On the Washing of Hands

There is a common belief that the mentality of Pilate may be summed up in his famous question, What is truth? This, of course, is a complete mistake, and it probably had its birth in that famous sentence of Lord Bacon's, "What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and did not stay for an answer." As a matter of fact, when Pilate asked what truth was, he was far from jesting. He was as grimly serious as a man could be. As serious as Goethe praying for "more light," or Kelvin regretting the fleetingness of time. Bacon was not thinking particularly of Pilate when he wrote the words. He was looking for an effective opening sentence for his famous Essay on Truth, and he certainly found it. But he has put the world astray ever since.

The real consciousness of Pilate is summed up in his washing of his hands. "I find no fault in this man," he said, and straightway "took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it." There, in one terrible sentence, is revealed the moral cowardice of the Roman proconsul. When he heard the Jews scream on the Pavement, "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend," his heart failed him. He knew too well what might happen in Rome if those words came to Cæsar's ears. Therefore, though he declared that he could find no fault in the prisoner, though he described him as a just man, he quailed before the rage of the chief priests and the Pharisees, who saw their ecclesiastical supremacy, their privileged position their whole future, jeopardized by the man who knew they were whited sepulchers, and was not afraid to say so.

The Interpretation of Scripture
August 13, 1921

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