What Is Truth And How Do We Know It?

Aletheia is the Greek term for truth generally used in the New Testament, and its meaning, rooted in a Hebrew understanding of truth, is in many ways different from the way “truth” seems to be understood by a great number of people in the church.

Particularly in my slice of the Christian community, truth is  comprehensive term for all the things we believe:  our creeds, our doctrines, something many Christians refer to as “propositional truth.”

So, to quote the ancient antagonist Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?”  What is aletheia?

The Hebrew Bible/The Old Testament

Because the Christian faith is grounded in the ancient scriptures of the Hebrew Bible, we have to begin there.  The Hebrew term commonly translated “truth” is ’emet’.  While the LXX regularly translates ’emet’ as aletheia, the English versions sometimes render it “truth” and sometimes “faithfulness.”

According to one of my sources, “the majority of Old Testament scholars claim that for the Hebrew writers, ” ‘truth’ is close to faithfulness in meaning, suggesting the idea of stability, firmness, or reliability.”

A. Jepsen writes, “…’emet’ was used of things that had to be proved to be reliable…. ‘Reliability’ would be the best comprehensive word in English to convey the idea … ’emet’ is that on which others can rely…. [and] Yahweh is … the God in whose word and work one can place complete confidence.”

This suggests, then, that the idea of truth in the Old Testament is “not merely theoretical or abstract, but is grounded in the faithfulness of God.”

The New Testament

This brings us to the New Testament, which contains the life of Christ, the narrative of the birth of the Christian church, and the teachings of the early apostles of Christianity, especially Saint Paul who wrote about the great salvation themes of the Christian faith.

Many students of the Bible believe that the Hebrew concept of ’emet’, along with its frequent companion hesed (steadfast love), are behind the Apostle John’s description of Jesus Christ in the opening chapter of his Gospel.  He writes,

1 In the beginning [a likely reference to the opening words of Genesis] was the Word [Greek: logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind….14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth [aletheia].

Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself this way:

6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth [aletheia] and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Back to Saint Paul, he uses this same term, aletheia, perhaps most notably, as a synonym for the gospel itself.  The message of Christ, his death, and his resurrection, are the “truth of the Gospel.”  He also uses the word in a broader sense of “God’s revelation of his will through the law or … through Creation.”

Thus, much like the Hebrew term ’emet‘, aletheia is not merely religious ideas and concepts to be defined and believed.  Aletheia is transcendent and pragmatic.

Aletheia doesn’t exactly mean “true” in the sense of mathematically correct, or like “true” in a true/false exam.  It carries a broader meaning as expressed by the following ideas:  truthfulness, dependability, righteousness, honesty, genuineness, authenticity.  Aletheia is “reality as opposed to appearance.”

So when Pontius Pilate ask, “What is true?, he was, in fact, like so many people today, asking, “What is real?”


In summary, then, the Hebrew and Greek words for truth are not static.  They have a range of contextual meanings.  But for the Christian, truth is rooted in the very nature of God who is faithful and true.

We know truth because he has chosen to reveal himself to human persons, first in his Creation.  Psalm 19 tells us, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

The revelation of God in Creation is teaser of sorts.  It’s not enough to tell us everything we need to know about God and the life he’s given us.  Thus, he has also revealed his nature—and therefore what is true and untrue, right and wrong—in his word, the Holy Scriptures.  Christians believe that God has spoken through the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New.

Lastly, we hear this mantra:  truth is relative and all religions are essentially the same.  Yes, there are common elements in the great world religions, but no leader in any of the great religions would claim that all religions are essentially the same.  In fact, they are so different, we have extraordinary difficulties understanding one another.

Neither is truth relative.  As C. S. Lewis rightly argued, we may deny that there is anything like absolute truth, but we spend a great deal of our time and energy, talking about what might and might not be true.  The human quest for truth, to me, suggests that there are, in fact, absolutes to be found.  Our Founding Fathers called them “unalienable rights,” including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence used the term “divine rights,” but Ben Franklin suggested “unalienable” as a word that was more, may I say, politically correct.

Essentially, though, our American Revolution was based on the common notion that somethings are true, some are not.  Some things are right, some are wrong.  The Christian believes that truth is revealed in the Bible and in God’s Son, who was full of grace and truth.

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