Commentary on John 8:31-36
These 6 verses are preceded and followed by the literary context in which the Johannine author has placed them. This context is 8:12-30 and 8:31-59. We disregard 8:1-11 for being most probably a late gloss. As in the rest of the gospel, the words “Pharisees” and “Jews” are synonyms, meaning Jewish, or Judean, authorities. Jesus is engaged in a Rabbinic type of discussion based on the Hebrew scriptures, specifically on the idea of God as Father and Abraham as the ancestor of the Israelites.
In verses 12-30 Jesus tries, unsuccessfully, to explain to the Pharisees that he does not need the two witnesses required by the Law in any testimony because he already has them: his own and the Father’s. Of course, this is historically impossible. No one could testify on his own behalf. That is why the Law, to ensure fairness and objectivity, required at least two witnesses. But let us not forget that the gospel is not necessarily historical but theological. We are reading the account of an early Jewish-Christian community (around 90 CE) engaged in heavy theological debate with the synagogue, a sort of family feud if you consider that everyone here is Jewish. So, we can use the word “Jewish”, as the author does, because by this time there was a Jewish identity in the making.
In verses 37-59 Jesus and the Pharisees/Jews hurl accusations at each other. He accuses them of being children of the devil, they accuse him of being demon-possessed and a Samaritan. One can hardly think of a worse situation. There was no communication whatsoever, no one was listening. It was a war of words. In the middle of this hostile piece of literature stands our text.
We are encouraged by the way the passage starts: “To the Jews who had believed in him,” but it is a problematic verse. It is probably a later gloss to make it agree with verse 30. Some suggest that it refers to Jews in the Johannine community who maintained Jewish religious practices. Their faith is inadequate and the debate that follows is meant to test it. Gail R. O’Day suggests this is an example of the theological arguments that Jews professing faith in Jesus would surely encounter. These verses show how the Christian claims could stand up to Jewish counterarguments.1
Abraham is presented as an example of belief in God’s truth. Jesus’ opponents, by not believing God’s truth embodied in Jesus, manifest a different origin from the one they claim (“Abraham is our father”). Verse 44 says it all: “You are from your father the devil.” This is an extremely dangerous text if taken out of context and has been used countless times as fuel for antisemitism.
The writer uses the word sperma for descendants and tekna for children, but fatherhood is only related to the second one. Yes, they have a father, but he is not Jesus’ Father. It is the devil, who is a liar in whom there is no truth. Truth can only be found in Jesus’ Father, and in Jesus. There is still another difference. Jesus has seen the Father’s presence (verse 38, eoraka), whereas the Pharisees are doing what they have heard (ekousate) from their father, the devil. Two different kinds of relationships. Jesus is a subject, the Pharisees only objects; they do what the devil wants them to do, he works through them, they have no autonomy. Therefore, despite the fact that they think they are Abraham’s children, and by extension, God’s children, and so they are free, they are not. They are slaves to sin, and to the Romans. That is why their proud affirmation in verses 33 about not being slaves of anyone is false and can only be explained as the author’s theological interpretation, not as historical facts. The Israelites had been enslaved by many powerful empires, including the present one, the Romans!
The Johannine writer skillfully weaves the dialogue in such a way as to provide Jesus with important clues for his final punch line in 8:58: “Before Abraham was, I am.” He talks about himself using the biblical way of referring to God: ego eimi. The immediate response from the Jews clearly shows that he is here making claims to divinity.
It is important to realize that the Gospel of John is a rhetorical fiction that attempts to convince the readers of the author’s understanding of a limited amount of Jesus’ works (see also verses 20:30-31; 21:25). When we do that, we avoid readings that are dogmatic, anachronistic and ethnocentric, the three no’s of any relevant and ethical interpretation. Placed in its first century context, in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, the document makes sense as the production of a minority community that believed it was being harassed by the religious authorities whom they call “the Jews.”
- Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John. Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) vol. IX, 637.