An Enigmatic Mirror
Jesus at the Festival of Sukkot, Part 2: John 7:25-53
A Prophet from Galilee? (Jn. 7:40-52)
Another objection about Jesus' teachings is raised by the disputing crowds. While some had begun to accept Jesus' messianic claims, others objected that the Messiah is not to come from Galilee, but Bethlehem (7:42, 52). The critics were alluding to scriptures that were understood to prophesy that the Messiah would come from Davidic descent and be born in Bethlehem (2 Sam. 7:12-16; Ps. 89:3-4, 35-37; Isa 9:7, 11:1, 53:3, Mic. 5:2).
These prophecies are described as being fulfilled in other Gospels (Mt. 2:1-5; Lk. 2:4). But in John, Jesus does not respond by claiming that he was indeed born in Bethlehem and thus fulfills their Messianic expectation. Rather, he claims that his ultimate origin is from the Father, rather than from any Davidic lineage. Indeed, in John there is no mention of Jesus' Davidic descent (Mt. 1:1-17; Lk. 3:23-38), Mary's virgin conception (Mt. 1:18-25; Lk. 1:26-38), or Jesus' birth in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:1-12; Lk. 2:1-7). John's focus is entirely on Jesus' relationship with the Father (1:1-18), which for John transcends and supersedes all other issues. This should not necessarily be understood as a rejection of these other claims, but rather points to the belief that the ultimate resurrection and glorification of Jesus renders all those other issues moot.
The Pharisees and ruling priests berated the temple police when they learned that their officers had not arrested Jesus, accusing them of secretly becoming disciples (7:47). The leaders noted that none of the ruling priests or Pharisees had accepted Jesus as the Messiah (7:48). And they are the ones who would know. Jesus' only followers come from the "crowd" (ochlos), who are accursed because they don't know the Law (7:49)—the implication being that Jesus likewise does not know the Law and is accursed (7:15). Ironically, one of their number, Nicodemus, is indeed a secret follower of Jesus (3:1-21), and tacitly criticized these Pharisees and priests for failure to follow their own Law (7:50-51). Here Nicodemus is alluding to Deuteronomy's requirement for an investigation and trial before conviction (Dt. 1:16-17, 17:4, 19:18).
The Jewish elites concluded their objections with what they believed was a decisive argument against Jesus' Messianic pretensions. "Search [the scriptures] and see that no prophet arises from Galilee" (7:52). This is an indirect retort to Jesus' earlier claim that the scriptures indeed testify of him (5:39). If anyone knew what the scriptures said about the birth of the Messiah, it was these educated elites. So the crux of the dispute had become a difference in interpretation of scripture. It was a matter of messianic expectations.
The priestly elites and Pharisees reject Jesus because he does not fulfill their messianic expectations based on their interpretation of scripture. Part of what John is arguing throughout his Gospel is that Jesus does in fact fulfill the Hebrew Bible's messianic prophecies. The priests and Pharisees have fundamentally misunderstood the Scripture. The ultimate vindication of John's Christian reading of the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Bible is the resurrection of Jesus.
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William James Hamblin is professor of Near Eastern History at Brigham Young University. You can follow and discuss "An Enigmatic Mirror" on Facebook.