“WHAT I have written, I have written.” These can be words for anyone. We may not speak the whole truth, or nothing but the truth, but we can declare a little piece of the Truth. That was Pilate’s sop to his conscience while upholding his lawful duty. His words give strength on Good Friday to everyone who knows that they are inadequate, but must still do their best, find the words, and point the way. Our own take on the Passion may be partial, yet still have value.
The mystery of Christ’s Passion gives rise to some complicated theologies. Hebrews 4.15 says that Jesus “sympathises” (“suffers together with”) us, but one thing separates us from him: the fact that he is without sin (NRSV), or — better — “apart from sin”.
That distinction may seem pernickety, but in a good cause. If we take “sin” here as a verbal action, the verse means that he was tested but committed no sin. But if we remember that it is a noun, then he was tested, but was separate — apart — from sin. One locates his sinlessness in his essential self, his being; the other locates it in his volition, his will. Hebrews says that Christ was tested like us, but sin had no part in him: a matter of ontology or reality, not choice.
One person’s pernickety is another’s illuminating. Look at the littlest words in Isaiah 53.5: there is a great deal riding on the meaning of “for” [our transgressions] and “by” [his bruises]. Those little words are signalling causes — asking whether we caused the suffering of the servant, and, ultimately, of Christ.
Not every cause is a mechanical function (“cause and effect”). Sometimes, we see as causes things which are really correlations. Then, just when we have neatly sidestepped the problem, we get to Isaiah 53.10. There is no minimising that example of causation as a matter of God’s will. Perhaps we are so distant from the blood-sacrifices of ancient religion that the concepts of vicarious suffering and substitution lie for ever beyond our understanding.
John uses great subtlety with the words he records Jesus as speaking — greater subtlety, often, than those who read them. There was a time for Jesus to say nothing, mute as a slaughtered lamb (Isaiah 53.7). But now the silence crumbles. It is the turn of kings to shut their mouths in the presence of one immeasurably greater than themselves (Isaiah 52.15), as Jesus declares to those with ears to hear and hearts to understand the full truth of what is unfolding through his Passion.
The message is set out for those who believe, though it is opaque to those who do not. It is fully revealed in Jesus’s words at his arrest. These are repeated three (no detail in John is incidental) times to make sure that we don’t miss them (18.5-8): “I am”. Here is the culmination of the seven “I am” sayings earlier in the Gospel. Exodus 3.13-18 is sounding in our ears.
I AM is the ineffable name of the LORD, the key to God’s very self. And I AM is who Jesus is. Working out the how and why can wait for another day; indeed, it will take centuries. In this human-divine person of Jesus, people knew that they had found Truth; and for Good Friday that is enough.
When the story is so saturated with significance, perhaps small details are the safest things for any one commentator to focus on. I take comfort from, as well as interest in, the fact that Pilate wrote a titlos (“title/notice”) in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. This is a Latin word (titulus) transliterated into Greek letters. Was it Pilate’s reproach to the spiteful religious authorities? No; but it was one of the many things the Romans did for us. Enthusiastic record-keepers, they prepared the ground for the beginnings of a culture of accountability. Knowledge, in the form of information, is power. And, even if he didn’t feel like it, Pilate was a powerful man.
Pilate asks, “What is truth?” as if inviting a civilised philosophical discussion. We found the answer when first we learned John 14.6 and 15.1. If we do not recognise the Truth standing before us, he will be the stone we stumble over. If we do, he will build us, as living stones, into a spiritual house, God’s own people (1 Peter 2.6, 8-9).