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                               QUID EST VERITAS?
               A Theological Reflection by Charleston C. K. Wang

During the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, the governor of an obscure Roman province was
presiding over a capital case.  The evidence mustered by local religious authorities against the
accused appeared to be weak and unconvincing.  This rather mundane case promised to do
very little for the already undistinguished career of the Roman officer.   The prisoner had
confessed to having come “into the world, to testify to the truth” and claimed that “everyone on
the side of truth listens to him.”   The governor, not thinking too much of the harm done by the
accused, blurted out:  “
Quid est veritas?”

This episode is taken from the Christian scripture known as the Gospel of John.  The governor’
s name was Pontius Pilate and the accused, Jesus.  Jesus had confessed of his teaching of
spiritual truth for he had preceded his admission with the statement that his “kingdom is not of
this world.”   The reply of Pilate was “What is truth?”

Quid est veritas?” “What is truth?”  Pilate, from all appearances, was a hardened soldier who
over his entire career had risked life and reputation in interminable wars with enemies of the
empire.  He was intimately familiar with bandits, brigands and rebels who hated Roman rule.  
The truth that he knew is that of the sword, and as a saving grace, the law of the empire.  The
duty he owed Caesar was to keep the Roman peace and uphold the Roman law.  He has
convinced himself that politics was his second nature.  For Pilate and his family, the price of
failure was high.  Yet, the case before him was about one man who claimed to be God, and all
Pilate could say was  “What is truth?”

Was this a rejoinder in sarcasm or an honest confession of vulnerability?  Pilate was well
experienced in the political life of the empire.  He has seen death in many quarters.  But when
Jesus spoke of the kingdom not from this world, Pilate was at a loss.  Pilate was an authority on
political truth, but Jesus was speaking of religious truth.   Jesus also mentioned that “if my
kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”  Pilate knew that
when Jesus was arrested, his disciples had scattered.  The governor saw no political threat in
the religious claim of the prisoner.

To be rid of the case, he could easily impose the death penalty and the temporal powers above
him will not look twice at his decision.  But how was he, a representative of the emperor and the
executor of imperial law, a soldier vested with command of sword and lance to judge one
solitary man who made the claim to be God?   Deep in his heart, Pilate wished to have nothing
to do with this perplexing case.  He thought of washing his hands of it.  He knew that his truth
was beyond judging the truth espoused by the accused.  To Pilate, the answer was obvious.  
After he had asked his now famous question, he went out to the crowd and announced: ‘I find
no case against him.”  

In my opinion, Jesus spoke for the separation of religious truth from political truth when he
proclaimed to Pilate that “his kingdom is not of this world,” reminding the governor that “if it
were, his servants would fight” for him.  According to the Gospels, Jesus had indeed instructed
Peter to sheath his sword drawn against those who had come to arrest him in the Garden of
Gethsemane.  Ironical as it may be, Pilate agreed with Jesus with his question, “What is truth?”  
When Pilate declared no case against Jesus, he affirmed the fundamental principle that
political truth shall be separate from religious truth, and matters of religion should not be the
business of the state.  In rendering this initial judgment, even Pilate could see that matters of
faith shall be free from compulsion by the government.  Interestingly today, the separation of
Church and State remains a vital governing constitutional principle of the United States.

08/29/2006.   
To read another opinion on the Separation of Church and State, click here.

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