Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top


33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”


33 ἀπεκρίθησαν πρὸς αὐτόν· Σπέρμα Ἀβραάμ ἐσμεν καὶ οὐδενὶ δεδουλεύκαμεν πώποτε· πῶς σὺ λέγεις ὅτι Ἐλεύθεροι γενήσεσθε;

My impression is that the Egyptian slavery was central to Jewish identity. (Not that I know anything about how first century Jews thought - educated input is appreciated.) Clearly these men had in mind their ancestry ("We are offspring of Abraham...") and remembered something of the scriptures (as they apparently embraced the teaching of v. 28), but did they really "forget" that their ancestors were slaves (and they themselves a subjugated people)?

share|improve this question
Good question. The time in Egypt as well. – Frank Luke Apr 9 '14 at 21:16
I think you mean, "Did the Jews who believed in Jesus forget about the Babylonian captivity (not to mention the Hebrews' Egyptian servitude) when Jesus told them the truth would set them free"? John was just recording things as he witnessed and heard them, either by himself or via other witnesses to Jesus' public ministry. – rhetorician Apr 9 '14 at 21:22
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Nearly every expositor I have looked up concludes that this is actually just a hasty staement made by proud men who have a distatesfull view of Jesus. In other words the particular Jews in the account are made to seem so proud and foolish that they straightway deny their obvious history and current situation under Rome as a vassal state.

Owen has this view:

Forgetful of their servitude in Egypt, Babylon, and at that very time to the Romans, they indignantly deny that they were ever in bondage to any man. How they could have uttered so palpable an untruth is inconceivable, unless on the general principle, that angry men do not pause to consider what they are about to say, and in consequence, often give expression to sheer fabrications. (Owen, J. J. (1861). A Commentary, Critical, Expository, and Practical, on the Gospel of John (p. 197). New York: Leavitt & Allen.)

Even old Cyril of Alexandria had this view:

In no respect then was the speech of the Jews sane: for besides being ignorant of their truer bondage, that in sin, they utterly deny the other ignoble one and have an understanding accustomed to think highly about a mere nothing. (Cyril of Alexandria. (1874). Commentary on the Gospel according to S. John (Vol. 1, pp. 626–627). Oxford; London: James Parker & Co.; Rivingtons.)

Plummer has this view:

On texts like these they build the proud belief that Jews have never yet been in bondage to any man. But passion once more blinds them to historical facts (see on 7:52). The bondage in Egypt, the oppressions in the times of the Judges, the captivity in Babylon, and the Roman yoke, are all forgotten. “They have an immovable love of liberty, and maintain that God is their only ruler and master” (Josephus, Ant. XVIII. i. 6). (Plummer, A. (1896). The Gospel according to S. John (p. 193). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)

Govett has again the same:

They speak hastily, untruly, inconsistently; for their strongest desire for Messiah was, and is, that He might free them from the Roman yoke. And had our Lord but proposed that, to be effected by force of arms, willingly would they have enrolled themselves as volunteers. (Govett, R. (1881). Exposition of the Gospel of St. John (Vol. 1, p. 371). London: Bemrose & Sons.)

...And so on and so forth.

share|improve this answer

A slightly larger context answers this question.


31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; 32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. 33 They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free? 34 Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.

Jesus states in vv.31-32 that if these who are believing on him continue in His word (i.e. the truth), then that truth will make them free. The Jews reply with your verse's content: "We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?"

They are replying to Jesus' assertion that they are not free, when they believe they are. And indeed, from this statement it appears that they as individuals are free (they apparently were not and had never been slaves, nor incarcerated).

They are not making a statement about their national history, but themselves as individuals, and likely as the Jewish nation at that time. During these years, while the Jews were under Roman rule, they were not without freedom. To quote from the Wikipedia article on Romans in Jerusalem:

During the 1st century BCE, the Herodian Kingdom was established as a Roman client kingdom and in 6 CE parts became a province of the Roman Empire, named Iudaea Province.

Julius Caesar formulated a policy of allowing Jews to follow their traditional religious practices,a policy which was followed, and extended, by Augustus, first emperor of Rome, reigned 27 BCE-14CE. This gave Judaism the status of a religio licita (permitted religion) throughout the Empire.

So they had some political freedom, religious freedom, and some were Roman citizen's (like Paul, Act 22:28). This is the type of freedom they are referring to.

And then Jesus points them to his meaning: they can be free from sin if they "continue in [His] word," (i.e obey) and "know the truth." Otherwise, they are in bondage to sin, and are serving it.

share|improve this answer
You may have a better command of ancient languages than I do-if so, consider my link in my comment to The Freemason. Otherwise I essentially said the same thing as you. – Tau Apr 10 '14 at 5:35

The Jews were probably referring to the the fact that they had fought for thier freedom from the Greeks (Maccabees) and were not bound to be Roman citizens, but they had thier own culture, even they were still under Roman rule. They were not really free at this writing, but allowed a certian allowance to be thier own culture. They were in denial of thier own state. They couldn't do cetain things, like maintian the death penalty in the Law, as only Rome had this ability.

share|improve this answer

I will preface my answer by saying I'm not a linguist, but perhaps the problem could be traced to how the verb "dedouleukamen" was translated. On the surface, it would be very hypocritical to say "we have never been slaves" because every year they were reminded at Passover "We were once slaves...", and in fact "served with great rigor".(Ex. 12:14)

But they were made free(Dt. 26:8)

"And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders"

From this passage, one could assert "freedom", although of course there was the Babylonian captivity, and the various times of servitude under different oppressor nations.

Contextually, they responded by saying ,"We are children of Abraham..." therefore, they are the children of the promises of God through Abraham, and assert this 'right', although Jesus in further dialogue says, "Your father is the devil.."(John 8:44)

So what appears at issue is "moral freedom', not "political freedom"; brought on by Jesus's statement ,"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free".(vs 33)

By virtue of their circumcision, and following the Law, they were "morally free", although physical freedom from time to time was restrained. And yet Jesus confronts them, telling them "Whoever commits sin is a servant of it"(vs 34), to which they reply "WE are Abraham's seed..."(vs 37).

In conclusion, this issue wasn't about "Political' freedom, it was about 'moral' freedom; hence the response "We are Abraham's seed and never been enslaved to anyone" makes sense.

share|improve this answer
Thanks for your response. I'm a little unclear what you're suggesting about the translation of δεδουλεύκαμεν and how that relates to the question. I suppose the reason I understood their words as literal is that the pericope follows so nicely the oft repeated pattern: Jesus makes a statement - people misunderstand it as literal - Jesus clarifies it as spiritual. – Susan Feb 27 '14 at 10:07
@Susan-The verb "dedouleukamen" was parsed "indicative perfect active 1st person plural"-hence the understanding "we never were slaves". If the tense were "indefinate(Aorist?)" it could mean "sometimes in the past we were slaves, but we then weren't slaves, and aren't now". Again, I'm not a linguist, I'm sure somebody with a sharp pencil would chop me down. But the statement wouldn't be construed as blatantly untrue, and be 'incongruous' to what Jesus stated. I do believe the best answer is what I gave. – Tau Feb 28 '14 at 1:53
@Susan: Jesus was making a literal statement about the spiritual side of reality. I agree the Jews did misinterpret it to be referring to the physical side of reality, but not about their past as a people, rather with regard to themselves as individuals in the present. @user2479: οὐδενὶ δεδουλεύκαμεν πώποτε is (literal word order) "to not anyone | we have been slaves | never." Again, the statement is true because they are merely referring to themselves in the present, not as a people in the past. – ScottS Apr 10 '14 at 13:34
@ScottS Thank you for your clarification! – Tau Apr 10 '14 at 19:00

"We have never been slaves" or in bondage to any one was a true statement for those who were confronting Jesus but it was not true for the nation having been saved or rescued from Egypt. They are using an extreme literalness to avoid answering the argument Jesus set before them.

Yes, the answer is that simple.

David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, (Clarksville, Maryland: Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1992), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 183.

share|improve this answer

What the Pharisees say to Jesus in John 8:33 is a truth. They never were slaves. They were never chattel slaves. They were never enslaved by either a man or nation.

How we measure a slave and slavery has as its predicate an outward appearance, the color of a man's skin, wealth, or a result of war. We, as in western civilization, envision as slave in the same manner that we reckon a species of fowl or beast. It is not by the fowl's or beast's behavior, since throughout the history and legacy of the Negro in America there'd be no great exception held by those who envisioned themselves as his master as for his testimony. Since in the years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment (6 December 1865) (Jethro K. Lieberman, A Practical Companion to the Constitution, pg. 581) we witness the insidious reality of in which blacks lived, even where it concerned the practice of law and serving on juries (Charles E. Wynes, Race Relations in Virginia, 1870-1902, pg. 138-141).

So, when it comes to assigning the man the world reckons as meet for slavery it is solely a matter of his outward appearance. What we must be mindful of however is that the source of our strength. The source from which we gather and establish the strength of our convictions is not from the Bible. It is not from the spirits or teachings of Moses and Jesus. Rather it is from the spirits of the Greek philosopher. Most pressingly it is from the spirits of Aristotle, who, in his work Politics writes:

...doubtless if men differed from one another in the mere forms of their bodies as much as the statues of the Gods do from men, all would acknowledge that the inferior class should be slaves of the superior. And if there is a difference in the body, how much more in the soul! But the beauty of the body is seen, whereas the beauty of the soul is not seen. It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right (Aristotle, Politics, Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Introduction, Analysis, and Index by H.W.C. Davis, I.5.10-11 pg. 34).

Jesus opens our vesicle of understanding that such spirits are not of him. In John 7:24, as for the type of judgment that is of Jesus, he impresses on us to:

"Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment" (John 7:24).

It is on this basis I conclude that we have no sense as for what the Bible actually teaches. It is a consequence of the philosophical beliefs and teachings that underpin our hermeneutics which are Greek philosophical beliefs and teachings. And no more is this as revealingly impactful than with the subject of Israel and slavery.

So, because it demands a greater dialogue than meet for these pages to argue biblically why the Jews were never enslaved. I turn to the philosophical teachings that serve as the means with which we interpret and understand Scripture.

In the 6th book of Plato's Laws, as it concerns the issue of what makes a slave. The Athenian in the play references the ancient Greek poet who attributes the matter to Zeus that:

"If you make a man a slave, that very day / Far-sounding Zeus takes half his wits away" (Plato, Laws VI.777) (Plato, Complete Works, Edited by John M. Cooper, pg. 1450).

In essence what the Greek poet taught is of a Truth, given how you make a man a slave is that you change his name. It was and is with the Negro, as it was with the Helot, as it was with the Phoenician. It was because of how the world impressed a name upon the African (Negro), the populations of Laconia and Messenia (Helots), and the Phoencians (the Ancient Canaanites), was the world able to create for itself and perpetuate a slave. How we arrive at the truth that the children of Israel were never enslaved is because they never lost their name. Even when their name moved from "children of Israel" to "Jew" in the moment David established himself in trespass with the LORD in that he numbered the Jews (1 Chronicles 21) it was a movement of their own choosing.

As for the Jew's sojourn in Egypt. Joshua 5:3-7 makes clear how the Jews were never enslaved in Egypt, as their name was the means by which they called into remembrance the covenant (Genesis 17:9-14) our ETERNAL FATHER (Exodus 3:14) made with Abraham that concerned circumcision. This covenant (Genesis 17:9-14) is very different from what I term as the Promised Covenant (Genesis 17:7-8). Since as for the latter, it is the LORD who makes this covenant (Genesis 17:7-8) with Abraham. This is how we come to the conclusion that we fail to understand what Scripture teaches is because we conflate LORD and God, never to appreciate the words of Balaam (Numbers 23:19).

The conclusion: Because their name never changed, the Jews were never enslaved by any man. But that does not mean that the Jews were not in bondage. For the latter all centers on what Jesus says to Pharisees as for Pharisees' association with Abraham. Though they were the natural seed of Abraham, they were not sons of Abraham, since then they'd do as Abraham (John 8:39-40). And this too is another great mystery within Scripture as for how is it possible to be a man's child, and yet not be reckoned as a child of the man.

For the person who gave me a negative response: The question we fail to consider is, is there a difference between what Scripture interprets as slavery apart from what we customarily believe evidences a slave as a result of war, debt, and crime. That is, is the Bible's sense of slavery a condition of the body or of the soul? Just because a man is enslaved as a result of war, debt, or crime does not mean he is a slave if he is able to retain his name.

It is his name that keeps a man or a people in contact with his or their fathers and the god of his or their fathers. The object in keeping your name is so that you call all things into remembrance, which is not only finds you in lock step with the Spirit of the LORD where it concerns Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:8-11). But it is even more so in harmony with the Spirit of God that prevailed from the beginning. Where, in closing the whole of Creation (Genesis 1-2:1-3), on the Seventh Day

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made (Genesis 2:1-3).

share|improve this answer
Hello, Ivan - welcome aboard. Thank you for your analysis. In the future, can you hyperlink your verses (or source citations), so that we can check such references with a click? Also, feel free to structure your comments in paragraphs since (here) your had grouped several thoughts into one large paragraph. Thanks! – Joseph Sep 6 '14 at 1:45

Look up the history of the Maccabees... John Hyrcanus forced the Idumeans (Edom/Esau) to convert to Judaism. the first example of conversion imposed by the Israelites in their history.

The Edomites were of Abraham's seed but did not see slavery as the Israelites did. TheJews that spoke in John 8:33 were Edomite Jews. They in particular had a strong relationship with Herod because he also was an Edomite.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to BHSE! Thank you for taking the Tour! While I agree that Herod was an Edomite, could you cite a reference that the audience of John 8:33 were also Edomites? It would help to make your conclusion valid. Thank you! – Tau Feb 2 '15 at 4:17

If you read the whole chapter you will see that he was talking to the Pharasees they were the ones that was out to kill him and yes they are Abraham's seed and also never in bondage. The seed whoever that were in bondage was Jacobs seed. The most high promised him to be the father of many nations that was the covenant with Abraham but he later did another covenant with Jacob who's name was changed to Israel. Keep in mind that Abraham had three son's. He had three wives. Gen. chapters 12-25. The book of jubliees. They are still in bondage till this very day Isaiah ch. 10 you have to remember Is.,Eze.,Dan. are all prophets that is given prophetic visions to warn the masses.

share|improve this answer
This is confusing and I'm not sure if it answers the question. – curiousdannii Jun 23 '15 at 0:23

protected by Caleb Jun 23 '15 at 4:22

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.