“And Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’ After this he went out again to the Jews and said to them, ‘I find no grounds for a charge in him.’”
Pilate’s iconic statement, “What is Truth?” is one that not only sets the context of his Roman culture, but speaks across the generations into the world in which we live today. The two dominant philosophical world views of the ancient Roman culture are that of Stoicism and Nominalism. Stoicism is the view that we are really more or less pawns in a much larger game where the gods and the fates control our lives. It is a view that we have limited freedom, but ultimately what is to come to pass will come to pass so there is no reason to get too excited or upset about the events of your life. In this perspective any form of transcendent truth is shadowed and unknowable, held in the hands of fate.
Nominalism follows very naturally with the Stoic view. This is the perspective that there are no such things as absolutes. In ancient times, Plato and Aristotle had argued for the existence of absolute and perfect “forms” that are the basis for all representations we experience on earth. Thus, we may draw a circle on a blackboard, but the circle is not a perfect one — instead it is a representation of the “perfect circle” that exists as a form — or we might say as a definition. The same idea can be applied to trees, dogs, ideas, etc… For Plato, those forms existed in a transcendental, spiritual world. For Aristotle, those forms existed within the thing itself. Either way, forms existed. But as we moved into the rise of Roman thought over Greek thought, the idea of forms was discarded and people held that these forms were simply names (hence nominalism) given to such things. There was no such thing, for example, as an absolute circle from which all circles get their meaning. Instead, circle was just the name we give to things falling within a certain class of entities. And thus, any concept of an absolute Truth was abandoned.
It should be easy to see Pilate’s displeasure at Jesus’ statement that he came to testify to the Truth. “What truth?” “Truth is just a name we give to ideas we prefer.” “If there is such a thing as absolute truth, it is unknowable, so why bother searching for it or listening to it?” One can almost hear the dismissal in Pilate’s tone when he finally responds: “What is truth?” This is not a question seeking an answer, it is a remark of a frustrated governor who is weary of the prospect of rebellious messiah figures, political maneuvering by the Priests, and what he would consider the superstitions of the people. He simply returns to the Jews and essentially says, “Look folks, you haven’t given me any basis on which I can charge him.”
Stoicism and Nominalism have more or less passed out of vogue, but today’s post-modern culture, while rejecting fatalism almost entirely, has embraced a rejection of absolutes. In our culture truth is no longer seen as transcendent and as a result it finds its meaning in the self-definition of every person. This is not an entirely new idea, a contemporary of Plato was a man named Protagorus, sometimes seen as the first humanist, who is best known for his phrase, “man is the measure of all things.” Plato easily demonstrated the foolishness of such a thought, for who is the measure of man? Nevertheless, the words of Pilate are much the same of many in the western world today — what is truth?
The answer to the question is that truth is contained in the mind of God and that we can know truth by his self-revelation (Jesus came to testify to the Truth — the ultimate self-revelation of God!). We find that self-revelation contained in the Bible and contained in the universe around us that testifies to the glory of God (so long as we look at the universe through the lens of scripture). Loved ones, there is Truth and it is accessible to us — Jesus made it so. What is Truth? Look to Christ.