John 7:53-8:59

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The text of John 7:53 through 8:2 provides an introduction for the account about the woman. This introduction relates that each one went to his home and that Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, returning to the temple precincts early in the morning of the next day and seating himself to teach the people.

Later, the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman and asked Jesus about his view of the law that set forth stoning as the penalty for her sin, their aim being to trap him so as to have something to use to accuse him. He ignored them, bent down, and began writing on the ground with his finger. When, however, they continued questioning him, he straightened up and said that the one without sin should cast the first stone and then bent down again and resumed writing on the ground. Thereafter the accusers began to depart, leaving the woman by herself. When Jesus asked whether anyone had condemned her, she replied, “No one.” After telling her that he also did not do so, he admonished her not to continue sinning. (8:3-11)

That Jesus would be writing on the ground seems unusual and, therefore, raises a question about whether the account preserves a historical event. If it does pertain to an actual happening, a possible explanation could be that Jesus, by his action, chose to indicate that he was not going to involve himself in the matter. According to the law, both the man and the woman were guilty and yet the scribes and Pharisees made no mention of the adulterer, which would suggest that their seeming concern about the law was insincere. (8:6-8)

Although the question about the historicity of the account may need to be left open because of its existence in many later manuscripts, the narrative does not seem to fit with the rest of the eighth chapter of John. After Jesus’ admonition directed to the woman in verse 11, the next verse tells of his addressing the multitude and starts with the words, “Again, therefore, Jesus spoke to them.” These introductory words suggest a continuation of his teaching at the Festival of Tabernacles. Moreover, what he said thereafter harmonizes with that conclusion. Accordingly, it appears preferable to regard John 7:53 through 8:11 as an insertion that interrupts the logical flow of the narrative about what Jesus said at the Festival of Tabernacles.

Another later custom associated with the Festival of Tabernacles involved illumination for most of the nights. According to ancient Jewish sources, four large golden lampstands occupied the Court of the Women. Each of these lampstands had a ladder and four golden bowls that held the oil. Four youths of priestly descent would ascend the ladders, each carrying a jar holding a large quantity of oil. They would pour the oil into the bowls and light them. The worn drawers and girdles of priests served as wicks. Light from the illuminated courtyard could be seen at a great distance. With torches in their hands, men known for godliness and good works danced before the lampstands. They would raise their voices in song and praise. Many Levites played harps, lyres, cymbals, trumpets and other instruments as they stood on the fifteen steps leading down from the Court of the Israelites to the Court of the Women. (Mishnah, Sukkah 5.2-4)

When Jesus identified himself as the “light of the world,” those who heard him may well have thought about the impressive illumination during the Festival of Tabernacles. His statement also answered the objection that no prophet would arise from Galilee, as his words alluded to the prophecy of Isaiah (9:1, 2) that referred to a “great light” to be seen there. (8:12)

As the “light of the world,” Jesus provided spiritual illumination and dependable guidance. No one who followed him would walk in darkness or be unable to discern the right course of action. Instead, the individual would have the “light of life.” This could be the light needed for the enjoyment of the real life that is distinguished by an enduring relationship with the heavenly Father and his Son. Another possibility is that this would be the essential light for living a divinely approved life. (8:12)

The Pharisees objected, contending that Jesus’ testimony rested solely on his own word and, therefore, could not be “true,” being unacceptable on the basis of the law that required at least two witnesses for verification. He countered with a statement revealing the superior nature of his testimony. Even if he did testify about himself, his witness proved to be true or deserving of full acceptance, for he knew from where he had come and where he was going. His testimony was not like that of humans generally, for he had come from the realm above and would return to this heavenly realm. The Pharisees did not know from where Jesus had come and where he was going, for they refused to believe his words. They judged “according to the flesh” or by human standards. He, however, did not judge or condemn anyone in this manner. If he did judge, his judgment would be “true,” right, or just, for he would not be acting alone or exclusively on his own authority. The one who had sent him, the Father, would be with him. (8:13-16)

According to the law, “the testimony of two men is true.” Jesus testified about himself through his words and works, and the one who had sent him, the Father, testified, enabling his Son to perform miracles of a nature and on a scale that no one else did. (8:17, 18)

In response to Jesus’ words about his Father, the Pharisees asked, “Where is your father?” “You know neither me nor my Father,” Jesus answered. “If you knew me, you would also know my Father.” By his words and deeds, Jesus flawlessly reflected his Father. In him, therefore, the Pharisees should have recognized the image of the Father and acknowledged him as his Son. Their failure to recognize the Son revealed that they did not know his Father. (8:19)

This interchange took place in the treasury of the temple precincts. According to ancient Jewish sources, this was located in the Court of the Women, where 13 trumpet-shaped chests lined the surrounding wall. Into these chests, the people deposited their monetary offerings and contributions. Six of these receptacles were designated for freewill offerings. Each of the other seven served for a distinct purpose — new shekels, old shekels, bird offerings, young birds for burnt offerings, wood, frankincense, and gold for the propitiatory. (Mishnah, Sheqalim 2:1; 6:1, 5; Tosefta, Sheqalim 3:1) During the time Jesus taught in the treasury, no one laid hold of him or arrested him. His “hour” had not yet come. It was not then the time for him to finish his earthly course. (8:20)

Previously, Jesus had said to the people that he was going away. He again repeated this point, telling them that they would seek him (probably meaning that they would continue to look in vain for the coming of the Messiah), would die in their sins, and would be unable to come to the place where he was going. Completely misunderstanding that Jesus would be returning to his Father in heaven, certain ones wondered whether he might kill himself, as they could not come to the place where he would be going. He then made it clear that he had come from a different realm, saying that they were from “below,” whereas he was from “above.” They were from the world of sinful mankind, but he was no part of that world. If, as Jesus said, they did not “believe that I am,” they would “die in [their] sins.” To refuse to acknowledge his true identity as the one who had come from above (God’s unique Son) would signify to reject the provision of forgiveness of sins through him. With their record of sin remaining unforgiven, they would die in their sins. Obstinately refusing to acknowledge Jesus as the one he had revealed himself to be, the unbelieving Jews asked him challengingly, “Who are you?” (8:21-25)

The Greek text conveying Jesus’ reply is obscure, and this accounts for the variations in the renderings of modern translations. Preserving the basic meaning of arché (“beginning”), a number of translations read, “I am exactly who I told you at the beginning.” (CEV) “What I told you from the beginning.” (NAB) “I am what I have told you from the beginning.” (NCV) “I am what I have told you I was from the beginning.” (Phillips) Other translations do not render the word arché as “beginning” and translate the statement as a question. “Why do I speak to you at all?” (NRSV) “Why, in the first place, am I speaking to you?” “Why should I speak to you at all?” (NJB, footnote) There is a strong possibility that arché (“beginning”) could be understood to denote that which is fundamental, essential, or basic. Jesus’ reply may be rendered, “Basically, what I am also [kaí, meaning, and, even, and also] telling you,” indicating that all along his words revealed his true identity. (8:25)

When Jesus’ words are translated “that I am even speaking to you at all,” they are commonly construed as a question, “[Why is it] that I am even speaking to you at all?” To preserve the meaning “beginning” for arché requires adding the preposition “from” or “at” and changing the present tense Greek word for “I speak” or “I say” (laló) to the past tense (“whatever [or what] I said to you from the beginning”). Taking the words tén archén as being used adverbially and meaning “essentially,” “fundamentally,” or “basically” does not require supplying additional words or changing the verb from the present tense to the past tense. Therefore, the preferable sense appears to be, “Basically, what I am also telling you.” In the left margin of an early papyrus manuscript (P66, probably from the second century), the words eipon hymin (“I told you”) appear and are meant for insertion before tén archén. By supplying “from,” the text (with the insertion) would read, “I told you [from] the beginning what I am also saying to you.” (8:25)

Jesus had much to say about the unbelieving people and to express judgment respecting them. Both his words and his judgment would relate to their failure to put faith in him despite the abundant evidence, including his many miracles. They had ample proof that the Father had sent him. This should have given them sound reason for faith, for the Father is “true,” ultimately trustworthy. In the world or among the people, Jesus spoke what he had heard from his Father, the one who had sent him. Therefore, the Son of God should have been believed. Although Jesus had spoken about coming from “above” and his words about the one who had sent him clearly did not pertain to an earthly father, the unbelieving people did not recognize that he was talking about his heavenly Father. (8:26, 27)

Once, however, they had “raised the Son of Man up high,” they would come to know who he truly is (“that I am”), doing nothing of his own accord but speaking what his Father had taught him. The “raising up high” refers to his being lifted up on the implement on which he would die. His agonizing death through crucifixion led to his glorification, for he was raised from the dead and returned to heaven as the exalted Son of God. When the people would again see him as the one whom they had lifted up or in whose death they shared by rejecting him, they would see him as the one entrusted with all authority in heaven and on earth. Their former unbelief would merit adverse judgment, and they would come to know who Jesus truly is and that he, while in their midst, had spoken the truth that his Father had taught him. At all times, the Father who had sent him proved to be with him, never leaving him. This was because he always pleased his Father. (8:28, 29)

Although many persisted in their unbelief, others began to believe in Jesus. To the believing Jews, he said, “If you remain in my word [continuing to act on his message in faith], you truly are my disciples. And you will know the truth, and the truth will free you.” This truth relates to him — his identity as the Son of God. Through him alone, full knowledge about the Father is disclosed and forgiveness of sin is made possible, liberating all who put faith in him from the sin that stood as a record of debt against them. (8:30-32)

Whereas Jesus’ words were directed to those who believed, the others who did not put faith in him also heard his words. These unbelievers seem to have been the ones who strongly objected and later tried to stone him. They proudly maintained that they were the “seed” or offspring of Abraham and never had been slaves to anyone. They then asked, “How can you say, ‘You will become free’?” Although they were then living under Roman authority, their reply focused on their status as free children on the basis of their descent from Abraham. They were not born in slavery. (8:33)

In response, Jesus repeated “amen” (truly) when solemnly calling attention to their being enslaved to sin, saying that “everyone who engages in sin is a slave of sin.” Alluding to the dismissal of the slave woman Hagar and her son Ishmael from the household of Abraham, Jesus reminded them that a slave does not remain permanently in the household but a son does. A son, however, could set a slave free. Therefore, Jesus, as the Son of God, could liberate individuals from enslavement to sin, making them completely free. While Jesus acknowledged that those who had objected to his words were of the “seed” of Abraham or his descendants, he implied that their attitude did not reflect that. They were seeking to kill him, as his “word” or the message he proclaimed encountered obstinate resistance, finding no room among them. (8:34-37)

Whereas Jesus spoke what he had seen while he had been with his Father, they did what they had heard from their father. In this way, the Son of God revealed that their desire to kill him proved that they had a different father, an evil father with a murderous disposition. There are, however, manuscript readings that do not qualify the second mention of “father” with the adjective “your.” This is the reason for the following renderings: “You should do what you have heard from the Father.” (NRSV) “Then do what you have heard from the Father.” (NAB) Contextually, these renderings, however, do not fit the subsequent objection, “Our father is Abraham.” (8:38)

Again, they claimed to have Abraham as their father. Jesus, though, indicated that this would mean that they should have been doing the works of Abraham, which would have included manifesting the kind of faith Abraham did. This, however, was not the case. Instead of putting faith in Jesus, they tried to kill him, the very one who had told them the truth he had heard from God. “Abraham did not do this.” They did the works of their father. Insisting that they were not illegitimate children, they maintained that their only Father was God. (8:39-41)

Countering their claim, Jesus said that they would love him if God were their Father, for he had come from God. He had not come on his own accord but had been sent by him. “Why,” asked Jesus, “do you not comprehend what I am saying?” He then answered the rhetorical question, “Because you cannot [stand to] listen to my word.” They did not want to accept what Jesus said. (8:42, 43)

He then outspokenly declared the devil to be their father. It was the devil’s desires that they wished to carry out. He was a murderer (by implication the one responsible for the death of the first humans) from the “beginning” or from the time he commenced his life as the devil or slanderer. He did not “stand” in the truth, not proving himself to be its upholder, for truth is not in him. As a malicious slanderer, he is a depository of lies and so there is no “truth in him.” By reason of who he is, he speaks the lie. The falsehood has its source in him, for he is a liar and the father or originator of it (probably alluding to the first lie on record, the one conveyed to Eve). (8:44)

Jesus, though, told the people the truth, but they refused to accept it. Addressing their unbelief, he asked who among them could level a charge of sin against him and why they did not believe him when he told them the truth. Explaining the reason for their unbelief, Jesus said, “Everyone who is from God [belonging to him] listens to the words of God. Therefore, you do not listen, for you are not from God [not belonging to him].” (8:45-47)

Angered, they accused Jesus of being a Samaritan (not a recognized member of God’s chosen people) and having a demon. “I do not have a demon,” said Jesus. “I honor my Father, but you dishonor me.” As he was the Son, their dishonoring him indicated that they also dishonored the Father who had sent him. Jesus did not seek glory for himself, diligently striving to win the plaudits of others. He looked to his Father to bestow glory on him, manifesting his approval. The Father also did judging. Unlike the baseless judgment of the unbelieving Jews that slandered him as being a demonized Samaritan, Jesus’ reference to his Father as judging implied that his judgment was right or just. The Son of God followed this up with the startling statement (preceded by a repeated “amen” [truly]) that those who observed his word or heeded his teaching would never “see” or experience death. The unbelieving Jews did not understand that he spoke about coming into possession of the real life as persons forgiven of sin and, therefore, liberated from the condemnation of death. Believers would not die as condemned sinners. (8:48-51)

Refusing to recognize that Jesus had come from the realm above, the unbelieving Jews replied that they were certain he had a demon, saying, “Abraham died; also the prophets. And you say, ‘Whoever observes my word will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? Also the prophets died. Who do you make yourself [out to be]?” (8:52, 53)

Jesus acknowledged that glorifying himself or making claims on his own authority would not mean anything. The Father, however, had glorified him, the very one whom the unbelieving Jews professed to be their God. The miracles Jesus performed proved that his Father had empowered him, thus glorifying him as his beloved Son. (8:54)

The murderous hatred of the unbelieving Jews proved that they did not know God, that they had no relationship with him. Otherwise, they would have recognized his Son and loved him. Therefore, about his Father, Jesus could say to them, “You do not know him, but I know him [his relationship being that of an intimate, the beloved Son of his Father].” If Jesus had said that he did not know the Father, he would have been a liar, as they had demonstrated themselves to be liars. They claimed to know God, but their slanderous words and hateful actions directed against the Son proved that this was not the case. (8:55)

Jesus, though, knew his Father and observed his word, always acting in harmony with his Father’s will. Abraham, the “father” or ancestor of the Jews, rejoiced to see, or eagerly anticipated with joy, the time Jesus called “my day.” In faith, Abraham saw it and was glad. His thus seeing it was based on the promise that through his “seed” (or offspring) all the families of the earth would be blessed. (8:55, 56)

Knowing that Jesus could not possibly be even 50 years old, the unbelieving Jews challenging said, “And you have seen Abraham?” “I am [from] before Abraham existed” (literally, “Before Abraham came to be, I am”), Jesus replied, preceding his words with the solemn “amen, amen” (truly, truly). Thus he confirmed that he, the one whom the people then saw, was the very same person prior to Abraham’s birth. (8:57, 58)

For many centuries, the expression “I am” (egó eimi [in 8:58]) repeatedly has been linked to Exodus 3:14, where the same words appear in the Septuagint. The Exodus passage relates to the time God revealed his unique name (YHWH) to Moses. The words egó eimi, however, do not constitute the complete thought in the Septuagint, but the Almighty is quoted as saying, egó eimi ho ón (“I am the One Who Is” or “I am the Being”). Then, what Moses is to say to the Israelites is not a repetition of egó eimi but of ho ón (ho ón apéstalkén me prós hymás; “the One Who Is has sent me to you”).

Like “I am” or “it is I,” the Greek egó eimi often is the expression individuals used to identify themselves. At the time confusion existed about his identity, the former blind man who had received sight through Jesus is quoted as telling others, egó eimi (“I am,” meaning that he was indeed the same person as the man who had previously been blind). (9:9) Similarly, when the disciples were frightened upon seeing what they imagined to be a phantom or a ghost walking on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus is represented as identifying himself with the words, egó eimi; mé phobeísthe (“I am [It is I]; fear not”). (Mark 6:50)

In keeping with common use, John 8:58 may be understood to mean that Jesus identified himself as being the very same person (the unique Son of God) before Abraham’s birth as he then was among the existing generation. Therefore, an appropriate rendering that preserves the meaning of “I am” for egó eimi would be, “I am [from] before Abraham existed.” This would harmonize with Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ [is] the same yesterday and today, and into the ages [to come].” Other places in John 8, where “I am” appears, also point to the true identity of Jesus.

Furious that Jesus claimed to predate Abraham and, by implication, to be from the infinite past, the unbelieving Jews picked up stones to hurl at him. He, however, went into hiding and left the temple precincts. (8:59)