"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 8 Jesus at Tabernacles (Jn 7.1-8.59)
Further Teaching and Reaction: Abraham and his Line (Jn 8.30-59)
The Jerusalemites (“Iudaioi”) here are in my view residents of Jerusalem who have heard Jesus' teaching at the feast and shortly after; but they include at least some members of the faction within the Council and the Pharisees that want to execute Jesus. Thus they are different from the Jerusalemites in ch7 who know that some of the leadership want to kill Jesus but are outside that group, In this segment they take exception to the idea that they need to be freed, not to Jesus' other claims. They claim that as Abraham's descendants, they have not ever been anyone's slaves and do not need to be made free. There seems to be a lot of irony operating here. First of all there is the usual misunderstanding operating: Jesus is thinking of spiritual freedom, the freedom to leave behind the slavery of sin and embrace right relationship with God through the Son but they are thinking of earthly freedom, freedom from slavery to a human master. On yet another level, the very festival they have just celebrated, Tabernacles, recalls the Exodus, the escape from slavery in Egypt, making it odd that they should say to Jesus that Abraham's descendants had never been anyone's slaves.
In any case their push-back at Jesus' sayings about freedom and slavery only serves to show their increasing misunderstanding of who Jesus is. Whatever in the previous segment of the discourse had led them, or some of them, to put their trust in him, is not sufficient to open them up to listen to Jesus now. The whole segment leads to a much more negative and combative discussion of what it means to act like a descendant of Abraham in the following verses.
What is the truth which these potential disciples will know if they continue in Jesus' word? It is presumably the same as the truth that eludes the devil, whom Jesus condemns as a liar. This is the truth about Jesus: who he is, what his relationship with the Father is, and why he has been sent. All this is accessible to Jesus' disciples, that is, to those who put their trust in him and continue in his word.
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COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES
The first part of v41, Jesus' final comment about acting like Abraham if they are Abraham's descendants, is clearly meant to be sarcastic, but that is difficult to represent in translation. I've added the “alright” to try to represent the tone that seems needed.
The furious rejoinder from Jesus' sometime new followers uses the difficult word porneia (πορνεία), the root of English words like pornography. It is never easy to translate in the New Testament. Unfortunately the excellent discussion in Kyle Harper, “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm”, Journal of Biblical Literature, 131.2 (2012) pp 363-83, skips John 8.41 in reviewing the New Testament uses of the term. However, enough is said there about the way this word is used in contemporary pagan and Jewish writing to provide some direction. The general connotation of the term seems to have encompassed the various sexual activities, based in prostitution and slavery, open to Gentile men in the Greco-Roman world but closed to Jewish men. As such it could function partly as a marker of distinction: pagans could and did embrace “porneia” while Jews saw themselves as held to a higher standard. And because of the use of sexual irregularity, especially prostitution, as a metaphor for idolatry in the prophets, “porneia” can also connote unfaithfulness to God. All these senses seem to contribute to the gibe which the Jerusalemites make at Jesus in this verse. Possible translations would be “prostitution” or “unfaithfulness”, but the more literal “illicit sex” seemed best here.
This gibe may show that the Evangelist was aware of the tradition that there was something irregular about Jesus' birth or parentage, if not of the accusation, known from second-century sources (like the anti-Christian polemicist Celsus) and later (such as the Talmud), that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. See Brown 1966 p 357 and [[GET another source that cites Talmud]]. In any case it provides another example of John's irony. The residents of Jerusalem misunderstand both Jesus' true parentage and their own. See Appendix 5 for a fuller discussion of this issue.
A clearly angry Jesus responds in the harshest possible terms to these Jerusalemites who had begun by trusting in him (v31). Now their insistence on their own understanding both of what it means to be a child of Abraham and what is means to be a child of God makes them unable to see whose child Jesus is. And that in turn brands them as not children of God. Key here are two ideas: first, that the child will act in accordance with its parent's actions. Therefore Jesus speaks as the Father speaks and does as the Father does. Therefore a true child of Abraham will act like Abraham and rejoice to see Jesus' day. Second, Jesus identifies the truth with God and lies with evil and hence with the devil. His hearers have not just misunderstood him, they have stepped over from seeking truth to embracing a lie when they distort the search for spiritual parentage and spiritual freedom into an affirmation of earthly descent and inheritance. By denying Jesus' and the Father's witness they show themselves not to be from God. (See Appendix 4 for a discussion of this passage in the context of the other "Satan" references.)
The last paragraph of this section is built around the two double-Amen sayings in vv51 and 58 (also the fifth absolute I AM saying), especially the latter. Indeed the whole section about Abraham's descendants seems to have been built around the saying in v58. In any case, Jesus concludes by bringing together the various themes of the previous paragraphs concerning his relationship with God and with Abraham, the Jerusalemites' continued umambiguous claims to understand what he is trying to say, and his mysterious and glorified unity with the Father. This all culminates in the I AM saying of v 58, in which Jesus made one of the clearest claims in this gospel to the divine Name YHWH.
After the chain of misunderstanding that has led to this point, it would be foolish to suppose that the Jerusalemites of this section grasped here any of what Jesus is saying about the power over death that comes from keeping his word. And in fact they do not and are prepared to stone him when he leaves the Temple surreptitiously.
The misunderstanding based on Jesus' physical age in comparison to the centuries that have passed since the time of Abraham recalls the discussion of rebuilding the Temple in Jn 2.20. Taken together the two verses (2.20 and 8.57) are a strong indication that, as far as John is concerned, Jesus was in his 40s at the time of his two-year-long public ministry, possibly as old as 46 at its start. If we are persuaded by this interpretation of John's text, then Jesus was significantly older during the events described in the gospel than we are accustomed to think of his being.
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