Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

NT Lesson #15: Truth in the Gospel of John

Posted by Robert C. on April 27, 2007

Becky, my sister-in-law, told me that her daughter asked her point-blank this morning whether she was the tooth fairy. Becky was able to successfully dodge the question, but it got me wondering about the prominent theme of truth and lying in my study of John 7-8 this week. This also touches on some issues I’ve been thinking about in relation to some recent discussion of Abraham 2, and Genesis more generally, where we find heroic characters acting somewhat dubiously from a modern ethical, truth-telling perspective (viz. Abraham lying to Pharoah and Abimelech and Jacob and Rebekah tricking Isaac). These stories give me pause and lead me to reconsider my presuppositions about my understanding of truth, honesty, lying, deception, etc. So here are a few notes on truth that I hope might help in reading John 7-8.

Semitic origins

Before looking at truth in John, let me offer a couple quotes from the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament about truth. The Hebrew word for truth, `emeth, is very closely related to the word for faith, `aman, which is where we get the word “amen.” I think this “affirming” connotation is very interesting, esp. for reading the last part of John 8. What I think is particularly interesting in the TDNT entry is the use of these terms in (ancient) Rabbinic Judaism. First, here’s a note about the legal/judgment connotations (and keep in mind the discussions we’ve had on justice over the last week or two):

As in the OT, `emeth is the basis of all legal judgment; nor should we ignore the fact that this involves a religious statement, since the execution of law is a religious function. “The man who on the basis of `emeth reaches a verdict which is `emeth attains to the life of the world to come” (Tanch. 7, p. 31, Buber), and “causes the Shekinah to dwell in Israel”; whereas a judge who judges without `emeth “causes the Shekinah to depart” (b. Sanh., 7a).

It is self-evident that the judgment of the divine Judge rests on the same foundation. “The judgment (of God) is a judgment of `emeth” says Akiba Ab., 3, 16; or again: “He judges all thing according to `emeth” M. Ex. 14:28; or again: “All should recognise and bear witness that His judgment is a judgment of `emeth,” Ex. r. on 6:2.

Next, consider the close relationship in Rabbinic Judaism between truth and Torah, the Word, and sealing:

Beyond this, however, the very essence of God is `emeth, so that it may be said conversely that `emeth has its essence in God. The “God of `emeth” is the “Judge of `emeth” (b. Ber., 46b). “As Thou art `emeth so is Thy Word `emeth, for it is said: ‘For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven’ (Ps. 119:89)” (Ex. r. on 29:1). Hence the Torah as the expression of the divine Word and essence is `emeth (Midr. Ps. 25 § 11). This thought of the divine `emeth finds powerful symbolical expression in the image of God’s seal. “God’s seal is `emeth. What does `emeth mean? That He, God, lives, and is an everlasting King” (j Sanh., 18a). EMT (`emeth) is formed from the initial letters of Elohim, melek [king], and tamid [eternal]. From this process, and from its prior history (AO, 2), it is obvious that what we have here is not an infusion of content from the concept of God, but formal exegetical play which gives occasion to link with what is said about God a concept which is felt to be suitable for the purpose. There is an obvious difference at this point from Greek aletheia and the infusion of content essential to it.

Hellenistic connotations

The Greek word aletheia means, etymologically “unconcealment.” Perhaps we might think about this in the way we talk about “uncovering facts”:

As in judicial language the aletheia is the actual state of affairs to be maintained against different statements, so historians use it to denote real events as distinct from myths, and philosophers to indicate real being in the absolute sense. The adjective alethes declares that a thing really is as it is seen or represented, and can take on . . . the force of “proper” or “genuine.” . . . [T]he most common antonyms are pseudos (“deception”) and doxa (“appearance” or “mere opinion”), which conceal or replace the truth.

There’s another “dualistic” use of the term which I think is quite interesting and relevant, since it differs from the representational aspect of aletheia just described:

If in philosophy aletheia is understood as true being in distinction from the worldly phenomena which in the first instance appear as being, and if in Plato especially this true being is understood as the world of ideas which is immune from becoming and perishing, which is concealed from the senses and which may be comprehended in thinking, aletheia takes on more and more the sense of “true and genuine reality,” and its opposite becomes eidolon (“reflection” or “appearance”). . . . If Plato still uses aletheia formally to denote genuineness, or that which truly is, in Hellenism it comes to imply the “eternal” or “divine” in the sense of a cosmological dualism. It still retains the sense of genuineness, since the divine being is that in which man must come to share in order to be saved (soteria) and thus to attain to his own genuine or proper being. Yet to different degrees in different strata the presupposition is abandoned that the aletheia is accessible to thought, since the true being of man is no longer seen in thinking. The aletheia is closed to man as such, and he comes to share in it only when the limits of humanity are transcended, whether in ecstasy or by revelation from the divine sphere. In this sense aletheia becomes an “eschatological” concept, and this dualistically eschatological understanding of aletheia is developed by Gnosticism, Philo and Plotinus.

It is this connotation that is a step away from a representational notion of truth that I think is important to remember in understanding the term truth as it is used in scripture (though I don’t mean to imply the scriptures are univocal in their usage…). There’s also an interesting relationship between truth and knowledge in gnosticism which also has bearing on the historical connotations of the word, but this is already too long, and I don’t pretend to know much about gnosticism.

The gospel of John

Here is a list of passages in John that use the word “truth” (KJV), and here are passages using the the term “true” (KJV). We might group these usages as follows:

Truth and the Word. First, notice that the most frequent occurnence of the word in the context of saying or witnessing something, consistent with an aspect of `emeth described above: 4:37; 5:31-33; 8:13-14, 17, 26, 44-46; 10:41; 16:7,13; 17:17; 18:37-38; 19:35; 21:24. (Notice these are all given on one page by following the link.)

Truth and the Spirit. Another notable use of truth is as it occurs together with Spirit: John 4:23-24; 14:17; 15:26. I think these passages emphasize the spiritual/heavenly nature of truth, as opposed to that which is fleshy or earthly (as the Greek pneuma is often contrasted with). I think this complements the other-worldly nature of truth described above as it relates philosophical dualism.

God is truth. There seems to be a very interesting relationship between God/Christ as truth (or truth proceeding forth from God) and judgment, justice, and grace (esp. in 8:16, 26 where the Father and Son’s judgment is considered “true judgment”). This is too much to get into now, but here are some passages that I think get at this connection: John 1:14, 17; 3:33; 6:3; 7:18, 28; 14:6; 15:1; 17:3, 19.

Truth and light. Getting back to the etymology of aletheia, John couples truth and light in a couple of passages that I think are very interesting from a Mormon perspective since light is so prominent in scriptures like D&C 88 and 93, and this unconcealing aspect of light is such a remarkable metaphor for thinking about revelation, the temple veil, intelligences and the light of Christ, mysteries, etc.: John 1:9; 3:21.

John 7-8

How might this little word-study exercise help us read John 7-8? This is already too long, so let me just very briefly (and irreponsibly) sketch some ideas.

It seems we should think about truth as something that is in God that can be imparted to us if we believe Christ—not like a propositional/representational type of factoid or concept, but something more like light, or the Spirit, or glory, something that affects our way of being and doing (cf. John 3:18; 7:17). Christ honored his father and the Father honored Christ in return (8:49, 54). We too, can come to know truth and have truth in us (and hence become one with the Father and the Son by the Spirit of truth) if and only if we show faith (`aman) by affirming, receiving and declaring Christ rather than denying Christ, or lying about or denying the light that shines before us from (or through) Christ. At the end of John 8, I think we see an affirming-dynamic between the Father and the Son that is similar to what we saw in Matthew 16:16ff between Christ and Peter, a dynamic that is contrasted by the Jews’ rejection of Christ at the end of chapter 8. Accepting or believing Christ, then, is tantamount to receiving the glory/truth/light of the Father which comes to us spiritually by grace (John 1:14), not according to the flesh (John 8:15).

I’m not sure how this will affect how I think about deception in Old Testament narrative, but I think truth is a much richer concept than simply “telling the truth,” or having an intellectual grasp of some notion of reality.  More importantly, I still don’t know what I’ll say to my kids when they ask if I’m the tooth fairy.  Nevertheless, having written this will hopefully help us read John with a bit more understanding and awareness….

2 Responses to “NT Lesson #15: Truth in the Gospel of John”

  1. robf said

    Thanks Robert. My brain is going to hurt all weekend thinking about this!

  2. robf said

    BTW, This American Life had a great segment a few years ago about the truth/revelation of the Tooth Fairy. Worth a listen.

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