Biblical Truth

Dru Johnson’s Knowledge By Ritual defends the thesis that we come to know—to recognize and to discern, to see rightly—through ritualized action. In the course of defending this thesis, Johnson devotes a few pages to explaining the biblical notion of truth.

He points out that truth can apply to actions, such as treatment of a servant, anointing, or walking; to statements; and to things like tent pegs, roads, and seeds (73). A concept that covers so much diverges from our normal understandings of truth. Yet they aren’t wholly different. He cites Yoram Hazony’s Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, who argues that “we could say that emet and truth are simply two different things. What prevents us from reaching this conclusion is not only the traditional translation of emet as truth . . . it is also the fact that emet is the only term available to describe the truth of speech in the Bible. Thus if we were to dispense with the term emet as referring to the truth of speech, we would be left without any way in which biblical Hebrew could express the idea that something that someone said or thought was true” (quoted, 73).

For the Hebrew Bible, though, truth is primarily “reliability”: “A true cut (or maintaining a true course in a ship) is one that reliably ‘is what it ought to be.’” Quoting Hazony again, he adds that “In the Hebrew Bible, that which is true is that which proves, in the face of time and circumstance, to be what it ought; whereas that which is false is that which fails . . . to be what it ought” (74).

This is quite a striking definition, highlighting, Johnson says, “diachronic proofing and interpretation.” Truth is evident only over time, as true things prove themselves against the ravages of circumstance. Thus “truth, by its very nature, cannot be determined in a singular instance. Truth can only be interpreted through a process of attending to something’s veracity—its reliability.” A tent peg is true because it’s reliable over time, just as a statement is true. But interpretation is equally important: “Faithfulness of the peg to do what it ought to do—to hold down the tent in sun and storm—is the hallmark of its emet. So it does with speech; its veracity, fidelity, or faithfulness to interpret that to which it speaks is its truth, like the carpenter’s true cut or the ship’s true course” (75). Statements are always interpretations, but the true statement is on that “interprets best” (75).

As Hazony puts it: “On the biblical conception . . . it would seem that the truth of falsity of the spoken word . . . cannot be known until it has proved itself reliable in the course of investigation, which is to say, in the course of time” (76).

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