Posted by: mattcolvin | December 1, 2010

Puzzles in John 8:44

I am a Greek teacher today because of the kindness of Dr. James Lesher, my ancient philosophy professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. Knowing that I was a classics major, he invited me and one other student from his large Survey of Ancient Philosophy class to meet with him once a week and read the Presocratics in the original. Not knowing any better, I serendipitously translated a fragment of Heraclitus in a new and different way that he hadn’t seen before. He was at least half-persuaded, and gave me a footnote in an article he later wrote.

That experience made me interested in Greek scholarship as a tool for solving puzzling passages: the idea that by a hermeneutical spiral of reading and research, I could make Greek texts clear to myself and others, was tremendously attractive. My wife has often seen me jump off the couch with a Greek New Testament in hand, exclaiming (whether rightly or wrongly) that I’ve just seen something that I’d never seen before.

This week in Greek II at Mars Hill Academy, one of my Greek students, Luke Ahern, translated John 8:44 in a way I hadn’t seen before, and serendipitously persuaded me that I hadn’t been reading it right. The Greek reads:

ὑμεῖς ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς τοῦ διαβόλου ἐστὲ καὶ τὰς ἐπιθυμίας τοῦ πατρὸς ὑμῶν θέλετε ποιεῖν. ἐκεῖνος ἀνθρωποκτόνος ἦν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς, καὶ ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ οὐκ ἔστηκεν, ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν ἀλήθεια ἐν αὐτῷ. ὅταν λαλῇ τὸ ψεῦδος, ἐκ τῶν ἰδίων λαλεῖ, ὅτι ψεύστης ἐστὶν καὶ ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ.

The bold-faced portions are the puzzling ones, grammatically. And my student’s rendering immediately thrust the puzzle before my eyes. He was able to do this because — just like me with Heraclitus — he didn’t know the usual English rendering. He said: “You are of the father of the devil…”

Immediately laughter broke out from the other students. “The father of the devil”? Who would that be?

But Luke is correct. It is the most natural rendering of the Greek. It is very hard to see how the two nouns can be in apposition, listed in sequence with their respective genitive articles. The fact that the translation is theologically puzzling is already a point in its favor, given the straightforwardness of the grammar.

But the second bold-faced phrase makes it virtually certain that Luke translated the first phrase correctly. You’ve probably seen your English versions translating it: “He is a liar and the father of it.” Of what? Of lying, I suppose. Or of a falsehood. But as Jeffrey Trumbower remarks (in Born From Above: the Anthropology of the Gospel of John),

These verses appear to be speaking of at least two figures: the devil and his father (whoever that might be). these two can be reduced to one only if the genitives of 8:44a are taken to be in apposition and if the αὐτοῦ of 8:44d is made to refer to the otherwise absent abstract concept, ‘lying’; such solutions test the limits of grammatical plausibility.

That is my judgment also. As a Greek scholar, my instinct is against the usual translations. The KJV and NKJV have “your father the devil…a liar and the father of it.” The NASB, NIV, and ESV have the even less plausible “…a liar and the father of lies.” (“Lies” does not occur in the passage.) The best is Young’s Literal Translation, which has, “`Ye are of a father — the devil, … he is a liar — also his father.” The dashes are not, however, in the Greek; and the article with the first instance of “father” is definite, not indefinite.

No, by far the most natural rendering of “καὶ ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ” is “and his father” — which in turn serves as confirmation that the theologically puzzling — but grammatically straightforward — phrase in the first half of the verse, “ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς τοῦ διαβόλου”, should be rendered, “You are of the father of the devil.”

The objections to this reading are of little weight, and show only that the passage has not been properly understood yet: it is said to be a gnostic reading, as e.g. by Vincent’s NT Word Studies:

“A few critics have adopted the very singular rendering, which the Greek will bear, ye are of the father of the devil. This is explained by charging John with Gnosticism, and making him refer to the Demiurge, a mysterious and inferior being descended from God, by whom God, according to the Gnostics, created the universe, and who had rebelled against God, and was the father of Satan. It is only necessary to remark with Meyer that such a view is both unbiblical and un-Johannine.”

But the fact that the gnostics would refer such language to the Demiurge is not proof that Jesus meant that.

I don’t claim to have a solution here. I only point out that the grammar is unmistakeably on my student Luke’s side. There is not a doubt in my mind that Jesus said, “Ye are of the father of the devil…” and “he is a liar, and his father.”

One suggestion toward a solution:

Within the logic of Jesus’ discourse with the Jews, our Lord rejects the idea that Abraham is the Jews’ father, because they do not conform to Abraham’s behavior. They then assert that they are not the children of fornication, and that they have one father, God. Jesus’ reply in 8:44 is clearly stating that the paternity of the Jews is established by their behavior. They must, then, share a common lineage with the devil, because they are liars too. Is it too big a stretch to suggest that Jesus is not ascribing any reality to “the father of the devil”, but applying the logic of “shared behavior –> shared paternity” to posit the only putative ancestor that can explain the Jews’ behavior?

1 John 3:8 (“He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning”) of course provides some support for the usual interpretation. But I don’t see that it conflicts with my students’ rendering either.

At any rate, the difficulty of making theological sense of the passage is not, to me, a very powerful objection. It is far more likely that there is some yet-to-be-discovered explanation of Jesus’ meaning than that a scribe should have made two otherwise unmotivated “errors”, within the same verse, and both generating the same prima facie meaning. I’m enough of a crusty old classicist to insist on the lectio difficilior here, and the versio difficilior as well.

There’s another puzzle that besets me about this passage: “ἐκ τῶν ἰδίων λαλεῖ” (“When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own”) is also a crux for translators. What is meant by “his own”? The NIV has “When he lies, he speaks his native language” — surely very implausible, as I cannot find any other use of the genitive plural substantive to mean “language”. The NASB has “he speaks from his own nature” — again, impossible. The ESV has “he speaks out of his own character” — inventive, perhaps more plausible than the others, but not likely either.

My proposed solution is that we posit the same gender for the substantive τῶν ἰδίων as we did for αὐτοῦ in “he is a liar, and his father” — take it as a masculine substantive, not a neuter. The clause then fits the logic of the larger pericope: “When he [the devil] speaks a lie, he speaks out of his own people” — i.e. the devil tells his lies through the mouths of his children. This is what the Germans would call the “naheliegendst” rendering. It is far more complex to posit a stock of “his dark verbal materials” out of which the devil brings lies, than it is to assume that Jesus, having identified the Jews as the descendants of the devil in their behavior, goes on to say that they are also the devil’s instruments in lying.

I leave the passage at that. I’ve found that after laying out the present state of the question in my mind, I can often come back and cut the Gordian knot later when further reading of Scripture or scholarship provides the necessary sword. And it’s always better to acknowledge what one doesn’t know — which for me, includes the full meaning of John 8:44.

One last remark, since I have Jewish relatives: I do not believe that this passage is anti-semitic, any more than Jesus’ rebuke to Peter (“get thee behind me, Satan!”) were words of hatred toward the greatest of the apostles. Jesus’ words in John 8:44 are directed at Jews who opposed Him, not at the many Jews who believed and followed Him. He agrees, in the same chapter, that the nation of Israel were the children of Abraham (8:37), and urges them to prove their paternity by behaving as Abraham did, who rejoiced to see His day.

So… any other suggested solutions?


  1. Thanks, Matt. I love reading how your thoughts and those of your students work through these grammatical intrigues.

  2. That’s fascinating. I wonder if it may have anything to do with the connection between sin and Satan as sin is so often personified in Scripture?

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