contrast between the narratives of the fall and the passion set up the Bible's overarching theme, as the passion narrative corrects the false view of God set up at the fall. This addresses the irony of the divine Logos subjected to human judgment and condemnation. In Chapter Six we now look more closely into the context of Jesus' exchange with Pilate in The Gospel According to John. You will discover that the text strongly suggests that Jesus was speaking--and very loudly--to Pilate at the very point that Pilate asked, "What is truth?" That allows us to reverse our judgment that Scripture is silent on Pilate's question, and it provides a core scriptural truth claim that we can--and will in future chapters--examine.]

We do not yet appreciate the full irony of Jesus’ silence following Pilate’s question. The comment that directly inspired it was, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) The set-up was perfect. All that Scripture needed to do was to have Jesus answer Pilate’s question, and it would have given Pilate—and through Scripture countless others—an account of the purported truth. Instead Scripture allows silence here and maintains it throughout (see the Introduction). Does that mean that Scripture provides no answer?

Not necessarily. That would depend on what is meant by “my voice.” If we were to take Scripture's words literally at this point, only those who could have directly heard Jesus' voice while he lived in Palestine for about the first thirty years C.E. had a chance to listen to, and hence belong to, the truth. That is false by any reasonable interpretation of the text. In fact, there would have been no reason to commit the words ascribed to Jesus to writing, if that were the case.

Did John's Jesus mean “listen” in the sense of “are willing to take the words of Scripture to heart,” then? That is an improvement over the inane sense just considered. Yet this interpretation also suffers from a form of the same defect. As one must be in earshot of Jesus to have a chance to belong to the truth in the first case, here one must either read the Bible for oneself or be within earshot of someone else who is reciting it out loud to belong to the truth. (Yes, that is ridiculously literal, but it is helpful to make that explicit!) That interpretation, however, is incompatible with "belonging to the truth" being the condition of listening to Jesus’ voice. For if the condition of belonging to the truth must be in place for a person to listen to Jesus’ voice, reading or hearing Jesus’ words themselves does not prompt the listening that marks the presence of truth in the person’s life. Thus, belonging to “the truth”—by dint of being a pre-condition of listening to Jesus’ voice—does not equate with acquiescing in hearing or reading the words of Scripture. Set that aside then too.

Let’s return to the observation that Jesus was silent at the very point when his silence was most ironic. (Shouldn't Jesus have cried out to Pilate, and so through the pages of Scripture to us, "This is what I mean by truth!!!"?) But what if Pilate already knew the truth to which Jesus referred? What if he was already struggling with whether or not to “listen” to Jesus’ voice? What if that was precisely what was going through Pilate’s mind at the very moment Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”? That, I will argue, is precisely what the text suggests.

The point at which the accusers brought Jesus before Pilate provides several telling observations. First, the accusers would not enter the Praetorium—Pilate’s residence and the Roman headquarters—“…so as to avoid ritual defilement…” (John 18:28) The implication for Pilate could only be insulting. Adding to the insult, the circumstance forced Pilate to accommodate the accusers in order to hear their case. The circumstance would have been annoying to the Roman Governor in the least.

Second, when Pilate asked about the accusation, the accusers said, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” (John 18:30) In effect, “Do our bidding, and don’t bother with questions.” Pilate balked at the suggestion, saying “Take him yourselves, and judge him according to your law.” (John 18: 31) But in response the accusers stated that they had brought Jesus to him because they could not put him to death. The implication, again, is insulting—this time in the extreme—that the accusers wanted Pilate to condemn a man to death without conducting an inquiry into the case! To anyone with any moral sensibility, the request was unconscionable and offensive.

Yet Pilate played along with it. That is the overriding situation in Pilate’s mind, unless he was a very stupid or a very evil man, and the text indicates the opposite, that he was very much aware of the significance of his circumstance. Having repeatedly—three times—announced that he found no case against Jesus, Pilate is told that Jesus must die according to Jewish law, because “he has claimed to be the Son of God.” (John 19:7) The following paragraph reads, “Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever.” (John 19:8) The text thus clearly indicates that Pilate understood and was disturbed by the situation facing him.

We have noted the reason that Pilate felt compelled to go along with the accusers: the charge that Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews. And we have seen how Jesus responded to the charge, saying that “My kingdom is not of this world,” thereby indicating that his kingship did not constitute a challenge to Rome’s authority. (John 18:36) It was at this juncture that we noted the clear responsibility of a person seeking jurisprudence in the case against Jesus: to determine whether the accusers could rebut Jesus’ statement. Pilate’s famous question followed instead, albeit with the clear justification noted.

How do these considerations affect the possibility that Pilate was struggling with the truth that Jesus referred to at the very moment that he asked his famous question? Reducing the situation that Pilate faced to its barest possible expression, he proclaimed Jesus to be innocent but had to endanger himself to set him free; thus, self-interest and justice were opposed in his mind. And he appears to have understood this very well by the fact that he tried to avoid the bind in several ways. 1. He tried to reject the case: “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” (John 18:31) 2. At least two, and the text seems to indicate several times more, he tried to get the accusers to accept that he found no case against Jesus. (John 18:38, 19:4, and 19:12) 3. He reminded the accusers of the custom of releasing a prisoner for the Passover and tried to get them to agree to have it be Jesus who was released. (John 18:39, 40) And 4. He tried reasoning with Jesus, saying, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (John 19:10) But Jesus gave Pilate no help out of the bind, and the accusers reiterated its source: “If you release this man you are no friend of the emperor.” (John 19:12)

Thus Pilate was forced to choose between sentencing an innocent man to death and calling his allegiance to Rome into question, thereby endangering his position as its procurator. Pilate could not bring himself to do the right thing morally and legally at the cost of putting his position in danger. When he weighed his self-interest against saving an innocent man’s life, the innocent man’s life was forfeited. To anyone with a conscience, its voice would be speaking loudly indeed in such a circumstance! In fact, all indications from the text are that Pilate’s conscience was shouting. But Pilate did not listen to the voice of conscience, and that at the very time that Jesus told him that he had come into the world to bear witness to the truth and that those who are of the truth listen to his voice. What do we make of that? Can Jesus’ voice be understood to be the voice of conscience, thus reversing our judgment that he did not speak in reply to Pilate’s question?

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4 thoughts on “Into the World--Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience”

  1. Hi Tracy,

    First, despite being critical (but I hope not overly so), I want to make sure you know I appreciate the effort you've put into this and your willingness to entertain questions. Seriously, I've read a modest number of conservative theology blogs and it is a jungle of pure dogma out there.

    "That is the overriding situation in Pilate's mind, unless he was a very stupid or a very evil man..." He could have been both, he was a politician after all. More literally, even though he decided that Jesus was innocent of any crime, he still scourged Jesus and allowed the soldiers to abuse him before surrendering to the demands of the chief priests.

    A different way to read the narrative indicates that Pilate was initially annoyed with the Jewish priests for bringing this case before him, but the dialogue with Jesus did not provide the straightforward answers he expected so he also became annoyed with Jesus. In John 18:33-34, Jesus answers Pilate's question with a different question. Jesus then says that His kingdom is not of this world, implying no political threat as you pointed out in the post. However, Pilate sharply asks if Jesus is a king in any sense at all, because worldly ambitions aside, pronouncing himself a king would create divisions and conflicting loyalties among the Jewish population, a population that Pilate clearly had a difficult relationship with. Jesus gives an obscure reply to that pointed question before declaring His purpose to bear witness to the truth. Unsure of what degree of unrest Jesus might cause and probably exasperated by the vagueness of the answers already given, Pilate asks his famous question.

  2. Hi Step2,

    Thanks for the laugh with the comment about Pilate being a politician. And your point about the scourging and abuse that he allowed prior to giving into the demands of the chief priests is well taken as an indication of Pilate's willingness to stoop as low as needed to placate his political rivals.

    Nevertheless, Pilate is clearly portrayed as a savvy political operator, making all the moves at his disposal and knowing all the while that his efforts to appease the chief priests--including the scourging and abuse and, finally, condemnation--cannot change the fact that they can simply reject his efforts and press their point with Rome.

    Thus Pilate is not depicted as stupid by any fair interpretation of the text, and he would have to be portrayed as evil to the point of complete disregard for conscience to overthrow my interpretation that "To anyone with a conscience, its voice would have been shouting."

    To imagine a person being manipulated into condemning a innocent person to death and not feeling the moral gravity of their position requires an extreme portrait of that person. And not only is Pilate not portrayed that way, he is depicted as being afraid to make the choice that should quell his fear, if he had no conscience.

    That said, in the second chapter--and I would be surprised if anyone remembers this--I conceded that Nietzsche's interpretation might be correct (that Pilate "scorned" Jesus and his "impudent" truth claim). Your "different way to read the narrative" is basically Nietzsche's way--as is Jim's (in the comments to Chapter Two).

    But that Nietzsche's view might be correct is entirely separate from saying that Pilate would have taken condemning an innocent man to death lightly. So it is not a telling point with respect to my argument in this chapter.

    To rephrase my point, Pilate is depicted as neither a dupe nor a psychopath (nor in any other exculpatory way), while on the contrary he is depicted as engaged in trying to free himself from his metaprudential bind.

    I stand by my claim that "All indications from the text are that Pilate's conscience was shouting."
    Still, your points that Pilate was compromised, to say the least, and that the text can be viewed with a Nietzschian lens are both correct.

    I am delighted to have such a close reader to exchange thoughts with!


  3. Hi Tracy,

    I have been enjoying this exchange as well.

    "But that Nietzsche's view might be correct is entirely separate from saying that Pilate would have taken condemning an innocent man to death lightly." Fair enough. Although I think it is relevant to mention that Nietzsche, generally speaking, held the same sort of haughty, imperialist viewpoint that a Roman Governor would have of his foreign subjects. Nietzsche held a rather hierarchal and cruel view of social order. I don't want to say that Pilate had no pangs of conscience at all, only that these concerns were muted by the importance of maintaining his uneasy truce with the priests. In Matthew, Pilate goes so far as to wash his hands of the whole affair to ease his guilt. The part I find troubling is that the voice of Jesus was not helping him out of the predicament directly, only providing enigmatic hints. Granted that doubt is one element of faith, faith should also be more than grasping at shadows.

    A secondary and perhaps tangential issue, the only place where Pilate is described as afraid is right after John 19:7. In my Bible, the wording is, "We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God." In that time period, when pharaohs and emperors were related to, interacted with, and ascended to godhood, this was a powerful accusation. It would have given Pilate plenty of reason to doubt that Jesus would be harmless to Rome's rulership.

  4. Hi Step2,

    I seem to recall that scholars doubted whether there was an actual Pilate till an inscription bearing his name was found in some rubble on the Mediterranean coast--I think at Caesarea. Musings about his conscience and thought processes based on the available historical data doesn't strike me as a productive way to move forward.

    I favor coming to terms with the text's meaning and seeing where that takes us. The next post constructs a hypothesis based on my interpretation of the text.


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