Church Write-Up: Martin Freedom; Festival of Lights; Conservatism and Language; John 8

Here are some items from last Wednesday’s LCMS Bible study.

A. Reformation Sunday is coming up, so the pastor gave us a brief history of Reformation Day and the events that it commemorates. Initially, the pastor narrated, Martin Luther was not aiming to take on the papacy. Luther assumed that the pope was unaware of the indulgences, so he sought to inform the pope about them so that the pope would put a stop to them. No such luck! Another factoid that the pastor shared concerned the name “Luther.” Luther’s family name was actually “Luder,” but scholars in those days often translated their names into Greek and Latin. Melanchthon, for example, actually had the family name of Schwarzherd, “black earth,” and “Melanchthon is the Greek for that. “Luther” is from the Greek word “eleutheria,” which means “freedom.”

B. The biblical text that the pastor discussed was John 8. John 10:22 places this visit of Jesus in Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication, or Hanukkah, assuming that John is chronologically accurate here and is not simply grouping stories together thematically. The pastor gave us background about the festival. He noted that Jesus during this time calls himself the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5; elsewhere in John, such a concept occurs in 1:9; 3:19; 11:9; 12:46). His handout also said that “During the Festival, the Temple was illumined by hundreds of lights—-like luminarias—-and there was a huge menorah visible from all over Jerusalem—-that was lit.”

I was wondering about this because I have heard that the standard story about Hanukkah—-that one cruse of oil miraculously lasted for eight nights—-was a late tradition. Without that tradition, could Hanukkah in Jesus’ day have been considered a “festival of lights”? Looking at James VanderKam’s article on “Dedication, Feast of” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, I learn that Hanukkah was associated with lights early on:

The Festivals of Tabernacles and Hanukkah also resemble one another in that both are associated with light. But their lights are very different: Tabernacles involved illuminating the Women’s Court of the temple (m. Sukk. 5:2–4), while Hanukkah came to include lamps and lights at each one’s home. As part of the pre-festival renovations and repairs, 1 Macc 4:49–50 notes that the candelabrum was brought into the temple and that its lamps were lit so that they gave light in the temple; 2 Macc 1:8; 10:3 allude to the same events. The second letter that is prefaced to 2 Maccabees refers to the festival of cleansing as a time of tabernacles and fire (1:18) and adds a story about a miraculous fire from the altar of the first temple that eventually turned into “nephthar” and later kindled the fire on the new altar in Nehemiah’s time (1:19–36; cf. 2:1, 8–12). Nevertheless, these sorts of references to lights and fire hardly prepare one for Josephus’ claim (Ant 12.7.7 §325) that the festival itself was named “Lights” (phōta). He had previously (12.7.6 §319) written that lights were kindled on Kislev 25, but here (§325) he explains the reason for the name Lights: “giving this name to it, I think, from the fact that the right to worship appeared [phanēnai] to us at a time when we hardly dared hope for it.” Lights did indeed become a major characteristic of the festival, though the original reason for them seems to have been forgotten (for another early reference to the Hanukkah light, see m. B. Qam. 6:6).

C. In discussing the Hellenization of Palestine, the pastor said that Greek then was like English today: it was the language of commerce and trade. The Sadducees were Greek-oriented, the pastor said, whereas the Pharisees were conservative and held on to Hebrew and Aramaic.

D. In John 8, the Pharisees begin by challenging Jesus’ authority. Jesus is only bearing witness to himself, they say, so his witness is not true. Jesus responds that there are two witnesses attesting to who he is. There is himself, who knows where he is from and where he is going, and there is the Father. Jesus refers to the Deuteronomic principle that two witnesses establish a matter as true (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:5).

Jesus and the Pharisees debate, then v. 30 affirms that many believed in him. Jesus encourages those who believe in him to continue in his word, and the truth shall set them free. V. 33, however, then says, “They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?” (KJV). This puzzles scholars, for why would those believing in Jesus be so antagonistic? The pastor referred to two explanations. The first explanation is that the crowd included those who believed in Jesus but also the Pharisees, who were resuming their antagonistic discussion with Jesus. Another explanation is that those who believed in Jesus lacked a deep faith and were doubting. In any case, Jesus was exhorting them that believing he is the Messiah is not enough, for they must see him as the revelation of God and be in an intimate relationship of “knowing” with him.

Vv. 34-36 states: “Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” A slave could be passed on to an heir or sold to someone else. The son of the household, however, could set the slave free. Jesus does that and makes people into fellow sons of the household.

There is a debate about paternity in John 8. The Pharisees see themselves as Abraham’s seed, defining Abraham’s seed in a national sense; meanwhile, they attack Jesus as one of questionable paternity. The pastor brought in Genesis 3:15 and Pauline passages about Jesus being Abraham’s seed, the one who would bring blessing and knowledge of God to the nations (see Galatians 3:16). Jesus says that the antagonistic Pharisees are children of the devil; there may be an echo of Genesis 3 here, in that they twist the concept of Abraham’s seed, as the serpent in Genesis 3 twisted God’s truth in deceiving Eve. They are enslaved to sin and blind to who Jesus is. While Jesus has harsh words for them, the pastor said he believes Jesus was inviting them to repentance, as the father invited the grumbling older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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