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Saturday Series: John 7:37-39; 8:28, etc

Today, I wish to explore several points related to chapters 7-8 of the Gospel of John, in order to demonstrate different aspects of Biblical criticism and interpretation which must be considered if one wishes to gain a proper a understanding of the Scripture passage. These involve: (1) Textual criticism and the authority of Scripture, (2) the theology of the book as expressed by the author himself, and (3) the distinctive vocabulary used by the author.

1. Textual Criticism: John 7:53-8:11 in the context of chapters 7-8

Even the casual student of the New Testament is likely aware of the situation surrounding John 7:53-8:11, the famous “Pericope of the Adulteress”. In most reliable translations, you will find a footnote indicating that this section is not found in many ancient manuscripts. Some Bible versions even block out the section in square (or double-square) brackets, to indicate that it may not be part of the original text.

The textual situation is summarized in any decent critical commentary (you will find a concise summary in the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [2nd edition], pp. 187-9). While contained in the majority of Greek manuscripts, 7:53-8:11 is absent from a significant number (and wide range) of early and important witnesses, including the Bodmer papyri (Ë66,75) and the major Codices Sinaiticus (a) and Vaticanus (B). For this reason, most commentators, including nearly all critical scholars, believe that the section was not part of the original Gospel of John.

At the same time, the tendency is to regard the episode as an authentic tradition—a “floating” tradition which made its way into the Gospel at various points, both elsewhere in John (after 7:36, 44, or 21:25), and even in the Gospel of Luke (after 21:38). It seems that the episode was so good, and so much beloved, that it was hard to leave out—a view most readers of the New Testament would share today. The views regarding John 7:53-8:11, and how one should treat it, may be summarized as follows:

  • It is part of the original Gospel of John. As indicated above, few critical commentators and scholars would accept this; it is a view held today primarily by traditional-conservative commentators who hold strongly (on doctrinal grounds) to the priority of the Majority text.
  • It is a secondary addition (interpolation) to the Gospel, but its authority is retained and respected as part of the canonical book. This is the view held by most commentators (including many Evangelicals). It is retained in the text, though set apart or blocked off in some way, and is usually analyzed and commented upon in its canonical position (i.e. after 7:52).
  • It is a secondary addition, and thus is not part of the inspired text. Scholars who adopt this view represent a minority—primarily traditional-conservative commentators and theologians for whom only the original form of the text (the “autograph”) is inspired. For example, Andreas Köstenberger in the Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament (BECNT) does not comment on these verses for this very reason.

If the prevailing critical view is correct (i.e. that 7:53-8:11 is an interpolation), then it means that 8:12 presumably would have followed 7:52 in the original text. It also means that the presence of 7:53-8:11 in most Bible versions and Greek editions effectively obscures the intent of the author and the structure of the passage.

Consider that, with 7:53-8:11 present, the impression is that 8:12ff took place on a separate occasion from that of 7:1-52 (the festival of Sukkoth, or Booths/Tabernacles). However, if 8:12ff is read directly after 7:52, the likelihood increases that the entirely of chapters 7-8 (excluding 7:53-8:11) is part of a discourse-scene set during the Sukkoth festival. If you have read chapters 7-8 carefully, you doubtless will have noticed a number of themes, motifs and vocabulary in 8:12-59 which indicate a continuation with chapter 7 (especially 7:14-39). There would appear to be additional confirmation of this narrative continuity in the two sayings of Jesus surrounding 7:53-8:11—7:37-38 and 8:12—which contain motifs traditionally associated with the Sukkoth festival (on this, see the Mishnah tractate Sukkah, and my recent notes on these verses):

  1. Water (7:37-38)—ceremonial procession each morning of the festival, drawing water from the Gihon spring and pouring it as an offering at the Temple altar.
  2. Light (8:12)—ceremonial lighting of golden candlesticks in the Temple courtyard in the evening.

We cannot be certain just how old the Mishnah traditions are, but it is possible that some version of the ceremonies mentioned above was associated with Sukkoth in Jesus’ time. The connection with water was certainly very ancient; as a harvest festival, the traditional ritual prayer for rain, was probably part of its celebration from early times. This is indicated from at least the early post-exilic period, based on the reference in Zechariah 10:1—the later chapters of this book have a Sukkoth setting (14:16-19). The motifs of water and light are found together in Zech 14:6-8, and Jesus is likely drawing upon this passage in the discourse scene of John 7-8.

2. The theology of the book: John 7:37-39

Any number of references from chapters 7-8 could be used to demonstrate this; but, as I have just mentioned the water and light motifs associated with the Sukkoth festival, it makes sense to examine briefly Jesus’ saying in 7:37-38:

“In the last great day of the festival, Yeshua had stood and cried (out), saying:
‘If any one should thirst, he must [i.e. let him] come toward me and drink—the (one) trusting in me, even as the Writing said: Rivers of living water will flow out of his belly‘.”

Here Jesus identifies himself with water, just as he identifies himself with light in 8:12. More precisely, he claims here to be the source of “living water”. This same idea was central to the discourse with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 (see verses 7-15). Similarly, Jesus identified himself as “living bread” in chapter 6 (vv. 27, 33, 35-50 and 51ff). This powerful imagery brings forth much discussion and thought as to the true meaning and significance of Jesus’ words. For the most part, the Gospel writer does not comment directly on the discourses; yet here he does, in verse 39, in which he identifies the “rivers of living water” specifically with the Holy Spirit:

“He said this about the Spirit which the (one)s trusting in him were about to receive…”

The follow-up statement in 39b is a bit awkward in the way that it tries to make clear that the Holy Spirit did not come upon the disciples until after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Note the important theological use of the verb of being (“was not yet…”), and the key Johannine verb doxázœ (“give [or regard with] honor/esteem”, typically translated “glorify”).

This statement in verse 39 is instructive for several reasons:

  • It points out what should already be clear from a careful study of the discourses—that the sayings of Jesus carry a deeper, spiritual meaning which people had (and have) difficulty understanding.
  • The central theme of the Spirit—in many ways this is the interpretive key to the discourses, even though the Spirit is not always mentioned specifically in the discourses of chapters 3-12 (cf. 3:5-8, 34; 4:23-24; 6:63). The Spirit will be emphasized more in chapters 14-16 of the Last Discourse.
  • Another guiding theme of the discourses is the twin aspect of Jesus’ exaltation/glorification—being “lifted high” through both his death/resurrection and his return back to the Father. The giving of the Spirit and Life is tied directly to this sequence of descent/ascent which summarizes Jesus mission on earth: descent–death–resurrection–ascent.

All of the discourses in the Gospel of John should be studied with these points in mind.

3. The distinctive vocabulary: John 8:28

This distinctive Johannine vocabulary has already been mentioned and illustrated above. Here I wish to focus on one verse in the Sukkoth discourse-scene—the saying of Jesus in 8:28:

“When you (have) lifted high [hypsœs¢te] the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [egœ eimi], and (that) from myself I do nothing, but even as the Father taught me, these (thing)s I speak”

One tricky aspect of the Johannine discourses is the frequent wordplay involved. This is often the basis of the misunderstanding which is part of the discourse-format—Jesus’ audience understands the words in one sense, or at one level, not realizing that Jesus actually means them in a different (theological or spiritual) sense. Two examples of such wordplay are found in this saying:

  • The verb hypsóœ (u(yo/w), “raise/lift high”—this word occurs five times in the Gospel, in three passages (3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34). It is one of several verbs of ascent which has a dual meaning in the discourses, as indicated above:
    (a) Jesus’ death on the cross—this is the primary reference in 3:14 and here in 8:28
    (b) His resurrection and exaltation, including his return to the Father—this is primarily in view in 12:32.
  • The expression egœ¡ eimi (e)gw/ ei)mi) “I am”, which often means simply “I am he”, “I am the one (who)”, etc. Some commentators and translators fill out the sentence this way here—”I am (the Messiah)”, “I am he [i.e. the Son of Man]”, etc—in order for it to make sense to Jesus’ audience in the context of the narrative. However, the expression “I Am” has a special theological significance in the Gospel of John—it signifies Jesus’ identity as the divine/eternal Son, in relation to God the Father (YHWH). There are several times in the Gospel narrative when egœ eimi has this deeper meaning implied, even though it could be read as “it is I” or “I am he” in the ordinary context of the narrative (see, for example, 1:20; 3:28; 4:26; 6:20; 8:24; 18:5ff).

Sometimes this wordplay is obscured in translation, and much is lost as a result. Every effort should be made to study the original Greek of the passage—and specially in the case of the discourses of Jesus—as far as this is possible for you. If you are making use of Biblesoft’s PC Study Bible software, you probably have access to tools and resources which will be of considerable help, even if you do not (yet) read Greek.

For next week, I will be moving ahead in the Gospel of John to the great “Last Discourse”, which begins in 13:31 and continues to the end of chapter 16. As you are able, you should read chapters 9-13 carefully. If you have already done this recently, I would recommend going over these chapters again, examining the Greek whenever and wherever you can. Pay careful attention to the close of the first half of the Gospel (12:36-50) and the start of the Passion Narrative in chapter 13, as well as the beginning section of the Last Discourse (13:31-38). As you continue on through the initial verses of chapter 14, study them closely, noting especially the variant reading(s) indicated (in the footnote, etc) for verse 7, as this will be one of the main items we will be looking at…next Saturday.

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