When Jesus said he wouldn’t go… and did.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 August 2019

John 7.1-13.

If you read the synoptic gospels (meaning Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the three which sync up a lot), you might get the idea Jesus only went to Jerusalem once—to get arrested and crucified. That’d be historically inaccurate. Jesus obeyed the Law, and the Law decreed every adult male should go to temple three times a year for the festivals. Dt 16.16 Meaning Jesus went to Jerusalem a lot, and John—which largely takes place there—fills in the blanks of what happened during those many Jerusalem trips.

Including when Jesus cured that one blind guy. The context of that story was when he went to Jerusalem one year for Sukkót. That trip began a few chapters back; since I skipped that part I figure I’d better backtrack. Here y’go.

John 7.1-13 KWL
1 After these things, Jesus traveled the Galilee.
He didn’t want to travel in Judea, because the Judeans sought to kill him.
2 Sukkót/Tents, a Judean festival, was near, 3 so Jesus’s brothers told him,
“Leave here and go to Judea, so your students will also see you and the works you do.
4 Nobody who seeks publicity, works in private: If you do things, reveal yourself to the world!”
For Jesus’s brothers didn’t yet believe in him either.
6 So Jesus told them, “My moment hasn’t arrived yet.
Your moment is always ready. 7 The world can’t hate you.
It hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.
8 You go up to the festival. I’m not going up to this festival: My moment isn’t fulfilled.”
9 This said, Jesus stayed in the Galilee.
10 As Jesus’s brothers went up to the festival, Jesus then also went up—not publicly, but privately.
11 So the Judeans were seeking Jesus at the festival, and said, “Where is that person?
12 There was much grumbling about him in the crowds.
On the one hand, some said he’s good; others said, “No, but he misleads the crowd.”
13 Even so, nobody spoke openly about Jesus, for fear of the Judeans.

I’ll admit right now: This story has always kinda bothered me. ’Cause y’notice Jesus initially told his brothers, “I’m not going up to the festival; you go.” Then, one verse later, he did go. But “as it were in secret,” as the King James Version puts it. On face value, it totally looks like Jesus lied to his brothers and snuck to the festival.

I know, I know: Christ Jesus never sinned. He 4.15 I’m not claiming otherwise. I don’t think the passage is claiming otherwise either. Certainly no Christian is gonna interpret it that way. But anybody who honestly looks at this passage—including skeptics who have no qualms about accusing Jesus of all sorts of things—are gonna come right out and say, “Looks like Jesus deceived his brothers.” (That is, once pagans get over their initial surprise: “Wait, Jesus has brothers? I thought he was an only child!”)

So instead of letting little doubts poke at the back of our minds for no good reason, let’s deal with this bible difficulty today.

Textual differences.

I’m translating this story from the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, which has the same text as the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament. In it, Jesus states, “ἐγὼ οὐκ ἀναβαίνω εἰς τὴν ἑορτὴν ταύτην”/“Eghó uk anavéno eis tin eortín táftin,” “I’m not going up to this festival.” Jn 7.8

Now, other Greek New Testaments—and therefore other bibles—read otherwise. In the Textus Receptus, the Greek NT used to create the King James Version, we find the word οὔπω/úpo, “not yet,” instead of οὐκ/uk, “not.” Hence we find in the KJV,

John 7.8 KJV
Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast; for my time is not yet full come.

This knocks out the bible difficulty entirely, which is why a bunch of other bibles are perfectly happy to adopt the way the Textus has it. Another of the Greek NTs I use for bible study, the Tyndale House Greek New Testament, likewise uses úpo instead of uk.

Why is there a different word in different Greek texts? ’Cause “Not yet going up” is way less problematic than “Not going up.” So sometime around the 200s, somebody who made copies of John decided to swap words and delete the problem. Our oldest case of úpo is found in Papyrus 66, a copy of John probably written in the 200s. Úpo also got into the Codex Vaticanus, a copy of most of the bible which was made around 300–325. And from there, úpo got into lots of other copies. The Textus included.

The other early copies of John have uk, of course. So that’s why the United Bible Societies went with uk, and since their New Testament is the basis of most present-day translations, that’s what today’s bibles have—unless of course they’re trying to hide the bible difficulty.

Agreed, “Not yet going up” would sort out everything. But textual scholars don’t pick which words go into their editions of the bible based on what’d be most useful, but on evidence that this is likely the bible’s original text. Good translators must do likewise. The text of the bible always comes first. Doctrine second. We don’t base the bible on our theology; we base our theology on the bible. So my translation has Jesus say “I’m not going up.”

David H. Stern, author of the Jewish New Testament Commentary, claims since the verb ἀναβαίνω/anavéno, “I’m going up,” is present-tense, it has to apply to that specific instant. When Jesus said “I’m not going up,” he had to have meant “I’m not presently going up.” But Jesus might’ve meant he might later go up; he didn’t say.

Meh; I don’t buy it. It sounds too much like grammatical wiffle-wafflery to me.

Most likely: Jesus changed his mind.

The answer to our quandary doesn’t come from the text. So my guess is, at the time Jesus told his brothers “I’m not going up,” that was his intent. He wasn’t going.

Didn’t wanna go, wasn’t planning to go, possibly figured he didn’t need to go. At Sukkót you usually made a grain offering, but Jesus was a rabbi, not a farmer; he had no food offering to present, no tithe to eat. So he could set up a tent at home in Kfar Nahum, same as Jerusalem, and do Sukkót there. Besides, the Judeans wanted to do him harm, and it wasn’t time for that yet.

So off his brothers went… and then the Holy Spirit jogged Jesus’s memory: “Waitaminnit, the Law says I have to go.” Dt 16.16 And off he went.

I know: This explanation is gonna bug certain Christians. Because we tend to presume Jesus is omniscient—he knows all, ’cause he’s God, and doesn’t God know all? And if he forgot stuff, it means he’d make mistakes, and God never makes mistakes. So it can’t have slipped Jesus’s mind he had to go to Sukkót.

Thing is, Jesus gave up his divine abilities when he became human. That includes omniscience. Can’t pack infinite knowledge into a finite human brain! So there’s stuff Jesus didn’t know—like when his second coming would happen. Mk 13.32 Just like every other human, Jesus had to depend on the Holy Spirit to clue him in whenever necessary. And if Jesus mixed up minor details—as everyone does—the Spirit set him straight before he ever stumbled into sin.

Hence Jesus might incorrectly—but never duplicitously—say, “I’m not going up,” then later correct himself.

Again, I know: This explanation butts heads with Christians who believe because Jesus is infallible, he never ever misspoke. Never made mistakes. But that isn’t what we mean by infallibility when it comes to Jesus. Jesus is infallible in that

  1. He never misrepresents God.
  2. Never sinned, and therefore made a perfect sacrifice for our sins.
  3. Never fails us now.

But stretch infallibility too far, and it starts to get ridiculous. Baby Jesus never soiled a diaper? Boy Jesus never got a math problem wrong? Never missed a goal in soccer? Never accidentally touched a dead lizard and thus made himself ritually unclean for synagogue? Never misplaced his pens, never spilled wine on his good tunic, never spoke in sentence fragments, never caught a cold? Accidents aren’t sins. Any accident-free human experience isn’t an authentic human experience. And either Jesus is authentically human… or he was faking humanity, and there’s no point in trying to be like him, for we can’t. Jesus is perfect in his character, in obeying his Father, in loving all, in being our example. Stretching “perfection” to unnecessary extremes, creates way more problems than it solves.

Lastly, this interpretation is gonna bug Christians who think Jesus doesn’t change his mind. Because, they claim, God never changes his mind, and Jesus is God, and there we are. So Jesus can’t have stated “I’m not going up” and ever, ever thought better of it: He was right the first time, ’cause he’s always right the first time. ’Cause he’s following his plan.

I’ve written before about how such Christians imagine “his plan” works: There’s the plan we see, and there’s the secret plan… which has an awful lot of evil incorporated into it. And if they’re right (and lemme just remind you they’re not) this is a really good example of the evil baked into it: Jesus didn’t change his mind, but fully intended to give his brothers the wrong idea. He meant to mislead them. Probably so the Judeans who sought to kill him, would get the idea from his brothers he stayed home, and wouldn’t expect him.

I’m not a fan of the idea Jesus liked to deceive his opponents. Mostly because it gives people the idea it’s okay to deceive our opponents. Or, really, anyone: Jesus’s brothers weren’t his opponents! They may not have understood him or believed in him yet, and sometimes thought he was nuts, but their advice—“If you do things, reveal yourself to the world!” Jn 7.4 —indicates they were open to the possibility of their brother being somebody significant, at least. And if he’s a prophet, go to Jerusalem and do something! Don’t just stay in the Galilee.

Jesus didn’t deceive them. Or anyone. At the time he told his brothers he wasn’t going, he honestly wasn’t. But then he changed his mind. ’Cause he can do that—and it doesn’t make him fallible, or lessen his character. On the contrary: It shows he can learn and grow—as we know he did. Lk 2.40 It shows he’s humble. Unlike those folks who project their own ideas on Jesus in order to justify our own lack of humility.

At the time he spoke with his brothers, Jesus figured it wasn’t yet the right time. He was waiting on his Father’s timing. He wasn’t gonna force the Father’s hand. He wasn’t in charge of bringing about his kingdom; the Father is. Albert Schweitzer famously speculated that’s precisely what Jesus did: He tried to start the kingdom ahead of his Father’s timing, and got crucified for his hubris. But Jesus has no hubris: He waited on God. His statements reflect someone who’s waiting for God’s go-ahead: The world hates him because he challenged it. His brothers presented no such challenge, so they wouldn’t get any pushback, same as complacent Christians nowadays. They could go on ahead.

And soon thereafter, Jesus did get the go-ahead, so off he went.

As for the Judeans’ expectations and speculations, I’ll deal with them later.

Christ Almighty!