Losing Control, Unorthodox Communities And Egyptian Jewish Temples (john 7.32-36)

32 The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering these things about him, and the chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to arrest him.

The author of John makes a very interesting point in this verse. Before the feast of tabernacles people were afraid to talk about Jesus because they were afraid of hoi Ioudaioi. (John 7.13)  However, when Jesus began to openly teach in the Temple, the public debate about him could no longer be contained. (John 7:27-31) The Pharisees who witnessed this debate take place in the Temple sent out the Temple guard to make an arrest (vs.32). The Pharisees had the full cooperation of the chief priests. Notice that the “chief priests together with Pharisees” were the very authorities whose powers were enough to dispatch the Temple police to make a criminal arrest of Jesus.

Now let us recall (read more here) an early reference to an exercise of power against John the Baptist: “19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews (hoi Ioudaioi) sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” … (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’” (John 1:19-25)

We see something similar at play in both of these events. In the both cases, sending the priestly committee and sending the Temple guard, the Pharisees were involved (John 7:32 and John 1:24). However, in both places they were not alone. It is hoi Ioudaioi (John 1:19) and chief priests together with Pharisees (John 7:32) who acted together. I, therefore, conclude that at least one sense in which hoi Ioudaioi (translated as “the Jews”) is used here is to show that there is a basic characteristic as authorities.

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33 Jesus then said, “I will be with you a little longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. 34 You will seek me and you will not find me. Where I am you cannot come.” 35 The Jews said to one another, “Where does this man intend to go that we will not find him? Does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks? 36 What does he mean by saying, ‘You will seek me and you will not find me,’ and, ‘Where I am you cannot come’?”

When the Pharisees and chief priests dispatched the Temple Guard to arrest him, Jesus was addressing the crowd who were in the middle of a public debate focused on him (John 7:27-31). He told them that his time with them was almost over. He would then return to Him who sent him. Notice the power play here. Hoi Ioudaioi are exercising their authority to send the Temple police to arrest Jesus, but Jesus is saying that he was sent out by someone who is the ultimate authority – Israel’s God Himself (vs.33). Moreover, the place to which Jesus was departing was unapproachable and He could not be followed. (vs.34) Hoi Ioudaioi who remained in the crowd (but separate from it) wondered about the words of Jesus (vs.35), hypothesizing that Jesus was planning to go outside of areas of their control, to the Greek-speaking and Hellenized Israelites geographically located outside of Judea and Jewish Galilee.

To understand what is going on here we must take a little structural linguistic detour. Just like the word Ioudaios (usually translated as a Jew) did not refer exclusively to a religion or ethnicity, but to the all-encompassing way of living, thinking and especially group behavior. The word Hellenismos (translated as a Greek) also did not refer exclusively to ethnicity or religion. Words like Medismos (acting like a Persian), Laconismos (acting like a Spartan) or Atticismos (acting like an Athenean) along with Hellenismos and Ioudaios do not only refer to religions or ethnicities. Incidentally, both categories (religion and ethnicity) are late Western/Christianized categories only anachronistically used as first century terms. This is a very important point since it helps us understand the world of Jesus in its context. Terms like Hellenismos and Ioudaioi (among others) refer to an entire group context having to do with political loyalties, ancestral practices, common language, dress, and a multitude of other factors.

One very interesting verse that adds to  this discussion comes from Nehemiah 2:16. There we read that Nehemiah said about the work of Temple rebuilding: “And the officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, and I had not yet told “the Jews” (Hebrew Yehudim is a rough equivalent of Greek Ioudaioi), the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest who were to do the work.” It is obvious that the priests, the officials and the rest of the Jewish people that were about to undertake the project were in our modern (and even modern religious) sense of the world Jewish. But Nehemiah distinguished between them and another group that he called “Yehudim” (Ioudaioi in Greek).

All of this structural linguistics discussion was important to make the point that when Ioudaioi said they thought that perhaps Jesus was planning to go to Hellenisimoi (vs.35) (translated as Greeks) it is very possible that they did not mean Greek Gentiles. This is the usual assumption in most Christian translations of the Gospel. It is also possible that they meant Israelites who lived outside of Israel. Most importantly, this means that they, the Hellenisimoi, were fully outside of Jerusalemite, Judean control. Examples of such lack of control by hoi Ioudaioi are plentiful. Already in Jewish Galilee there were many synagogues that were not oriented (in their direction of worship) to Jerusalem. One very curious case is found in Elephantine (an island in the Nile River in Southern Egypt) where a mixed Jewish-Samaritan/Israelite mercenary military colony was stationed from around 650 BCE. The island boasted its own alternative to the Jerusalem Israelite Temple. According to Josephus, there was also another Temple somewhere in Egypt (Antiq. Book XIII. ch. 3. sect. 1-3, and Of the War, Book VII. ch. 10. sect. 8.). According to Josephus, those Temples were built to resemble the one in Jerusalem, administrated by legitimate priests, and they actually conducted sacrificial offerings.  In other words, we do not have a normal synagogue here which is the house of prayer, study and community, but a real temple where sacrificial services regularly took place.  There are interesting other factors as well.

Not a very well known, but a very important Isaianic prophecy was believed by many to have been fulfilled in Egypt (Is.19:19-25). The prophecy of Isaiah[1] read as follows:

19 In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of EgyptThey will even worship with sacrifice and offering, and will make a vow to the Lord and perform it… 24 In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, 25 whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.”

However, we must keep in mind that Babylonian Talmudic references that are positive regarding non-Jerusalemite Temples do not reflect 1st century views. The views of Jerusalem Temple 1st century authorities have got to be negative, after all they also, like Jesus, challenged the power and control of the Judean priestly elite (and their supporters) who were headquartered in Jerusalem and Judea.

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[1] The Jewish Masoretic Text (MT), the text generally used by Christian Bibles, has one more verse before the prophecy quoted above, where it purposely charges the name of the City of Sun (the likely original) to the City of Destruction (a translation that makes no sense at all given the positive context of the prophecy). We read there: “In that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan (Land of Israel) and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts (Israel’s God). One of these will be called the City of Sun (changed in the Masoretic version to ‘Destruction’).” What is striking is that both scrolls of Isaiah found in Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) and the texts of Isaiah in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Old Testament) confirm that in the Hebrew original version, this was the City of the Sun and not the City of Destruction. The reason for this is that both Qumran and the Septuagint predate the Masoretic texts by many centuries. The Masoretic texts are later and are not Jerusalemite in origin.


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  1. Drs. Charles van den Berg

    Hey Eli !

    Reflecting on your post on John 5.19-30 (Was the Gospel of John “simply” written or carefully designed?) and John 5.19-30 (How to interpret this chiasm?), I think there is a chiasm again in John 7:1-36.
    A1) 7:1-11 Where is Jesus going?
    B1) 7:12-13 Muttering (whispering) among the people.
    C) 7:14-30 Jesus in the temple in the middle of the feast
    B2) 7: 31 -32 Muttering (whispering) among the Pharisees.
    A2) 7: 33-36 Where is Jesus going?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I think you may be right. Jesus in the Temple is a certainly a sharp point in the story. Thank you so much for your comment!

  2. Charles T Compton

    I forgot to mention the northern tribes of Israel who kept Jacobs name (Israel) were taken captive by the Assyrians and the Assyrians are the Germans of today. They were referred to as the Anglo-Saxons of Europe when they had migrated to Europe from their old home of Assyria in the Middle East.

    1. Fred Aguelo

      Hi Charles,

      Where did you get the data about the Germans being the former Assyrians? What’s your source and especially archaeological evidence? How did Ephraim & Manasseh end up in America to look like the American Indians? Are solid evidence to this theory? Please enlighten us.



  3. Charles T Compton

    We must remember—back when the nation of Israel was divided into 2 nations because of Solomon’s sins —-and the northern tribes who were referred to by God as the Kingdom of Israel—were later taken into captivity and dispersed into the Greek and Caspian Sea area and from there migrated into north western Europe –Great Britain and America. And America and Great Britain became the Birthright People of Ephraim and Manasseh (Josephs 2 sons) that is why they controlled the earth and the sea gates to all their enemies —-This was the tribes of Israel that they were referring to that they thought Christ might go to and hide. While the Southern kingdom of the 2 nations after the division—– where the Throne of David remained in power—- and who kept one tribe the tribe of Benjamin and of course— the Levites— because of the service to the temple and the Temple was in Jerusalem and Jerusalem remained the capital of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. While the northern tribes set up Samaria as their capital and had worship there to keep the people from going to Jerusalem and worshiping —for fear of loosing them back to Judah.

  4. Kat Hobaugh

    I find it interesting that “they” made a “vow” and am wondering if the vow was to keep (perhaps in part or whole) God’s commands. I don’t now how else God could say “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance” unless they encompassed His way of living,thinking, and group behaviors.

  5. judith green

    I have to make a small amendment to this interesting commentary. The word for “Greek” in John 19:35 is not Hellenismos, but rather Ἑλλήνων, Ἑλλήνας, which means simply “Greeks”, not Hellenized Jews. However, the word “diaspora” certainly refers to the Jewish community outside of Palestine. So, I guess it is “the diaspora among the Greeks”. It is a bit mysterious, I think the Judaeans are being purposely incredulous or disingenuous.
    The point about the verses in Isaiah 19 is also discussed in a new book on the LXX,Johann Cook and Arie van der Kooij
    Law, Prophets, and Wisdom: On the Provenance
    of Translators and Their Books in the Septuagint
    Version. I think the reading you quote, about Heliopolis, is not in the standard LXX, but in Symmachus’ translation. I don’t know about the version in the DDS. The author in this new book thinks it is evidence for the provenance of the LXX version of Isaiah. I think you will find this interesting, so I quote from a review: “In chapter 3 van der Kooij challenges the assumed Alexandrian origin of the translation of Isaiah and argues instead that it derives from Heliopolis. As evidence for this position van
    der Kooij cites three passages in Isaiah (10:24; 11:16; 19:18–19) where the Greek
    translation differs from the MT text to include a positive reference to Jews living in Egypt. The motivation for these changes, according to van der Kooij, can be found in the historical context of Egyptian Jews in the second century B.C.E., namely, the founding of the rival temple in Heliopolis. Josephus’s accounts (War 7.420–432; Ant. 13.62468), especially Onias’s letter, provide sufficient evidence for van der Kooij to posit that the changes in Isaiah were a result of a member of the Oniad group translating Isaiah so that it both reflected and spoke specifically to current events. As a result, van der Kooij claims that Isaiah was translated in Heliopolis by a scholar (or scholars) who belonged to the priestly group that fled Jerusalem in the 160s B.C.E. and afterward lived in Egypt (85).”