The Truth Question.. An Excerpt from Colossians Remixed pp.44-48 (Walsh and Keesmaat, IVP 2004)

The evocative nature of the Targum is expressive of both your imaginative application of the text and serious exegesis. Right?


Then let me ask one more exegetical question. I want to hear more about your views of truth. You seemed to describe truth as personified. I think you said something about truth "hollering itself hoarse out on the streets." Arc you suggesting that truth isn't so much something that we discover as it is something that discovers, or searches out, us? And if so, why?

Well, look at the text again. Paul describes the good news of Jesus as "the word of the truth . . that has come to you" (Col 1:5-6). And then he goes on to say that this word of truth is active; indeed "just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves" (1:6), Now try again to hear this with Old Testament ears. Where have you ever met something like truth seeking folks out and having a dynamic effect in the lives of those who respond to its advances?

The only time in the Old Testament I cm think of where truth seeks us rather than our seeking the truth would be in Proverbs, where we meet Wisdom calling and inviting people to follow her and not Dame Folly.

There you have it. And where is she calling out?

In the streets, the public squares, at the busiest comers and at the entrance to the city gates. All right. I see your point. So you are hearing in Paul's language of the word of truth "coming to you" a personification of truth similar to what we see happening with wisdom in Proverbs. But it seemed to me that you had more than that to say about truth. Didn't you relate truth to discipleship and to the practice of justice, art, stewardship, education and evangelism? How does truth relate to these things? And have you rejected the link between truth and verifiable knowledge, or truth and objective facts?

Let's start at the end of your question. First, remember that William's problem with the Bible is that every time he begins to read this ancient text he feels that he is getting "punched in the face with the absolute." We think the absolute he is meeting in the Bible is something that is alien to the text. What he is struggling with is a view of knowledge (or "epistemology") that aspires toward a sense of objective and absolute finality. And this, we contend, is an epistemology that is imposed on the text by those who have embraced Enlightenment definitions of truth. We want to encourage a reading of Scripture that unabashedly abandons such objectivism for a more holistic understanding of knowing.

Second, we acknowledge the force of the postmodem complaint that "all thought that pretends to discern truth is but an expression of the will-to-power-even domination-of those making the truth claims." While the targum makes no explicit reference to the way post modernity makes "truth" into a problem, these issues are in the background, and we will need to return to them later in this book.

But your questions about the targum have been exegetical. And this leads us to the third thing going on in the targum when we are expanding on the language of truth, knowledge, wisdom and understanding in the text. In stark contrast to an objectivist epistemology that esteems distance, detachment, universality and abstractness, we discern in the biblical literature an understanding of truth that affirms intimacy, connectedness, particularity and concreteness. At root, in the Hebrew Scriptures truth is a matter of fidelity. Indeed the Hebrew word emeth was translated in the King James as "truth" but is rendered "faithful" in almost all modem translations. To say God is true therefore means "that he keeps truth or faith with his people and requires them to keep truth or faith with him." Truth, then, is a decidedly personal, social and relational concept in the Scriptures. To know the truth, and to be known by the truth, is fundamentally a matter of covenantal faithfulness, manifest in the concreteness of daily life within a particular community at a particular time. No wonder the old English term for truth was troth. Parker Palmer puts it this way: "To know something or someone in truth is to enter troth with the known ... to become betrothed, to engage the known with one's whole self, an engagement one enters with attentiveness, care, and good will."

While this is striking all kinds of intuitive chords in me, I have trouble imagining what it would took like. Can you give me some Old Testament examples of this, as you did when we were talkng about shalom?

Yes, in fact we can even connect this discussion about truth with shalom. Consider Psalm 85- This is a prayer that is concerned with the restoration of the land of Israel after the exile. Expectantly listening for "a word of shalom" from Yahweh (v. 8), the psalmist proclaims: "Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land." (v- 9)

And when that glory, that presence of the Holy One, takes up residence in the land again, then..

Steadfast love and truth will meet;
righteousness and shalom will kiss each other,
Truth will spring up from the ground.
and righteousness will look down from the sky. (Ps 85:10-11. our translation)

Steadfast love, truth, righteousness and shalom are all inextricably related in a biblical worldview. And when God restores covenantal shalom to the land, then truth, or faithfulness, will permeate life so deeply and fully that it will seem as if truth springs up from the ground. To this understanding of truth as covenantal fidelity, notions of detached distance and abstract universality are decidedly alien.

Let me try to get at this a different way: in the modernist view of truth, when truth is absent the result is error. What happens if biblical truth is absent?

That is a great question. You can really know the truth, in this biblical sense, only when the truth is embodied or incarnated in the life of the community in the land, When truth "perishes'' (as Jeremiah 7:28 puts it), then the sociocultural and ecological consequences are disastrous. Using the analogy of marriage, what happens if truth perishes in a marriage, it there is no more troth in the relationship and trust has been broken?

I guess that usually results in divorce.

That's right, and this is precisely the language we find in Hosea:

Hear the word of Yahweh, 0 people of Israel;
for Yahweh has a divorce case against the inhabitants of the land.
There is no truth or steadfast love,
and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying and murder,
and stealing and adultery break out;
bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns,
and all who live in it languish;
together with the wild animals
and the birds of the air,
even the fish of the sea are perishing, (Hosea 4:1-3, our translation)

Because truth is deeply relational, when there is no truth or intimate knowledge in the land, all human relationships are broken. Everything from our social and personal to our ecological relationships takes on the pall of death when there is no truth.

And "bloodshed follows bloodshed."

Yes, bloodshed follows bloodshed. There is something ironic about Hosea's com-mentaru when read in light of the postmodern suspicion that large-scale truth claims invariably serve to legitimate violence. In contrast, Hosea insists that it is the absence of truth that gives rise to ever-escalating bloodshed.

What about the way you interpret Paul's prayer that the Colossians be filled "with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding1' (1:9)? It seemed to me that you suggested a similarly relational and this-worldiy approach to that language. Does this also have 0ld Testament roots?

Indeed it does. And here we meet a problem that doesn't come from postmodern suspicion about truth but, more tragically, from the church's own dualism-

What do you mean?

Well- whenever we meet language about "spiritual wisdom" and a knowledge that is related to God's will, we tend to think of some kind of otherworldly spiritual realm that is related only tangentially to the here and now. But this is as bad a mistake as reading the language of truth through a modernist, objectivist lens.

Sort of like embracing Plato along with Kant.

Yes, that would be a good way to put it. Remember: hear the New Testament with Old Testament ears. Language of wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures has nothing to do with otherworldly contemplation and everything to do with being attuned to the wise ways God engages creation. That is why the whole book of Proverbs is about wise life "in the land" (Prov 2.20-22), and Isaiah can illustrate what wisdom is by appealing to how a farmer knows when and where to plant crops and the proper way to harvest and process those crops (Is 28:23-29).

What is "spiritual" about that?

In biblical perspective, "spirit" has to do with the direction of one's life m creation.. And Just as truth must be enfleshed in sociocultural, political and ecological relations, so also is a spiritual wisdom and understanding a matter of knowing, or intimately discerning, the direction that God would have us go in our life at a given time. Consider Isaiah's prophecy of the coming Messiah:

The spirit of Yahweh shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding.
The spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD-(Is 11:2)

Here we have all the words that Paul employs in his prayer for the Colossians: spirit, knowledge, wisdom and understanding. And what will the Messiah do with this Spirit-endowed knowledge, wisdom and understanding?

He shall not judge by what his eyes see.
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. . . .
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and truthfulness the belt around his loins. (Is 11:3-5)

This wisdom and understanding, this knowledge that is received as a gift of the Spirit, is for justice. If the Messiah wears truthfulness (or faithfulness) as the belt "round his waist and is filled with wisdom and understanding, then that knowledge will be evident in the way he redresses real, this-worldly socioeconomic injustice.

Then the text concludes with these words:

They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea. (Is 11:9')

Isn't that amazing? Just as the psalmist talks about truth springing "up from the ground (Ps.85:11), so does the prophet envision the whole earth as full of the knowledge of God.

If this is what Paul has in mind when he uses the language of knowledge, wisdom and understanding in his prayer, then we must read it as a prayer that the Colossian community will have a knowledge that will transform all of their communal life. Remember, Paul prays for this kind of knowledge to grow in the community "so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God" (Col 1:10), Just as the word of truth is "bearing fruit... in the whole world, "so also must the recipients of this truth, those who are filled with this knowledge, bear the historical, cultural fruit of the gospel in their lives. In our targum we attempt to envision what that night look like for us today.

So what you are saying is that Paul's language of truth, knowledge, wisdom and understanding in the first chapter of Colossians carries these kinds of Old Testament overtones, and that is why you employ Colossians against the modernist preoccupation with objectivity?

That's right.

Then I have two quick questions. First, are you relativists?

No, but that will have to wait for further discussion later in the book.

All right. Then second, would the first-century recipients of this letter have gotten the point? Would Gentile converts have heard these Jewish overtones in Paul's language? Or wouldn't they have been more likely to have heard this language of truth, knowledge, wisdom and understanding in terms of their own cultural context, which was influenced by Greek thought and Roman social and political structures?

This is another important question. But we need to spend some time in that first-century context before we can begin to answer it. So let us introduce you to Nympha.... (end of the second chapter.. the discussion continues in chapter 7).

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