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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)?

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Good question. The time in Egypt as well. –  Frank Luke Apr 9 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 at 21:22

4 Answers 4

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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.

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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.

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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. –  user2479 Apr 10 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.

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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.

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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 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. –  user2479 Feb 28 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 at 13:34
@ScottS Thank you for your clarification! –  user2479 Apr 10 at 19:00

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