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.


  1. Hey Tony,
    I like lots about this blog and I agree that this story is not about Jesus addressing whether or not adultery is a sin (he does that clear enough in other passages like Matthew 5:27-28, Matthew 15:19 & Matthew 19:18). I also agree that this story is poorly titled and puts all the focus on Jesus and the woman without taking in to consideration the "murderous men" as you call them. I disagree, however with your position that: "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."

    You in fact do what you critique the "namers" of this passage of doing. By calling it "Jesus and the murderous men" you are shaping the story to be about the sin of murder and are defining the crowd by their gender ("men"). In doing so, you miss how the text actually describes them, and so miss what I believe the actual point of the passage is about.

    The text says that the crowd was made up of "the scribes and Pharisees". These were those who understood the the Law of Moses and believed that the biggest problem that faced the Jewish people were those that broke it. They had seen on many occasions Jesus claim the same authority as the Law and even on occasions he seemed to change it. This was a huge threat to them and their understanding of the relationship between Israel and God. They believed that until the law was kept properly, God would not save them from the oppression to the Romans. Jesus' claim to be the Messiah and yet his seeming disregard for God's law was a clear oxymoron to them. So to undermine Jesus' claims about himself, they constantly tried to test Jesus on his position about the law.

    (...continued below)

  2. This is made clear in verse 6: "This they said testing Him, that they might have cause to accuse Him." The issue here is not murder. They are not "murderous men" - they are "accusing Pharisees". In fact the word "accuse" is in the passage twice. Once to express how they were condemning the woman (v 10) and once to their true intention of bringing the woman forward in the first place. Their motive wasn't about adultery. Their motive wasn't about murder. Their motive was about accusation. Their motive was about Jesus.

    And that's the big issue you miss. Jesus. That's what this and pretty much all the gospel stories are about. Who is Jesus? Is he the Messiah? What is the kingdom of God that he is establishing? What is his mission? What is his message? What is his authority?

    In your blog you raise the question about whether this story is "true" or not and whether it was ever meant to be originally included in the gospel story. I don't know enough about any scholarly arguments for or against, but even if I conceded that this is a made up story that was placed in John's gospel years after John was dead and gone, I would still say that the context gives it its meaning.

    The person/s who put this story in John's gospel put it in a very curious spot that should not be ignored. The chapter before this one (chapter 7) is all about who Jesus is, what is his authority and how does he relate to the law. The chapter end with the Pharisees mocking the crowds for believing in Jesus: "Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

    Then in the stories right after 8:1-11, we have the same issues being raised. The Pharisees continue to test Jesus' claims to be the Messiah with whether he holds to the law. The chapter continues with Jesus accusing the Pharisees of not really being "Abraham's children" and making huge claims of himself like: "I am the light of the world.", "I am from above.", "I am not of this world.", "I have come here from God." and most amazingly, “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

    Even if this story was never meant to be in the original, it has been deliberately put in the middle of a heated debate between the Pharisees and Jesus about Jesus' identity, authority, Messiahship and relationship to the law.

    I would say, and I think the text backs it up, that this story has nothing to do with the legitimacy of the death penalty or the issue of stoning. This story is about the Pharisees once again testing Jesus and trying to undermine him.

    Jesus has come, as he says in chapter 8, to bring people from darkness into the light (v12), to have people believe in him so they don't die in their sins (v24) and to set people free from slavery to sin (v32-36). When Jesus responded to the woman without condemnation and told her to "go and sin no more" he was doing everything that he said he was here to do.

    The woman is not the main point of the story, but she is a wonderful example of the point of Jesus' mission. To bring light, freedom and forgiveness to sinners, rather than condemnation. 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, and indeed the whole point of the gospel.

  3. As for the issue of capital punishment, I'm not sure if you can get anything specific from this story. I personally don't agree with capital punishment and I would like to assume that Jesus would be against it if he was asked about the issue, but I have to be careful about not reading my opinions into a story about Jesus in order to make Jesus fit my views.

    If we look at this passage what do we really see Jesus saying?
    All he says is, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Now, I agree, that has implications about condemnation and judgement and the execution of punishment, but does it really say anything about the death penalty in particular? If they were going to flog the woman, but not kill her, would Jesus have said anything different?

    It seems Jesus point is to get the Pharisees to see their own sin, rather than be ready to condemn another sinner. This is a constant theme throughout the gospels as Jesus says he came for those who know their own need for forgiveness. He came for the "sick" not for those who think they are "healthy".

    My favourite parable of Jesus illustrates this point perfectly, as Jesus speaks of a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee condemning all those around him and believing he is better than them, and the tax collector acknowledging his sin and asking for forgiveness. This story of Jesus, the Pharisees and the woman seems to be a living demonstration of this parable.

    Jesus reminds them of their own sin and their unworthiness to condemn anyone. Jesus, on the other hand, is the only one without sin and the most beautiful moment in this story is when he relinquishes his right as the only one who could condemn her and instead shows her mercy and compassion.

    If you want to argue that Jesus is against the death penalty, I guess you could use this passage, but I definitely don't think that's the issue that Jesus is addressing. Jesus doesn't say that the punishment doesn't fit the crime. He doesn't condemn "stoning". I'm not saying he wouldn't be for the death penalty, but it's just not the issue he is addressing in this story. He's not addressing the issue of adultery. He does address the issues of murder and adultery, but not really in this story. The issue he addresses is sin and condemnation.

    He saves the woman from stoning, not by changing their view of her sinfulness, but by getting them to address their own. He saves her, not by telling them that stoning is wrong, but by telling them that they are not morally qualified to throw a stone.