John 1:17: Where “Truth” Depends on Your Translation (!)

Today we’re considering John 1: 17, which reads (in the NIV translation): “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

Seems simple enough, right? Law comes from men; grace and truth come through Jesus Christ.

Except, wait. Stop. Back up.

I understand the part about grace having come through Jesus Christ. No problem; beautiful. But then John goes a lot further than that, doesn’t he? He actually says that before God incarnated himself as Jesus Christ, truth itself didn’t exist.

Unless I’m missing something here (and I’m sure I am) John is here saying that when his father was a child, and through all of time before then, there was no such thing as truth.

I didn’t start this commentary so that I could e-preach about John—so that I could in essence tell people what John meant by what he wrote. There are enough people in the world telling other people what the Bible means. I started it as a means by which my readers and I together could explore, wonder at, and ponder the incomparable spiritual and aesthetic genius of John.

Now would be one of the pondering times. Because how it could be that before Christ no one on earth had any concept of the truth? But how else are we to read “truth came through Jesus Christ.”? I’ve now read every commentary on John 1:17 in my personal library or that I could find on-line—and, frankly, no one seems to know how to read it. Virtually everything I read just bunny-hopped right over the word “truth” here. “Grace” everyone was great with; “truth” they all ignored.

So then I plugged John 1:17 into each of the 20 English-language translations of the Bible available at www.biblegateway.com. And guess what I found? At John 1:17 all of the Bibles use the word “truth”—except for the three that don’t.

The Message says, “This endless knowing and understanding.”

The New Living Translation reads, “God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ.”

Finally, the Worldwide English Bible translates John 1:17 as, “Moses gave the law, but Jesus Christ gave this loving kindness and truth.” (Italics mine.)

So here we see three English translations of the Bible that do not say what the other 17 do.

Proof yet again that Christianity isn’t anywhere near as simple as we’re sometimes inclined to believe it is.

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • http://emphaticasterisk.com Lindsey

    It doesn't say that grace and truth were "created" through Jesus Christ, but that they CAME through him- a word picture like a door. What was on the other side of the door may well have always existed, but it didn't COME to where we could know it until Jesus Christ existed, who is the door.

    Likewise we can only come through the Father through him- we already exist, God already existed, but Christ becomes the pathway for our knowledge to be made full.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    But what possible functional difference could there be between "the truth was actually there before Jesus," and "people couldn't know the truth before Jesus"? They amount to the same thing. Whether or not something "really" exists becomes irrelevant if at the same time you're claiming it's unknowable. What you've said here is still saying that, before Christ, people couldn't know the truth. (You said, " [The truth] didn't COME to where we could know it until Jesus Christ existed.]"

    What you mean with that is that people couldn't know the truth of JESUS until Jesus arrived. Which is certainly true. But that's a different thought than the one John actually wrote.

  • http://emphaticasterisk.com Lindsey

    That is not in the least bit what I was saying, John. I was saying that we couldn't know the fullness of truth before Jesus arrived, because Jesus IS the fullness of truth. We did not know the grace and compassion of God nor did we know the truth of his plan to deliver us from the bondage of sin, nor could we experience the full reality of God's intentions for our lives. Lastly, and greatest of all, we were incapable of experiencing the fullness of LOVE before Christ, for Christ is the one who taught us that God is love. (Through John, funnily enough.)

    And there is a HUGE, HUGE difference between something existing that we cannot see or experience the fullness of, and it not existing. Really. Don't even try to pretend those two things are synonymous.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    "Cannot see or experience the fullness of" isn't the same as what I said, which was exactly what you said, which was that the truth before Christ wasn't KNOWABLE. "Cannot see or experience the fullness of" is a whole different order of possibility than is "not knowable." I never said what you're admonishing me not to.

    And, again, the truth you've described here–the truth of Jesus—is a CONDITIONAL truth—which is categorically different than the kind of universal, human, even-before-Christ truth that is typically connoted by the word "truth."

    Anyway. Let's not go round and round on this, k? Let's wait and see what anyone says, if you don't mind.

  • http://emphaticasterisk.com Lindsey

    Well, duh. But Jesus himself said that he was THE truth, THE way, THE light, etc.

    And obviously he didn't exist before he existed, per say, so John probably meant to say exactly what he did.

    He didn't mean "the entire truth of human existence," but a very particular kind of truth, which Jesus himself claimed that he was.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    But this is what's so fascinating. You're saying that what John MEANT isn't what he actually, physically said. He didn't in any way qualify or modify the word "truth." You're doing that for him.

    If he meant to refer to a very particular and limited idea of the truth, you'd think he'd say so, since he's so clearly a masterful writer. Writers of his caliber are ALL about specificity. They don't leave a bunch of stuff behind their words for other people to clean up. They mean exactly what they say.

    Anyway, I think you're right about what he meant.

    What's interesting to me is how perfectly this passage captures how DIFFERENTLY we Christians use language than do non-Christians. Non-Christians are often DERANGED at how readily and smugly Christians claim, for instance, the "truth" as their own. When, really, look how quickly you and I came to the conclusion that the "truth" to which John so superbly points isn't, in fact, what the rest of the world means by the word "truth" at all.

  • Adam Orr

    Hey John.

    Great question. I don't have an answer for you, but I thought I'd share some thoughts. I'm not sure we can say that there was no truth prior to Christ. Things can in fact be true, and thus truth, that do not have any explicit, or implicit, spiritual overtones. So, that alone indicates there must have been. Secondly, I'm of the opinion that there were spiritual truths in the OT as well. Christ says in John 17:17 "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth." God's word here, I think, would be the Old Testament which, indecently, included the law. Interesting turn of my thoughts….

    What my initial perception of this verse is that the complete revelation did not come until Christ. So much of the OT and its law (before the scribes and Pharisees added to and adulterated it!) was to show people their sinfulness and need of a savior. To point ahead to a coming Savior. This is supported at least by by Col. 1 and Rom 16.

    Col. 1:25-29 – 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

    Rom. 16:25-27 " Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, l according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.

    Just food for thought.

    Blessings,

    Adam

  • Adam Orr

    "To point ahead to a coming Savior. This is supported at least by by Col. 1 and Rom 16."

    Before this statement I failed to add: People within, and students of, the OT only saw half the picture. The whole truth was kept from them in secret a mystery that God would reveal in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4).

    Sorry for the Addendum.

    Adam

  • Donna

    Does it boil down to what the real meaning is of the word "truth" in the scripture reference?

    Can "truth" there mean – the truth of man's existence & relationship with God before Jesus came?

    Or, should you not just focus on ONE word and infer from the whole passage about the truth of WHY Jesus came to the world.

    Both Jesus and Moses are described by God to bring something of value for mankind. That is, that God used Moses to bring the 'law' (a mirror to see our inadequacy, reeks of rules) and God used Jesus to bring 'grace & truth' (redemption) for all to experience freedom.

    Could it be that simple? I happen to agree with John's (Shore) original claim that Christianity isn't ALL that simple. Even though we do come to Him, in the simpliest of forms, as a baby.

  • Adam Orr

    Donna,

    I did consider the meaning of the word truth. Here is one exegetical look at it: http://net.bible.org/strong.php?id=225.

    If you think its too simplistic a reading, what else could it mean? Do you have any thoughts? I open to listening.

    Adam

    • William

      Adam,

      Forgive me for stepping in and sharing my thoughts.

      "Truth" is one of my favorites words that I want to find the meaning of. The best definition I have found for "truth" is "correspondence between the mind and reality". This definition, it seems to me, has a lot to do with ontology, that is, the study of "what is there".

      "Reality is existences". That too, is the best definition I have found for "reality."

      So perhaps when John says: "the truth came to be through Jesus Christ" he means that the existence of the truth comes into existence through the one who is truth, that is, Jesus Christ. Jesus, we could say, is the cause of the correspondence between the mind and reality.

      Through whom else would the truth come to be? The other question is: Can man know truth apart from the one who gives light to every man, that is, Christ?

      Thanks for letting me butt in,

      William

  • Donna

    Adam,

    My comments where not directed to your response. My reply was coming from a perspective of trying to open more discussion based on the previous posts.

    You and I apparently crossed in cyber-space.

    I have no comments to your postings. Honestly, it's over my head!!

    I'm not one to debate word usage or scripture translation, (because as John S. said, there are so many others who do that!) and can't really get into that; I prefer to raise questions to get other's to dialog more.

    Anywhoooooo……

    Enjoy.

  • http://emphaticasterisk.com Lindsey

    Well, John, that assumes that the author John really wanted people to be able to grasp both the finiteness and infiniteness of his true meaning simply. We're always thinking that the Bible is an answer book and ought to tell us things plainly (when I say "we" I really mean humanity, not just you and I) but ultimately it's not about giving us truth so much as making us seek it. Truth does not come from the Bible alone, it comes from Jesus and God, and even in the Bible you see people not turning to the Bible but turning to God. Which is a roundabout way of saying that John probably made you do precisely what he wanted you to by writing that verse the way he did- he made you really THINK about what you ought to believe instead of just flat out telling you. Brilliant!

  • vampiricme

    uh.. hey John.

    Your blog is simply amazing. My friend kept bugging me on reading your blog and I was like, "No…no…no…PLEASE, NO!" and then today, I wasn't doing anything and I've decided to peek on your blog. And then I started reading it with my mouth open.

    I'm Christian too, and I've been having too many problems. But the only solution I have is to pray.

    I've no answers to your question, I'm only amazed with what you've said.

    I can't believe anyone like you (a Christian) would write a Christian blog like this, while i was writing something about the lady who ignored me.

    Clap,clap,clap. You are a really good BLOGGER.

    Please continue writing your blogs, the experience of reading it is what every Christian is dying for.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Arra:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to encourage me as you have. I certainly appreciate it.

  • Greta Sheppard

    John, you have indeed opened up a discussion….I have never questioned what 'truth' meant in John 1:17. But the thought came to me immediately you posed the question, that 'truth' here could really mean 'reality'.

    Jesus is/was the total reality/fulfillment of O.T symbolisms ie

    lamb, sacrifice, etc., and prophecies prophecied by Old Testament Prophets that the day was coming when the symbolisms and bloody sacrifices would not be needed because the truth of what they represented will have come.

    sorry I don't have all the scripture references to give you…I am involved in something else at the moment…but it would make a great contribution to us readers if you took the time to look them up in the O.T….I can hear you calling me a bad name…smile!!!…as though you have all the time in the world to do that?

  • Lynn

    Hi John,

    I went to The Message translation for an expanded reading of John 1:16-17. Here's what it says: "We all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift. We got the basics from Moses, and then this exuberant giving and receiving, this endless knowing and understanding— all this came through Jesus, the Messiah."

    It says, "…We got the basics from Moses, AND THEN (my emphasis)…" So, could John have meant that the OT [teaches] introduces the student/disciple to the basics of truth…that we are to lay the foundation first, and then…after those bricks are laid, we can move on and build upon it?

    It seems to me, from this scripture interpretation, the truth had not just recently been discovered or created, but that it had existed from the beginning (see verse 3: "Everything was created through him [Jesus]; nothing—not one thing!— came into being without him."). Truth being no exception. Maybe the implication was that the next "brick" was to be an even greater revelation of truth ("…this endless knowing and understanding")…which is found in/through Jesus Christ?

  • Adam Orr

    Donna – Oh. Well, if anything does come to mind, let me know. :0) I may be missing something somewhere.

    Lindsey – Couldn't agree more. Christians must be a thinking people, but I would interject that we must also take heed unless we (should I only say "I"?) are swept into passivity by our incessant pondering or fall into the trap of solely trusting our own faculties as the source of truth, and thereby creating an idol and missing God by default.

  • http://brianjwalton.wordpress.com/ brianjwalton

    When in doubt, check Calvin out.

    "The word Truth denotes, in my opinion, a fixed and permanent state of things. By the word Grace I understand the spiritual fulfillment of those things, the bare letter of which was contained in the Law. And those two words may be supposed to refer to the same thing, by a well-known figure of speech, (hypallage;) as if he had said, that grace, in which the truth of the Law consists, was at length exhibited in Christ. But as the meaning will be in no degree affected, it is of no importance whether you view them as united or as distinguished. This at least is certain, that the Evangelist means, that in the Law there was nothing more than a shadowy image of spiritual blessings, but that they are actually found in Christ; whence it follows, that if you separate the Law from Christ, there remains nothing in it but empty figures. For this reason Paul says that:

    the shadows were in the law, but the body is in Christ,

    (Colossians 2:17.)"

    And there's more still, you can read it at:
    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom34.vii.iv.h

  • http://megaloi.blogspot.com Redlefty

    As my wife always reminds me when studying the bible — "Context, context… what's the context?"

    John launches his gospel with a loud proclamation that Jesus was always a part of the picture. "In the beginning…"

    In that sense, grace and truth were built into the very fabric of the universe. They've been there the whole time, but the people needed to take things at their own pace and started with law, as it felt more simple, secure and concrete.

    Sometimes I'm not so sure that we're really ready for the "grace" step yet!

  • http://www.brianslunch.com Brian Shields

    Isn't this a similar problem to the one physicists face when they're asked what happened "before" the Big Bang? There is no before since the bang itself created time.

  • http://brianjwalton.wordpress.com/ brianjwalton

    I almost brought up the whole temporality of God question, but I was too tired to think about it at the time.

    But yeah, I think the idea that Christ is eternally begotten, as well as eternally interceding, has something to do with this question. For instance, in what sense does Christ's sacrifice reach back in time to those, like Abraham, who were justified before his death.

    I think a large part of your question, John, rests on that idea.

  • http://c-orthodoxy.blogspot.com/ Ken Brown

    Sorry if this already came up in the comments, but I think the answer to your question is quite fascinating:

    "Grace and truth" in John 1:17, like "full of grace and truth" in 1:14, is an allusion to Exod 34:6, God's self-revelation on Mt. Sinai: "YHWH, YHWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness." That last clause is what John translates as "full of grace and truth." The same phrase appears throughout the Hebrew Bible as a summary of God's character.

    For John to quote it here is, in fact, his way of claiming identification between Jesus and the God of Israel–the same God who has been with Israel from the beginning has now "become flesh" in Jesus Christ.

    As for the contrast between the law through Moses and grace and truth through Jesus, that just John's twist on Exod 34, which itself affirms that the Law was given to Moses (34:4) right before God gave the further revelation of himself (34:5-6). Likewise, John is saying that the same God who gave the law and appeared on Sinai has now made himself even more fully available by becoming human.

    So to answer your question: of course truth was in the world before Jesus, as was grace–they had always characterized God's relationship with humanity–but whereas on Sinai God only said he was "full of grace and truth," in Jesus his grace and truth actually took on flesh, died and rose again.

    • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

      Ken: Excellent! Thanks! But a question: Why, you think, did John change "love and faithfulness" to "grace and truth"? Faithfulness and truth don't seem to me like the same thing at all. One is relative; the other absolute—one is subjective, basically, while the other is objective. If he means to refer back to a specific nugget of scripture, why not—as is so common throughout the Bible—do it verbatim?

  • http://c-orthodoxy.blogspot.com/ Ken Brown

    Well, as you say, the "truth" depends on your translation–or John's! ;)

    The trouble is we're comparing three different sorts of translations, from Hebrew to English (from Exodus), from Hebrew to Greek (by John) and from Greek to English (from John), which obscures things. The problem is that no translation is truly "verbatim"; every translation is simultaneously an interpretation which emphasizes certain aspects of the source at the expense of others.

    In this case, the Hebrew words in question are more wide-ranging than any potential Greek equivalent. For instance, the Hebrew word 'emet can mean both true/truth and truthful/faithful, but Greek doesn't have a word that captures both halves very well, so John settles on aletheias, meaning truth (this is the most common translation of the Hebrew word in the Septuagint, though not the one the Septuagint used in Exod 34:6, where it has alethinos, meaning truthful). Probably John decided to emphasize the truth half of the Hebrew term to tie in with his interest in Jesus' revelation (after all, he does call him the Logos–the Word/Wisdom of God), but I doubt he would have denied the faithfulness aspect either, given that the whole point of the allusion is to stress that the same God who has always been with Israel has now come in Jesus.

    Similar things could be said about his use of charis, meaning grace, for the Hebrew hesed meaning love, mercy and grace, though it is less clear in that case why he chose the term he did.

  • Clif

    I would like to suggest another aspect of "grace and truth" that should be considered. In Hebrew there are no separate words for "truth" and "faithfulness". There is only one term "emet". The first word "grace" here in the Hebrew is "hesed". The terms "hesed" and "emet" are found together many, many times in the OT. I get the distinct impression John is using these two terms together intentionally to send the reader back to Moses. Hesed is a strong term in Hebrew that deals with loyalty to the covenant. Some translations gave "loving-kindness", but none seem to capture it because the concept is so foreign to our culture. I have to wonder if what John is doing is associating two characteristics that so describe Yahweh with Jesus now. Truth in the Hebrew word emet is very closely related to the idea of faithfulness. Truth almost seems to be another way of speaking about God. He is Truth and he is faithful in the covenant. Jesus is the embodiment of the living God who is loyal to the covenant and faithful. I haven't had time to pursue this further, but I do think we need to look at the Hebrew concepts more than the Greek here. Any thoughts?

  • Don Rappe

    By the time of the final redaction of John, the Christians had been expelled from most synagogues. The redactor strongly defends the Christian participation in the Covenant with the God of Israel.


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