Skip to content

Truth and Power in the Fourth Gospel


This paper was written by Kendra Haloviak Valentine and presented at the Society of Adventist Philosophers (SAP) Annual Conference on November 21, 2019 in San Diego, California. The Conference theme was “Truth Matters.” The paper is reprinted here with permission from the author.


In the “call for papers” for this conference, organizers described Pilate’s question to Jesus — “What is truth?” — as a cynical question. There’s textual evidence to support that reading. After all, Pilate does not stay around for an answer once he’s expressed the question. But is the author of the Fourth Gospel suggesting something more by its inclusion at this point in the narrative? How are careful hearers and readers of this gospel supposed to answer? The first part of this paper argues that a narrative reading of Jesus’ trial before Pilate helps readers understand the Fourth Gospel’s understanding of truth, even as Pilate cynically uses the trial to strengthen his power over the Jewish elite.

The second part of this paper will briefly consider the question in the context of contemporary readers and their interpretations. “What is truth?” means something very different in our postmodern contexts than in a first century narrative. In this new time and place, how might the idea of testimony — a word repeated throughout the Fourth Gospel — help contemporary readers interpret the truth on trial before Pilate?

The paper will then make one more shift, placing the trial of Jesus within a cosmic context. What textual clues suggest a context far beyond a trial in Pontius Pilate’s court — even a praetorium as impressive as the one at Herod’s palace? By being sensitive to echoes from Isaiah, how does the Fourth Gospel’s trial of Jesus turn into a cosmic trial of God?

Truth in the Fourth Gospel: ἀλήθεια v. power

One of the most striking features of the Fourth Gospel’s trial of Jesus before Pilate is Pilate’s movement between the praetorium where Jesus was brought the morning after his arrest, and the area outside the praetorium where the Jews insist on remaining in order “to avoid ritual defilement” so that they will be able “to eat the Passover” (18:28). Seven times Pilate moves between the two locations, giving the impression that he is being manipulated — even made to look the fool.1 Rather than servants and subjects moving to accommodate him, Pilate shuffles back and forth.

To consider Pilate’s movement and his question “What is truth?” as an investigative, fact-finding judicial inquiry in the midst of a first century trial scene is anachronistic. Although Roman trials would usually include an arrest, charges, examination, verdict and sentencing, such a process typically occurred when the accused and accuser were social equals and the focus of the trial was to protect one’s reputation and to dishonor one’s opponent. However, since the guilt of an accused person of socially inferior status was normally assumed, the procurator would be sought only to determine punishment.2 Thus, the Jews say to Pilate: “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you” (18:30). They do not ask for a trial to establish guilt, they ask for the death penalty (18:31). Given this cultural background, it is interesting that Pilate not only proceeds with an assumed trial of equals — demanding charges, performing an examination, giving a verdict and a sentence — but he will actually go through this process twice.3 This repetition gives readers the impression that a search for truth might actually be going on here.

However, Pilate’s actions are better understood as using this opportunity to reduce the power of the Jewish elite and reinforce his own power in Jerusalem.4 Over and over Pilate will refer to Jesus as the “king of the Jews” (18:33, 37, 39; 19:14, 15, 19, 21-22), a phrase that would infuriate the Jewish elite who knew such a claim provoked Rome and threatened their privileged social status. After Pilate’s soldiers dress Jesus in kingly attire, Pilate keeps Jesus in this attire for the rest of the trial. In this gospel, “Jesus goes to the cross dressed as a king.”5 Pilate “proceeds to use Jesus to make a ridiculous example of Jewish nationalism.”6 And Pilate succeeds in breaking them. After so many provocations, the Jews proclaim: “We have no king but the emperor!” (19:15).7 Accepting Caesar’s kingship, they have — in the view of the Fourth Gospel — also accepted his claims to divinity. They are thus exposed as those who have committed blasphemy.8

Yet, even with his power to manipulate the trial proceedings and Roman subjects, Pilate cannot control what is revealed in Jesus. In what seems to be a key moment for the trial, as well as for the entire narrative, Jesus proclaims: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (18:37).9 Careful listeners recall the earlier eighteen chapters — how Jesus’ signs and discourses and repetition of his “hour” all anticipated this moment of truth. While the meaning of the Greek word ἀλήθεια and its Hebrew equivalent (emet) are debated, the abundant use of ἀλήθεια in the Fourth Gospel seems to connote truth as “truth telling” often in contrast with deception or falsifying.10 The repeated use of the verbal form “testify/witness” or its noun form “testimony/witness” underscores the importance of truth telling.11 In this gospel, ἀλήθεια is not only associated with “grace” (1:14, 17), but also with “light” (3:21), and “spirit” (4:23, 24). It is what John the Baptist testified to (5:33), and it is what makes one free (8:32). The truth is what Jesus heard from God (8:40), and what the devil avoids because he has not a bit of it within him (8:44). The truth is what Jesus speaks (8:45) even when he is not believed (8:46). The first time we hear the noun ἀλήθεια in the passion narrative, Jesus proclaims that he is the truth (14:6)! And that he will give his disciples the spirit of truth (14:17; 15:26; 16:7, 13). He then prays that God will sanctify them in the truth (17:17, 19).

The Fourth Gospel’s rich understanding of ἀλήθεια informs its repeated use by Jesus before Pilate: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the ἀλήθεια. Everyone who is of the ἀλήθεια hears my voice” (18:37). But Pilate is not listening carefully to Jesus’ voice, giving himself away as being outside of the truth when he asks: “What is ἀλήθεια?” and walks away (19:38).12 Hearers are left wondering if Pilate had stayed, would Jesus have repeated words from earlier in the gospel narrative: “I am the way, the ἀλήθεια and the life” (14:6)?

When Jewish voices shout: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (19:6), hearers recall the poetry of the prologue: the true light came into the world (1:9), though he created the world, it did not know him (1:10), and even his own rejected him (1:11). Pilate — the most powerful person among the Jews’ Roman colonizers — further reinforces his power as he diminishes that of the Jewish elite and the popular teacher they have brought to his court. Pilate flogs Jesus and later turns him over to be crucified even though Pilate repeatedly admits: “I find no case against him” (18:38; 19:4, 6). When power is the most important value, ἀλήθεια and the pursuit of ἀλήθεια do not matter. Pilate exercises his power as the Roman procurator of Jerusalem and crucifies the ἀλήθεια on a cross.

Truth in the Postmodern World: truths v. power

The above is one narrative reading of Jesus’ trial found at the end of the Fourth Gospel. Other possible approaches to the story yield additional interpretations. For example, a feminist reading might notice the absence of women, including Pilate’s wife, who is part of the scene in Matthew’s account. A postcolonial reading might further explore the complex social relationships between the Roman colonizers, the colonized people with some power (the Jewish elite), bandits like Barabbas, and Jesus from the Galilee region. A black liberationist reading might consider Jesus’ trial before Pilate in light of the current criminal (in)justice system and mass incarceration of ethnic minorities in contemporary America. The questions and concerns brought to the passage by people in various reading locations multiply meanings and in so doing, multiply possible responses to Pilate’s question: “What is truth?”

In Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon, Macon, an illiterate, recently freed slave prepares to name his newborn daughter by moving his finger over the shapes of words in the Bible. When he comes upon a word, “a group of letters that seemed to him strong,” he carefully copies the letters onto a piece of paper, and then gives the paper to the midwife. “That’s the baby’s name,” he says to her, then asks her to say it out loud so that he could hear the name he had chosen for his daughter.

“You can’t name the baby this.”

“Say it.”

“It’s a man’s name.”

“Say it.”



“Pilate. You wrote down Pilate.”

“Like a riverboat pilot?”

“No. Not like no riverboat pilot. Like a Christ-killing Pilate. You can’t get much worse than that for a name. And a baby girl at that.”

“That’s where my finger went down at.”

“Well, your brain ain’t got to follow it. You don’t want to give this motherless child the name of the man that killed Jesus, do you?”

“I asked Jesus to save me my wife.”

“Careful, Macon.”

“I asked him all night long.”

“He give you your baby.”

“Yes. He did. Baby name Pilate.”13

Morrison’s depiction of a baby girl named Pilate complicates and enriches the scene of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. For example, readers might notice the ways Morrison’s Pilate “crucifies” the Jesus of white slave holders, even as her life story wrestles with the tension between truth and power. In this novel, Morrison’s window into the black experience in America reminds white American Christians that their religion and even their readings of the Fourth Gospel have been shaped by racism.

Postmodernism challenges all attempts to finalize meaning as imperialistic and dangerous. Instead, interpretations of all texts, including sacred ones, are always interpretations that cannot ever be fully finalized.14 The tools used in the process of interpretation aid understanding, even though understanding is never complete. Future tools not yet imagined will further enhance the text’s interpretative possibilities, as the voices of new interpreters enrich textual meanings.

While this is perhaps an uncomfortable state of affairs for some, this need not lead to cynicism or despair concerning truth.15 Quite the opposite! Multiplicity of interpretations, paradoxically, provides a way to move closer to truth while providing a check on the exclusive interpretation of the powerful.16 Careful multiple readings of a sacred text, like the pieces of a complex mosaic, move interpreters closer to the truth. Simultaneously there is humility and insight. Humility because “the multiplicity of interpretations stems not from the indeterminacy of the object but from the way it exceeds the ability of any limited perspective to grasp it in its totality.”17 Insight expands as the multiplicity of readings are engaged and evaluated. One interpreter points out silences and gaps another has not noticed. In the process, there is the possibility of moving outside one’s own presuppositions and learning something new.18

In a paper on the trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, the idea of interpretation as testimony in the face of power might be helpful. For example, testimony acknowledges the narrative, fragmented, incomplete nature of the witness to truth, even as it bridges an historical experience with a report of that experience.19 Shoshana Felman’s research on testimony following trauma notes the way that a witness to trauma psychologically needs to speak, yet always does so in fragments, with silences, and often incoherence. She says of her own writing in response to testimony: “Literature has become for me the site of my own stammering.”20 Walter Brueggemann considers the biblical witness itself in terms of testimony, as “truth in fragments.”21

In addition, testimony is communication seeking to be reliable, assuming the trustworthiness of the witness, with dire consequences if the trust is broken.22 The most affective testimony uses persuasive rhetoric that is appropriate to the audience, even while expressing something that the witness is willing to stake her life on.23 Testimony can therefore hold together several of the ideas the postmodern world wrestles with — partial, located knowledge that is yet linked to events that occurred in history; narrative communication that is fragmented; language used in the pursuit of truth, while keeping the truth of the most powerful from dominating. Testimony keeps Pilate’s power and all claims to finalized truth in check. Truths matter.

At the end of the Fourth Gospel, the claim is made that the whole account of Jesus is itself a testimony in the trial (21:24).24 But before which court is this testimony given? The final part of this paper considers textual clues suggesting that the Fourth Gospel opens up the possibility of participation in a cosmic trial.

Truth in the Cosmic Trial: truth and power

New Testament scholar Andrew Lincoln has written a persuasive analysis of the Fourth Gospel noting the incorporation of echoes from the literary tradition of cosmic trials found in Deutero-Isaiah. Isaiah 40-55 contains eight courtroom trial scenes interspersed with salvation oracles and servant songs. The trial scenes are of two main types: disputes between Yahweh and Israel in light of the exile, and disputes between Yahweh and the nations.25 The trial context suggests some kind of resolution being sought with plaintiffs and defendants and witnesses speaking in a case writ large before the universe. One can almost hear a voice from the cosmos saying: “Hear ye, hear ye! This court is now in session!” Where was Yahweh when Israel was in exile? What is Yahweh’s true nature? How powerful is Yahweh?26 In the courtroom scene in Isaiah 43:22-28 questions about God shift to rebukes against Israel. Yet in the middle of the rebuke, God proclaims with a double emphasis: “I am, I am who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (43:25). Then God continues: “Accuse me, let us go to trial; set forth your case, so that you may be proved right” (43:26). This challenge is followed by the justification for God’s actions against Jacob and Israel — their transgressions against God (43:27-28). This is typical of the courtroom scenes where God is willing to listen to the accuser.27

Lincoln sees the Fourth Gospel echoing Isaiah’s courtroom disputes between Yahweh and Israel in the scenes where Jewish leaders challenge Jesus. Unlike the Synoptic gospels where Jesus is taken before the Sanhedrin after his arrest, in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ disputes with Jewish religious leaders take place earlier during his ministry.28 Clusters of key trial words — judgment, judge, truth, true, testify, testimony — dominate especially in the spontaneous “trials” found in John 5:19-47 and John 8:12-59. These scenes not only anticipate Jesus’ trial before Pilate later in the narrative, they echo Isaiah’s cosmic trial between Israel and Yahweh. In both John 5 and 8 Jesus’ identity is challenged — even as Jesus is eager to go to court and to testify. The Fourth Gospel presents Jesus as a true witness for God, for he has seen what God does (John 5:20), and knows God (John 8:19) since God sent him (8:26).

Isaiah 43:8-13 is an example of a dispute between Yahweh and the nations. Yahweh’s voice calls for the nations to gather, and for his witnesses (the people of Israel) to come forward, though, ironically, they are blind and deaf (43:8, 10). The nations are challenged to give a true witness (43:9). Then it is Israel’s turn. Will they testify that Yahweh is the only savior (43:11)? Will they be true witnesses in this cosmic courtroom before the nations of the world? In Pilate’s courtroom, Jesus not only proclaims: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18:37), he is also placed on the judgment seat (19:13).29 This scene underscores that Jesus does indeed have the “authority to execute judgment” (John 5:22, 27, 30; 9:39; 12:47-48) with true judgment since he judges with the Father (8:16). The scene depicts Jesus as both witness and judge, taking on cosmic dimensions before all who are drawn to him even as he is lifted up (12:32).30

Although heightened in the “trials” before the Jews (John 5 and 8) and before Pilate in John 19, trial language occurs in all five major sections of the Fourth Gospel.31 In addition Isaiah and the Fourth Gospel share much imagery not typically associated with trials, including that of light, water, blindness, repetition of “I am,” images of the shepherd, creation, suffering servant, and the gathering together of all nations. There are also three direct quotes from Isaiah in the Fourth Gospel, two of which name Isaiah as the source.32 Lincoln also highlights the inclusio present as readers hear the testimony of John the Baptist at the beginning of the narrative (John 1:7-8) and the witness of the Beloved Disciple at the conclusion (John 21:24). States Lincoln: “perhaps, second only to the narrative’s unique Christology, this metaphor of a lawsuit on a cosmic scale is the most distinctive characteristic holding many of the elements of its plot and discourse together.”33

In the cosmic reading, the showdown between truth and power is resolved through the crucifixion of Jesus. “The Gospel’s point of view is that the truth of God’s cause appears in and through what seems most ungodlike and that the crucified Jesus is in fact the embodiment of the truth about existence.”34 In the Fourth Gospel, God is known through Jesus. Jesus is no longer standing before Pilate, a representative of the Roman Empire, but is in the cosmic courtroom — before principalities and powers. The cosmic courtroom makes an amazing claim: God is known through the crucified Jesus.35


Pilate’s question: “What is truth?” echoes from the praetorium in Jerusalem to our contemporary contexts. For Pilate, power mattered more than truth, since he chose to sacrifice truth to strengthen his power.

Postmodernism highlights how claims to a finalized truth also work to place power as the ultimate value. Multiple truths — with all their limitations and insights — matter. Like testimony, these fragments move us closer to the pursuit of truth.

The cosmic perspective of the Fourth Gospel challenges the ultimate dichotomy between truth and power, and the cosmic courtroom resolves the tension between the two. In scripture’s God there is no tension between truth and power. A crucified Jesus — named “truth” and testifying to the truth — makes known this God of creation and the cosmos.


Notes & References:

1. The seven scenes — John 18:28-32; 18:33-38a; 18:38b-40; 19:1-3; 19:4-7; 19:8-12; 18:13-16a — are distinguished by Pilate’s movement from inside his headquarters to outside where the Jews await the sentence.

2. Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, 249.

3. The first round is as follows: charge (18:29-30), examination (18:33-38), verdict: no fault (18:38), offer to release Jesus as part of their Passover festival rather than punish/sentence him (18:39). After the Jews reject Pilate’s offer and ask for Barabbas (18:40), Pilate sentences Jesus to a flogging (19:1). After the Roman soldiers mock Jesus (19:2-3), Pilate again pronounces his verdict of “no fault” two more times (19:4, 6). Now the Jews give the charge of blasphemy (19:7). Pilate moves into another examination phase (19:8-11), goes to the judge’s bench to give the verdict which he never speaks (19:13-15), and sentences Jesus to death (19:16a).

4. Jerome H. Neyrey, “He Must Increase, I Must Decrease (John 3:30),” 123-142, considers honor as a limited good. For one person to gain honor, another person must lose it. Power as a social value would be understood similarly.

5. Francis Moloney, Glory not Dishonor, 139. Moloney notes that Mark and Matthew include a reference to replacing the royal attire with Jesus’ own clothes prior to his crucifixion (Mark 15:20; Matthew 27:31). Not so in the Fourth Gospel.

6. David Rensberger, “The Politics of John: The Trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel,” in JBL 103/3 (1984): 404.

7. They have denied their own tradition of God, alone, as their king. See Judges 8:23; I Samuel 8:7; Isaiah 26:13. In addition, given the Greek word λῃστής used to describe Barabbas as a “bandit” (18:40), careful readers will recall the bandit who steals sheep from the sheepfold (John 10:1, 8, 10). The Jews have chosen the sheep-stealing bandit Barabbas over the Good Shepherd.

8. Rensberger, 406-407, “He grants ‘the Jews’ their desire, but only after exacting from them a terrible price.”

9. The repetition of the word ἀλήθεια [truth] occurs both here and throughout this gospel. Over half of the incidents of this word and its cognates in the entire New Testament are found in the Johannine writings. As a noun, the word occurs twenty-five times in this gospel, and another thirty times as an adjective or adverb.

10. Should readers understand this word as its Hebrew equivalent meaning “faithfulness”? Or should they hear the word with more of a Greek understanding of truth as reality in contrast with falsehood or mere appearance? Anthony Thistelton, “Truth,” in NIDNTT, 874-877, rejects such a dichotomy. He sees various biblical works nuancing the idea of “truth” in both of these ways, often within the same work. For example, the prophets at times use truth to mean “faithfulness,” while at other times contrast truth with falsehood or deceit. God can be trusted because God is faithful and true. Thistelton, 889, also suggests that this richness continues into the New Testament: “The view adopted in this article is that John uses alētheia regularly in the sense of reality in contrast to falsehood or mere appearance, but that this in no way provides evidence of Gk. affinities of ideas, or of disregard for the OT tradition.” So even though truth as “truth telling” is emphasized in the Fourth Gospel and often contrasted with deception, the very first use of ἀλήθεια is an echo of the faithful God of the Hebrew scriptures — full of grace and truth (1:14). But whatever the nuance, “truth” is rarely understood in either testament as an abstract concept. Thistelton, 881.

11. Verbal forms of “testify” (μαρτυρέω) are found in John 1:7, 8, 15, 32, 34; 2:25; 3:11, 26, 28, 32; 4:39, 44; 5:31, 32 (twice), 33, 36, 37, 39; 7:7; 8:13, 14, 18 (twice); 10:25; 12:17; 13:21; 15:26, 27; 18:23, 37; 19:35; 21:24. Noun forms (μαρτυρία) are found in 1:7, 19; 3:11, 32-33; 5:31-32, 34, 36; 8:13, 14, 17; 19:35; 21:24.

12. Malina and Rohrbaugh, 258, suggest that he asks the wrong question. Given Jesus’ last phrase, Pilate’s “question should be ‘Who is it that is of the truth?’”

13. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, 18-19.

14. Walter Brueggemann, “A Fissure Always Uncontained,” in Strange Fire: Reading the Bible after the Holocaust, 64, argues that Christians must unlearn “’final readings,’ for ‘final readings’ tend, I suggest, to give ground for ‘final solutions.’” Rather, 66, to relish the complexity of biblical utterances left unresolved in the texts themselves. Brueggemann’s work on Amos is especially relevant to a New Testament text like the Fourth Gospel whose perceived anti-Semitism causes much scholarly wrestling. For example, see Sigve K. Tonstad, “‘The Father of Lies,’ ‘the Mother of Lies,’ and the Death of Jesus (John 12:20-33),” in The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, 193-208, where Tonstad argues that Jesus’ real opponent is not the Jewish leadership, but the “father of lies,” who has originated the “mother of all lies” that is, the misrepresentation of God. Jesus defeats both the lie and the liar.

15. Multiple examples might cause despair in 2019. For example, Preet Bharara, Doing Justice, begins his chapter on “The Trial” by saying: “A crisis persists in public discourse and political debate. It is coarse and vicious and tone deaf. Truth is a victim of self-interest and tribalism. As are decorum and respect.” David E. McCraw, in the Preface to his work Truth in Our Times, xi, quotes Rudy Giuliani declaring: “truth isn’t truth.” Later, 66, McCraw refers to the Department of Justice as the “Department of Justification.” Roger Cohen, “Trump’s Inhumanity Before a Victim of Rape,” quotes Robert Musil as a caution to contemporary America: “No culture can rest on a crooked relationship to truth.” Also, in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s 1984 (June 6, 1949), host Meghna Chakrabari, “On Point,” interviewed several scholars on the book’s relevance in 2019. They discussed “Did George Orwell’s Classic Get it Right?” They considered the use of language and the meaning of words on Twitter, noting several phrases from 1984 including “freedom is slavery” and “war is peace” that might resonate in a contemporary America where tweets express “a willed version of reality.” But “alternate facts” are not the same phenomenon as multiple truths, despite the possible relationship between the two in the history of ideas. For a helpful summary of the philosophical issues, see Michael Glanzberg’s online article, “Truth,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

16. It might even be a response to Bruno Latour’s “Why has Critique run out of steam?” in The Winter Anthology, Vol.5, where he suggests that critique has been coopted by right wing interests like the rise of conspiracy theories and therefore a hermeneutics of suspicion can no longer be relied on to dismantle power structures. A new approach is required.

17. Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, 26.

18. Westphal, 153, says that this is “the claim that there is a voice that, while remaining true to itself, has the power to break through those prejudices, to disrupt and unsettle them, to call them into question, to show that they need to be revised or replaced, that they are always penultimate and relative, never ultimate or absolute.”

Miroslav Volf, “Deception and Truth,” in Exclusion and Embrace, 258, states: “There can be no truth between people without the will to embrace the other.” He briefly discusses the idea of truth as faithfulness (Hebrew connotation, see fn 10 above), and truth in accordance with reality (Greek connotation), calling for both together as a better understanding in the New Testament usage of ἀλήθεια. This is just prior to his discussion “Jesus before Pilate: Truth Against Power,” where Volf asks: “What can we postmoderns learn from that premodern interface between ‘truth’ and ‘power’ as played out in the encounter between Jesus, Caiaphas, and Pilate?” (271). His answer: “truth matters more than my own self,” and “the self of the other matters more than my truth” (272).

19. Paul Ricoeur, “Hermeneutics of Testimony,” 119-154. See also Andrew Lincoln, “Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Testimony,” in Truth on Trial, 340-353.

20. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony, 56.

21. Brueggemann, “A Fissure Always Uncontained,” 73. He also suggests in a moving phrase, 75: “A making in fragments is all this haunted, hurting holiness requires, all that is permitted.”

22. Consider the oath: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” Bharara, “The Trial,” briefly discusses the serious legal penalties for false testimony in a court of law.

23. Ricoeur, 129. Andrew Lincoln, Truth on Trial, 342-343, “Testimony is a speech-act by which a witness professes publicly a conviction, indicates devotion to a cause.”

24. Lincoln, 170, “The Fourth Gospel is not simply about a trial; it is itself a testimony in the trial.”

25. Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, 28-29 has written a commentary that includes these trial scenes. The disputes between Yahweh and Israel are found in: Isaiah 42:18-25; 43:22-28; 50:1-3. The disputes between Yahweh and the nations are found in: Isaiah 41:1-5; 41:21-29; 43:8-13; 44:6-8; 45:18-25.

26. Elie Wiesel finds questions and silences before God appropriate. He is suspicious of anyone who dares answer for God. See The Trial of God, especially 123-127. In an interview with Timothy K. Beal, “Matters of Survival,” 31, Wiesel reflects on his work The Trial of God, saying: “In this play I wanted to show the danger of fanaticism. The fanatic thinks he is justifying God. Never think that you are justifying God. To ask the questions about God’s justice is alright.… But to give the answer? Keep asking the question.”

27. This is far different from Franz Kafka’s The Trial, where the accused is unable to confront the accuser (49-55), and high officials are unwilling to show their faces (89), in a society without laws or the hope of justice (115-116). I read Kafka’s work during the same week I listened to an audio edition of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. The similarities between authority figures accusing Joseph K. in Kafka’s novel and the Apartheid government in South Africa during Mandela’s various political trials are disturbing, to say the least.

28. In the narrative of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is first arrested (John 18:1-11), taken for questioning before Annas (18:12-23), sent to Caiaphas without inclusion of any further details (18:24), and then taken from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters (18:28). There is no formal questioning before the Sanhedrin.

29. Lincoln, 137, “In his witness to the truth, Jesus becomes the judge, and both ‘the Jews’ and Pilate are judged by their response to Jesus. Thus the Roman trial becomes the vehicle for the irony that the apparent judge and the apparent accusers are in reality being judged by the apparent accused.” Many commentators note that the Greek here allows for either Pilate or Jesus to “sit down on the judgment seat” called the “Pavement” or “Gabbatha” in Hebrew. For one example of the discussion, See Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 880-882. Also, 882, if “Gabbatha” means “to be high” then this location for Jesus could remind readers of his “lifting up” anticipated earlier in the narrative.

30. Malina and Rohrbaugh, 249, argue that the scene in John 19 is also one of the consecration of a king, with the following elements: crowning and honor (9:1-3); proclamation (19:4-5); acclamation (19:6-7); enthronement on judgment seat (19:13-16); naming and title (19:19-22); royal burial (19:38-42).

31. For example, the advocate language of the Farewell Discourse, especially 14:26; 15:26; 16:7. Lincoln gives examples of trial language throughout the Fourth Gospel. See especially chapter 2, “The Lawsuit and the Narrative of the Fourth Gospel,” pages 12-35.

32. Isaiah 40:3 is quoted at the beginning of the Fourth Gospel: “He said: ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:23). Isaiah 54:13 is quoted in John 6:45: “As it is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’” Isaiah 53:1 (along with Isaiah 6:9, 1) is quoted in the middle of the Fourth Gospel: “This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn — and I would heal them.’ Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him” (John 12:38-41). Although these direct quotations from Isaiah are important, Richard Hays, Reading Backwards, 78, would argue that repeated images make the case even stronger: “John’s manner of alluding does not depend upon the citation of words and phrases; instead it relies upon evoking images and figures from Israel’s Scripture.”

33. Lincoln, 13.

34. Lincoln, 34-35.

35. Also, Lincoln, 415-416, “The Fourth Gospel’s narrative of truth on trial undermines the ideological use of its story to bring about marginalization and violence, for it embraces pain in making the suffering servant-witness and the crucified God the criterion of truth.”


Works Cited:

Bharara, Preet. Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1970.

Brueggemann, Walter. “A Fissure Always Uncontained,” in Strange Fire: Reading the Bible after the Holocaust. Tod Linafelt, ed. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 40-66. Westminster Bible Companion Series. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

Chakrabarti, Meghna, host. “1984 in 2019: Did George Orwell’s Classic Get it Right?” in WBUR’s On Point. Guests Jean Seaton and Michael Shelden. Aired June 8, 2019.

Cohen, Roger. “Trump’s Inhumanity Before a Victim of Rape,” in the New York Times. July 26, 2019.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Glanzberg, Michael. “Truth,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Hays, Richard B. Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness. Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2014.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Trans., Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Latour, Bruno. “Why has Critique run out of steam?” in The Winter Anthology, Vol.5.

Lincoln, Andrew T. Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000.

Malina, Bruce J. and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.

Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.

McCraw, David E. Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts. New York: All Points Books, 2019.

Moloney, Francis J. Glory not Dishonor: Reading John 13-21. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Signet, 1978.

Neyrey, Jerome H. “He Must Increase, I Must Decrease” (John 3:30): A Cultural and Social Interpretation,” in The Gospel of John in Cultural and Rhetorical Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009. Pages 123-142.

Rensberger, David. “The Politics of John: The Trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 103/3 (1984): 395-411.

Ricoeur, Paul. “The Hermeneutics of Testimony,” in Essays on Biblical Interpretation. Lewis S. Mudge, Ed. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980. Pages 119-154.

Thiselton, A. C. “Truth,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 3. Colin Brown, editor. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978. Pages 874-902.

Tonstad, Sigve K. “’The Father of Lies,’ ‘the Mother of Lies,’ and the Death of Jesus (John 12:20-33),” in The Gospel of John and Christian Theology. Richard Bauckham and Carl Mosser, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008. Pages 193-208.

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Westphal, Merold. Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.

Wiesel, Elie. The Trial of God. Trans., Marion Wiesel. New York: Random House, 1979.

Wiesel, Elie and Timothy K. Beal. “Matters of Survival: A Conversation,” in Strange Fire: Reading the Bible after the Holocaust. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Pages 22-35.


Kendra Haloviak Valentine is New Testament scholar and Dean of General Education at La Sierra University.

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash


We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.