Skeptical Objection: How could the Gospel writers possibly know the content of Jesus’ “private” conversation with Pontius Pilate that took place just before his crucifixion (e.g., John 18:28-40)?
Some people attempt to justify their unbelief of Christianity on the grounds that the Bible contains irreconcilable difficulties and contradictions. A skeptical friend recently asked me how the Gospel writers could conceivably know the nature of the personal conversation that Jesus had with Pontius Pilate. After all, the apostles were not privy to this confidential dialogue.
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 subsequently to the followers of Jesus themselves. Jesus also had secret followers among both the leaders of the Romans (Centurion, Matthew 8:5-13) and the Jews (Nicodemus, John 3:1-15).
Undoubtedly, the apostles were interested in all the details that transpired concerning Jesus’ arrest, trial, and subsequent execution. It is not difficult to see how the substance 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 it as another important detail conveyed by reliable sources concerning Jesus’ public trial and crucifixion. Further, if the details given of this alleged conversation were factually wrong, hostile critics who may also have been knowledgeable about the exact nature of this 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 concerning Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Consider these 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, NIV).
“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13, NIV).
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.
For the resolution of other Bible difficulties, see Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982) and Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Victor Baker Books, USA 1992).