The Way to Truth and Life in the Non-Violent Kingdom: An Exegesis of John 18:33-38a


Translations of John 18:33-38a

Personal Translation

33 Pilate walked back inside the governor’s residence and summoned Jesus and asked him: “Are you the king of the Jews?” 34 Jesus replied: “Is this (what) you say or did other people say this to you about me?” 35 Pilate replied: “I am not a Jew am I? Your people and the chief priests handed you over to me. What did you do?” 36 Jesus replied: “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom was of this world, those who serve (under my authority) would be (passionately) struggling (with all their might) so that I might not be handed over to the Jews. But now – my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate then asked him: “So you are a king?” Jesus replied: “You say that I am a king. I have been born for this (mission) and for this (mission) I have come into the world: that I might bear witness to the truth. Everyone who (abides in) the truth hears (and obeys) my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him: “What is truth?”

The New Revised Standard Translation

 33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “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.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”[1]

Interesting Words

ἀλήθεια

            In John’s gospel, ἀλήθεια is a signature term. It is usually translated as “truth.” In the Synoptic gospels, ἀλήθεια simply means “truly existing” or “reality”[2], but in John’s gospel it takes on a deeply theological and highly nuanced meaning. In John, Jesus “possesses this truth in its fullness and reveals, transmits, and explicates it.” To see Jesus is to see truth; He is the way that leads to truth and life. In essence, Jesus is the “Revealer par excellence”[3] of the truth; he is the “self-revealing divine reality.”[4]

The ἀλήθεια that Jesus reveals requires his followers to know Him as the source of all truth. In this text, those who would follow Jesus are called to be “ὁ ὢν ἐκ τῆς ἀληθείας” (of the truth); they are to “depend on, abide in” the truth, which implies a sense of permanent obedience to the truth as it is revealed in Jesus. Disciples of Christ are sanctified in ἀλήθεια as they are “invaded by it and transformed within.”[5]

ὑπηρέτης and ἀγωνίζομαι

             In verse 36 of the text, Jesus says that, if his kingdom were of this world, his ὑπηρέται would be ἠγωνίζοντο so that he would not be handed over to the Jews. These words are translated rather vaguely by the NRSV as “followers” and “fighting” respectively. Unfortunately, this translation fails to communicate the powerful meaning these words express.

The term ὑπηρέτης is used only twenty times in the New Testament and nine of those appearances are in John’s gospel. Of those nine appearances, five are found in the 18th chapter. The reference in verse 36 is the final reference in the chapter, and in the four previous references the word refers to the “temple police” or “officials”.[6] The ὑπηρέται are not simply followers, but are rather those who are “in the service of a higher will and [are] fully at the disposal of this will.”[7] Jesus is employing the language of a king who has full authority to order his servants according to his will.

The translation of ἠγωνίζοντο as “fighting” is even more inadequate. In Hellenistic writing, this word refers to a hero struggling for virtue. It was used in the book of 4 Maccabees to relate the passion of a martyr to the struggle of an athlete in the arena. While it takes on a more nuanced meaning in the New Testament, the author of John means to say that those under Jesus’ authority would be passionately struggling at the expense of all their energy and resources in order to keep Jesus from being handed over to the Jews.[8] This is the kind of struggle where one must be willing to give everything. Otherwise, the struggle would have no purpose.

Grammatical Analysis

Use of Emphasis

            The author’s use of grammar to add emphasis in this text is very interesting. On six occasions in this brief dialogue, the author supplies a personal pronoun as the subject of the sentence. This is a common method of adding emphasis in koine Greek since the subject is already implied in the verb.[9] This use of emphasis heightens the sense of drama in the narrative as Pilate questions, and is questioned by, Jesus. The Jesus in John’s gospel does not remain virtually silent before Pilate like the Jesus of the Synoptics. Instead, he responds to the force of Pilate’s questioning with equal rhetorical strength. This display of strength in the face of death contributes to John’s majestic presentation of Jesus as king and reminds the reader that Jesus’ life is not being taken from him – he is choosing to lay it down.[10]

Literary Analysis

This text presents an episode in the gospel of John’s passion narrative. The Synoptic gospels also include passion narratives, but John’s is unique in the amount of conversation it includes between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. In the period of the gospel’s writing, a crucifixion was a shameful event. This shame drove early followers of Jesus to reinterpret the event in various ways, which they did through the passion narratives. These stories are based on an ancient literary genre known as court-conflict. According to this genre, the life of an innocent protagonist is put in danger by an evil scheme. The outstanding qualities of the protagonist, who is usually vindicated after suffering or death, are celebrated. These characteristics of ancient court-conflict literature help to reveal the source of a popular reinterpretation of the cross event by early Christians. Because of its combination of “vindicated innocence” and “vicarious death,” the prophet Isaiah’s image of the suffering servant of God was used by New Testament authors to embed the shameful event of the cross into God’s greater story of redemption for both Israel and the world.[11] The court-conflict genre also helps to focus attention of the reader on the qualities of Jesus revealed in the passion narratives. By paying close attention to these specific qualities, Christians today can gain a clearer understanding of what kinds of people the gospel writers are calling them to be.

Historical and Cultural Analysis

Dating

The dating of John’s gospel has been thoroughly disputed in the past and the debate continues amongst scholars today. The date of authorship has traditionally held as later than that of the Synoptic gospels. A later date was assumed due to the prevalence and depth of theological reflection found in John. While this observation is correct, it was coupled with a separate assumption which held that the author used the Synoptic gospels as a source for this theological reflection. In addition, most scholars saw no need to consider an earlier dating of John since they believed John’s gospel to be a spiritualized version of the Synoptic gospels and thereby unconcerned with historicity.[12]

The assumption that the Synoptics were used as a source for John’s spiritualized gospel account has been heavily criticized in recent years. The most commonly held view puts the writing of John’s gospel sometime in the last decade of the first century. This date is based on the dating of the Ryland’s manuscript, a fragment of John’s gospel. This manuscript dates to 125 CE, and by allowing a few decades for dissemination, scholars place the gospel’s original writing late in first century.[13] However, since the dating of the Ryland manuscript is also debated and because no references to the gospel are found in extant writings until the late second century, some scholars continue to date the gospel to the middle second century.[14]

Political and Economic Considerations

As the first century CE came to a close, the political climate of Palestine and Asia Minor was, at best, hostile towards the Jews and the early Christians. After a period of semi-autonomous rule lasting nearly a hundred years under the Hasmonean dynasty, followed by a period of decreasing freedom as a vassal Roman state, Palestinian Jews attempted to revolt against Roman rule in 66 CE. Unlike the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid dynasty in 166B BCE, the Jews suffered massive defeat at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE with the destruction of Jerusalem along with its temple. After this event, most Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire.[15] Life for Christians was not much better in the second half of the first century. As they grew progressively distinct from non-believing Jewish communities, Christians lost the protection of religious freedom that Jews enjoyed.[16] Severe Roman persecution began under Emperor Nero in 64 CE and continued until the mid-second century under Emperors Domitian, Trajan, and Hadrian.[17] In addition to this external persecution and oppression, there was often conflict between Jewish and Christian groups as evidenced by the book of Acts.[18]

While there was a definite political hostility towards Jews and Christians in the first and second centuries, they lived in the midst of a prosperous economy. The pax Romana created by Caesar Augustus in the late first century BCE provided a fertile environment for economic growth.[19] However, this economic growth was never fairly distributed and as a result the society was deeply divided along class lines. Heavy, and often corrupt, Roman taxation, especially on vassal states and conquered peoples, ensured that a significant portion of any financial gain by Jews and Christians did not lead to subsequent prosperity. This economic oppression contributed to even more tension and division in the society at large.[20] While surrounded by a thriving economy, the majority of Jews and Christians had no access to this wealth or the power it could provide.

Authorship, Setting, and Audience

Similar to the Synoptic gospels, the gospel of John is written anonymously. In the gospel, the author is only identified as the “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Several theories have been suggested to name this disciple based on loose textual evidence, but church tradition, namely through the writings of Irenaeus, names the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, as the author. However, even church tradition is not absolutely clear on this point. A statement by the fourth century historian Eusebius, who quotes the early church father Papias from the early second century, has led some scholars to believe that John the Elder, not John the apostle, is the gospel’s author. While debate continues on this point, there is currently not enough evidence to reject the authorship of John the apostle.[21]

Traditionally, the gospel is said to have originated from Ephesus, where the apostle John ministered. Some scholars have noted the presence of traditions that probably originated in Palestine and were further developed in Hellenistic cultural centers with significant Jewish populations – which supports the Ephesus location. Other major centers, like Alexandria or Antioch, have been suggested.[22]

The audience for John’s gospel is usually described as the Johannine community – a faith community that gathered around the apostle John; following his teachings and preserving them for later generations. This community would have been distinguishable from other Christian communities and composed of both Jews and Gentiles. It is most often described as a group that broke away from the Jews in the synagogue either because of persecution or by their own choice. While the concept of the Johannine community has been debated amongst scholars,[23] there is ample textual evidence that suggests an audience of second generation believers, both Jews and Christians, who are in need of guidance about their life together under the Spirit. If there was hostility between this community and the synagogue, it was probably over by the time of the gospel’s final publication. While it does take on a sharp polemical tone when referencing “the Jews,” there is not enough evidence to support an audience whose identity is based on persecution from non-believing Jews associated with the synagogues. Rather, the gospel seems to be written to a group of believers that need to be reminded of Jesus’ life and mission.[24]

Conclusions for Exegesis

            At least two conclusions can be drawn from this historical and cultural. First, since both the author and audience of John’s gospel are members of a politically and economically marginalized group, the power dynamics presented in the gospel, along with their political implications, should be considered carefully. Second, close attention should be paid to the gospel’s portrayal of violence since it was written to guide second generation believers through a period of extremely violent persecution.

Theological Themes

Two major theological themes of John’s gospel are evident in this text. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his kingdom, or eternal life, as a spiritual reality that is universally accessible to all those who are “born again of the Spirit.”[25] In this text, Jesus explicitly states that his kingdom is “not from [this world].” He rejects the title of “king of the Jews” because he is king over all creation. His reign does not extend over a piece of land, but into the lives of those who hear and obey his voice.

The Gospel of John’s Christology emphasizes the role of Jesus, the Son, revealing the true nature of the Father. This was built on the Jewish idea of agency. An agent was a surrogate who was sent on a specific mission with the authority of the sender. The agent was considered as an equivalent to the one who sends and would act on behalf of the sender; speaking to the agent was the same as speaking to the sender.[26] In this text, Jesus defines his mission in terms of agency. He has been born to testify to the truth, which is to say that he has been born to be an agent of His Father.

Conclusion

The Essential Message of the Text

            In this dialogue between the Jesus and Pilate, the author of John’s gospel reveals the impotence of all worldly power and points the reader towards the one and only source of life.

The original audience of this gospel would have been well aware of the power differential at work in this scene. Jesus stands alone and condemned before Pilate, who is the representative of the greatest political power in the world. He has been utterly rejected by his own people, who claim to be the people of the one, true God. Jesus has no allies; he has been marginalized politically, culturally, and socially.

As followers of Jesus in late first or early second century, the gospel’s audience would have been searching for a source of strength to sustain them through brutal persecution. They needed wisdom to inform their encounter with a world that wanted them dead – just like Jesus. In this text, the author of John’s gospel clearly dismisses violent resistance as a viable option for the persecuted community. Jesus’ insistence in the text on the other-worldly character of his kingdom, one that cannot be bound to ethnic or national categories, makes the argument for political revolution irrelevant.

However, the text does not simply leave the reader without an option for moving forward. Jesus does not deny his kingdom. The readers of this gospel would know that Jesus is in fact the King. However, as the gospel has emphasized throughout, Jesus’ kingdom is first and foremost a spiritual reality. However, this does not imply that Jesus and those who serve under his authority have no earthly power. Rather, by its emphatic announcement of Jesus’ mission to bear witness to the truth, the text points its readers towards the only source of real power in the world. The power of nations that is imposed on others is not real power because it leads to death. Real power is found in knowing Jesus and being transformed by his life, his truth, from within. Followers of Jesus do not violently lash out against the powers that oppress them; they listen for the voice of Jesus and obey him with all their heart. When they do this, they will find life – even abundant life – in Christ.

Conversation with Other Commentators

            In Wes Howard-Brooks’ commentary of this text, more weight is given to how Pilate’s responses to the Jesus’ questions reveal the author’s message. He uncovers the irony of Pilate’s attempt to disassociate himself from Jewish infighting by explaining that Pilate actually becomes a Judean through his complicity with the Sanhedrin’s scheme to kill Jesus. He also points out the condescending nature of the title Pilate gives to Jesus, “the king of Judea,” which acknowledging the colonial nature of Roman rule over the area. He also points out the other-worldly source of Jesus’ kingdom in opposition to those who use this passage to claim an other-worldly location for Jesus’ kingdom. The kingdom is not from this world, but it is certainly in this world. Brooks also mentions that Jesus’ kingdom is of a completely different type than Pilate’s kingdom. It does not require violence or oppression. Instead, it is about the love of God revealed in truth by the life of Jesus. Attentive to the purely political language in this conversation, Brooks observes that there is no “God-talk” but only language that is familiar to Pilate. However, Pilate has no time for what seems like philosophical questions and sarcastically dismisses Jesus’ claim as the one who bears witness to the truth.[27]

In her commentary on this text, Dr. Sherri Brown, identifies kingship and the character of truth as the main issues in Jesus’ trial before Pilate. She also focuses on how Pilate’s responses to Jesus bring out the meaning of the text. While he begins the interrogation with a question concerning the political implications of the Jews’ accusation against Jesus, Jesus deftly shifts the dialogue back on to Pilate. As he attempts to defend himself, Pilate gives Jesus the opportunity to describe his other-worldly kingdom of those who are born from above. As Pilate continues with his questioning, still concerned with the political nature of Jesus kingship, Jesus stays true to his mission of bearing witness to the truth. Dr. Brown connects Jesus’ mission statement with the theme of covenantal gift that was introduced in the gospel’s prologue. She notices the great irony of Pilate’s denial of the existence of truth while he stands face to face with truth himself. For her, this passage is about Pilate’s refusal of the truth gift, which reminds the reader that Jesus’ kingdom is about hearing and accepting the voice of Jesus as the true revelation of God.[28]


[1] John 18:33-38a (NRSV).

[2] Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 1:70.

[3] Spicq, 76-77.

[4] Gerhard Kittle, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W. M. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), 245.

[5] Spicq, 78, 80.

[6] John 18:3, 12, 18, 22 (NRSV).

[7] Kittle, 8:531.

[8] Kittel, 1:135-137.

[9] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 321.

[10] J.B. Green, “Death of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Kenneth DeRuiter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 162.

[11] J.B. Green, “Passion Narrative,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Kenneth DeRuiter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 603-604.

[12] M.M. Thompson, “Gospel of John,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Kenneth DeRuiter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 370.

[13] Thompson, 371.

[14] Colleen M. Conway, “Gospel of John,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Nasvhille, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008), 3:362.

[15] Mark Strauss, Four Portraits One Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), NEED PG NUMBER

[16] Martin Marty, The Christian World (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 19.

[17] Marty, 31.

[18] Acts 16:19-40 (NRSV).

[19] Strauss, NEED PG NUMBER

[20] Strauss, 114.

[21] Strauss, 334.

[22] Thompson, 371.

[23] Conway, 3:364.

[24] Thompson, 371-372.

[25] John 3:6 (NRSV).

[26] Thompson, 377.

[27] Wes Howard-Brook, John’s Gospel and the Renewal of the Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 119-122.

[28] Sherri Brown, Gift Upon Gift: Covenant through Word in the Gospel of John (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 203-207.

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