Skeptical Challenge: How Do We Know the Content of Jesus and Pilate’s Tête-à-Tête?

Skeptical Challenge: How Do We Know the Content of Jesus and Pilate’s Tête-à-Tête?

Some people attempt to justify their unbelief of Christianity on the grounds that the Bible contains irreconcilable difficulties and contradictions. One important role Christians serve in an apologetics-evangelism context is to try to remove obstacles that people have to believing in the truth of Scripture and thus in the truth of historic Christianity.

I once heard an atheist ask how the Gospel writers could conceivably know the nature of the private conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate before his condemnation and crucifixion (e.g., John 18:28–40). After all, the apostles—the proposed authors of the four Gospels—were not privy to this confidential dialogue.

This is a reasonable question. So, how can the Christian respond? There are two explanations to this objection, one purely natural and the other supernatural (or theological), but the two are not mutually exclusive.

First, given the nature of the controversy in Jerusalem surrounding Jesus of Nazareth and his public trial by the Romans (Luke 24:13–24), Pilate may simply have spoken to others about the content of his conversation with Jesus. These verbal details may have been conveyed to other Roman leaders and/or to the Jewish religious leaders and then to the followers of Jesus themselves. Jesus also had secret followers among both the leaders of the Romans (the centurion, Matthew 8:5–13) and the Jews (Nicodemus, John 3:1–15).

Undoubtedly, the apostles were interested in all the details of Jesus’s arrest, trial, and execution. It is not difficult to see how the nature of this conversation may have leaked out, especially to key people involved in the events. Though people today may object that this is “hearsay,” the ancients wouldn’t have shared that objection. They may well have interpreted the conversation as part of the important details conveyed by reliable sources concerning Jesus’s public trial and crucifixion. Furthermore, if the details of this alleged conversation were factually wrong, hostile critics who may also have been knowledgeable about the exact nature of the conversation could have falsified them (serving as a type of unofficial cross-examination).

Second, the content of this private conversation between Jesus and Pilate may have come to the writers of the Gospels through the process of divine inspiration. In the Gospel of John, chapters 14–16, Jesus informed the apostles that the Holy Spirit would come and guide them, inform them, and give them exact recall of the truthful events on Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Consider two biblical statements about the Holy Spirit’s role in inspiring the biblical authors:

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

–John 14:26

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.

–John 16:13

Biblically speaking, divine inspiration could serve to give the apostles new information or to confirm the truth of information drawn from another source. Therefore, from the Christian perspective, both of these explanations could be correct.

So this skeptical objection has a plausible answer and thus doesn’t constitute a viable reason to doubt either the truth of Scripture or the ultimate truth of historic Christianity.


For the resolution of other common Bible challenges and difficulties, see: