Did Jesus lie in John 7:8-10?

John 7:8-10 "You go to the Feast. I am not yet going up to this Feast, because for me the right time has not yet come." Having said this, he stayed in Galilee. However, after his brothers had left for the Feast, he went also, not publicly, but in secret.

Jesus is sometimes accused here of lying to his brothers. (Most recognize "yet" as a later addition here.)

What we actually have here, however, is an issue related to the principles of rhetorical criticism and of ancient concepts of honor. As Giblin points out in his article, "Suggestion, Negative Response, and Positive Action in St. John's Portrayal of Jesus" (NTS, Jan. 1980, pp. 197-211), this pericope and three others in John (2:1-11, 4:46-54, 11:1-44) form a pattern which serves to stress Jesus' disassociation from merely human concerns, and his prerogative to act on his own terms. It also forms a pattern that mirrors the Matthean/Lukan temptation stories:

By this reckoning, Jesus is actually answering an evil temptation to show himself as Messiah -- and will anyone say that it is wrong to lie to someone essentially doing Satan's work?

Now we may also note another worthwhile answer that will not disturb modern sensibilities: Jesus' reason for not going to the Feast was specifically that "the time is not yet come:" -- so that within the next few days, the time was right, and Jesus received a later and unexpected word from the Father telling him so [Witherington, John's Wisdom, 69]. One may then object that this later word is not narrated, but we would respond that this is thoroughly consistent with Jesus' lack of knowledge of things like the time of the end and John's theme of Jesus as one who does the Father's will alone.

There need be no explicit narration of a word from the Father; the idea of a later word of instruction from the Father is consistent with John’s presentation of Jesus as the obedient servant of God whose agenda is not controlled or directed by human or other agents. (Cf. John 8:28-9: "Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things. And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.")

However, for those who do not mind overlooking their modern, Western sensibilities, we add another point which verifies Giblin's. Pilch and Malina in their Handbook of Biblical Social Values note that in the ancient world, control of one's speech was a paramount concern, and ritual etiquette demanded that one not give offense to others in public. In this light one may make comparison to Eastern societies today in which a person may purposely give an indirect or incomplete answer to avoid conflict.

Modern Westerners consider this a vice, but the ancients did not. It was a matter of a moral hierarchy: thus for example, if speaking openly betrayed the interest of another to whom one was loyal and indebted, etiquette dictated that one should say one thing publicly and do another thing privately, or else not follow up on what was publicly stated.

In this light, Jesus' answer to his brothers, and places where he is what some have called "reluctant" to perform miracles, are a matter of his public "no" allowing him to act on terms favorable to his interests as the mediator of the new covenant, rather than the interests of others who as outsiders have no right to the information. (Pilch and Malina compare this to the modern practice of floating "trial balloons" in politics -- which is implicitly accepted even as it is criticized.)

It should be noted that not once in the Gospels is Jesus ever criticized for saying one thing and doing another -- because for the ancients, such behavior was par for the course and not considered a vice at all, but rather an honorable thing to do in circumstances such as described in John 7.

I like to add non-Biblical examples on things like this, since we (and even Biblical scholars) are accused of making this stuff up. J. K. Campbell in Honour, Family and Patronage [282-3] describes how among the Sarakatsan of Greece, heads of households "must continually use lies" to protect their family from perceived harm, and "to deny other people information" which they might use for social or even physical harm. A household head who did not so deceive "would be considered foolish and neglectful of his duty."

Campbell stresses that it is not that "the Sarakatsani fail to understand the virtues of truth and sincerity," for when not dealing with strangers, they are fully open and honest. But because the world is perceived of as dangerous and fallen, cunning is required in order to ward off threats to well-being. Under such circumstances, misleading others is a virtue, not a vice.

-JPH