"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 8 Jesus at Tabernacles

Section 8.1: Before the Feast: Conflict with Jesus' Brothers (Jn 7.1-13)



GENERAL COMMENTS


This disagreement between Jesus and his brothers sets the stage for a new scene. We have moved from Galilee at Passover time to Judaea during the Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkoth. As mentioned earlier, some scholars posit that ch7 should follow ch5 directly for chronological reasons. Some are also struck by similarities between the dialogues and discourses of ch5 with those of ch7, and think they are best explained by a closer relationship between the two chapters. However, given the way the Evangelist uses repeated themes and language to make connections between different parts of the gospel, this could simply be another example of the same authorial practice. There is no manuscript evidence for a transposition of ch6 and ch7.

The noun “hoi Ioudaioi” occurs a number of times in this short passage, and it is not always clear what the best translation would be, especially in v11. For a full discussion of the expression, see the Excursus on this phrase.

[[say something abt this section as a geographical transition]]


 

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COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES


As we saw earlier in ch5, the hostility to Jesus hardened into a desire to kill him after Jesus's defence of his healing on the Sabbath was deemed to amount to making himself equal to God (see Jn 5.17-18). The picture that the Evangelist paints in ch 5-7 is of a situation in which Jesus is in danger when he travels in Judaea but is able to move about and teach freely in Galilee. Presumably John means to show his readers that the power of the authorities was greater in Jerusalem and Judaea, and less so in the more remote Galilee. This may partly explain the statement in Jn 4.1-3 that Jesus left Judaea and went back to Galilee because the Pharisees had become aware of his very successful baptimal ministry. In his discussion of Nicodemus and the Gurion family, Richard Bauckham demonstrates the importance of some wealthy aristocratic families with Pharasaic connections during this period (see Bauckham 2007 pp 137-72). So it is by no means unlikely that information known to Judaean Pharisees could become known among the authorities at this time.

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As one of the three pilgrimage festivals, Tabernacles (or Booths; the feast of Sukkoth) was an extremely important one. Both a harvest festival and a commemoration of the Exodus wandering, its rituals recalled themes of water (especially rainfall), light, and instruction (Torah). A connection between Tabernacles and the final “day of the Lord” is seen in Zechariah 9-14, especially chs12-14. We will see allusions to those themes in John's presentation of Jesus' Tabernacles discourses in chs7 and 8. For more discussion of this feast, see Brown 1966 pp 326-9; G.W. MacRae, “The Meaning and Evolution of the Feast of Tabernacles” CBQ 22 (1960), 251-76; and J.A. Draper, “The Heavenly Feast of Tabernacles: Revelation 7.1-17” JSNT 19 (1983) 133-47.

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This is the first mention of Jesus' brothers in the text since Jn 2.12, where they were mentioned essentially in passing in a geographical transition passage as going to Capernaum from Cana at the same time as Jesus and his mother. Here they are the centre of attention. From the Synoptic tradition we know the names of four brothers of Jesus: James, Joses (or Joseph), Jude, and Simon. Likely they were either half-brothers (sons of Joseph and Mary, born after Jesus) or step-brothers (Joseph's children by a previous marriage).

Both the Synoptic and Johannine traditions testify to friction and misunderstanding between Jesus' mother and/or brothers on the one side and Jesus himself on the other. In Mark 3.19b-21, 31-32, Jesus' mother and brothers come to see him to restrain him. Apparently they were concerned both because he was arousing hostility and because there was talk about his sanity (or lack thereof). Here in Jn7 the attitude of Jesus' family is not portrayed as exactly hostile, but in neither instance are they motivated by faithfulness and trust in Jesus. In John's tradition, the brothers believe in a limited sense -- they acknowledge the reality of the works that Jesus does. But they show, as do others in the Fourth Gospel, the limitations of a signs-based belief, for they do not have trust in Jesus' “right time”, his “hour”, at which the Father will reveal all to the world. Their concern is with realpolitik: Jesus has asserted his power through his deeds in Galilee and now he must do the same in Judaea, for the sake of his disciples there, or else he will cease to be the object of public attention. He must become known to the world now.

We know from other sources that the attitude of Jesus' immediate family changed over the course of his ministry, as Richard Bauckham argues. By the final Passover in Jerusalem, Jesus' mother certainly, and his brother James and other more remote relations probably, had accompanied him there with the Twelve and other disciples. (See Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (London and New York, 1990) 1-57 for a full discussion of the brothers and the role of Jesus' family members as seen in the Gospels.) What produced the change to a true faith (in the Johannine sense) we don't know, but the history of the early Church shows that it occurred.

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Jesus' refusal to come to the festival is based on this sense of his “right time”, the kairos-time which John also writes of as Jesus' hour (see Jn 2. 4). A clue to understanding why it is not Jesus' kairos-time lies in the verb anabainō (ἀναβαίνω), found in v8 and after and translated as “go up”. It means to go up geographically, as when you go to a higher elevation (for example, going from Galilee to Jerusalem). But it was also the verb used in Jn 3.13 when Jesus spoke of the Son going up to heaven. So here it is not yet his right time to go up geographically to Jerusalem because it is not yet time for him to go up to heaven. It is always the right time for his brothers to go up, because they do not have the task that Jesus does, bearing witness to the world of its wicked deeds.

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The Greek noun used here is 'kosmos' (κόσμος). As we have seen (in comments on Jn 1.9-10), its usual meaning is the material creation, the world and all that is in it. But sometimes, as here in Jn 7.7, the word is used not simply to distinguish between the created world and its Creator, but to express a sense that they are opposed. In this usage, the world, although remaining the Creator's work, becomes not simply a realm distinct from that of the Creator but one opposed to the Creator. It has become hostile to the Creator because its ruler is Satan, the Adversary (see Appendix 4 for a discussion of the role of Satan in John's Gospel). As we have seen above, the word is also used in this way, or in a fluid sense that seems to slide between the two senses, in Jn 12.31, 14.17, 14.27, 14.30-1, 15.18-19, 16.8, 16.11, 16.20-21, 17.9, and 17.13-14.

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As at Cana when Jesus' mother asked him to do something to help when the wine ran out at the wedding, so here Jesus complies, at least partly, after his initial refusal. The similarity does not end there for, just as at Cana Jesus copes with the problem of the wine in a way that is known to his followers but not to the guests in general, so at Tabernacles Jesus goes up to Jerusalem but he does it secretly. Presumably Jesus thought (and rightly as it turned out) that the size of the crowds at this pilgrimage festival offered him protection, if he did not attract too much attention on the way.

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Clearly Jesus was expected in Jerusalem for the festival by all and sundry. These crowds referred to in v12 must have been diverse in their make-up, from members of the establishment to ordinary worshippers from a variety of backgrounds (including Diaspora Jews), and this is reflected in the range of opinion expressed about Jesus. The concluding verse reinforces the sense John has created of a Jesus under siege, at least in Judaea and Jerusalem.

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