When Jesus conducted his itinerary ministry and attended holy days at the temple in Jerusalem, crowds gathered to see and hear him. They especially wondered about his identity. This scenario–people asking about Jesus’ identity–occurs repeatedly in the Gospel of John. Jews asked him, “Who are you?” And they later said to him, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 8.25; 10.24 NRSV).
The Gospel of John is unique in relating that sometimes Jesus replied to this questioning by uttering the so-called “I am” (Gr. ego eimi) sayings. Some of them have a predicate, and some do not. The one with a predicate perhaps best known to Bible readers is when Jesus said on two occasions, “I am the light of the world” (John 8.12; 9.5). In the literary design of this gospel, both sayings link with a portion of this gospel’s prologue, in John 1.1-18. In verses 4-9 (NRSV) it says of Jesus:
What has come into being in him was life; and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [the Baptist]. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
According to the Gospel of John, the first time Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8.12), was when he was attending the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles at the temple in Jerusalem (7.2). But most Bible readers do not understand this saying in its context partly because the account of the episode about the woman caught in adultery appears in our Bibles between John 7.52 and 8.12. This makes Jesus’ saying, “I am the light of the word” (8.12), wrongly appear as though it is disconnected from the preceding narrative.
New Testament (NT) scholars agree that the account of the adulterous woman in John 8.1-11, which scholar identify by the Latin words Pericope Adulterae, (pericope=”an extract from a text, particularly the Bible”) as well as John 7.53, was added to this gospel sometime after it began circulation. This is suggested from the earliest Greek manuscripts of the NT in which this text appears sometimes in another place in the Gospel of John or more often in the Gospel of Luke rather than in the Gospel of John. And translators acknowledge this situation in many modern English Bible versions by enclosing it in brackets with an explanatory note. Furthermore, this portion of the Gospel of John makes more sense if 8.12 follows immediately after 7.52, with 7.53 being a subsequent editorial addition to smooth the transition to the adulterous woman story. Thus, John 7.53 is incorrect here, that “each of them went home.” Yet most scholars think the adulterous woman incident probably did happen.
This viewpoint is further supported by the words “Again” and “therefore” in John 8.12 (Gr. Palin oun; see NASB) as well as “them” (Gr. autois), referring to the same crowd in at least John 7.40-52 if not beginning with v. 37.
In reading Jesus’ saying in John 8.12 in this way, which would be its original context, it is apparent why Jesus said here, “I am the light of the world.” He said it because of the conversation that immediately preceded. That conversation had been prompted by Jesus crying out, probably during the temple ceremony of the outpouring of water, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7.37-38). John then explains, “he said this about the Spirit” (v. 39).
Then we read, “When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of him” (John 7.40-44). Apparently, they did not know that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem and therefore assumed that he had been born at Nazareth.
The Pharisees previously “had heard the crowd muttering” about Jesus, so they “sent temple police to arrest him” (John 7.32). When these policemen later returned, those Pharisees “asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ The police answered, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!’” (vv. 45-46). Then we read, “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee’” (vv. 50-52).
There was a long history of jealousy between Judeans and Galileans. Many Judeans regarded Galileans as ignorant and lacking piety, thus being spiritually darkened. This is a subtle and important point that Jesus develops only in the Gospel of John.
Scholars point out an apparent discrepancy in John 7.52 with history. Jonah the Prophet was from Gath-hepher near Nazareth (2 Kings 14.25), thus from Galilee. Some scholars conclude that those who made this remark probably meant that “the prophet” of Deut 18.15-19 or “the Messiah” would not come from Galilee. This wrongful assumption has already been established only in the Gospel of John. For, when Jesus was calling his first disciples, some of whom would become his apostles, we learn, “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?'” (John 1.45-46).
When the police returned to “the chief priests and Pharisees” (John 7.45), it seems they were gathered somewhere other than where the crowd had been that heard Jesus’ loud remark, when some then reacted to it by asking, “Surely, the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?” (v. 41). So, those chief priests and Pharisees would not have heard that. This makes it more likely that their later remark, “that no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (v. 52), may mean the same as that previous remark by some in the crowd, in v. 41.Sometimes, Jesus would correct the religious leaders at Jerusalem concerning their interpretations of scripture. Once, when they tried to trick him into speaking contrary to the Law of Moses by posing a question. When they did he replied, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22.29). On other similar occasions, Jesus would respond obliquely and thus obscurely, as he did in John 8.12. For he said therein, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
In John 8.12, Jesus surely alludes to Isaiah 9.1-2. I am surprised that none of my commentaries on the Gospel of John in my library (J.H. Bernard, C.K. Barrett, R.E. Brown, G.R. Beasley-Murray) make this connection. At least J.H. Bernard cites Isaiah 9.1-2 as pertinent to the Jews’ derogatory and false remark about Galilee, in John 7.52.
After Isaiah provides a brief exposition about living in darkness (Isaiah 8.22) we next read in Isaiah 9.1-2, “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”
Much of the territory of both Zebulun and Naphtali was situated in Galilee (cf. Joshua 19.10-17). Plus, Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was located in the center of Zebulun. So, when Jesus declared in John 8.12, “I am the light of the world,” he referred to the prediction in Isaiah 9.1-2. It means that God “brought into contempt” the people of that land, as Nathanael had expressed and those Jews in John 7.52 did likewise. But with Jesus, God would “make glorious” the land of Galilee by having his Messiah grow up and live there and make it the center of his itinerant ministry. The result would be that Galileans had “walked in darkness”and then had “seen a great light,” it being Jesus as he healed the sick and preached the saving message of God’s kingdom.
Matthew says at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry that he “withdrew to Galilee. He left left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might fulfilled” (Matt. 4.12-14), and then he quotes Isaiah 9.1b-2.
Isaiah next predicts, in Isaiah 9.3-5, that this “great light” will deliver Israel in the future in a military destruction of its enemies. This prediction conforms to the Jews’ expectation that the Messiah would be a warrior-king who would militarily deliver the nation. Jews got that idea from Isaiah perhaps more than any other prophet in their scriptures (e.g., Isaiah 11.1-4; ). Isaiah says of this great light that he will break “the rod of their oppressor,” whom I think is the Antichrist. And concerning the carnage of that Messiah-led destruction by Jewish men, “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”
Isaiah then proclaims further about this great light, which Isaiah now reveals as the Messiah, saying, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9.6 NRSV). For Christians, this is one of their favorite Old Testament texts that they rightly claim refers to Jesus. But I don’t think “Mighty God” (Heb. el gibbor) is the proper translation and that it should be “mighty warrior” or the like, as Martin Luther rendered it in his German translation of the Bible.
After Jesus first said, “I am the light of the world,” he continued in dialogue with his Jewish interlocutors. And he eventually said to them, “you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (John 8.24). The word “he” is not in the Greek text, and that is why the NASB italicizes it. So, this is one of those instances in which Jesus uttered an “I am” saying without a predicate. Many scholars who believe Jesus is God assert that he here alluded to the burning bush incident, in which God says, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3.14). Thus, these scholars claim that Jesus indirectly identified himself as God. But this interpretation of John 8.24 takes Jesus’ “I am” out of its context; rather, Jesus refers back to his saying in John 8.12, that “I am the light of the world.”
Why did Jesus say, “I am the light of the world,” since Isaiah 9.1-2 only says he would be “a great light”in Galilee? But Isaiah also says here, “Galilee of the nations.” Isaiah says later on behalf of God concerning God’s righteous, suffering servant, who is Jesus, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49.6). Thus, Jesus could say on the basis of this text alone, “I am the light of the world.”
In summary, the priests, Pharisees, and other Jews had wrongly claimed that neither “the prophet” like Moses nor the Messiah would come from Galilee. And Jesus had obscurely indicated otherwise when he proclaimed, “I am the light of the world” (John 8.12). But this understanding is not apparent unless the pericope about the adulterous woman is removed, thus allowing the previous context to be properly integrated with the text that follows as well as Jesus’ allusions to these two texts in Isaiah.