“What is truth?” (part 1)

You can read the original post on what I mean by “echo-location” here

The question hovered in the air between Pilate and Jesus, unanswered. What did Pilate mean by it? Surely, he wasn’t inviting Jesus to pull up a chair and chat about philosophy. Nor was he asking as a seeker of truth, as if he saw in Jesus a person who held the secret knowledge for which he longed. Rather, I hear a kind of world-weary cynicism. If there is disdain in Pilate’s voice, it’s not personal disdain for Jesus; it’s the antipathy of a career politician who has repeatedly found himself at the mercy of forces outside his control. Look, friend, he seems to say. I know you’re innocent. But do you understand where all this is going? I’m probably going to have to execute you just to keep the peace. And you want to talk about truth?

Pilate’s rhetorical question, of course, was in response to something Jesus said: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37, NRSVUE). But what does it mean to “testify” or “belong” to the truth? Here, we need to refer to another, better-known saying of Jesus which like this one only appears in the gospel of John: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6).

Often, in today’s world, we take “truth” to refer to what is factual. But we also use the word in other, harder to define ways. We speak of true enlightenment; we counsel people to be true to themselves; we say that some stories ring true even if they’re works of fiction. “Truth” in these cases refers to something more like trustworthiness, faithfulness, or even proper alignment than mere factuality.

And that, as it turns out, is closer to the Hebrew meaning which Jesus seems to echo.

What is truth? And how can truth be a “way”? Here, I think, we need to hear echoes of the Psalms. But first, a little background on language. When Jesus told his disciples “I am the way and the truth and the life,” he probably spoke in Aramaic, which John translates into Greek (and we translate into English). There is also a Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, created some 200 years before Christ for the benefit of Greek-speaking Jews.

The odd-sounding name derives from the Latin for the number 70, reflecting the tradition that six translators were chosen from each of the twelve tribes of Israel (thus 72 in all), who did their work independently but produced identical translations. When New Testament writers quote from the Old, they often echo the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text.

When John therefore translates Jesus’ saying, he uses the same Greek words for “way” and “truth” that are found numerous times in the Septuagint translation of the Psalms. Moreover, in the Psalms, “way” and “truth” often go hand in hand. In Psalm 86, for example, in the midst of a plea for help, the psalmist prays:

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
(Ps 86:11)

The psalmist doesn’t ask to speak the truth or know the truth, but to walk in it, undivided in his devotion, focused on the proper fear of the LORD. “Truth” here is nearly synonymous with “way.” Or consider Psalm 25:

Good and upright is the Lord;
    therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right
    and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
    for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
(Ps 25:8-10)

The Hebrew word translated as “truth” in Psalm 86 is translated instead as “faithfulness” here. Psalm 25 helps us see that “truth” or “faithfulness” is more about fidelity than factuality. It’s what we mean when we say that a person is true, as opposed to a statement being true. When “steadfast love” and “truth/faithfulness” are paired in the Psalms, the words often speak of the character of God, to say that he is true to his covenant promises, and that his way is the right and trustworthy way. Here in Psalm 25, the suggestion is that those who follow that way will be true to God and to the covenant in turn.

These echoes of the Psalms help us to understand what I believe Jesus wanted to teach his disciples. Moreover, they help us deepen and broaden the somewhat limited way in which Jesus’ words are often used. We’ll explore all this in the second half of this post.