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Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel

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image of Biblical Interpretation

In the Roman world, torture, conceived as a mechanism to extract truth from flesh, was used in judicial interrogation, most commonly in interrogation of slaves and other low-status persons. The flogging of Jesus in John 19:1-3, a flogging that occurs in the midst of the trial before Pilate, is best read as an instance of such judicial torture. If understood as an act of judicial torture, the flogging is also an act of witnessing to the truth: the flesh of the Johannine Jesus is flush with truth (John 1:14). And because Jesus' flesh is flush with truth, the Johannine passion narrative is an account of torture, torture as defined in Roman law: "By torture we mean the infliction of anguish and agony on the body to elicit the truth" (Dig. As I trace the lineaments of truth in Jesus' corpus, I ask how the Fourth Gospel implicates the project of torture. Confronted by the horror of a U.S. policy of distilling truth from foreign bodies, I ask this question urgently. Is it possible to embrace flesh as a locus of truth and still to condemn the practice of torture? Through my carnal reading of the Johannine passion narrative, I attempt to do so.


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