What is truth?

 on March 4, 2024

The oldest surviving piece of text from any Gospel in the New Testament is a tiny fragment from the Gospel of John. It dates from about the year 130 CE and is preserved in the Rylands Library in Manchester, England. It contains the words of Jesus to Pilate: ‘For this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth.’ We know from the gospel text that Pilate replied to Jesus: ‘What is truth?’ We do not know in what way Pilate asked this question. Was he being cynical or sarcastic, for who can know what truth is? Or was Pilate beginning to wonder if this calm prisoner before him was a holy man who might have the answer.

Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?’ has become a catchphrase for the belief that truth is only a matter of opinion. Truth in our current time also has been questioned in many ways by politicians, jurists, and theologians. Determining what is truth has become more com- plicated by the development of internet communication and the proliferation of social media. In recent years the issues of disinformation and misinformation have raised serious concerns for the safety and well-being of people. That danger of harm to others has led to violence, civil unrest, and political upheaval. The question has changed from what is truth to whose truth do you believe and trust?

The statement of Jesus which prompts Pilate’s question is not always given as much attention. ‘For this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world to testify to the truth.’ Jesus sums up the purpose of his life in this sentence. Unfortunately for us, he does not go on to explain what he means by truth; however, in his Hebrew language, truth was a combination of what is real and faithful. Jesus is affirming that God is real and faithful in God’s relationship with humanity.

God was with the people in their anguish and hardship. This message was welcomed by the crowds of people who followed Jesus into Jerusalem and shouted, ‘Hosanna’. They believed that Jesus was sent by God to lead them out of the oppression of Roman occupation, like Moses had led their ancestors out of Egypt, but the people were mistaken. Jesus had not come to be a second Moses. He brought a more powerful and lasting truth about their relationship with God. This was not what the people wanted to hear, so in disappointment and despair, they deserted him.

The death of Jesus seemed to be the defeat of the truth he proclaimed, even to his disciples, but in the days and weeks following his death, the disciples learned that his truth would prevail. The truth Jesus proclaimed was not an intellectual answer to what is right or wrong. It was not and is not a simple answer to the competing claims to truth in human society. The truth Jesus proclaimed posed moral questions: What is Justice? What is Compassion? How do you love your neighbour? How do you love God?

Jesus lived the truth he testified in his ministry. He developed relationships with people from all walks of life: male and female, rich and poor, powerful and weak, Jew and Samaritan. He had harsh words for those who used the Hebrew scriptures to browbeat the people into fear of God’s wrath instead of assuring the people of God’s mercy and love. In our world today, the truth about God loving humanity is opposed by similar forces that led to the death of Jesus. God is used as justification for prejudice and aggression against anyone different in their understanding and worship of God. Justice and compassion are inconvenient obstacles in the pursuit of power and selfrighteous importance.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to keep alive the truth that Jesus lived and testified to Pilate, the truth that God is real and that God is faithful with love for all God’s creation and all God’s people.

  • Sharyn Hall

    The Reverend Canon Dr. Sharyn Hall is an honorary member of the clergy at Christ's Church Cathedral, Hamilton.

Skip to content