Eating the Apple

Eve did it. Adam did it. Now it's my turn to take a bite. Why not? Hey! It's delicious.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Adulterous Woman

One of the most popular stories in the Gospels is about the woman "taken in adultery, in the very act." [John 8:4 KJV] Jesus saves her by challenging the accusers: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." [John 8:7 KJV]

One interesting fact about this story is that it does not appear in the early versions of the Gospel of John -- it doesn't appear in John until the twelfth century. The New International Version contains this disclaimer:

The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53 - 8:11.

Furthermore, the Harper Collins Study Bible states:

On the basis of the best manuscripts and other ancient evidence, scholars generally agree that this story was not part of the Gospel of John. it may, however, be based upon early oral traditions about Jesus.

This last sentence leads to a question: If this story was, in fact, based upon an authentic early oral tradition, then why does it not appear in any of the other gospels? I conclude that this story was a fiction created after the other gospels were written down.

There are other reasons, based on the text itself, that this story is fictional. Some of these are:

1. If the woman was caught in the act of adultery, where was the man? The Law of Moses is very clear on this point:

And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. [Lev. 20:10 KJV]

Why was the adulterer not brought before Jesus for judgement? Both adulterer and adulteress should have shared the same fate. Why doesn't Jesus refer to this deficiency?

2. The wonan had a husband. Under the Law of Moses, it matters not whether the man is married or single. If a married man seduces a woman who is neither married not betrothed, that is not adultery. To have adultery the woman must be either married or betrothed. So where is the husband. One might expect that the husband would be the one to make the accusation and to demand punishment. But the husband is not present in this story.

3. When Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate, we are told:

Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death: [John 18: 31 KJV]

In other words, the Jews had to have Pilate's permission to put a man to death. So how could they put a woman to death without Pilate's permission?

4. What authority did Jesus to pass judgement on the woman? Moses was a judge, until that responsibility became too burdensome for him. Then he appointed judges. [Ex. 18] If someone is accused of a crime he should be brought before a judge:

If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked. [Deut. 25: 1 KJV]

Could Jesus have been a judge? Hardly. There is nothing in the gospels that indicates that we was a judge. The Jewish authorities would never have appointed a judge who, they thought, was undermining the law.

Thus there are four reasons for doubting the authenticity of the story; the adulterer was missing, the husband was missing, Jesus did not have the authority to judge the woman, and death sentences required the consent of the Roman authorities. I conclude that the author of the story was a Gentile, not familiar with Jewish law or customs.

Even so, the story is a brilliant piece of fiction. The author neatly solves the dilemma facing Jesus -- whether to uphold the Law of Moses or to preach forgiveness. The solution was to do both -- to say that the woman deserved to be punished but that no one had the moral right to punish her.

Joseph Campbell has said that the value of a myth is not whether it is literally true or not. The value of a myth is that it is a way for parents to pass their moral values on to their children. The author probably invented this story for two reasons. First, to celebrate the character of Jesus -- his forgiveness. And second, he hoped to inspire his audience to emulate the forgiveness of Jesus.

Jesus used parables to teach others his values. No one supposses that these parables were literally true. The author of the story of the adulteress created a parable about Jesus. We need not suppose that it is literally true in order to appreciate its value.


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