[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:
8 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 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. 7 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.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 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?
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?