But I am going to begin to unfold the biblical usage or Johannine conception of “truth” in this blog series. In this regard, a foundational Bible verse for the Christian journalist is John 1:17:
The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
But, before I get to John 1:17, I want to review the common philosophic conception of truth as also given in the Scriptures. Of course, this brief review will take us to the conversation between the Roman Pilate and the Jew Jesus. We pick up the narrative in John 18.
Jesus is standing before Pilate at the Palace door having been accused by the Jewish Sanhedrin of blasphemy and criminal behavior. The European Pilate clearly sees no political threat in Jesus. He hasn’t noticed Jesus stirring up political rebellion against the Romans. Jesus is not claiming to be the king or emperor of the Roman Empire. In fact, it is a Jewish matter and Pilate wants it all to go away. Still, Pilate is intrigued: How can a king reign over a non-kingdom? Where is this “king’s” army and where are his administrators, his pro-curators? Here is Jesus talking about another-world kingdom where “truth” (and not power, might, military prowess, prosperity, etc.) but “truth” is the guiding principle. Pilate asks Jesus a straight forward, political question about His kingdom: “Are you the king of the Jews?” and Jesus responds by talking about philosophy, about “truth.” It’s a very strange reply. Jesus doesn’t even answer Pilate’s rather simple question.
As a successful political operative, Pilate, seeing no political threat in Jesus, now becomes dismissive of Jesus’ kingdom-of-truth, and he famously replies, “What is truth” (vs. 38). I would paraphrase Pilate’s response thusly:
What is truth? I have heard all my life of various truths, from Plato to Aristotle to Epicurus to Seneca the Stoic, each asserting that it was the truth, and each disagreeing with the other. So I say, Who is to decide what is truth and what is not truth? (vs. 38)
We know Pilate’s attitude is a cynical and dismissive assertion, and not a genuine, searching inquiry because Jesus doesn’t respond with, ”Pilate, I am the truth,” like He did with the genuine Thomas question earlier when Thomas asked Jesus “how can we know the way?” (John 14:6). God tells us that whoever genuinely seeks the truth, God will reveal the truth. Jesus hides from no genuine seeker because no one genuinely seeks Him unless God first beckons that person (Prov. 2:4-5; Ps. 138:6; Matt 7:7; Acts 8:26-35; but see John 7:34). But to Pilate, Jesus is silent at this point, because Pilate wasn’t really interested in finding the “truth.”
To repeat, Pilate’s statement — “What is truth” (vs. 38) –– is not a question. It is an assertion. The Roman pro-curator was educated in the European part of theRoman Empire. Therefore, he was educated in the current philosophies of his day. Even if he were not philosophically self-conscious, but I believe he was because no one got to his position without being educated, smart and crafty, he still could not avoid the prevailing philosophic world-view of the Roman Empire of his day. He was a creature of his culture, just as you and I are creatures of our culture.
And what was that general world-view of 1st centuryRome?
1) The Roman culture was cosmopolitan. That great expansive Roman Empire had politically united a huge variety of races, cultures, languages, religions and world-views. And all of this human diversity was mingling and trading under the protection of the powerful Roman army.
2) The Roman culture was impersonal. Because of the mingling of so many different nationalities, races, cultures, etc., group loyalties broke down and people thought of themselves simply as “Romans,” not as hyphenated Romans. For example, Paul calls himself (and Silas) a “Roman,” not a “Jewish-Roman” or a “Christian-Roman” in Acts 22:25 (16:37; Luke doesn’t use hyphenated identities when he mentions the “Cyrenian” in Luke 23:26, nor does Luke quote the Roman soldier using a hyphen when he mentions “Egyptian” in Acts 21:38;). But becauseRome was so enormous, the normal person couldn’t relate to theRoman Empire, and so that individual turned inward to find meaning to life. And because of this turning inward, there was a revival of religious interest, what some scholars call the Hellenistic quest for salvation. People were looking for hope and peace of mind and direction for their lives in an impersonal and constantly changing Empire. Indeed, Paul may be speaking to this very issue of the fervor of cultural religiosity in Gal. 4:4 when he writes, “But when the time had fully come, God send his Son…”
3) The Roman culture was syncretistic. That is, it was a time of combining and meshing and assimilating together of all sorts of ideas and beliefs into a hodge-podge of world-views. There were seemingly endless combinations of Greek philosophical schools of thought with the so-called “mystery religions” from all over the far-flungRoman Empire. We can get a glimpse of this in Paul’s speech in Acts 17.
Philosophically, the 4 major schools of thought impacting Pilate were Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism and Aristotelianism — traces or hints of all of which can be found in the writings of Paul and other New Testament writers.
There is a great deal in Paul’s letters which seems to be interrelated with Hellenistic philosophical concepts. Paul was a native ofTarsus, a city in the southeastern corner of modernTurkey. As a Hellenistic city,Tarsuswas deeply influenced by Greek culture, religion, language, and institutions. Paul’s letters demonstrate that he was fluent in an educated style of Greek, and his citation of Hellenistic poets (1 Cor. 15:33, Acts 17:28, Titus 1:12) points to the probability that Paul was the beneficiary of a formal Greek education. At the very least, he was familiar with the philosophical zeitgeist and was able to hold his own with Greek philosophers as evidenced, again, by his interaction with the Stoics and Epicureans in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).
Like Plato, Paul viewed the world as temporal and transitory (1 Cor. 7:31) and he identified with the concept of “shadows” representing a perfect archetype in the eternal realm (Col. 2:17). Accordingly, Paul explained to the Corinthians, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). This concept also is conveyed in the letter to the Galatians where, like the author of Hebrews, Paul sees the archetype for the city ofGod’s people as “theJerusalem that is above” (Gal. 4:26) existing in the spiritual realm (cf. Heb. 12:22). Paul, like Plato also balanced the concerns of the body to those of the soul (Phil. 4:11-13, 1 Tim. 6:6-8).
Aristotle gave the philosophical discussion of “household management” a particular outline that does not occur elsewhere — not in the Hebrew Bible, not in Plato, and not among the Stoics. Aristotle observed in his book, Politics that a “house” includes three relationships, “master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.”
While one cannot maintain that the Pauline discussions of household in Colossians 3:18–4:1 and Ephesians 5:21–6:4 are directly dependent upon a reading of Aristotle, yet the Pauline structure has an Aristotelian sense to it.
The question remains as to whether Aristotle may have influenced the writers of the New Testament. It is doubtful that any of the writers of the New Testament were acquainted at first hand with Aristotle. However, it is conceivable that certain authors may have been influenced by writings which drew upon Aristotle. Many Aristotelian features may be found in the New Testament, but then, since Aristotle was making universal observations about the public arena, it is not surprising that any subsequent writings should do the same.
We find the specific mention of Stoic philosophers in Acts 17:18. Paul’s use of Stoic thought constructs was significantly more pronounced than his use of Platonism or Aristotelianism. Stoicism instilled a very austere, virtue based ethos in its adherents. God was viewed as the active principle or reason, logos, which (not who) acts upon the passive principle or matter. Since all nature was imbued with universal reason, logos, all events form part of a goal-directed rational process and a rigorous causation, nothing is left to chance. So we get a teleological and a predestinational sense in Stoicism.
Paul agreed with the Stoics that God (logos) was made evident through nature (Rom 1:20). The Stoics believed that God “gives everything its form and internal cohesion,” an idea that Paul agreed with as he speaks of Christ in Col. 1:17.
The Stoics had a deterministic worldview which said that everything worked together for the overall well-being of the universe. Paul was fully committed to the sovereignty and providence of God and believed that all things contributed to the overall well-being of the believer (Rom 8:28). This view of God’s sovereignty also helped shape Paul’s understanding of predestination.
Another commonality between Paul and the Stoics is found in the aspect of moral exhortation. The Pauline epistles routinely include ethical admonishment (Phil 4:2-9, Col 3:1-17, 1Thes 4:1-12) and household rules (Eph 5:22-33, Col 3:18-4:1). In his letter to the Galatians and to Titus, this exhortation takes on the form of the Stoic virtue/vice list (Gal 5:19-26, Tit 3:3-8).
The Epicureans argued for a materialistic universe where all gods are banished and every act is to further and secure personal happiness. The Epicureans thought Paul’s Christian teaching was blasphemy or at the very least, impious because Paul came to Athens in Act 17 teaching a God who had become man, who had suffered and died to accomplish the utmost self-sacrifice, who had risen from the dead and returned to live among men to guide their lives, and who at last, would judge all men and according to their deeds, reward or punish them in a future world. To the Epicureans, this awful teaching was a step backward into superstition and dangerous folly.
Finally, Paul’s apologetic before the council of the Areopagus wherein he quotes pagan works by Epiminides and Aratus demonstrates his willingness to seize cultural elements and freely appropriate them for evangelistic purposes (Acts 17:16-34). Jerram Barrs, in his book The Heart of Evangelism, notes this assimilation in Paul’s approach to communicating the gospel.
Although he freely used philosophical categories and schools of thought, Paul’s understanding of philosophy was always informed by Scripture which is evidenced by his stern warnings against being carried away by vain philosophy (Col. 2:8, 1Tim. 6:20) or falling prey to the wily philosopher (1 Cor. 1:20).
But there was more simmering in the Roman cultural stew than just rational philosophic ideas. There was also religion. We find the various so-called “mystery religions.” They are called “mystery religions” because of their use of secret ceremonies that were thought to bring their initiates salvation and peace of mind. These religions sought to satisfy the fundamental human hunger for some kind of higher level of life (i.e., salvation) that was acute during this time. These religions would worship fertility, or the Moon, or the Sun, or Mother earth, or the Emperor, or the divine Goddess of the Universe, human physiognomy, or whatever. And all of this was mixed and matched in a smorgasbord of world-views. It was a time of open yearning by homo adoranus for something or someone to adore or worship through ritual, ceremony and public gatherings.
In the letter to the Ephesian church Paul uses the word mystery (musthrion) 7 times, more than in any other book of the Bible (5 times to the Corinthians, 4 times to the Colossians, 20 times over all). This choice of words demonstrates Paul’s familiarity with the mystery religions and how thoroughly steeped the Ephesians would have been in the mysteries associated with the cult of Artemis which occupied the center of that city’s civic and economic life.
The mystery cults seem to show up in Paul’s language in Col. 1:26. In I Cor. 4:9 we get his use of an athletic illustration with religious overtones.Tarsuswas the headquarters of the Mithra religion andCorinth,AntiochandEphesuswere centers of other mystery religions. In Phil. 4:12 Paul talks of “learning the secret,” and in Eph. 1:13 he refers to being “marked with a seal.” In 1 Cor. 2:6-7 andCol.1:28 he refers to having “secret wisdom” which “has been hidden” from others. All of this mystery religion language shows that Paul (and other New Testament writers) was aware of the religious movements of the day and could use contemporary language when speaking of the one true religion – Christianity.
To state the obvious: It would have been virtually impossible for Pilate or Paul to have escaped their upbringing without being impacted by Hellenistic philosophy and Roman mystery religions, yet they both utilized philosophical and religious constructs as part of a framework from which to present their worldview to their Hellenistic audience in a culturally relevant and contextualized way.
In short, Pilate when he spoke to Jesus lived in a secular and pluralistic intellectual atmosphere very similar to today’s American culture. Is it any wonder that with this intellectual background, in the face of Jesus’ claim to be a “king born to testify to the truth” yet without a visible kingdom or army or power, and with Jesus being charged with a capital crime by His own Jewish people, that Pilate, the political opportunist (John 19:12, 16) could shrug and say,
“What a circus? We don’t know the truth? You Jews decide what your own truth is. Leave me out of it”
Pilate’s response was no different than what we hear today from our post-modern cultural, academic and media “gatekeepers” (I Chron. 9:19). Truth depends on who you are and where you are from. Truth is seen to be culturally relative and power-based. What is true for one group is not true for another group. By whose standards are we to judge? If you are a European (Roman), truth is one thing. If you are religious or ethnic (Sanhedrin), truth might be something different. If you are “circumcised of the heart” (Jesus and His followers), truth will be something different still. Who’s to know? Who is to decide? What difference does it make, as long as we have peace of mind, personal prosperity, social stability, and freedom to be left alone?
Scriptures put this relativistic attitude to flight.
To bring all this back to the point of the blog, there is philosophic truth being taught in the Bible and the writers of the Bible seem to be familiar with the philosophic and religious currents of the day. The Biblical writers were not beguiled by these currents as they brought captive all these ideas to the sovereign knowledge of the Christ.
For the Christian journalist, there is yet another aspect of truth given in John 1:17 and I will look at that in a later blog.