Were the Pharisees being sarcastic in John 7:52, when they claimed that "no prophet ever came out of Galilee"? It is written that Jonah came from Gath-hepher, in Galilee (2 Kings 14:25).
Many commentators have enjoyed pointing out the Pharisees' mistake, which is just one of several errors they make in this chapter.
A "pure" sarcasm would mean that the Pharisees considered Galilee to be the place where prophets came from - a bit like associating Washington, DC with politicians. But the context is their rejection of Jesus (known to them as a Galilean) as a prophet, which makes that reading a bit tricky. It is more likely that they are being rude or sarcastic, but at the same time, incorrect to dismiss Galilee as a prophet-free zone.
Thomas Aquinas in the Catena Aurea collated some earlier discussion on this passage. This includes John Chrysostom (Homily 52 on the Gospel of John) characterizing the tone of the Pharisees as "rude" and "insulting" (rudius, iniuriose), which would cover sarcasm; and on the other hand Alcuin of York's Commentary on the Gospel of John, where the emphasis is on their ignorance. If it is sarcasm, then it is still misaimed sarcasm, because the Pharisees are incorrect.
But their mistake is significant. The story of Jonah prefigures that of Jesus in several important ways, and so it is interesting that the two prophets are, in a sense, rejected together.
N. T. Wright says of this verse:
The Pharisees further show their ignorance of Scripture in that both the prophets Jonah and Hosea came from Galilee. And when John has them say that no prophet "rises up" or "arises" from Galilee, the word he uses is almost always used elsewhere in the book to refer to the resurrection. Jonah was proverbial for coming, so it seemed, "back from the dead" after three days in the belly of the fish; and Hosea contains the prophecy that God will "raise us up on the third day" (Hosea 6:2).1
The Greek verb in question is ἐγείρεται (ἐγείρω), which originally meant "to wake up" or "to arouse", and was later applied to rising from a sick-bed or death-bed, as well as from sleep. It can also mean rousing someone to activity from a previous state of torpor. The other instances in John's gospel are as follows:
- Jesus's resurrection / metaphor of raising the Temple: 2:19, 2:20, 2:22, 21:14
- Healing at the pool of Bethesda: 5:8
- Raising the dead in general: 5:21; and Lazarus specifically: 12:1, 12:9, 12:17
- Standing up / being called to action: 11:29, 13:4, 14:31
The "resurrection" sense is also strongly present elsewhere in the New Testament. So we could say that John's account has a certain level of irony, even if the Pharisees are not themselves being sarcastic.
Some versions of John 7:52 have the Pharisees talking about the prophet, rather than a prophet. They would then be arguing about whether the Messiah ought to be from Galilee, as opposed to whether prophets in general could come from there. If this is the reading then the Jonah question does not arise - but instead, we have to ask about the Pharisees' knowledge or interpretation of the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 9 (or in the Hebrew, starting at 8:23). Here, "Galilee" is to be made glorious by a son who is to be called "Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace". The application to Jesus hinges on him being "from" Nazareth as well as Bethlehem, and of the line of David - facts which were not generally known (John 7:42). As before, the tone of the argument could very well be sarcastic, with the Pharisees being wrong, but this time for a different reason.
1. N. T. Wright. John: 26 studies for individuals and groups (InterVarsity Press, 2009). Chapter 10, Disputes about Jesus, p. 60.
At issue here is not whether the Pharisees’ comment is technically correct – as the OP notes, it is easily proven false as a statement of fact. N.T. Wright’s word study of their particular verb and its possible, extended, theological associations is interesting but also a digression.
Rather, John is intent on showing that Jewish leaders, centered in Jerusalem and Judea, rejected Jesus, while Galileans and others accepted him. This dichotomy is also apparent in the Johannine symbolic use of geography generally, setting Galilee against Judea. John 7:52 presents the Pharisees as sneering and derisive, sarcastic, though not in the sense of ironic. Their comment is intended to bolster John’s negative portrayal of ‘the Jews’, and more specifically Jewish leaders, in contrast to Nicodemus who believed.
The intention of this verse, then, is not centered in its accuracy or falsity as a factual statement but in its contribution to John's larger narrative portrait of the Jewish opposition to the gospel (e.g. 4:1; 7:32; 8:13; 12:42).
Their question is not just about whether a prophet can come from Galilee, but verse 42 gives more info about their reason for doubting Galilee as the source of the 'Christ'. The Christ should come from David's line and from Bethlehem (prophecy from Micah 5:2). Herod ordered the murder of all the boys in Bethlehem, so there would not be any men from Bethlehem around Jesus' age. Even though Herod died before Mary & Joseph returned from Egypt, Joseph still feared Herod's son, who was then ruling in Judea, and God warned Joseph to go to Galilee instead (Matthew 2:19-23). Joseph and Mary probably didn't broadcast that Jesus was really from Bethlehem because of their fear (and because of God's warnings).
It's incomprehensible to believe that the prophets of Judah who had studied Scripture their whole lives would have made this mistake. Elijah, Micah and Joel plus three more prophets all lives and prophesied in Galilee. The mistake was engendered by a poor translation. Out of all the languages extant in the 1st century, only Aramaic carries no articles such as "a" or "the." Translating word for word often leads to lack of context and syntax. Given that, the translator had a 50-50 chance of getting it right. He didn't. He also didn't seem to understand the implication of his work. The passage should have read: "the prophet does not come out of Galilee," that is, the prophet (Messiah) Moses talked about that would come. Also, the same prophet the Pharisees asked John the Baptizer about when they asked him if he was Elijah, the prophet or the Messiah. The only logical explanation for this error is that the original passage was in Aramaic and later translated into Greek incorrectly. All the other languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin) have articles which would have made the priests' comments abundantly clear. Aramaic primacy.