Pilate’s Truth and Semantic Manipulation

Pilate asked him [Jesus], “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38a, NRSV)

Pilate’s response to Jesus, questioning the nature of truth, is a striking sentence. It is a rhetorical question; after posing the question, Pilate leaves Jesus to argue with the Jews over what to do with Jesus. The question appears to be an escape for Pilate. It offers an opportunity to avoid considering the stark, blunt statements of Jesus. In the simple, uncomplicated language characteristic of the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a bold claim using common language that might be used by anyone; Pilate’s response is to obfuscate the issue by questioning the meaning of the words Jesus uses. This is the only way Pilate can weasel his way out of the uncomfortable situation into which Jesus has forced him; if Jesus’ words were understood according to their plain meaning, Pilate would be forced to either accept or reject Jesus and his claims, rather than continue to waffle.

By questioning “what is truth” Pilate engaged in the old game of semantic manipulation. Semantic manipulation might be defined as the process in which a word with a precise meaning gradually grows to signify something broader and/or less specific, and sometimes extends to the point of becoming a word without any concrete meaning at all. C. S. Lewis describes the phenomenon in the preface to his book Mere Christianity, tracing the evolution of the word “gentleman.” It was initially a word with a concrete meaning, referring to a man with property and a coat of arms. It later became a reference to those who possess the qualities of character considered desirable in a gentleman, essentially becoming a synonym for “a well-mannered man.” It thus lost its original meaning, and has become a word with many equivalent expressions. The English language has lost a word that used to have a useful concrete meaning.

In another form of semantic manipulation, George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language, criticizes how large words with vague or little-known meanings are used to avoid the impact that the same statement might have had if it was stated in plain language. The use of broad terms and rarefied vocabulary serves to hide otherwise unpalatable statements from the reader or listener. For example, “collateral damage” is a pleasant euphemism for “the deaths of innocent people.”

The phenomenon persists today. To give only one example, work done in the fields of women’s studies and LGBT studies have vastly expanded the meanings of terms like “gender” and “sexuality” so that they can be used to give an explanation of large tracts of human behaviour that do not bear any explicit reference to either biological sex in the first place, or sexual preference and activity in the second. Consider Michel Foucault’s definition of sexuality, for instance:

Foucault did for “sexuality” what feminist critics had done for “gender.” That is, Foucault detached “sexuality” from the physical and biological sciences (just as feminists had detached “gender” from the facts of anatomical sex, of somatic dimorphism) and treated it, instead, as “the set of effects produced in bodies, behaviours and social relations by a certain deployment” of “a complex political technology.” He divorced “sexuality” from “nature” and interpreted it, instead, as a cultural production.[1]

This redefinition of sexual terms using expansive and arcane language lets these terms address very broad subjects without regard for any correspondence with the biological realities of people to whom these broadened sexual terms are applied. For example, the phrase “phallic economy” is used in feminist and LGBT writing to refer to misogyny, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, xenophobia, monotheism, and any number of other things. Generally these things are distasteful to the writer, so that people like Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton who are implicated in American imperialism can be said to be “participants in the phallic economy” despite the fact that Palin and Clinton are women and therefore lack phalluses. The term “phallic economy” is therefore not a useful one either by the standards of Lewis or Orwell. According to Lewis’s argument, the expression is merely another, unnecessary way of expressing whether one likes something or not; by Orwell’s logic, the term is unnecessary jargon to begin with.

It is then obvious that Pilate’s question undermines the meaning and usefulness of the word “truth.” By taking a word with a clear and concrete meaning – truth is that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality – and seeking to shift its meaning elsewhere, Pilate damages a useful word according to the logic of Lewis. By manipulating language in order to avoid the hard impact of a plain statement, Pilate is guilty of abusing language for political ends by Orwell’s argument. The end result is that Pilate’s question is absurd. If Pilate cannot accept the plain meaning of the word “truth”, what does it mean? Perhaps something akin to Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”? Is any other option even possible? It seems likely Pilate simply doesn’t want to know.

Christians should be wary of this manipulation of language, as it was one of the steps that led directly to the crucifixion of Jesus. It was an excuse for Pilate to inappropriately reserve judgment, depriving him of the capacity to resist the bloodlust of the crowds that wanted Jesus dead. Semantic manipulation is a too-clever-by-half technique that allows its users to hide from difficult decisions and obscure and soften profoundly unpleasant statements. Pilate’s question stands in sharp contrast with Jesus’ plain, simple speech. Jesus says, very plainly, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63) Pilate twisted words and enabled the execution of the giver of life Himself.


[1] David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York: Routledge, 1990), 7.

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6 comments on “Pilate’s Truth and Semantic Manipulation

  1. matt says:

    Interesting article.

    Your use of Lewis’ gentleman example, however, seems a little problematic to me. I’m thinking in particular of this sentence: “It was initially a word with a concrete meaning, referring to a man with property and a coat of arms.” Here you seem to be asserting (following Lewis) that at one time the word “gentleman” was firm and unambiguous, and that it directly corresponded to thing it described.

    But what _did_ “gentleman” correspond to? A certain type of man — but defined how? In order to define gentleman, we have to utilize other awkwardly ambiguous terms (“property” and “coat of arms”). And then we repeat the process with each of our new definitions — ad infinitum.

    It seems then, in my opinion, very difficult to assert that there is or was ever a point at which a particular word has or had a “concrete” meaning. Now, I realize that the point of your argument revolves around the expansion and multiplication of meaning to the point at which a word becomes “useless” (a tricky word in itself, no?), but it seems to me that expansion and multiplication necessarily start at a privileged — and in my opinion, nonexistent — moment of “concrete meaning”.

    While I certainly agree that deliberate obfuscation is a negative practice, I’m not sure I can agree with what seem to be (by my inference) some of your premises about the nature of language.

    • Theophilus says:

      You deconstructed the original meaning of the term “gentleman”, but do you really think that your notions of “property” and “coat-of-arms” are “awkwardly ambiguous” enough that you could not identify a gentleman in the original sense? I suspect that despite whatever misgivings you might have about the nature of property, you know full well a common understanding of the term and can use it appropriately in a way that can be understood by others.

      Sure, language is a construct, and can be deconstructed to the point of infinite regress. This is precisely my point. The deconstruction of terms easily becomes an intellectual black hole that gets used to avoid pressing or important issues, questions and decisions.

    • Theophilus says:

      And to clarify, it is specifically the rhetorical function of Pilate’s question that I see as problematic. If the questioning of terms was dialectic rather than rhetorical (see Nicodemus), I don’t think there is a problem.

      • matt says:

        I’m sorry, I initially misread you (as suggesting that communication was possible in a strict, uncomplicated sense) and typed up my comment with less reflection than it deserved. I completely agree that it is the rhetorical posturing of Pilate’s question that is the problem. In the face of the impossibility of communication, Pilate simply gave up. Perhaps he should have said, “What is truth? I understand that I will never be able to understand exactly what you mean when you say that word, but I’m willing to dialogue with you nonetheless.”

  2. John says:

    The very real question arises as to how this supposed conversation between Pilate and Jesus was recorded?

    None of the followers of Jesus would have been present to hear or record this conversation.

    Immediately after Jesus was taken out to be executed. He could not have told anyone about the contents of this conversation. Nor would he have able to do so while dying in agony on the cross.

    Pilate certainly would not have given his report to any of Jesus’s followers.

    Were there any court reporters who recorded this conversation? If there were, how then did the Gospel writers somehow come across this “report”?

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