John 8 - The Light of the world comes from Galilee

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

What is the origin of verses 8:1-11?

The eight chapter of the Gospel of John starts with a story dear to many Christians on how Jesus showed mercy to the sinful woman. This story leads us to bring up the question about the biblical manuscripts. There are ancient books – among them Cicero’s speeches as well as Paul’s letters – that have been preserved for us as manuscripts. Before there were any printing houses, the only way to get a section of any Gospel was to acquire a handwritten copy of it. Rarely, if ever, did the copy turn out exactly the same as the original. A letter or a whole phrase could have been left out or misplaced. The scribe might also have included into the text some remark originally written in the margin, or he might have added into a section familiar to him something he knew by heart and thought was relevant there. It may be that some difficult words or issues were given some clarifications, too.

When classicists seek to find out the way Cicero or Paul originally wrote, they are up against a challenge. By comparing manuscripts, they try to determine the original text form. This study requires high-level professional skills in the field of classical antiquity. And when studying the New Testament books, excellent knowledge of the Bible is also required. After various challenges, what comes out of all this is e.g. a critical edition of the original New Testament text, which in most cases and with a high degree of certainty, distinguishes the original text from the additions that sometimes have been made hundreds of years later.

So, is our Christian faith on a shaky foundation, as there are hundreds, even thousands of manuscripts? Not by any means. The manuscripts do not compromise any key issues of our faith. On the other hand, two important and much-loved sections are such that do not belong to the original New Testament books. One of them is Mark 16:9-20, which is a synthesis of the resurrection accounts found in the other Gospels and in the New Testament books. The other one is John 7:53-8:11, now under discussion.

The text copied into that part of John’s Gospel is not hundreds of years younger than the New Testament, but it is of old gospel tradition. Apparently the text is mentioned by the Bishop of Hierapolis, around the year 130. Eusebius placed it in the Gospel of the Hebrews which is not included in the New Testament. The text is apparently an old gospel fragment, which does not necessarily belong to any of the Gospels we now have. In order not to disrupt the flow of thought in the Gospel of John, we will discuss that fragment only at the end of this chapter.

The light shines from Galilee 8:12-20

We now return to the end of the seventh chapter. There Jesus’s opponents rejected him saying that there are no prophecies that a prophet should arise from Galilee. Thus, they forget a very important messianic text: the book of Isaiah holds a prophecy that the disdained land of Zebulun and Naphtali will see a great light (Isaiah 9:1, ESV). Right after this is the prophecy of Christmas, according to which the Prince of Peace will come to free his people, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder”. (Isaiah 9:6, ESV).

So the evangelist, who has indicated above that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, combines two expectations in one single word by Jesus: the Messiah was to hail from both Bethlehem and Galilee. In the same way he combines the two sides of the person of Jesus: even if people knew of Jesus’s natural birth, contrary to what was expected of the Messiah, they neither knew nor acknowledged his divine origin. And as they did not know the Father, neither could they know the Son but hated him and sought an opportunity to put out the light sent by God. Once again we come back to the introductory hymn, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it”.

”I am” – The real nature of Jesus 8:21-30

Jesus speaks about his going away, and once more the Jews misunderstand Jesus’s words. Again, it is probably not mockery but complete blindness and inability to see the light of God. The climax in Jesus’s teaching remains equally incomprehensible to the hearers. Nowhere else does John identify Father with Son like here.

The Old Testament tells us how Moses, astonished, asked for God’s name. God answered him and said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14). It is this name that Jesus now applies to himself in the sentences that are difficult to translate into English. “Unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” Those who do not understand that the Father and Son are one, will remain prisoners of death because of sin. Those who do understand this oneness and recognize that the Son came from the Father to be the light of the world find forgiveness of sins. Some people recognize the real identity of Jesus while others deny it and do not see it. The same basis is also applied to Jesus’s “going away” and his “being lifted up”. Those who deny the connection between Christ and God, see his going away only as a blasphemer’s death and his being lifted up only as an openly sacrilegious person’s being lifted up for all to mock. Those whose eyes God has opened to see the connection between the Father and Son see his going away as his ascension to the Father’s glory and his cross as a great reason to rejoice.

Children of Abraham or the devil? 8:31-59

The section we look at now is crucial to the status of Israel after Jesus came to the world. Jesus speaks to the Jews, and note that John often uses the word ‘Jews’ only when referring to the Jews who rejected Jesus (of course, Jesus himself and all the apostles were Jews). Now Jesus speaks to the Jews who believed in him, but the discussion puts everything in a new light. ‘Faith’ – a very ambiguous word in John’s Gospel – has been of a very superficial nature. It was not the kind of faith that confesses Jesus as the Son of God who reconciled the sins of the world and is the only light for us in darkness. Very soon the debaters were in considerable disagreement. The Jews reject Jesus, their justification being that they are children of Abraham. Thus they think that they can own all the promises given to Abraham by God.

Jesus dismisses this claim in a straightforward and very rough way: the opponents were not children of Abraham but of the devil. Abraham saw beforehand the coming of the Christ to the world and rejoiced. The people instead rejected Christ and sought to kill him. The Jews who reject Christ and do not believe that he came from the Father have no true affiliation to Abraham.

This message was topical even at the time when John’s Gospel was written. Then, too, Christians were living a situation where the people of God rejected Jesus. Undoubtedly, also at that time they justified themselves as being Children of Abraham. So what was the benefit of belonging to the people of God? This section now under discussion gives a very clear answer: if someone rejects Jesus, belonging to the Chosen people is of no use at all to him or her. Thus the testimony given by John is exactly the same as by Paul who cites Isaiah, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved” (Romans 9:27, ESV).

When the debate started, Jesus was speaking to the people who believed in him. The teaching focused on his real identity. The Jews rejected this teaching and sought to kill Jesus. So, they neither managed to believe in Jesus nor to kill him – it was not very easy to get a grip on Jesus.

Jesus and the adulteress 7:53-8:11

The story about Jesus and the adulterous woman is a separate gem and not part of the string of pearls put together by the evangelist John. Nevertheless, the passage is impressive and beautiful. The crucial point is that Jesus is a friend of sinners. For this reason many scholars have associated the story with the theology of Luke, which distinctively emphasizes similar issues.

The story takes place in Jerusalem, possibly during the last days of Jesus’s life on earth. If so, we understand that the atmosphere was even more intensive than what we see when reading the story for the first time.

The story resembles the debate given by the Synoptics on the tax coin: no matter how Jesus answered, he would be entrapped. It was impossible to match faithfulness to the Law of Moses and friendship with sinners. A choice had to be made whether to be faithful to the law and let the people kill the woman (Deuteronomy 22:22-24, ESV) or to overlook the woman’s sin and thus deny the Law of Moses.

What will Jesus do? His reactions show absolute mastery of the situation. His writing on the ground hardly means anything particular. He just waits for the drama to unfold and to change its course. His calm and quiet manner shows that he will not be grilled for an answer. One sentence from Jesus, and his assailants must make their move. First the older and wiser ones and then the rest of them understood that their presence was too much and went away. Finally, the only one left was the woman, whom Jesus forgives and sends to a new life.