In John 8:44, Jesus says to his Jewish opponents, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (KJV). In my latest reading of John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, Lee Harmon interacts with the question of how exactly the devil was a murderer from the beginning. Did the devil actually kill people? Lee notes that Satan murdered the sons of Job with God’s permission, and Lee refers to the views that the devil was a murderer from the beginning in that Cain—-whom later Jewish traditions presented as the son of the devil—-killed Abel, or the devil in the Garden of Eden contributed to humanity’s death by encouraging Eve to disobey God’s commandment, resulting in the death penalty for humanity (i.e., we all eventually die).
But Lee does not believe that, overall, the devil is a murderer in the Bible. Then Lee says “…but Yahweh is”, after which he mentions the times that God mandated stoning for a variety of transgressions, sanctioned genocide, and even killed a large number of people himself when he was angry. Lee, in commenting on John 8:44, asks on page 164, “Did Jesus, blessed with the true Spirit of the loving Father, imply that his people never knew the real Father, but were repeatedly deceived?” Lee answers his own question when he says: “‘The Jews,’ according to John, have misunderstood God for centuries; they do not even worship the same God as Jesus. They have been seduced in their laws by the spirit of the devil.” Lee sees a parallel between this and and views held by Gnostics, who maintained that Jesus was in conflict with “the evil creator of this world and orchestrator of Old Testament inhumanities” (page 165). Lee does not believe that the Gospel of John is Gnostic or orthodox Christian, but rather that John would probably “consider both these later strands of Christianity to be extreme” (page 165). But my impression is that Lee believes that, in John 8:44, Jesus essentially is referring to the God of the Old Testament as a devil.
Overall, I don’t agree with Lee on this. I would concede that a theme in the Gospel of John is that Jesus is revealing the Father, who before was not seen or heard (John 1:18). I would also concede that the Gospel of John maintains that there is discontinuity between the Hebrew Bible and what Jesus is doing, for John 1:17 contrasts the law that was given through Moses with the grace and truth that are in Jesus Christ. And yet, Jesus in John’s Gospel also maintains that his work is somehow a fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible—-in that the law of Moses points to Jesus (John 5:39, 45-46), and Jesus has fulfilled ancient prophecies (John 7:38). Moreover, Jesus appears to uphold the ethics of the law in John 7:19: “Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me?” My impression is that John regards the Old Testament as divinely-inspired, and yet incomplete. Moreover, while I can see Lee’s point that the theme that the devil (or Satan) was a murderer is not salient in the Bible, Hebrews 2:14 says that the devil has the power of death. Granted, you don’t see the devil killing people a lot, but there is a connection between him and death.
But even Lee acknowledges that John believed that Jesus fulfilled prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. The thing is, in my opinion, what Lee says highlights how complex John’s interaction with the Hebrew Bible actually was. John does not try to show that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to silence the detractors who say that Jesus was not the Messiah because he came from Galilee rather than Bethlehem (John 7:41-42), and the reason, for Lee, is that John does not think that the issue was important, even though Micah 5:2 affirms that the coming ruler of Israel would come from Bethlehem. Lee maintains that John viewed Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecies in Ezekiel—-such as the spiritual washing in such passages as Ezekiel 36:25. And yet, Lee presents John knowingly preferring the vision of Zechariah 9-14 to Ezekiel’s vision of restoration. Ezekiel presents a restoration in which God defeats Israel’s enemies and Northern and Southern Israelites return to the land, whereas Zechariah 9-14 has a picture in which the Israelites reject a meek one (a king? Prophet? God?) and Jerusalem is largely decimated in its purification. According to Lee, John goes with the latter, for John regarded the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. as a necessary part of God’s plan, in which God replaced the old Temple with the new Temple, Jesus.
I’d like to think that John was not arbitrary in his approach to the Bible—-that he didn’t pick and choose what he would accept from the text. The way that Lee has presented it in my reading thus far, John consciously picked and chose. But perhaps John did not believe that he was rejecting the passages that he downplayed or ignored. Maybe he believed that Ezekiel’s prophecy of restoration was fulfilled spiritually rather than literally, for example. (UPDATE: Later in the book, Lee appears to go that route.)
I can somewhat sympathize with Gnosticism and Lee’s problems with the God of the Hebrew Bible, however. I look at a number of evangelicals who seem to be happy because they worship a God of unconditional love. I go to the Bible to encounter this God whom they worship, and I see someone who strikes Israelites with a plague when he is angry with their behavior. I suppose that I can try to justify God’s wrath—-I wouldn’t say that it was baseless—-but it seems to fall short of the unconditional love that evangelicals believe is characteristic of God. And yet, evangelicals would profess to accept all of the Bible.