In one of the Bible stories about the death of Jesus, local collaborators with the Roman Empire haul him before Pontius Pilate, the imperial governor of Palestine. Although the situation is dire for one of them, the two engage in a bit of epistemological banter. Jesus allows that his work is about telling the truth and Pilate responds with his show-stopping query: “What is truth?”
Pilate’s retort is probably not the first example in history of a powerful ruler challenging the very possibility that some things might be true and others lies, but it’s certainly one of the best known. As the tale continues, the Gospel of John proceeds to impose its own political truth on the narrative. It describes an interaction that, according to historians, is almost certainly a piece of fiction: Pilate offers an angry crowd assembled at his front door a choice: he will free either Jesus or a man named Barabbas. The loser will be crucified.
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