Wednesday, 8 May 2013
I am the way, the truth and the life?
John 14:6 is used often by Christian fundamentalists as irrefutable truth that Jesus and Christianity are the only path to salvation. I agree that the author of John, who most scholars do not believe would have been the disciple himself, had as his primary objective, making Jesus the Christ. Chapter 20 verses 30 and 31 even say, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in his name.”
And so, it is likely that the author meant exactly what he wrote. In the Greek original, the definite article “ho”, which is in the nominative singular feminine form (in case you were wondering), is clearly present. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” However, there is no other way to say this in Greek. The indefinite article is seldom used and specifically means “one.” No clarification needed here.
Of course, we have no way of knowing whether or not Jesus actually said these words, especially to that specificity. The best guess of modern day biblical scholars is that he did not. The Jesus Seminar, which is a group of scholars who systematically analyze the Christian scriptures toward the goal of determining the authenticity of Jesus’ words, have come to the conclusion that almost none of the words attributed to Jesus in John, were actually uttered. John is a persuasive story toward a specific goal.
For arguments sake, let’s say that Jesus did say something about being way, truth, and life. Jesus may have understood and spoken the Greek that John was written in, the common language of the occupied land. However, his native tongue was almost certainly Aramaic, which is a Semitic language closer to Hebrew, and very different from Greek. There is also the 50-80 year gap of oral tradition between Jesus’ death and the time that John was likely written. But even if Jesus spoke the words, definite articles in Aramaic are even more troublesome. The definite article doesn’t really exist in Aramaic, but is embedded and expressed in the noun itself, which has three forms. A definite article is expressed via the emphatic form of the noun, but is not really so definite as in English. If that isn’t enough, ancient Aramaic and modern Aramaic (like English and most living languages) are different. Noun forms have changed over time. For example, emphatic (definite) nouns are more used in modern Aramaic than they were in biblical Aramaic. Regardless of what, if anything was said, it seems impossible to know definitively how definite Jesus was being here.
It is also interesting to look at languages that have no articles at all, like Latin and Russian. I am reliably informated that in Russian this passage reads, “Ya yest’ put, i istina, i zhizn’.” Literally “I am way, and truth, and life.” Another interesting aspect of this is that, in Russian, the noun “to be” is usually not voiced in the present tense. If you and I were speaking to each other, I would simply say, “Ya put, i istina, i zhizn”…or “I way, and truth, and life.” The verb form “yest’” (I am) is likely included in the Russian Bible because it is also emphasized in the various Hebrew forms of the Hebrew Scriptures, and expresses more of an existential quality. One might say, “I exist as way, and truth, and life,” but even that wouldn’t be exactly correct... But I digress. What Jesus is saying, here, is that he points to "the way" which is "tuth" and "life". It's not that he is all three but that he offers "the way", which is.
Getting back on track. If you have studied this text closely, you will notice that when people quote this verse, they often leave out two crucial words: “to him.” Listen next time you hear this verse quoted, you will probably hear, “Jesus said, I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But that’s not what the verse says. They got it wrong at the first four words, which read, “Jesus said to him.” Not just “Jesus said” and on to the clobber text. I’ve misquoted this countless times myself, but when you realize that Jesus is speaking “to him,” you are prompted to examine the larger context and ask, “Who is the ‘him’ to whom Jesus is talking?”
Right back at the beginning of John chapter fourteen, Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Now we have reached the crucial verse five in which Thomas asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” So Jesus says to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” In this famous, or infamous John 14:6, Jesus is answering Thomas’ question. And Thomas’ question is not “Jesus, are all non-Christians going to hell?”
John chapter 10 contains two of those seven “I am” statements from Jesus that are found only in the Gospel of John. This time Jesus is making an analogy, saying, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.” Jesus continues to say, “I am the good shepherd.” Nothing too surprising so far: Jesus is the “shepherd” who leads us into in the “gate,” so we can follow the “way.”
But, ulimately, the language of the Bible is also the language of faith….The problem begins when we take these confessions in the language of faith and love and turn them into absolute truths. It becomes much more serious when we turn them into truths on the basis of which we begin to measure the truth or otherwise of other faith claims.
This insight brings me back to Thomas’ question and Jesus’ answer. Jesus begins chapter 14 by saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He then proceeds to describe God’s big house with many rooms. But Thomas’ heart is troubled. He’s worried and concerned about all this talk of Jesus going away. So he asked that fateful question, “How can we know the way?” Jesus’ statement about being the way, the truth, and the life is a response to a question by Christians, and Jesus’ answer is directed to Christians and is about Christians. Of course, Jesus’ followers wouldn’t have called themselves “Christians” yet; but, as we learn in the book of Acts, “The Way” was one of the earliest names for Christianity.
Part of what Jesus was doing was offering comfort to Thomas: “Don’t worry, Thomas. You know me. When I’m gone, just continue to ‘do the works that I do.’ Follow the path I have set forth with my life, and you’ll be following the way.” The best summation I’ve seen of this perspective is by the pastor, writer, and spiritual director Eugene Peterson. Peterson encapsulates Jesus’ point in John 14 by saying, “Only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life.” Isolating only the so-called “Jesus truth” yields a disembodied orthodoxy: all the right words with no behavior to make the words believable. More important is the “Jesus Way” of loving God and loving neighbor.