Holy Friday: What is Truth?

Who did this to Jesus? Who crucified him? Why was he crucified? What is truth?
It was not so easy to kill Jesus. This is in great part because it was not so easy to determine the truth about him. After all – as the perplexed Roman governor Pontius Pilate will rhetorically ask Jesus today – “What is truth?”

Jesus has been arrested, according to John, by “a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees,” all carrying “torches, lanterns and weapons.” It is barely past daybreak.

They tie Jesus up and, again according to John, haul him before Annas, an influential High Priest, appointee of the Roman legate Quirinius. 

Jesus is interrogated; he has no Atticus Finch.

“I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus says. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”

An official strikes Jesus in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?”

“If I said something wrong,” Jesus defended himself, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”

Jesus receives no reply. Annas, fed up, dispatches Jesus, still bound, to his son-in-law, Caiaphas, who presides over the Sanhedrin, Jerusalem’s highest court of justice.

Together, Annas, Caiaphas, and Annas’ five sons, also high priests, make up one of the most powerful families in Judea. When Jesus excoriates Jerusalem’s economic, political, and religious elite, political cliques like this have been in his cross-hairs – and they know it, and they are furious about it.

Never mind their wounded egos, they had political concerns. As Roman clients, men like Annas and Caiaphas were trying to put down armed, insurgent movements throughout Judea and its surrounding regions, “Zealots,” that were trying to throw Rome out of Israel. It is true that Jesus was from Galilee, hotbed of Zealot organizing and agitation. It is also true that one of his twelve apostles, Simon, counted himself a Zealot. But it does not seem to be true, if we are to be precise, that Jesus was himself a Zealot. He had not been openly calling for revolt against Rome, and had never picked up the sword.

But that is not to say Annas and Caiaphas’ worries were misplaced. Jesus had been doing something potentially even more subversive: he had been showing common people a different mode of existence, teaching them how to live peacefully with one another, healing them, unburdening them of their anguish, calling for unity across ethnic difference, refusing to honor the caste-like class system, exposing the hypocrisy and greed of the sitting powers, modeling courage in standing up against them – and then allowing people to arrive at their own conclusions. He had not been telling; he had been showing.

So Annas and Caiaphas had good reason to view Jesus as a threat – there were perhaps even better reasons to worry about Jesus than the Zealots, who were arguably hobbled by their narrow, frequently splintering sects and unpopular violent tactics. Moreover, this peace-loving Jesus, unlike a Zealot, would be harder to indict, harder to stop.

It would not be so easy to kill Jesus, because it would not be so easy to establish the truth of who he was.

For even the most obvious potential charge, blasphemy, there was really not adequate evidence. Clearly this redneck Galilean was uppity. He acted equal to high priests, acted as though he had some unique authority with which to pass judgment on them, worked on Sundays, didn’t wash in the proper way, violated dietary rules. But Jesus had not, in fact, been traveling around Israel, flanked by trumpets and banners, pronouncing himself King of the Jews and God’s own Son in the very flesh. Throughout his ministry, he had been cagey about his spiritual identity. Others speculated. His disciples hailed him as the Son of God, and he would answer them. He spoke of a uniquely intimate relationship to his “Father.”

But the Sanhedrin does not have the smoking gun. They cannot find evidence of Jesus claiming, “I am God.”

So they try to build a circumstantial case. Witnesses are called. They bear false testimony. They recount Jesus’ utterances without understanding. Jesus – perhaps because he is chastened from his earlier blow, or because he knows that none of this actually indicts him, or because he is reconciled to his fate, or because he is angry – is silent.

Caiaphus bellows, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?”

Jesus just stands there, mute.

But then Caiaphus has an idea, a curve ball. 

Eyes narrowing, lips tightening, Caiaphus hisses at Jesus. “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

One cannot overstate the gravity of this moment.

Right now, Jesus is clear of evidence. They are throwing the book at him, but it’s not sticking. He can still be a free man. He can lay it all down.

He can say “no.”

But Caiaphus has charged him, by God, under oath. And the truth is that over the course of his life, perhaps reluctantly, Jesus has come to understand his mission, his Nature, in ever more profound ways. He is in the material world, he is serving it, and he is affirming the stakes of what we do on this little planet: “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” But Jesus also senses there is a beyond. God has “set eternity in the human heart.” Jesus knows the Torah’s prophecies; knows his own story; knows his own being. He knows what he believes to be true: that he is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ.

So if he answers “no,” that will be a lie, a denial of something basic and essential to his innermost spirit. “I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.”

But if he answers “yes” – how can he prove he is the Son of God? How can he prove as a legal truth, in this courtroom, his Nature? He has already addressed this with the Pharisees, back in Mark chapter eight, when they ask him for a sign from heaven: Jesus “sighing deeply,” replies, “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.”  

What is truth?

Does Jesus accept his inability to positively prove himself, as proof itself that he is, what, out of his mind? Does he turn his back on his Self, his inner knowing, and so save his body?

Or does he give the honest answer that wells up within him, his bittersweet truth, to which he has submitted his whole blessed life, which has been directing his loving steps up to this very moment?

Jesus is a man, and he is faced with a choice. He does not have to say yes. He does not have to take this path. 

But he does. He takes the cup. “Yes, it is as you say.”

You can almost hear the creak and crash of a heavy iron prison door shutting, locking. Jesus has handed his enemies their evidence.

Caiaphas is beside himself, tearing his clothes in indignation. See! “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?”

The whole Sanhedrin was in agreement: “He is worthy of death.”

Guards take Jesus away. They blindfold him, slap him, spit on him, punch him, mockingly calling, “Prophesy to us, Christ! Who hit you?’”

Since it was Passover, the Sanhedrin could not execute Jesus itself. It needed the help of the secular state. So they drag Jesus to the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. In order “to avoid ceremonial uncleanness,” Jesus’ prosecutors do not themselves enter the Roman palace; that would have sullied them, and “they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.” It is a common pattern: outsourcing dirty work.

Pilate comes out to the meet the commotion and asks, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” 

Jesus’ prosecutors must proceed carefully. The Romans do not care a whit about blasphemy, a religious crime. But they do care about sedition. And so the high priests and elders say: “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, the Messiah, a king.” 

Indeed, if Jesus had been going around proclaiming himself a Jewish king, here to restore David’s line, asserting sovereignty over Roman territory, raising an army, exacting tribute from subjects – that would be a Roman capital crime. But of course Jesus had not been doing these things. At least, not exactly.

But what is truth?

The Sanhedrin insists, urgently, “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.”

Pilate listens. Jesus stands there, silent, bound, bruised. “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” Pilate asks. No answer.

Pilate is a busy man. What is the truth of this situation, of this man Jesus? It is not clear. But Pilate would prefer not exhaust time sorting out the mess, which he suspects, as any reasonable colonial administrator would, is some kind of irrelevant internal feud among his over-excitable natives.

“Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”

Jesus’ accusers clear their throats and shift their feet. “But we have no right to execute anyone.”

Ah ha. Imagine Pilate staring skeptically as this group. They do not want a trial. They want summary judgment, today. What has this Jesus done to them? Pilate is intrigued.

He summons Jesus into the palace, and asks directly: “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus responds, elusively, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replies, exasperated. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus is silent. In truth, what has he done? He has served the people. He has infuriated the self-satisfied rich.  

“Are you king of the Jews?” Pilate repeats.

Again, where is the evidence of Jesus ever making any such claim? He is before the most powerful man in Judea, a man who seems to some degree even sympathetic to him, who could free him immediately, and Jesus could say, and it would not exactly be a lie, that no, he has never claimed to be a king.

But what is truth?

“Yes,” replies Jesus. “It is as you say.” But “my kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest… But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king then!” Pilate exclaims.

Again, Jesus concurs. “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” 

Pilate snorts, or maybe he shakes his head ruefully, in the manner of those who have spent their lifetimes negotiating the legitimately vexing contradictions of vast power.

“What is truth?”

It is a wonderful question. What is truth? Jesus says nothing. He has already been answering this question, throughout all of Israel.

“I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the offering box than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth, but she, out of her poverty, put in everything.”

“I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God” ahead of the self-righteous elite.

“I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.”

“I tell you the truth, just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.”

“I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

 “I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you.”

“I tell you the truth, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you.”

“I tell you the truth…no one who has left home or wife or bothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”

“I tell you the truth: In the age when all things are renewed, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones…”

It’s a hard question, “what is truth?” Yet Jesus had a way of making it seem simple. And when we manage to imitate his motions for any duration of time, the validity of these precepts starts to feel self-evident.  

Pilate has Jesus’ confession. Yet he remains unconvinced. From talking with Jesus, who seems to be a kind and non-threatening person, he has come to suspect that it is likely “out of envy” that the high priests and elders are seeking his execution. What’s more, Pilate’s wife has rushed in, distraught from a dream, begging her husband to have “nothing to do with that innocent man,” Jesus.

And so Pilate returns to the gathered chief priests, elders, and others. “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him… and have found no basis for your charges against him.” Pilate had even consulted with the Roman tetrarch Herod Antipas; neither had Antipas found anything “to deserve death.”

The chief priests and elders are furious, and by now, a large and curious crowd had gathered outside the palace. Pilate had not expected this push back; the situation feels volatile. Pilate offers to the crowd, hopefully, “It is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” The crowd hums. Just days ago, the people of Jerusalem were welcoming Jesus with palm fronds, sitting at his feet as he taught from his occupied Temple. Surely they will take the chance to rescue him?

But the chief priests and the elders set to work, like a 1st century Twitter offensive. Whispers ricochet, faster and faster, throughout the crowd. “Troublemaker.” “Blasphemer.” “Heretic.” “Apostate.” “Godless.” “Corrupt.” “Degenerate.” “Criminal.” “Traitor.” “Evil.” “Barbaric.” “Terrorist.” “Tyrant.” “Dictator.”

Tweeted by Blue Checks, re-tweeted by mobs, quoted in articles, read by a guileless public.

What is truth?

It works. The chief priests and elders incite a manic frenzy, and “persuade” the people assembled to instead call for a man named Barabbas who “was in prison with the insurrectionists” for having “committed murder” in an “uprising.”

Pilate is shocked. Barabbas? Barabbas was “notorious.” They want him? “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?”

The crowd calls back, “Crucify him!”

“Why? What crime has he committed?” asks Pilate, astonished.

“But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’” and threatened, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar!”

So, Pilate asks once more, “Shall I crucify your King?”

“We have no king but Caesar!”

Matthew writes, “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’”

And “all the people,” in hysteria’s grip, “answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’”

And so Pilate’s soldiers took Jesus away, stripped him, dressed him up as a mock king: they put a scarlet robe on him; twisted together a crown of thorns, shoved it on his head; gave him a staff. They knelt before him, laughing, bonding through violence in that special way men do, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They took his staff and struck his head again and again. They stripped and flogged him. And after all this, according to John, they gave Jesus his cross, and marched him to the place of the Skull, Golgotha.

Here they crucified him, a brutal punishment reserved for very few crimes in Rome, including, pertinently, sedition against the Empire. It involves pinning a person to vertical t-shaped wooden beams with either nails or ropes, and leaving them there until they suffocate or expire of exhaustion, which could take days. Jesus would last six hours. It was brutal. We are told even God had to turn his face away.

Who did this to Jesus? Who crucified him? Why was he crucified? What is truth?

Was it these brutish soldiers who killed Jesus, because they were under orders? Or was it the soldiers who killed Jesus because they loved, really cherished, their state-sanctioned power to violate and murder?

Was it Rome that killed Jesus, because he claimed to be king of the Jews and so threatened Caesar’s power? Or was it Rome that killed Jesus because he was a dissident fallen out of popular favor, inconveniently sowing discord between the classes in one of Rome’s important colonies?

Was it the Sanhedrin that killed Jesus, because he committed blasphemy in their courtroom, claiming to be the Son of God? Or was it the Sanhedrin that killed Jesus because he had stormed their Temple, excoriated their exploitative practices, punctured their inflated pride, threatened their power over people’s minds?  

Was it the people who killed Jesus, because wicked forces manipulated us? Or was it the people who killed Jesus because we can’t be bothered to pay attention, hear all the evidence, ask questions, and step away from the crowd to think for ourselves? Because we actually love turning our wills over to cold-hearted men whose authority gives us moral cover to engage in mindless thrills of thanatonic destruction?

Or was it God himself who killed Jesus, because it had been prophesied? Or was it God who killed Jesus because God knew an innocent man tortured to death on a cross would grab and hold our gnat-like attention long enough that some of us would turn and look back at the life that led him there, listen to his words, and maybe find the path to eternal life? Or was it God who killed Jesus because God demanded the death of a final perfect lamb, Jesus, a final blood sacrifice so as to forgive all the sins of the world?  

What is truth?

Every Gospel reports that Pilate had this notice prepared and hung above Jesus’ cross: “This is Jesus, King of the Jews.” The Sanhedrin fumed. Why couldn’t Pilate have written, “This is Jesus, Who Claimed to be King of the Jews.” Pilate, exhausted, retorted: “I have written what I have written.”

“This is Jesus, King of the Jews.” This was the official title under which Jesus labored toward death, and finally surrendered his Spirit. The Messiah. The Christ. “The Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise.” The truth of Jesus’ being, manifested, in a bitter, poetic twist, by the Empire itself.

Marcie Smith is a lawyer teaching in the department of economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She has a JD from the University of North Carolina School of Law. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin Magazine and at nonsite.org.


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