Does John 8:41 Reflect a Charge of Illegitimacy of Jesus’ Birth?

I’ve often read that behind John 8:41 is an allegation that his opponents charged Jesus with an illegitimate birth. In Born of a Virgin? Andrew Lincoln questions this interpretation and I find it persuasive. By the way, Larry Hurtado has offered a brief review (actually more of a summary) of the book on his blog (See here and read through the comments where you find a couple of comments from Richard Bauckham.). And Jason Engwer of Triablogue has a six-part review. Both are respectful interactions with Lincoln.

But back to John 8:41 which reads, You are doing the works of your own father.” “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” Here’s what Lincoln says:

“While this could be taken as an ironic attach on Jesus by his opponents because of rumours in circulation about the abnormal circumstances of his birth, this highly unlikely given that John has just had the Jewish opponents say precisely the opposite–that Jesus is the son of Joseph and that they know his father and mother (6.42), and in any case the context of the debate about spiritual paternity and their emphasis on having one father makes another interpretation far more plausible. Jesus has just cast doubt on whether his opponents are truly Abraham’s children and suggested that their actions indicate that they have a rather different father, who will later be specified as the devil (8.39-41a, cf. 8.44). Since fornication is often employed as a metaphor for idolatry in the Jewish Scriptures, their response that they are not born of fornication is most straightforwardly taken as an emphatic assertion that they are not unfaithful idolaters, who have followed after other gods (cf. LXX Hos. 1.2; 2.4-5) but are loyal to the one God of the Shema (cf. Deut. 6.4). At this stage in the argument they are engaging in a robust defence of their own claims. When they do explicitly attack Jesus later in the dispute, it is not in terms of his scandalous birth but in the same categories that have been used against them. They allege that he is a Samaritan, an idolatrous apostate from Israel, and that he has a demon and is, therefore, the one possessed by the devil (8.48).” (25)

He also quotes from J.P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew Vol. 1 as saying, “to see a hidden reference to Jesus’ physical illegitimacy in vv. 39-41 is, in my opinion, highly suspect.” (Quote comes from page 228.)

Very well stated and, I think, compelling.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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