Re: John 8: Who are "they"?

From: Ward Powers (
Date: Fri Mar 03 2000 - 07:21:19 EST

B-Greekers all,

A few days ago I invited comments re who the "they" referred to in John
8:33, who answered Jesus when he had been addressing "the Jews who had
believed in him" (8:31): does this "they" mean the believing Jews, or
others in the crowd around him?

I have read with interest the comments of those who have responded, both
on-line and off-line. Amongst these of us at any rate there would appear to
be a consensus that the "many" who "believed" of 8:30 had to be the same as
"the Jews who had believed" of 8:31; and also that Jesus had been
addressing a mixed crowd (indicated by the overall context) and that at the
point of time in question both groups would be present in that crowd: "the
Jews who believed" and those who did not. Apart from this, opinions differed.

I appreciated Bill Barton's quotation, setting out the names of scholars
who held that it was those who were said to have believed in Jesus whom he
subsequently said were children of the devil; and also other scholars who
held that the "they" referred to unbelieving Jews in the crowd. (Amongst
the latter, I see, were Augustine and Calvin.)

But there are significant issues in the Greek which have not been fully
addressed yet, and which lie at the heart of my previous query to the list.

Jason Hare says, "Most grammarians will tell you that when a pronoun is
used you should look for the closest antecedent." He sees this antecedent
as the believing Jews. A couple of others also made this point. But the
thing is, that in the Greek there IS no pronoun - the "they" comes from
within the verb form. If John had written hOUTOI or even AUTOI then I would
be ready to accept that the "they" refers to those just mentioned, the
"believing Jews". But the Greek of John 8:31 is more open.

When (as here) there is no explicit pronoun in the Greek for a third person
plural verb form, and the subject is thus left open-ended, I seem to recall
numbers of instances in the GNT which I have come across over the years
where the implied subject is "people in general", "other people", rather
than an antecedent to be found in what has just gone before. But I can't
exactly recall any of these passages now. Do others of you know of
instances of this usage?

Several respondents point to the significance of context here. Bill Barton
says, "I agree it seems incongruous to identify some Jews as "believing" in
8.31 and then in the very next breath identify them as trying to kill him
(8:37), as of the devil (8:44), etc." He concludes that "identifying the
referents and participants throughout this discourse is difficult and
perhaps hinges more on semantics and theology than on grammar." Charles
Powell makes what I thought was a very insightful comment: "while generally
it is true that the nearest grammatical antecedent is usually the
antecedent of the pronoun, discourse analysis may provide a better
solution. One of the features of John's discourses is that Jesus' enemies
are always the ones who respond to Him. This particular feature may take
precedence over the grammatical solution."

Another list member who focussed on the context issue was gfsomsel: "I
would think that it is necessary to go all the way back to 7:40-44 to pick
up the thread. There are two groups envisaged here. This creates a problem
of reference for the pronouns. Sometimes one group is addressed and
sometimes the other. ... It is simply necessary to realize that the author
has set up two groups which are being spoken to somewhat alternately. The
only way to distinguish which group is being addressed is by the content
and tone of the speech."

Now, I totally accept the importance and relevance of context. But I am
basically asking how much one can take from the Greek text itself.

Bob Wilkin has told us that this was a question examined in his doctoral
work at Dallas Theological Seminary. His conclusion is, "Yes, your view is
indeed defensible from the Greek text. I would say it is the only feasible
view if one compares 8:30,31 with 8:45. Unless John is an inept writer, the
group referred to in verses 30-32 is clearly different than the one is
verses 33ff."

But Mike Sangrey sees the issue I describe rather differently. He says: "I
think John is using this stark contrast to thrust before us a much more
important point. One that Ward, IMO, has almost accurately grasped, but not
quite. ... the problem is not between intellectual versus heart belief. It
is, if you'll allow the word picture, between spirit-generated and
flesh-generated belief. ... I think here in John 8 John is saying
essentially the same thing he did in John 6. Belief is a spiritual thing,
not something one achieves by human effort."

He concludes, "I haven't said as much as I would like to and perhaps parts
of what I've said are still unclear. I'll gladly clarify, but I do
encourage you to read (and reread) the entire discourse 6:1-8:59."

I would like to reassure Mike (and others on the list) that yes, I have
read the entire discourse, and more than once. However, I am unable to see
the basis upon which Mike concludes that sometimes PISTEUW means
"spirit-generated belief" and at other times "flesh-generated belief" - as
indeed (on Mike's view) in John 8:30-31. Such a distinction is not given in
Bauer's Lexicon for PISTEUW, and I am not aware of coming across usages of
PISTEUW which clearly demonstrate it. Can it be that Mike (and others who
make a distinction of this kind) are in fact engaged in eisegesis, reading
in a meaning that is not found in the passage itself?

This is the crux of the issue which I have raised. In my original post I said:

>Next, can we accept that John is here using PISTEUW of a mere intellectual
>assent, so that these very same people who are said to have EPISTEUSAN in
>him go on to call him demon-possessed and take up stones against him, and
>it is of them that Jesus says they are of their father the devil (verse 44)
>and do not belong to God (verse 47)?
>I have a real problem with this. John has said that to believe in Jesus is
>to have life eternal and to be not condemned, whereas those who are
>condemned are condemned already precisely because they have NOT believed
>(John 3:15-18). My problem is that I cannot see the John who said this
>(chapter 3) going on a little later (chapter 8) to use PISTEUW of those who
>are described as children of the devil and who do not belong to God but
>seek to stone Jesus.

So here is the issue: On what basis (if any) can we conclude that John uses
PISTEUW in a context such as John 8;30-31 to mean some kind of "believing"
other than what he means in John 3:15-18 (et al.)? That is, to mean a
"believing" which is not "spirit-generated" but which can be used in
reference to people described as children of the devil (8:42-44) and who do
not belong to God (8:47). Are there any other passages where John clearly
uses PISTEUW in such a way?

I tend to think that when John uses PISTEUW it is in reference to saving
faith. Do I need to modify this understanding of his use of this word?



Rev Dr B. Ward Powers Phone (International): 61-2-9799-7501
10 Grosvenor Crescent Phone (Australia): (02) 9799-7501
SUMMER HILL NSW 2130 email:
AUSTRALIA. Director, Tyndale College

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