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Special Note: “Truth” in the Writings of John

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As an appendix to the just-concluded series “Gnosis and the New Testament”, in which I gave special attention to the Gospel (and Letters) of John, I felt it worth added a note on the Johannine use of the term truth. This is expressed by three related Greek words:

  • a)lh/qeia (al¢¡theia, “truth”)—25 times in the Gospel, 20 in the letters (out of 109 in the NT)
  • a)lhqh/$ (al¢th¢¡s, “true”)—14 times in the Gospel, 3 in the letters (out of 26 in the NT)
  • a)lhqino/$ (al¢thinós, “true, truthful”)—9 times in the Gospel, 4 in the letters + 10 in Revelation (out of 28 in the NT)

While the Johannine concept of “truth” is not, strictly speaking, part of a contrasting pair (i.e. truth vs. falsehood), it is very much part of the dualistic language and imagery which we find in the Gospel (including the discourses of Jesus) and First Letter—on this topic, cf. Part 6 of this series. In particular, I would point to the basic contrast between God (or Christ) and the world (ko/smo$). The world is characterized by darkness, but also in the way that its thinking and acting is limited by that which is apparent, i.e. immediately visible or available to touch, etc. On the other hand, Jesus, as the one who comes from God, the Son sent by the Father, makes manifest what is eternal and Divine. That which comes from God is the Spirit and truth, just as He Himself is Spirit and Truth (4:23-24; 7:28; 8:26); indeed, the Spirit is referred to by Jesus as “the Spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13). When Jesus declares that he is the truth (14:6), this is essentially the same as declaring his (Divine) identity with God the Father (as Son). He has already stated that he speaks the truth from the Father (5:31-32; 8:14ff, 40-46). This truthfulness is, I think, also implicit in the frequent use of the double a)mh\n a)mh\n (am¢n am¢n) which transliterates the Hebrew /m@a*, a word derived from the root /ma, and which essentially refers to something which is firm, reliable, sure, etc. The Semitic idiom, preserved in Greek, and as used by Jesus in the Johannine discourses, emphasizes the truthfulness of Jesus’ words.

Another aspect of the “amen, amen” formula, is that it is often used to introduce specific teachings or sayings by Jesus regarding his own identity, especially of his relationship to the Father and the revelation (of the Father) which he brings—cf. 1:51; 5:19, 24ff; 6:26ff; 8:51, 58; 10:1ff; 13:16, 20, etc. This applies as well to his use of the adjectives a)lhqh/$ and a)lhqino/$. The first of these tends to be used in reference to the truth (and truthfulness) of Jesus’ words and testimony regarding the Father (5:31-32; 7:18; 8:13-14, etc), as well as to others (believers) who testify regarding Jesus (3:33; 10:41; 19:35; 21:24). The second (a)lhqino/$) has much the same meaning, but also carries the connotation of something that is genuine or real. This particular aspect has important Christological significance in the discourses, where Jesus draws upon images from ordinary human (earthly) experience and applies them to himself; for example—

  • the true bread (from heaven, i.e. manna) (6:32); similarly expressed with a)lhqh/$ in 6:55:
  • “my flesh is true food, and blood is true drink”
  • the true vine (15:1)

The same could be understood as implicit in all the “I am” declarations of Jesus—”I am the (true) light… shepherd… door…” etc. The Gospel writer had already made the first association explicit in 1:9, and it is also stated in 1 Jn 2:8:

“…the darkness passes along and the true light already shines (forth)”

This adjective is applied directly to God (the Father), as part of key Christological statements, in John 17:3 (cf. my earlier note on this verse) and 1 Jn 5:20; this latter verse, in particular, encapsulates a powerful summary of Johannine theology:

“And we have seen [i.e. known] that the Son of God comes (here) and has given us (understand)ing through (our) mind, (so) that we should know the true (One), and we are in the true (One), in His Son Yeshua (the Anointed). This One is the true God and (the) Life of-the-Age [i.e. eternal life].”

The word truth (a)lh/qeia) is also important in terms of the believer’s identity in Christ. On this, cf. especially 3:21; 8:31-32 (and my note on v. 32), 44ff; 14:6; 16:13; 17:8, 17ff. I have already discussed Jesus’ declaration in 18:36-37 on several occasions (cf. Part 5 and the note on 8:32). In the letters of John, this aspect of the believer’s identity is expressed through several different idioms used by Jesus in the Gospel:

Note of the Day – October 27 (John 8:32)

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John 8:32 (continued)

In the previous note, I examined the context and setting of the saying of Jesus in Jn 8:31-32; today, I will be giving attention to several key points regarding the saying:

  • The conditional relationship between the first and last clauses
  • The use of the terms “truth” and “free(dom)”, and
  • What it means to know the truth

“If you remain in my word [lo/go$], you are truly [a)lhqw=$] my learners [i.e. disciples], and you will know the truth [a)lh/qeia] and the truth will make/set you free.”

This saying is a conditional sentence, made up of two parts—the second (apodosis) is based on the condition established in the former (protasis):

Protasis—”If [e)a/n] you remain in my word [logo/$]”
Apodosis—”(then) you are truly my learners [i.e. disciples]…”

The apodosis actually has three components—that is, three things which will occur if the condition is met; note how each component involves the word truth (cf. below):

  1. you are truly my disciples
  2. you will know the truth
  3. the truth will make/set you free

It is significant that Jesus does not say “you will be my disciples”, but rather “you are my disciples”—that is, remaining in Jesus’ word demonstrates what these believers (already) are, namely, his true disciples. The verb me/nw (“remain”) is especially important, and is part of the key Johannine vocabulary—more than half of the NT occurrences are in the Gospel (40) and letters (27) of John. It occurs most notably in the famous illustration of the vine and the branches in chapter 15 (vv. 4-7, 9-10, 16). The orientation is eschatological: believers will continue in faith, united with Christ, until the end. This is all the more clear here, by Jesus’ use of the verb in 8:35:

“the slave does not remain [me/nei] into the Age, but the Son (does) remain into the Age”

The expression “into the Age”, often obscured in translation as “forever, eternal(ly)”, etc, specially means into the Age to Come, which in an early Christian context, refers to the return of Christ, the last Judgment, the resurrection and the entry of believers into eternal life. We could paraphrase here as: “the slave (to sin) does not enter into eternal life…”; only the Son possesses this life (5:26, etc), and he gives it to those who trust in him. This is expressed by the phrase “remain in my word“. In the discourses and sayings of Jesus in John, the reference can be: (1) to believers being in Christ (his word, light, etc) [5:35; 8:12; 12:46; 15:9-10; 16:33], and also (2) to his word, etc, being in believers [4:14; 5:38; 6:53; 11:10; 14:17; 15:2ff, 11; 17:10, 13]—for the two mentioned together, cf. Jn 6:56; 14:20; 15:4ff; 17:20-26. Paul has the same two-fold aspect of being “in Christ” and Christ being “in you”. With regard to the term lo/go$ (usually translated “word”), the more common idiom is of the lo/go$ being or remaining in the believer (5:38), and Jesus uses this in our passage as well (8:37, cf. also v. 44)—so both aspects are present in the discourse. Primarily, the lo/go$ refers to the “account”, i.e. the things Jesus said, the substance of his teaching, and so forth; but clearly, in the context of the use of this word in John (1:1ff, etc), it also refers to the presence and power of Christ (the Son) himself.

A key term in 8:31-32, and also the discourse of vv. 31-59, is a)lhqei/a (“truth”), which is likewise a common Johannine word—of the 100+ occurrences in the NT, nearly half are in the Gospel (25) and letters (20) of John. Key references elsewhere in the Gospel are 1:14, 17; 3:21; 4:23-24; 5:33; 14:6, 17; 15:26; 16:7, 13; 17:17, 19. It occurs five more times in this discourse:

  • v. 40: Jesus speaks the truth he has heard from God (the Father)
  • v. 44: the people (Jews) who oppose Jesus are actually children of the devil, of whom Jesus says that from the beginning “he has not stood in the truth” and “the truth is not in him” (note the two aspects)
  • v. 45: Jesus states, “because I give account of [le/gw, rel. to lo/go$] the truth, you do not trust [i.e. believe, have faith in] me”
  • v. 46: again, “if I give account of the truth, through what [i.e. for what reason] do you not trust (in) me?”

The use of the verb e)leuqero/w (“make/set free”) in v. 32 (and 36) is actually quite rare in the New Testament, occurring only in Paul (Rom 6:18, 22; 8:2, 21; Gal 5:1); similarly the adjective e)leu/qero$ (“free”) in vv. 33, 36 is primarily found in the Pauline letters. Indeed, Paul frequently makes use of the idea that God, through Christ, has freed human beings from bondage to sin, delivering (or ransoming, i.e. purchasing) them from the control and dominion of sin and darkness. The dualistic imagery is common in the Gospel of John, connecting Christ’s death with salvation from the dark and evil “world”, but not with this specific language of redemption, which is essentially unique to this passage in John.

What does it mean to know the truth? First, in the context of the discourse, the truth is something which Jesus has heard from the Father and speaks to the people (vv. 40ff). Thus it is intimately connected to the relationship between the Son and God the Father, which is expressed (by Jesus) in the Gospel of John, and which is formulated at the very beginning (1:1ff, using the term lo/go$, “word”). It is not so much the specific content of his teaching, but that his teaching reflects the very word ‘spoken’ by the Father. Elsewhere in the Gospel, knowledge (that is, knowing, ginw/skw/oi@da) means knowledge of the Son (Christ) who reveals the Father. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on John 17:3). Here, 8:47 effectively summarizes Jesus’ (and the Johannine) meaning:

“The one being out of [i.e. from] God hears the words/utterances [r(h/mata] of God; through [i.e. because of] this, you [i.e. the Jewish opponents] do not hear, in that [i.e. because] you are not out of [i.e. from] God”

This saying is vital for a proper understanding of the “gnostic” aspect of Jesus’ teaching in John, as it conveys a very distinctive sense of salvation—the person who hears (that is, receives/accepts) Jesus’ words, which are the words of God the Father, does so because he/she actually comes from [lit. out of, e)k] God. In other words, the believer who is “born” as a child of God through faith (1:12-13) has ‘already’ come (i.e. been born) out of God. There is a paradoxical sense to this understanding, which will be explored further in the article in the series “Gnosis and the New Testament” dealing with election and predestination. Jesus says virtually the same thing in his famous dialogue with Pilate in Jn 18:37:

“…unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born) and unto this I have come into the world: that I might (bear) witness to the truth—every one being out of [e)k, i.e. from] the truth hears my voice.”

If we compare the parallel statement in 8:47 and 18:37, we see that the “truth” is essentially equivalent with God Himself. It is no wonder that Pilate, like the Jews of the discourse, responds with a lack of understanding: “What is (the) truth?”