Of Pilate, only two things can be said for certain: that he was, according to the imperial fashion of the day, short-haired and clean-shaven. That in itself says a good deal. He would submit himself to the barber each morning, and perhaps again in the course of the day if he was dark and his beard was strong. It was always a long ritual. The blade dragged across the skin. Quite often, the blade slipped. There was a quick, fierce pain: blood on the governor's fingers, when he instinctively raised his hand to the place; and a curling flower of blood in the water.
What would he have done? Slapped him? Called for a mirror? Endured in silence? We do not know. But we know what the barber would have done: opened one of his little pots of salve and smoothed the ointment over Pilate's skin. And it may well have been like this--chafed, cut, sore, but mollified with a little fresh pomade--that Pilate went out that Friday morning to have his encounter with Christ.
Standing in the praetorium, planting the barricades of his awkward questions, Pilate becomes the prototype of every uncertain man or woman forced into a dialogue with God. He asks, only half-believing that he will ever get an answer. What comes back is elliptical, disturbing; but for a moment the heart has been laid open.
"Are you the King of the Jews?" he asked.
It was an appeal to Pilate's conscience, a suggestion that the conversation could go in a different direction. But Pilate, completely missing the point, thought that he was being put down. And that was exquisitely insulting.
"Am I a Jew?" (Meti ego Judaios eimi?) He snapped it out in fury. Was he one of that tribe, bearded, atheist, fanatical, circumcised? All his Roman dignity burned in his face. After an almost audible swallowing of temper, he went on: "Your own people and the chief priests have delivered you to me. What did you do to turn them against you?"
The answer should have been straightforward. Instead, it was bizarre.
"My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my officers would be fighting to stop me from being delivered to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from here."
What could Pilate make of this? The remark came out of the blue. But the last phrase would have snagged his attention: not from here. Not from here, not from Judaea: a foreigner, therefore. The empire was full of foreigners and petty kings. That much distance was manageable. You might go farther still, toward the end of the world that the empire covered or geographers knew, petering out in wilderness and forests and ice. But Jesus had gone farther even that that. He had described a kingdom not of this kosmos. Not of this world, not of this earth, not of this universe. Pilate was asked to consider a realm without palaces, armies, temples, roads, or the Imperial Post; a place in which Caesar's soldiers had no purchase and in which invisible officers did not try to stop their master being arrested in the street.
That in itself suggested something else. If the officers of Jesus were not fighting, this meant he expected, or possibly even wanted, to be handed over to Pilate. He didn't care. Perhaps he did not want to be saved because death was of no consequence to him; or because, on the contrary, he craved it and embraced it.
The question the governor should have asked next was obvious: "So where are you from, if you are not of this world?" But it did not occur to Pilate then; only later, when he had missed his chance. For the moment, he seemed too baffled to pursue it. Out of the vast cloudiness of the answer he had been given, Pilate plucked the only solid grain: Jesus' apparent admission that he was a king after all. He seized on the question that was the least interesting to pursue but the safest, the sanest, to ask.
"So," he said, "you are a king, then?" The tone was one of doubtful surprise, bordering on scorn. You with your bruised face and blackened eyes, your dirty robe, you're a king? The question should have made him laugh; Jesus' answer should have assured him that, in practical terms, Rome had nothing to fear from him. But the doubt was also, perhaps, a fear of the altitude from which this peculiar man might have fallen.
"You said it," Jesus told him.
That answer again. And its subtext: There really isn't much point discussing such things with you. There's no common ground between us. There's nowhere to go here.
Then, unexpectedly, Jesus went on: "This is what I was born for, and this is why I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone on the side of the truth listens to me."
Pilate retorted: "What is truth?"
The words linger. In fact they have never ceased to echo. The conversation has been getting interesting, even extraordinary. Pilate has been fed neat Christian doctrine, baffling and astonishing: We imagine it might have the same effect on him as whiskey on a child. This was bound to be too hard for him; and so he cut the conversation off.
Pilate had asked a question that departed abruptly from his one-track interest in the inquiry. That question threatened to engage him in Jesus' argument, on Jesus' terms. This was disturbing; it was the beginning of complicity. Therefore, Pilate no sooner asked the question than he dropped it, and left at once to cover his embarrassment. His remark was not just the symbolic statement of a man who could not see God before his face; it was the statement of a man who has had an intimation of the truth but is too afraid, or too self-preserving, to go on.
It is a possibility. There are a dozen possibilities. And whichever way it happened, in John's Gospel Jesus was left formulating the answer into the empty air.