Who is the hero of the New Testament?
In his vituperative 1895 volume, The Antichrist, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche gave one answer:
Do I still need to say that in the whole of the New Testament there is only one honorable figure? Pilate, the Roman governor. To take Jewish affairs seriously–he could not convince himself to do this. One Jew more or less–what does it matter?… The noble scorn of a Roman when faced with an unashamed mangling of the word ‘truth’ gave the New Testament its only statement of any value–its critique, even its annihilation: ‘What is truth?’1
As a foil to the hero-figure of Christ, Nietzsche offers us a secular antihero: Pontius Pilate. Nietzsche’s Pilate is proud and disdainful. He couldn’t care less about the petty religious disputes of his subjects. He condescends to the request for a crucifixion with disinterest, even scorn. When the Jewish troublemaker brought before him denies accusations of political subversion, declaring instead that he “…came into the world to testify to the truth,” Pilate responds like a true sophisticate, calling into question the very notion of truth.2 This Socratic gesture is supposedly a “critique, even [the] annihilation” of the momentousness of Christ’s trial and death. Here, for Nietzsche, all of the prior claims in the gospel regarding “truth” dissolve into aporia.
Nietzsche’s interpretation of Pilate stands in stark contrast with the standard Christian depiction of the Roman governor as a cowardly figure, a hesitant politician who succumbs to the crowd’s demands for crucifixion. In Nietzsche’s hands, Pilate is critical and haughty, complex and ambiguous. He is firmly a man of the world, a cynical nihilist who counters the lofty words of Christ with the grim reality of moral uncertainty. According to Mark Bauerlein, in his essay “Nietzsche’s Pilate,” he embodies a version of the “modern liberal,” one who denies the existence of a firm foundation for truth or goodness–one for whom, as Marx once famously wrote, everything that is sacred becomes profaned, and everything that is solid melts into air.3
Nietzsche is certainly right in noting the significance—and uniqueness—of Pilate’s question. Its inclusion in the gospel of John, the most philosophically inclined of the gospels, is clearly meant to point out something of theological importance. It seems unlikely, however, that its import derives from being a philosophical critique. If it were a critique, it would be a rather vacuous one since Pilate leaves his own philosophical position unsubstantiated. Additionally, as Bauerlein points out, John would not have included the question if it truly posed a disastrous problem for the gospel narrative. The verse’s significance, rather, is intimately tied with the unfolding story of human salvation.
To see why, the matter of truth has to be understood in the context of the gospel of John. In John 18, Jesus tells Pilate that he came to be a witness to the truth, to which Pilate responds with his infamous question, “What is truth?”. Then Jesus falls silent, prompting Pilate to demand, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”4 Ostensibly, the statement refers to Pilate’s political authority to release Christ or to kill him. However, in light of the discussion of truth, Pilate’s words harken back to another verse in John, when Jesus told his disciples “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”5
Thus, it is not Pilate who has the power to free, but the truth, a fact that Jesus was clearly alluding to when he brought up the notion of truth before the Roman governor. However, Christ’s conception of freedom is very different from Pilate’s, or, for that matter, our own. After all, Christ claims to testify to the truth, the source of freedom, while bound in chains and utterly powerless to stop his own execution. What Christ is pointing to is a spiritual reality that transcends his present fetters. That reality is unveiled four chapters earlier in John 14:6, when Jesus declares “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Christ is not merely the witness to the truth; he is the truth. There is, indeed, an answer to Pilate’s question, and it was standing before him the entire time.
In a figurative sense, the whole scene is allegorical of the way in which God works his salvation in our lives. Christ’s answer was already present before Pilate’s question. In the same way, God’s grace was present before we ever asked for it. His love was there before we ever desired it, and our salvation was met before we ever recognized a need for it. The trouble for the Christian is that, like Pilate, the truth often remains invisible to us, even when it is standing right before our eyes.
The Apostle Paul discusses this in relation to sin in his epistle to the Romans. He writes, “Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do…you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children.”6 Paul tells us that we live as if we were obligated to our fallen nature, even though Christ has already broken our chains. It is our recognition of the truth—that we have been given liberty in Christ—that sets us free at last.
For Nietzsche, and perhaps for Pilate, the question of truth was a metaphysical one. Truth was an idea that was “out there,” so to speak, in the nebulous realm of Platonic ideals or the sleek unwinding of the elenchus. But the truth is all around us, if only we open our eyes to see it. The truth is even within us, if it is given to us by the Father. The truth died and rose for us, so that we might live again in spirit and in truth. And though truth now lies behind a veil, obscured by the world and dimmed by the cloud of human brokenness, it reaches out to us, beckoning us to Himself.
Daniel Shin ’22 is joint Philosophy and Math concentrator in Quincy House.
|↑1||Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, et al. The Antichrist of Nietzsche: a New Version in English. The Fanfrolico Press, 1928, 135.|
|↑2||See John 18:38.|
|↑3||Bauerlein, Mark. “Nietzsche’s Pilate: Mark Bauerlein.” First Things, 1 Aug. 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2019/08/nietzsches-pilate.|