Historical Cultural Context
Spirit of Truth
It is impossible to overestimate the overwhelming importance of honor and the fear of shame in Mediterranean culture. Honor is more valuable than money. Indeed, it is the supreme wealth in this culture. Without honor, one might as well be dead.
It should be no surprise, then, to learn that in this culture secrecy, deception, and lying are legitimate strategies for maintaining honor and avoiding shame. As Peter’s denial of Jesus shockingly demonstrates (see Jn 18:15-18, 25-27), it is preferable to lie and preserve honor—even for a moment—than to admit the truth and suffer shame.
Clearly the prevalence of secrecy, deception, and lying in this culture made life very exasperating. In an argument with enemies, the exasperated Jesus charges: “Why do you not understand what I say? ... You are from your father the devil. ... He is a liar, and the father of lies,” to which they respond with a deliberate lie in order to counter his shaming accusation: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (Jn 8:43-48).
This false but perhaps frequent charge against Jesus explains his constant repetition in John’s Gospel of the phrase “Amen, amen, (or truly, truly) I say to you. ... ” This phrase was a strategy for assuring listeners that a speaker was telling the truth.
Only against the background of these Mediterranean cultural values does the role of a paraclete as “Spirit of truth” make sense. The Greek word “paraclete” sometimes inaccurately interpreted as “comforter or consoler,” is more correctly translated as “mediator, intercessor, or helper.”
It is not a title of the Holy Spirit because Jesus, too, is a paraclete (see 1 Jn 2:1).
Recall the importance and utter reality of the spirit world in Mediterranean culture. When human efforts to arrive at the truth are continually thwarted by secrecy, lying, and deception, one can only hope for help from another source.
Fortunately, Jesus points to the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, as such a helper.
In John’s Gospel, “truth” is belief in Jesus as the unique revelation of God and as the one who speaks the words of God (see Jn 3:33; 8:40, 8:47).
In a world filled with secrecy, deception, and lying—even about Jesus!—the prayer of the psalmist is ever more poignant: “Let your good spirit guide me on a level path!” The Paraclete is the answer to this prayer.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University