The True Children of Abraham Debate

In this article, I would like to share some of my work dealing with the pericope of the True Children of Abraham Debate (most of John 8) that lies within the Dialogues layer as laid down by Robert T. Fortna and reconstructed by Mahlon H. Smith (who I studied under during my undergraduate years). Where there is a great deal of wordplay inherent in this exchange which this project will expound upon eventually, I would like to focus upon one of the most telling passages.

Where a full translation would be informative, I have opted to outline some interesting wordplay, piece by piece:

John 8:33  And they replied to him:

“We are אברהם (abraham = Abraham)’s descendents
and we have never been עבד (`abad = a slave) to anyone!
How (can) you say: ‘You will become liberated?’

34 Jesus replied to them:

“I swear I’m telling you the truth:
Everyone who עבד (`abad = makes) an error is a עבד (`abad = a slave) to Error.

37 I know you are descendents of אברהם (abraham = Abraham) but you are trying to kill me,
because there is no room for my teaching among you.
38 And so you עבד (`abad = do) what you heard from your אבא (abba = father).

39 They retotred and said to him:

“Our אבא (abba = father) is אברהם (abraham = Abraham)!”

Jesus says to them:

“If you are אברהם (abraham = Abraham)’s children, עבד (`abad = do) as אברהם (abraham = Abraham) עבד (`abad = did)!
40 Now you’re trying to kill me!
A man who has told you the truth that he heard from God.
אברהם (abraham = Abraham) didn’t עבד (`abad = do) this!
41 You are עבד (`abad = acting) as your אבא (abba = father)!

(And then Jesus goes on to claim that their father was “the father of lies”, etc.)

So we can see in verses 39 to 41, that there is quite the alliterative wordplay between:

  • אברהם (abraham = Abraham)
  • עבד (`abad = slave)
  • עבד (`abad = to do, to make, to act); and
  • אבא (abba = father)

With how these words are inflected or declined in the course of conversation, the largest emphasis would be upon the sound “aba-” repeated in quick succession.

Give what we know about Galilean Aramaic, א alef and ע ayin (and sometimes ח heth) were often confused in pronunciation. This is a similar feature found in other Western dialects like Samaritan Aramaic, which is even more interesting as he is accused of being “a Samaritan with a demon” in verse 48.

This also potentially brings forward a better understanding as to why the entire pericope’s tone within the Dialogue Source reconstruction is so heated. There is an element of strong criticism, or perhaps even open mockery in this exchange. “Now you’re trying to kill me!” might even be a hyperbolic and condescending rhetorical device similar to “Oh, you’re killing me!” or “This is rich!” in modern English, but was interpreted differently by the redactor as the Gospel was compiled and the Dialogues source incorporated into the greater Johanine body. When that mix occurred, elements of this dispute became intermingled with Messianic overtones, and we see portions where Jesus is arguing with them with such wordplay and rhetorical statements interspersed with Jesus lecturing them about trying to physically kill him.

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