Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The woman caught in adultery

Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Guercino, 1621 (Dulwich Picture Gallery).
Apparently Prof Richard Dawkins likes the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.
[Richard Dawkins] made the broad and uncontroversial point that the Bible includes passages both laudable and vile. As an example of the former and a great teaching he thought most people in the room would immediately get behind, he gave the Gospel injunction, ‘he that is without sin, cast the first stone’.

Alex Gabriel is a bit baffled by this:
Of course literal stonings are undesirable, and of course reacting to transgressions overharshly is worth discouraging. But the point of what Jesus says is, he is without sin. Not being subject to paternally transmitted original sin, Jesus is the only completely sinless human being and was (to commandeer a phrase) born that way. This is what gives him moral authority, as the son of God, over the woman; it’s why only he gets to absolve her sins. When he tells the crowd, ‘You are not without sin’, he is telling them they don’t get to judge her.
Here's the story from the English Standard Version:
but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]
Now, we could view Jesus entirely as a fictional or mythological character presented by the gospel authors - there is good reason to think that he acquired several legends from other mythological characters, in much the same way as King Arthur and Robin Hood did. Certainly the virgin birth story is as old as the hills, and was told about several Middle Eastern vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, etc). The same goes for the story of the resurrection.

Or we could view him as a real person who has been at least partially misrepresentedby the gospel authors.

The mainstream Christian view is of course that he was the Son of God, in which context Alex's interpretation may well be correct.

Whether we view him entirely as a fictional character or as a real person at least partly misrepresented by the gospel authors, there are two questions we could ask here:
  • What does Jesus mean by "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” and "Neither do I condemn you"?
  • What does the gospel author think he meant?
Alex argues that Jesus chooses not to condemn the woman because he believes that he has the authority to forgive her because he is without sin, because he is the son of God. Now, the Gospel of John comes from a different Christian tradition than the other three gospels; it is a gospel of signs and wonders, highly symbolic and allegorical, and constantly emphasising the author's belief that Jesus was the Messiah.  But remember, in Hebrew tradition, 'messiah' (anointed one of God) and 'son of God' meant two different things. The gods of other nations were sometimes referred to as the sons of God, and so was Satan (see the Book of Job); and Jesus never referred to himself as the Son of God, only as the Son of Man (which means something like "everyman" or "average bloke").  Not all early Christians believed that Jesus was part of the Godhead ("very God of very God" as Orthodox Christian liturgy puts it). Some were Adoptionists (they believed that God adopted Jesus as his son when he was baptised in the River Jordan); others were Arians, who believed that Jesus was conceived by the union of God and Mary, but that he had not co-existed with God from the beginning of time). There was a bewildering variety of opinions on this, some of which still survive: the Monotheletes, the Monophysites, Diaphysites, and all manner of variations. So the author of the gospel may not have thought that Jesus was part of the Godhead, though he or she did think that he was the Messiah and the Son of God - the doctrine of the Trinity was not finally settled till the Council of Nicaea in 352 CE, and the doctrine of Christ's nature was not settled till the Council of Chalcedony in 451 CE.


Why do I care about this if I think Jesus may well have been a fictional character? Because I like the story, and I think it's important to be able to interpret stories in a poetic and flexible way, but not to infer the author's intentions from later interpretations.



So here is my interpretation of the story.


Jesus comes (as a rabbi among other rabbis) to the temple. He is teaching the people (as a popular rabbi would) when the woman taken in adultery is brought to him. The punishment for her "crime" is a horrible, slow and painful death. Jesus points out that the people who want to kill her for it are also guilty of some misdemeanour or other. The story is silent on whether Jesus thinks he himself is without sin - perhaps the reader is meant to infer that, but it is not explicitly stated. The point of the story is that we should show mercy and not excessively punish people for their bad behaviour, because we have also behaved badly. It's about showing empathy to others.

When Jesus says "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” and "Neither do I condemn you", I do not think that he's claiming to be without sin himself - that is a later doctrinal position.


OK, so elsewhere Jesus is reported as having said "Therefore be ye merciful, even as your Father in heaven is merciful" and "Judge not, that ye be not judged". But as far as I can recall, Jesus never arrogates to himself the right to judge. This power is attributed to him later by the Book of Acts and the Book of Revelations.


In fact, Jesus repeatedly extends sonship of God to humans generally. He says "I have said, ye are gods" and refers to God the Father as the father of everyone, not just his own father. So I don't think that Alex's interpretation is justified either by the text, or by the state of Christian theology when the text was written. It may well be the view of later theologians, but that is another issue.


So I think Richard Dawkins is right to like the story. He likes it because it's about being reasonable and empathic, tempering justice with mercy, and taking all factors into consideration, and not being judgmental and self-righteous.

What do you think the story means?

11 comments:

Joseph said...

I am not hugely enamoured with the Gospel of John and view it as quite unreliable in general. This story however does fit the general picture of Jesus that is painted in all the Gospels. I agree with you that the text is not stating (and barely even implying) that only Jesus has the right to judge. If "he who is without sin cast the first stone" was taken simply then all forms of human justice and punishment would be prohibited by Jesus, as we all sin! And yet Jesus was a follower of Jewish law which does have punishments and judgements against certain sins and crimes. This particular case seems to be a theoretical case. The scribes and Pharisees were not about to stone her (and according to Jewish law they would not have in all likelihood been legally entitled to do so) but were testing Jesus as to what his attitude to this woman was. Jesus true to form, teaches us not to judge others harshly, but to remember our own sins before judging others for theirs etc. Not to make ourselves feel righteous by focusing on the transgressions of others. It is a good lesson for us to learn, especially in our "Jeremy Kyle" generation that feels good watching the misdemeanours and mistakes of others.

Angela @ liveunitarianly.com said...

I've heard it presented as the Pharisees trying to trick Jesus. And he cleverly gets out of it.

Which he needs to do because of all that 'turn the other cheek' malarkey. You can't do that and stone a woman for adultery. Yet you must obey the law.

Archdruid Eileen said...

Thanks for your thoughts and inspiration on this one. Here's my thoughts (mirrored at "Crawley")

When I read it, I wonder where the men are in the story. Not the Pharisees, the ones who rush to judge. The men. If the woman's an adulteress, where's the husband? If he's on the scene he's not considered worthy of notice. And how about the adulterer? Where's the boyfriend? Is he more powerful - is he the boss who's been knocking off the underling's wife? Is that why the husband's not around - told to keep back if he wants to keep his job? Or did the boyfriend shin off down a drainpipe with his toga round his ankles as the baying mob of stoners came rushing in the front?

We're not told. The woman's on her own in this scene. The act of adultery is - remarkably, considering - one of which only she is considered to be guilty. She's the centre of attention, the bait in the trap, the test case. She's not a human being - she's the set of conditions with which to test Jesus. She's the fulcrum of the see-saw that can go one of two ways - agree she should be stoned and set yourself against the Romans, agree she shouldn't and set yourself against Moses.

Jesus bends down and writes. What's he writing? We don't know. We're not told. Maybe it doesn't matter,. Because the attention's off her now - it's on him. He creates a pause; a point. And then he turns the attention on them. If you've got no sin - then you stone her.

I don't think it matters whether Jesus is sinless or not, in this instance. He could have been the biggest fornicator, drunkard, thief and cheat in the eastern Med and he'd still have been in the right. They were pointing the finger at the woman - on the principle that the woman pays. And he's pointed that writing finger right at their hearts. The scene disperses, the focus is off, and it's just Jesus and the woman - and, presumably, the husband she's got to go back to. Well, that much at least is her problem, and his. But it's not theirs.

Robert Brenchley said...

It's a late addition to the Gospel; not all manuscripts have it, and it's often bracketed for that reason. John was the last of the canonical Gospels to be written, right at the end of the 1st Century, so the story is likely to be from around the early 2nd Century. At around that time, the Rabbis were debating this very point, and the answer they came up with was similar. Stoning adulterous woman was all right in times past, since men used to be pure. But these days they're unworthy, so the punishment ought not to be used. John's Gospel comes from a group of Jewish followers of Jesus, who said the same thing, but in a different way. Rather than giving a legal opinion, they told a story, and put in Jesus' mouth to give it authority.

Yewtree said...

LOVE your interpretation, Archdruid Eileen! It did cross my mind today to wonder what Jesus was writing on the ground (good dramatic ploy though) and in the past I have wondered what happened to the woman's lover, and the husband, and how the woman was discovered in flagrante delicto.

I don;t think it matters whether this gospel is late, unreliable, or whatever, because it doesn't matter whether Jesus is fictional or fictionalised.

It does matter who the community were who found this story of value, so the idea that the community that produced the gospel of John were more Jewish than other Christians is relevant - though since there are a lot of hostile references to Jews in this gospel, that seems odd.

Given the emphasis in this gospel on the women in the story, it has been suggested that it was written by a woman. It is also a highly symbolic and rather mystical gospel.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

What he says to them is, put positively, "Go and do it, but if you do it you have also sinned". They can't therefore do it, because to do it suggests they are without sin. But as a healer and preparer and with the example set he doesn't condemn her, but he does say sin no more. So she is ready to enter the Kingdom (can't be condemned therefore); the others though had walked off and the older senior ones first (thus a comment on sin and the law of reversals that Jesus proclaimed applied to her and them).

RevDan said...

"When Jesus says "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” and "Neither do I condemn you", I do not think that he's claiming to be without sin himself - that is a later doctrinal position."

Thanks Yvonne, good piece...I agree he does not appear to be claiming he is without sin. This seems open to interpretation. Of course he would not be talking about original sin in the way traditional Christianity has viewed it, surely this developed from Augustine's writings...

This is an interesting parallel to one element of the story...

"Learning to Write in the Sand"

Long ago in Ancient Persia there lived two merchant traders, Mussa and Nagib, who set out together in a caravan with camels, horses and servants. They headed into the mountains of Northern Persia and soon came to a river that was swift flowing, muddy and dangerous to cross.

Mussa being the younger offered to go first. He started across the river holding a rope to guide the rest of the caravan. Partway across he stumbled, lost his footing fell into the swirling waters and dropped the rope. Nagib did not hesitate. Immediately he jumped into the river and was able to reach his friend and pull him to the shore.

What do you think Mussa did then? He called his servants to him and said, "I want you to carve my words into the rock of these cliffs here beside the river. That afternoon and evening his servants chiseled while others made camp. They wrote, "Wanderer, in this place, Nagib heroically saved the life of his friend, Mussa."

The merchants travelled for many months and eventually returned to this same river crossing with loads of tea and silk. This time the water level was lower so the crossing was easy. Mussa and Nagib sat and talked by the stone cliff where Nagib's heroism had been recorded.

Allah only knows what caused them to disagree, but they soon got into an argument. They quarreled; and in a fit of anger, Nagib struck Mussa.

What do you think Mussa did then? He picked up a stick. With it he wrote in the sand by the river. "Wanderer, in this place, in a
trivial argument, Nagib broke the heart of his friend Mussa."

His servants came up to him asking, "Master Mussa, do you not want us to carve your words in the rock?"

To this Mussa replied, "I hope to forget this argument before the wind and water erase my words from the sand."

If you would be a happy person, you will learn what things to carve in stone and what to write in the sand.

Wade said...

The comparison with King Arthur is a brilliant insight: a real and Christian king of Somerset who won a spectacular battle victory (Badon) and brought 60 years' peace to Britain, to whose name lots of other stories later accrued. Maybe Robert Brenchley is right, then, and this story was attached to Jesus's name to give it authority rather than being his originally. We don't know and I suggest it's not too important.

What is on point is that in the story Jesus does not cast a stone, so he is not claiming here to be without sin. He is expressing in this example the virtue of non-hypocrisy. The principle is similar to "pull out the plank in your own eye first and then you'll see clearly to pull out the speck in someone else's eye".

Yewtree said...

I can't claim credit for the King Arthur insight - that must go to Richard Carrier, an atheist who is writing a book about the historicity of Jesus.

Danny, thanks for that sand & rock story - it throws an interesting sidelight on this story.

atimetorend said...

I like that it was a late addition to the text, that it shows how people worked to moderate the old testament message of the text over time. I wrote about that a bit along with a related topic -here-.

I agree with your point, I like when people have the freedom to re-interpret stories of the bible in positive ways. As long as they are not doing so in order to provide support for a kind of dogmatism / inerrant-ism that says it didn't need to be re-interpreted in the first place.

berenike said...

John 5,22, aproposBut as far as I can recall, Jesus never arrogates to himself the right to judge.