Monday, September 16, 2013

A response to a response to Jesus and the Murderous Men.

This is a response to my brothers comments on my previous post. To make sense of this please read my previous post and my brothers comments below it.

What we're discussing is how to interpret the passage of John 8: 1-11 (or rather John 7:53-8:11 as I've had corrected). For those not familiar with biblical notation this means the first eleven verses of chapter 8 in the Gospel according to John. This is a story traditionally titled Jesus and the Adulterous Woman (or similar), which I propose re-titling as Jesus and the Murderous Men.


I’m glad this post and this passage has engaged you. I think you are partly right.

Firstly you are right that I am making a decision to name the gender of the scribes and Pharisees; a decision the texts author doesn’t make. The author only names the accused gender. That naming of the accused gender has been a part of the history of this piece for a good sixteen centuries at least. No-one would dispute that all the accusers are male so I think a few years of having that mentioned would be fairer to me than suddenly not identifying any gender matters. The experience as a man of feeling even slightly tarred with the same brush, when the scribes and Pharisees are called men, is the experience women have had in relation to this story from the moment of its titling.

Secondly you may be right when you say that the motive of the men is to accuse Jesus rather than to actually stone the woman. It may be that whether or not she has committed adultery is incidental to them. It might even be that whether or not they stone the woman is incidental to them. This had occurred to me when writing, however that charge against the men is so damning I was reluctant to make it on scant evidence.

We should stop and reflect for a moment. We need to take into full account what stoning is. ( may help) And only then can we appreciate the magnitude of what it means to say that whether or not they stone the woman is incidental to them; that the point is to test Jesus and the stoning of the woman is merely a prop in that.

What is a culture where the stoning of a woman is secondary to a religious point being made about it? What are women to that culture? What is religion and religious leadership in that culture?

What does Jesus say to that culture? What do we say to that culture?

I feel strongly Simon that the danger of titling this piece according to the intent of the Pharisaic men is that we continue a culture in which the stoning of the woman is incidental. I don’t think we can allow for a conversation to occur between Jesus and “his” accusers that considers the woman’s stoning as secondary, even unimportant – whether or not even the author thinks that is appropriate.

I should add that I don’t think Jesus buys into that culture either. He doesn’t engage with the Pharisees about “this woman”. He addresses the men but not about the woman. He speaks to the woman directly as well. She is not merely a prop for Jesus in a theological debate about grace.

Regarding this comment; “To imply that maybe the woman wasn't a sinner at all, is such a terrible twisting of this story as to miss the whole point of Jesus' interaction with her.” I certainly don’t mean to suggest that she is not as much a sinner as we all are. I simply think people often tell me this story as if the woman has had some New York modern affair or downloaded pornography or something else that translates to adultery in their mind. I want people to realize that this is grossly interpretive in a way we shouldn’t ever read the Bible. The story merely tells us that she is accused of adultery by the men who bring her to Jesus. In the first century that could be in a context that would outrage us for a multitude of reasons.

I really think that your translation of this story into one about her and her salvation from the law by grace – is a huge insertion of your own point. Fortunately you show me your arguments so I can understand why.

Firstly you place the context for this story in the debate between those devoted to the law and Jesus authority (and perhaps his “seeming disregard for the law”). I don’t have a problem with that particularly and I think what I have to say and what you have to say are not so different after all. Jesus is claiming that the only authority to “stone” belongs to God which is not what the Mosaic Law says. It may be that Jesus as God then declines to use that authority. That second point is a slight stretch but not one that bothers me. I would just urge caution before inserting any suggestion Jesus might have stoned her as he would have qualified. That’s borrowing from elsewhere too much for me.

Where we disagree is that I think capital punishment is not at all a minor issue in Judaism. The more and more I read the more I realize that it was actually a pre-occupation of Jews in the time of the early Christians. It is definitely not just sentencing or judgment of any kind but belonged in its own special category. I find it bizarre that both theological liberals and conservatives want to ignore this distinction so that stoning becomes general sentencing or even just dissaproval.

Capital punishment is in its own category especially for Jews. It offends against the commandment not to kill. A person in Judaism is an image bearer of God and a Jew is one of God’s chosen people. To legally sanction murder is therefore theologically akin to burning down the temple…. And yet the law of Moses requires it.

Even outside of Judaism capital punishment was a special type of punishment by the way. Around 30CE the Jews lost the right to impose capital punishment to the Roman empire. The question for the Jews about capital punishment would have included whether or not to pursue it as a right. Given its connection to Empire and “Babylon” was it a part of being a people of God? Indeed what was the kingdom of God supposed to look like without the capacity to impose the death penalty? This “what is the kingdom of God” is the salient question of the age.

The first century is a world of rigorous debate in which Jesus is a leading figure. Be careful not to flatten all these debates into a dichotomy of law and grace with a monolith of Jewish thought on one side and Jesus on the other. That’s a historical flaw with how Christians have understood 1st century Judaism that is only now being corrected. Jews (including Jesus) disagreed with Jews.

Of concern to me is how you seem to negate the clear restriction in the text. There is a kind of commandment here that I believe you are overlooking. Subsequently you have no need to ask how this commandment could apply to you. That’s a real shame because I reckon there is such amazing fruit for growth here that you are missing. This is one of those stories that could change your life. More to the point it could change mine and so I’m sitting with its challenges. I'm allowing it to be outrageous and unsure what it would require of me.

I’m glad at least that you don’t seem to focus in this story on the commandment against the woman which some people make out of “sin no more”. I’m not saying that also isn’t an instruction. However the irony of modern male religious leaders (who refuse to share their pulpits with women) finding that instruction loud and clear while changing and negating the instruction against the men in the passage… perhaps deserves a harsher term than irony.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Jesus and the Murderous Men.

Passages in the bible have traditional names that aren’t original to the text. These are headings that have been given to the passages by people studying them or simply a printer’s decision to make the Bible more readable. The names can be very revealing (and dictating) of the way we predominantly read these passages.

 For example, The Prodigal Son is a title given to a parable that is only partly about that son. The Prodigal Son arguably aims its teaching more at the son’s hard–hearted brother instead.  Because it is named The Prodigal Son though, it takes effort to see that teaching. I’ve even heard abridged or children’s versions of the parable which entirely omit the older brother. The title has led to a misreading of the text.

Likewise the following is also misnamed. Here is the passage (John 8:1-11) from the 21st Century King James version;
Jesus went unto the Mount of Olives.
And early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came unto Him; and He sat down and taught them.
And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto Him a woman taken in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst,
they said unto Him, “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
Now Moses in the law commanded us that such should be stoned but what sayest thou?”
This they said testing Him, that they might have cause to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground, as though He heard them not.
So when they continued asking Him, He lifted Himself up and said unto them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.
And they who heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the eldest even unto the last, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted Himself up and saw none but the woman, He said unto her, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?”
11 She said, “No man, Lord.” And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.”

This passage is called the Pericope de Adultera (Passage about the Adulteress) in Latin. In the Contemporary English Version of the Gospel of John this passage is titled The Woman Caught In Sin, in the popular Good News Translation, The Woman caught in Adultery and in the New American Standard Bible, The Adulterous Woman. Not every printing of the Bible gives this passage a title but those that do invariably follow this theme.

The effect of this titling is to decide who the story is about. Our focus is put on to the woman in the story. We may even end up viewing adultery as the sin in question in the story as if the story was meant to say something about that in particular. Unfortunately this plays into a very pious anxiety over whether Jesus was making light of adultery or not. We the reader, end up in the position of the men with stones in hand saying “Come again Jesus? What are you really saying about her actions?”

This concern about making light of adultery has both a legalistic and an empathic aspect to it. Legalistically a person might be concerned about the contradiction between not punishing adultery and the instructions of traditional moral law. In such a concern the affront of tolerating adultery is to the authority of moral teaching against it – even to the authority of God. I think this is the author’s assumed motivation for the men who approach Jesus in this story.

On the other hand to make light of adultery is something which could ignore the pain of those who have suffered cheating spouses. This is the empathic reaction to making light of adultery. This is probably not the motivation of the men in the story. The wronged husband is certainly not featured. However this empathic concern about making light of adultery can be a challenge for modern readers. Surely Jesus is not asking this of us?

My response to this is to challenge what we know of this ancient woman’s “sin”. In Jesus’ time a woman could be married at the age of puberty, at least as young as thirteen. However she also was commonly betrothed from much younger and always without consent. If while betrothed she had sex with another man she could be stoned for adultery. Furthermore if she was raped in a populated area and her cries were not heard according to the strictest definition of the law she was a willing participant.

It is within the Jewish law of Jesus’ time that a nine year old girl could be flung down at Jesus feet by a group of men, intending to stone her, because she was raped. The “offended party” (not offending) might be a man who was much older and unknown to the girl – who has lost the virginity of his future child bride or the child’s own father whose family has been shamed. That’s an extreme case, and unlikely (given the language in the passage and Jewish culture at that time) but it gives us a sense of how little we really know of this woman’s situation.

Whatever her age the following is plain; her husband could beat her legally, she probably never chose to marry him and she had an extremely limited means to divorce him (he could divorce her much more easily). Her husband may have had multiple wives as well. Polygamy was legal for Jewish men in Jesus’ time with different families in different towns for those who traveled, though probably uncommon.

We shouldn’t think that our ignorance of the woman’s situation is accidental. A function of saying “this woman was caught in the act of adultery” is that what needs to be said about the situation feels like it has been said. Adultery is a word which locates the woman’s “act” within a legalistic moral system. Detail that might muddy the situation is washed away to reveal the relevant kernel of the woman’s action vis a vis the rules that make up that system. That’s what a process of naming-the-sin does.

Naming-the-sin happens in the story but is more importantly reinforced by the titles given to this passage. In the story it is merely the one of the discredited men who names her sin but as a title it has the authority of the Bible. This even enables us to make a 1st century story into one in which we evaluate modern actions that also correspond to the legal category of adultery. Identical logical kernels of a deed (i.e. adultery) are locatable now and then once we no longer pay any attention to the muddy detail of either the 1st century or an individual’s situation today.

I don’t think the Jesus of this story buys into this notion of sin as the context-less kernel of a deed. When all the men have retreated Jesus refuses to condemn the woman and he bids her to go “sin no more”. We can choose to hear in Jesus’ answer that he had a perfect, miraculous, insight into the woman’s broader circumstances. We could speculate that Jesus knew exactly what the woman’s act of adultery meant in her story – maybe she was part victim and part sinner and both she and Jesus knew how those parts combined. Thus when Jesus says to “sin no more” he and she knew exactly what he is referring to; perhaps even some sin other than adultery.

However it’s also possible that Jesus says what he says in this passage from ignorance of the woman’s situation. Jesus knows she’s done something these men call adultery but perhaps the why and the how and the whole context of that is as unknown to Jesus as it is to us. Does her husband spend most of his time with his first wife and family? Has she succumbed to another’s attention in order to put food in her children’s mouths? Or to feel something good for herself in a community where she is mocked as if a concubine? Jesus won’t condemn her from ignorance but still asks her, in a general way, to live a holy life.

As interesting as this speculation might be if this story leaves us with merely speculation then we can say it’s not a very good teaching tool. It’s too vague. It doesn’t really tell us anything about adultery. That however is because, thanks to the title, we have been misled. This is not a story about adultery at all – the sin in this story is something else entirely.

It’s very easy in white middle-class Australia to completely minimize what stoning is. It is the brutal public murdering of a person. In contemporary Iran this practice continues. Women are buried up to their neck and stones thrown at their head until they are dead.

Stoning is a torturously slow way to execute someone, however there is another reason why it might have developed. No single stone can be large enough to kill a person in one or two blows. This shares the responsibility for the murder amongst the mob. In a way, all modern executions by the state do the same thing. They diffuse responsibility so that nobody is considered a murderer. But someone is still killed and dies outside of their community.

This is the action that these men propose.

In the first century, precisely because it was understood to be ordered by God, stoning was a part of the Jewish legal system. This passage is not the only time it is mentioned in the Christian bible. The apostle Paul states that he participated in stoning a Christian before he converted to Christianity himself. However it also seems that doubts existed in Jesus’ time as to the legitimacy of capital punishment. There is a record of rabbinical debate in the first and second centuries known as the Mishnah. In the Mishnah one Jewish teacher is cited as describing as “destructive” any Sanhedrin (Jewish Temple Court) that executes a single person in seven years. Another says that such a Sanhedrin is destructive if a single person is executed in seventy years. Over the next two to five centuries complicated requirements will be developed within Rabbinical Judaism to effectively make the death penalty impossible to impose.

This debate is the context in which this story belongs. It is the sole reason why “the scribes and Pharisees brought unto Him a woman taken in adultery” rather than just stone her. The same sort of exchange occurs in other passages in the bible where Jewish scholars test Jesus for where he stands on other debates of their age. When Jesus is asked about divorce (Mathew 19: 1-10) it is also a question that divided the schools of two major Jewish teachers (Hillel and Shammai). When Jesus is questioned whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans (Matthew 22:15-22) that was a particularly divisive issue in his time and his answer could have put him between the zealots and the authorities. In all these cases (including John 8:1-11) Jesus’ answer is a rhetorical dodge that opens up alternative conceptual spaces to what readers might have imagined.

We can read these interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees in one of two ways. Perhaps these are accurate records of events. In which case the questioners of Jesus would have imagined that whatever answer Jesus gave would have placed him in one camp or another and alienated him from their opposite. That’s a very plausible political tactic. It drags Jesus into disputes between two other schools and reduces Jesus to a commentator on their positions. Cynically they might have been attempting to split Jesus own followers or expose him to ire and ridicule. In John 8:1-11 that seems to be expressed in the bible verse, “This they said testing Him that they might have cause to accuse Him”. Alternatively as Jesus was teaching at the temple they may have been trying to gain his support for their own position.

We can also see this as a story concocted to show a Christian position on these issues. This is not an unusual way to write history in ancient times. Ancient speeches could be inventions by historians in the style of the speaker. This scene seems to be a little too neat to me to be an actual event. Both the men and the woman go from and to nowhere else in the gospel narratives.  The “Pericope de Adultera” is also almost definitely not an original part of John’s Gospel. It appears in none of the earliest copies still in existence and is ignored in important biblical commentaries up to the fourth century. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t recorded elsewhere but we don’t have those records. It does raise doubts as to whether there ever was an actual woman charged with adultery at Jesus’ mercy.

Whether this story is a record or a concoction however the point of the story is to show Jesus’ response to the requirement under Mosaic Law to stone people and the debates of Biblical times about that issue. For that reason the passage ought to be retitled if it’s going to be titled at all. It could be called Jesus and Capital Punishment, though I like Jesus and the Murderous Men myself. “The Adulterous Woman” misses the point.

I also disagree with attempts to make the story more relevant to middle class Australian choices by broadening what is understood as the men’s behaviour to include all negative comment or judgment. “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone” is not the same as “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. Only the second refers to metaphorical stones. In the first there are issues of violence and the sanctity of life. In the first there is also the institutional power held by some over the lives of others. Jesus is expected to take a place in that circle of power as a fellow man and teacher but he doesn’t.

If you really are so removed from the type of violence depicted that the story bears no direct relevance to you (a claim that mightn’t survive scrutiny) then I think it’s still best to keep the stories original intent clear. As a second step of interpretation you can contemplate how its principles, for example that a life is only God’s to take, might apply to you in other ways. Changing stories in order to “middle – class” the gospel, produces a Jesus who came to save the “worried well” from their malaise. That removes any challenge to the perspective of the worried well.  Maybe the hardest part of the gospel for us privileged Australians to swallow could be that it isn’t always about our priorities.

Having outlined what question I think John 8:1-11 is about I’m not actually going to say what I think is the teaching in this passage.  Jesus answer is genuinely a complex and intriguing one that I am still pondering. I encourage you to ponder John 8:1-11 too. I merely hope I’ve refocused your attention to what I feel confident the story is about. It’s not the woman’s alleged adultery.

Further reading:

On Marriage in Judaism in Jesus day;

On Capital Punishment in 1st Century Judaism and it’s evolution;

On the scriptural authenticity of this passage;

On the teaching of this passage;

…and your own comments below.