"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 8 Jesus at Tabernacles (Jn 7.1- 8.59)


8.5 Further Teaching and Reaction: The Light of the World (Jn 8.12-20)


GENERAL COMMENTS


If we are right to retain Jn 7.53-8.11 in its traditional place, then all three of these remaining sections of ch8 appear to be clearly dated by Jn 8.2 to the day after the end of Tabernacles. Their internal dating suggest they are meant to be read as a connected discourse and confrontation that took place in the Temple (cp Jn 8.20 and 8.59). Thus the “again” in v12 is consecutive, taking up again Jesus' teaching of the people in the Temple precincts from the start of the story of the woman taken in adultery. The first section (Jn 8.12-20) deals with the theme of light, clearly related to the themes of that festival. Although the force of the “again” in v21, at the start of the second section, is less clear, it would appear from the context that it too should be understood to be consecutive.

We cannot know for sure without more clues than the evangelist has left us, but the section on Jesus' departure (Jn 8.21-9), does connect back to the themes found in Jn 7.33-6, part of the Tabernacles narrative, even though it does not connect with themes of light or water that belong to the feast itself. When in ch7 Jesus alludes to his coming departure, his hearers wonder if he is going to leave Galilee and Judaea to preach to the Diaspora. When he does so again in ch 8, the listeners wonder whether Jesus will kill himself! In both cases the Evangelist's characteristic irony is in operation, for Jesus' departure to his Father through his crucifixion and resurrection will indeed result in preaching about Jesus to the Diaspora and in Jesus' approach death is willingly accepted, though not suicidal. In neither case do his hearers really have a clue. It is more difficult to link the third section, the dispute about Abraham's descendants, thematically to what has gone before. But the Evangelist clearly wanted us to read it as part of the same conversation that began with v12, as we see from v30.

Of course to claim that the Elder wanted us to read chs7 and 8 as a continuous account of the circumstances, teaching, and public reaction connected with Jesus' attendence at the feast of Tabernacles in the fall following the Passover of ch 6 is not the same thing as to say that Jesus actually did attend the celebration of Tabernacles in Jerusalem that autumn, taught in the Temple treasury area, and aroused the range of reactions we see here. But there seems to be no real reason to suppose events could not have happened as John describes them.


 

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COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES


This section opens with another I AM saying with a predicate, “I am the Light of the World.” It is the second such saying out of seven in this gospel (see the discussion in the Introduction). This saying is repeated in ch9, where it will be expanded more fully. Here it is both a connection back to the Tabernacles liturgy and an allusion to Is 9.1-2 (as Comfort points out in his 1989 article).

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There are two challenges to Jesus' authority in the Tabernacles sections of ch7: Jn 7.15-19 and Jn 7.45-52. The first is based on the Pharisees' claim that Jesus lacked the proper learning for a teacher. As we have seen, this is answered in two ways, first with the claim in Jn 7.16 that Jesus' teaching comes from YHWH and not from any human learning, and second by Jesus' actions and judgement given in the story of the woman taken in adultery. The challenge in Jn 7.45-52 is based in part on the Pharisees' belief that they know and understand Jesus' origins to be humble and outside the proper sphere of a prophet, much less a Messiah. We know from Jn 6.41-51 that the Pharisees who were present at the synagogue at Capernaum were terribly mistaken in their confidence about Jesus' family and origins and so too are these Pharisees in Jn 7.45-52. The second challenge to Jesus' authority to teach is first answered here by by Jesus' words in Jn 8.12, which recall the light themes of Tabernacles, look ahead to its fuller treatment in Jn 9, and are also an allusion to Is 9.1-2:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.


Jesus is the light that shines in the gloom and darkness in which the people have lain, and like that glorious light, he shone out of “Galilee of the nations”. By this allusion, Jesus looked back to refute the Pharisees' slight and also to the crowd's confusion about whether he would preach to the Gentiles in Jn 7.31-6. The reaction of the Pharisees reorients the conversation from a consideration of Jesus' self-revelation to a further consideration of the source of Jesus' authority in Jn 8.13-19.

In a sense the Pharisees here demonstrate what it is to walk in darkness. Despite earlier teaching from Jesus about his origin and destination and earlier teaching about testimony to him, they have not understood and so will not follow the light that is Jesus. The references to judgement here recall both the words between Nicodemus and the rest of the Council at the end of ch 7 and the incident of Jn 7.53-8.11. At the end of ch7 Nicodemus accused his fellow Pharisees of unjust judgement directed toward Jesus and now Jesus does the same. More than that, he offers an example of right judgement about himself and others, made by him and his Father together. And like Nicodemus he condemns the Pharisees' actions using the Law as a standard, one to which they do not conform in either situation. In Jn 7.53-8.11, Jesus modeled right judgement according to the Law to a group of scribes and Pharisees. I think it is reasonable to assume that at least some Pharisees were present on all three occsions.

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Jesus' reference to the Law as “your Law” seems intended to emphasise the Pharisees' culpability by emphasising their close relationship with and deep regard for Torah. Although it is sometimes read as Jesus' distancing himself from Torah -- as if he were saying “your Law, not mine” -- that seems to me essentially anachronistic in its sense of division between Jesus and Second Temple Judaism.

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The treasury is one of two places in the Temple named in association with Jesus' preaching in John -- the other is Solomon's Portico (Jn 10.23). The treasury was in the Court of Women, the outermost of the courts from which Gentiles were restricted. As the plan shows, the Temple was a rectangular building contained within a square perimeter (shown in the inset plan at the bottom left). This structure was oriented on an east-west axis, with the east to the viewer's right on the plan (so that the Holy of Holies is at the far left, or westmost, side of the plan). The first courtyard of the Temple proper was spacious because it was the only one into all Jews who were ritually clean were admitted. It was called the Court of Women because women were not allowed beyond it (non-Levitical men could enter as far as the next, and smaller, Court of Israelites, but only Levites and priests could enter any further). The treasury itself, and the boxes into which offerings and tithes were paid, were apparently in the areas between the corner chambers on the north, south, and east sides. So Jesus here is speaking in a prominent gathering-place within the Temple precincts where his activities would certainly be noticed, hence the need for the Evangelist to explain why he was not arrested, given the attitude of the council, especially the Pharisee members, at the end of ch7.

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Once again we are reminded of the concept of Jesus' hour. It seems that both he and others were constrained in their actions by this hour: he could -- or would -- not act in certain ways until the time was right and neither could they.

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