"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 8 Jesus at Tabernacles
8.3 Teaching on the Last Day of the Feast and Reactions (Jn 7.37-52)
COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES
The last day of Tabernacles was the culmination of the feast and its water symbolism: each day of the feast a procession accompanied a golden pitcher filled with water from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple, where it went round the altar of burnt sacrifice before the Temple. The water in the pitcher was then ritually poured out. On the seventh day the procession went seven times around the altar. Thus the water imagery of this saying would have resonance with the festival observances. See above for further discussion of Tabernacles.
There is some disagreement about how to translate the phrase "the one who trusts in me" in v37. The translation depends partly on how that verse should be punctuated and partly on who we think is being referred to in v38 as the source of the living water. First, should the sentences be punctuated so that the phrase 'the one who trusts in me' goes with the verb 'let them drink' as its subject (as I have translated it here) or so that phrase goes with the Scriptural quotation in v38: 'The one who trusts in me, as Scripture says -- from their inmost parts rivers of living water will flow.' The latter makes for an awkward sentence, both in English and in Greek. But as Brown points out in his meticulous discussion of these verses (Brown 1966 pp 320-4) the construction, however awkward, is used by the Evangelist forty-one times.
But we should not be judging on the basis of the punctuation alone; this is where the interpretation of the source of the living water must be taken into account. The first punctuation creates the expectation that the source of the living water is Jesus and the quote from Scripture probably refers to YHWH. The second punctuation creates the expectation that the water will flow from within the believer. Jesus attributes the saying in this verse to 'Scripture' but does not say anything more specific. In fact it seems to be an allusion rather than an exact quote. Modern scholars have varied in their identification of the verse or verses that Jesus had in mind, partly on the basis of their solution to the question of the source of the water.
It seems more in keeping with what Jesus had already said about providing living water in the conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in ch 4 and what the Evangelist says in v39 about the Spirit to assume that Jesus is the source of living water here. Another factor which Brown cites is the possible connection between this living water and the water that flowed from the rock in the desert during the Exodus. With those points in mind, the first punctuation seems to be the more likely and Brown's suggestions of Ps 78. 15-16 and Zech 14.8 seem very likely to be the Scripture that Jesus had in mind in v38.
In v38 “inmost parts” is used to translate the Greek noun “koilia”. This word can pose a problem for modern English speakers. Literally it refers to the thorax and abdomen, referred to as the cavity of the body, and is often translated as “belly”, “intestines”, or “guts”. Like the latter English word it was sometimes seen as the seat of strong emotions and some translators render it here as “heart” (for example the NRSV).
In v39, the elder comments on his interpretation of Jesus' words: here Jesus is speaking about the Spirit, who will be the living water, but only when Jesus has been glorified. Previously we have heard about the Spirit in the context of revelation (both that to John the Baptist at Jesus' baptism in Jn 1.32-3 and that to believers in Jn 3.31-6) and in connection with baptism (the conversation with Nicodemos in Jn 3.1-11). Now we learn a little more about the importance of the Spirit in the lives of believers through this image of living water, which also provides new insight into Jesus' words about living water in his conversation with the Samaritan woman in ch4.
Chapter 7 has been full of such discussion among Jesus' hearers as to his identity: prophet, Messiah, healer, and so forth. See vv 11-13, 15, and 25-30 for some of these previous discussions. Here the problem, in the crowd's eyes, lies not in what he has done or said, but in his origins. The are convinced both that the Messiah will not come from Galilee and that they know that Jesus' origins are in Galilee. This is another example of John's irony, since we the readers know that Jesus' origins are heavenly rather than earthly. But it may also assume the readers' knowledge of the tradition that Jesus was in fact born in David's home village -- this would increase the contrast between the crowd's assumption of knowledge and their actual lack of knowledge. (See Appendix 5 for a fuller discussion of this possibility.) The idea that the Messiah would not come from Galilee recurs a few verses later in the disagreement between Nicodemus and the other members of the Sanhedrin.
The Temple attendents had been sent to bring Jesus in to the Sanhedrin sometime between his teaching at the mid-point of the feast (v32) and the teaching on the final day that we have just heard (vv37-9). So they have likely had several days to obey their orders and the Pharisees do not seem at all impressed by their excuse for failure. The contrast they make between the lack of trust in Jesus shown by the elites and the trust shown by the “ignorant” crowd is, of course, yet another example of the Evangelist's use of irony.
See the comments to Jn 7.32 for a discussion of the chief priests.
The introduction, or reintroduction, of Nicodemus in v50 is interesting. With the exception of those persons who are among Jesus' closest associates (eg, the disciples, John the Baptist), there are only two figures that occur in more than one narrative within this gospel -- Caiaphas and Nicodemus. It is easy to account for Caiaphas. He was an important public figure, the high priest at the time of Jesus' arrest and trial. It is hard to see how John could have told the story of the resistance to Jesus among the rulers and his ultimate arrest, condemnation, and execution without recounting more than one story featuring Caiaphas.
Nicodemus is another matter. He is not elsewhere prominent in the Jesus story: no other gospel mentions him. But John mentions Nicodemus by name in three accounts within his gospel: in ch3 when Nicodemus comes by night to see Jesus; here, where Nicodemus makes a legal argument in Jesus' favour and is made fun of by his fellow Pharisees for it; and later in ch19. We will deal with the culmulative effect of these allusions when commenting on ch19, but at this time the reader should definitely be alert to Nicodemus as important, and also to the possibility that he is being marked as a disciple, albeit indirectly.
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