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In John 8:2 Jesus comes to the temple courtyard and starts teaching:

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. (8:2 ESV)

Many people came to Jesus to hear him speak. But then some of the Jewish leaders also come with ulterior motives. The scribes and Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus with a difficult question:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman ... Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. (8:3-6)

After a break in the story, we read:

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” (8:12-13)

Jesus is speaking to "them" which must be the whole crowd. The Pharisees who stand close around Jesus attacks him again. The following verses (14-19) is a dispute between these Pharisees and Jesus. After an author comment by John, Jesus continues the discussion with the Pharisees:

So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” 22 So the Jews said, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” 23 He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (8:21-24)

The "them" here must be the opposing and unbelieving Pharisees, since all of this is a heated dispute between them and Jesus.

After this part of the dispute, John makes a comment about the common people who had been listening:

As he was saying these things, many believed in him. (8:30)

The "many" here can hardly be the Pharisees, but many of the common people. Jesus continues, this time speaking to these people who have believed:

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (8:31-32)

Quite often the word "Jews" in John refers to the hostile Jewish leaders, but not here, as it is clarified by the relative clause "who had believed". Jesus encourages them to continue to follow him, listen to his words and obey them. Then we read in verse 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’? (8:33)

Who are "they"? Is it the people who have just heard Jesus say to them "the truth will set you free," or is it the Pharisees who jump in and respond to words not spoken to them?

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  • I answered it myself. Should I mark my own answer as the best? It seems a bit odd to me. Jan 23 at 6:37
  • Okay, I can do that. Jan 23 at 7:36
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The scribes and Pharisees

John 8:3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,

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Actually the first part that i recommend you, is to use the King james bible. The ESV edition was altered by Wescott and Hort. Many bible verses from the old and new testament have been completely changed.

The apostle refers to two groups in the narrative. The people and the jews. (Actually all the people is jewish, but the apostle , difer one group from the other by writing The people and the jews) The pharisees and the scribes are refered by the jews.

Actually brother, not for a man to believe that means he was an elect. See 1 Corinthians 15:1-2

1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;

2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.

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It is a long dispute between Jesus and the hostile "Jews". Let me quote a bit more:

34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abrahamʼs descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word.”

Is Jesus still speaking to the Jews who had believed him and repeating the statement about being set free? Or is he talking to the Pharisees who did not believe in him? Jesus makes a distinction between slaves to sin and sons in the family. The unbelieving Pharisees were slaves to sin, but those who have believed in Jesus become children of God in his kingdom. But the offer also applies to the Pharisees. IF they allow Jesus to set them free, they, too, will be free. But they are ready to kill him rather than believe in him.

The dialogue continues a bit later:

44 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your fatherʼs desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!

It becomes more and more clear that Jesus cannot be talking to the Jews who believed in him, so what is happening?

When we study the gospel of John, we will many times find a conflict between Jesus and the "Jews" (i.e., Jewish leaders, especially Pharisees, hostile to Jesus). This conflict grows in intensity as the gospel story unfolds.

In chapter 8, Jesus is teaching in the temple courtyard (v. 2). When he teaches here, he would always be surrounded by a small group of hostile Pharisees and a larger group of common people who are more positive. Now, in Greek storytelling, the main participants in the story are referred to by pronouns. This is different from English.

Those of us who work in Bilble translation are familiar with this fact. When translating from Greek, we often need to clarify participants by using a name or title rather than a pronoun. When translating from Hebrew it is the opposite. Hebrew uses names where a pronoun is natural in English. As an example let me compare KJV and NLT for Mark 9:19-21:

He answereth him, and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him unto me. (KJV)

Jesus said to them, “You faithless people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” (NLT)

And they brought him unto him: and when he saw him, straightway the spirit tare him; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming. (KJV)

So they brought the boy. But when the evil spirit saw Jesus, it threw the child into a violent convulsion, and he fell to the ground, writhing and foaming at the mouth. (NLT)

And he asked his father, How long is it ago since this came unto him? And he said, Of a child. (KJV)

“How long has this been happening?” Jesus asked the boy's father. He replied, “Since he was a little boy. (NLT)

The main participants in John chapter 8 and the following two chapters is Jesus on one hand and the unbelieving Pharisees on the other. A minor group in the background is the crowd of common people. Think of a theatre stage, where Jesus and the Pharisees are in front arguing and some other people are silent in the background, but listening in. At a certain point, Jesus decides to address the people in the background. He knew supernaturally that many among the crowd believed in him in contrast to his opponents. The opponents did not understand and thought the words of Jesus were directed to them. They were always ready to attack whatever Jesus might say.

Let us try to identify the participants:

30 As he was saying these things, many believed in him. 31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 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’?”

The pronoun "he" in John 8:30 refers to Jesus. In v. 31 Jesus is no longer talking to the "Jews" (the hostile Pharisees), but to those Jews who had believed in him among the crowd. The pronoun "they" in v. 33 refers to the hostile Pharisees, because they were the main participant. Verses 30-31 is a parenthesis in the story which is the conflict between Jesus and the "Jews". If John had wanted us to think of the Jews who had believed, he would have needed to say "Those (Jews) who had believed answered..." When he says "They answered", it means he is back to the main participant in the long dialogue

So, if one understands how the Greek language works, the problem is solved. The story now makes sense.

But it is very unfortunate that all English translations are literal and unclear and give the wrong impression. Even most commentators do not understand what is going on. I found one commentary saying: “They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man, — Who said this? Not surely the very class just spoken of as won over by His divine words, and exhorted to continue in them. Most interpreters seem to think so; but it is hard to ascribe such a petulant speech to the newly gained disciples.”

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The antecedent of "they" is quite clear - note the sequence in John 8:30-33:

30 As Jesus spoke these things, many believed in Him. 31 So He said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

33We are Abraham’s descendants,” they answered. “We have never been slaves to anyone. How can You say we will be set free?”

Jesus is conducting a dialogue with a group of "Jews who believed in Him". Jesus is also trying to challenge their faith by testing their commitment and sincerity. Jesus wanted followers who were absolutely committed to the Kingdom of Heaven.

There is a precedent for this only two chapters earlier. In John 6:59, 60, 66

59 Jesus said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. 60 On hearing it, many of His disciples said, “This is a difficult teaching. Who can accept it?” ...

66 From that time on many of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him.

It appears that in John 8, many who had believed in Jesus, again, ceased to do so following this discussion, because many picked up stones to stone him (John 8:59).

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