ON THE TRAIL OF A GOOD STORY,
Ciphers in the Sand, (2000).
by J. Martin C. Scott
A careful read will show a surprising amount of evidence in support of the genuineness of John 8:1-11, even though Mr. Scott attempts repeatedly to interpret this evidence as supporting a theory of "intelligent copyists" who cleverly added and edited the passage to make it appear "Johannine". What is this, except an admission that the passage indeed has multiple "Johannine" features, all evidence of its authenticity.
The Purpose of the 'Mount of Olives' Reference
Jesus has escaped the grasp of his opponents once more and, for the only time in Johannine story, spends the evening on the Mount of Olives. The geographical detail (8.1) is without exception seen by commentators as a point of disjuncture, and one of the reasons for the story finding a home after Lk. 21.38, which bears a number of similarities to Jn 8.1-2.
From a narrative perspective, this misses a crucial intertextual link, which binds the story closely to Jesus prior words concerning ‘living water’ in Jn 7.37-39.
It is important to note that the Johannine account does not, in fact, use the same expression for ‘Mount of Olives’ which is found in Lk. 21.37 (το ορος το καλουμενον Ελαιων), but instead uses the form found in LXX text of Zech. 14.4: (το ορος των ελαιων).
This text in Zechariah is one of those that offer an echo of the theme of ‘living waters’ (Zech. 14.8;Jn 7.38). 7 As a prophecy of eschatological judgement, if an echo of the Zechariah text is heard in Jn 8.1, it provides both a link back to Jesus’ preceding speech (‘living water’) and a perfect backdrop for what is to follow (judgement theme) in the Johannine context.
It is from this place of judgement that Jesus returns to be tested in judgement at dawn the next day (8.2). It is to the environs of the Temple that he once more comes, alerting the reader to the potential for entrapment, given the immediately preceding plotting of his opponents and the role of the Temple police in it. As so often in the Johannine narrative, many people are present to hear Jesus’ wisdom, but crucially also to witness the events which follow in the unfolding drama.
The life-giving Word is interrupted in mid-flow by the merchants of death (8.3), who arrive abruptly on the scene, taking centre stage while the crowd appears for the moment at least to melt into the background.
The Pharisees are joined here uniquely in the Johannine narrative by the scribes. Although difficult to see from our commonly used Greek texts, it is notable that some manuscripts read ‘chief priests’ instead of ‘scribes’ here, which indicates that at least some copyists were alert to the nuances of Johannine language and sought to align it to the more familiar pattern found at Jn 7.32. 8
The Woman as Pawn in a Deadly Game
The drama really begins to unfold with the announcement of purpose of Jesus’ opponents appearance: they bring a woman with them who they claim has been caught in adultery. The description is startling as she is thrust into the centre of the picture. As Gail O’Day describes it:
The reader here may recall an earlier story in the Fourth Gospel in which an unnamed woman is, at least implicitly, accused of sexual license (Jn 4.16-18, the Samaritan woman). There the encounter with Jesus started a process of discovery by which the Samaritan woman entered into new faith and performed the task of true discipleship by calling others of her own people to encounter with Jesus. 9‘She is an object on display, given no name, no voice, no identity apart from that for which she stands accused’ (1992: 632).
The Sinister Intent Behind the 'Game'
This image also reminds us of the reality for the woman brought before Jesus: she is on trial for her life. Yet the reader becomes increasingly aware that the trial is not about any form of justice, but is a put-up job.
First, if the woman was truly guilty of adultery, as the next verse tries to confirm, what need would there be to consult Jesus, for whose judgement his opponents to this point have shown only contempt (7.12, 15, 20, 47-49)?
Second, even the most obtuse of readers recognizes that it takes more than one person to commit adultery – yet only a woman is brought to Jesus.
Third, the following verses show that Jesus is being placed in an impossible situation with regard to making a judgement, having to contradict the letter of either the Jewish or the Roman law.
The Pharisees appear to approach Jesus with a measure of respect when they address him as ‘Teacher’ (διδασκαλος, 8.4). This may be evoked by the earlier description of his position, seated on the ground in the traditional manner of a rabbi with his disciples around him (8.2).
Brown sees this as another link with Synoptic style (1966: 333), but it is in fact the most common way of addressing Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, and a title which the Johannine Jesus himself later acknowledges as an accurate description (Jn 13.13, 14) (Scott 1992: 152).
The Ambiguity of the Circumstances in the Johannine Context
A significant narrative ‘gap’ occurs at this point. We hear that the woman was caught in the very act of adultery, but we are not told whether she has already been tried and sentenced or whether Jesus is being sought out as the ‘judge’ in a highly irregular court scene.
Although Schnackenburg, after a whole page of discussion, concludes with some justification that ‘the story itself shows no interest in the question’ (1980: 164), it nonetheless remains an important interpretative crux for the narrative reader.
Is Jesus being placed in the formal position of ‘judge’ by the Pharisees, or is he being, as it were, consulted in passing as the woman is taken already to her place of execution?
The narrative setting into which the story has been placed by the copyists makes the former choice compelling, given the direct relationship which emerges on either side with Jn 7.24 and 8.15. The idea that, in addressing Jesus as ‘Teacher’, the Pharisees are ‘in effect submitting the case to him for decision’ (Schnackenburg 1980: 164), is attractive: the tone is set for what follows by alluding to Jesus as judge.
The Internal Focus of the Story is Hypocrisy, not Adultery
The designation of the crime as ‘adultery’ (μοιχεια) raises a number of issues for a narrative reading. Much of the discussion among historical critics has centered on the nature of the crime, the legality of the accusation in terms of proper witnesses and the martial status of the woman. 10 Again the text reveals nothing of any certainty here, even though the weight of argument seems to favour seeing her as a married woman.
A significant aspect of the way in which the story is told is the uncovering of the hypocrisy of the woman’s accusers, so the suggestion that she is being used as a pawn in a deadly game in which the rules are being flouted sits well with the overall aim of the account. This would suggest that, whatever the legal niceties of the case, which Derrett (1963-64) is at pains to uncover, justice under the law is neither sought nor required by the accusers.
In the light of this, the theme of adultery takes on a different aspect within the Johannine narrative as a whole. It has long been noted that irony is a common technique employed by the Fourth Evangelist (Duke 1985) and this text fits the literary pattern of the Gospel well in theis respect
The Harmony of the Story with the Following Narrative
As George Brooke has pointed out (1988: 107), there is a strong linguistic connection in the LXX between the two terms μοιχεια and πορνεια, the latter of which is used to describe Jesus’ opponents in Jn 8.41.
Whether or not the copyist saw this connection in placing the story where it now appears in the Fourth Gospel, 11 the close conjunction of the words now offers such a literary link to be made by the reader. The irony now lies in the fact that Jesus’ opponents, who seek to condemn another of adultery, themselves come under such suspicion and innuendo within a matter of a few verses!
Adultery as Metaphor for Apostacy
Adultery is used frequently in the Hebrew scriptures, especially in the prophetic materials, 12 as a metaphor for apostasy – turning away from the true God. This is precisely what the Fourth Gospel portrays the opponents of Jesus as doing in rejecting his message of truth for their own ‘lies’ (Jn 8.55).
What irony, then, that those who seek to trap Jesus through complicity in ‘subverting’ the letter of the law on adultery, should themselves end up under accusation of the same charge. That the narrative does infer their guilt here is strengthended by another observation which Brooke makes regarding the use of language in Jn 8.44. Here the word επιθυμια appears for the only time in the Gospel. Brooke connects it to the use of the word to translate the subject of the tenth commandment (‘You shall not covet’) in both of the LXX versions of the Decalogue (Exod. 20,17; Deut. 5.21). He concludes:
In reading the unfolding narrative of John’s Gospel, then, the insertion of the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery at the end of ch. 7 serves to underline the hypocrisy of Jesus’ opponents in the following dialogue. But it has a still wider connection to the theme of apostasy by means of yet another vital intertextual allusion: namely, to the figure of Sophia in Israel’s wisdom literature."Since the first object of covetousness in the prohibition in the LXX is ‘your neighbour’s wife’, it is perhaps not surprising to find an allusion to this commandment, the tenth, as the dialogue develops from the subject of adultery" (1988: 107).
Sophia and the Adultress in Wisdom Literature
The comparison between the adulteress, or prostitute and Sophia is a well-worked theme in Proverbs 1-9. The whole image of God’s invitation to humanity, in the form of Sophia as the woman who invites ‘men’ to receive her gifts, functions successfully because it has a perfect foil in the image of the immoral woman who seeks to turn them away from God. This latter figure surely represents apostasy in the Wisdom tradition. Brooke also refers to the Wisdom literature, pointing to the identification of Sophia with Torah in Sir. 24.23 (1988: 107). To reject Sophia is to abandon the law, whose very purpose is to keep ‘men’ from seductive powers of the adulteress (Prov. 6.23-29).
Since the Fourth Gospel contains a sophisticated leitmotif of Jesus as the embodiment of Wisdom over against the idea that she is contained in the Torah, 13 the rejection of Jesus Sophia by his opponents in John 8 is an indication precisely of their apostasy.
The huge irony which the insertion of a story concerning adultery throws up is that their supposed defence of the Torah is calculated at the expense of the true embodiment of Wisdom, Jesus Sophia. In the Johannine terms, the attempt to entrap Jesus through Torah is the ultimate apostasy, since it puts false wisdom in the place of true Wisdom.
Jesus versus Moses
The reference to Moses (8.5) recalls the words of the Johannine Prologue (1.17), where a direct comparison is made between Jesus and the lawgiver. Since at that point the contrast is made between law on the one hand and grace and truth on the other, the reader is already prepared for the potentiality of a merciful judgement from Jesus. In the story of the quite deliberate healing of a man on the sabbath (5.1-18), the Johannine Jesus has also demonstrated before that he is more than willing to flout the letter of the law to engage in the merciful work of God.
When the story is placed into the context of John 7-8, the eventual outcome is less surprising in the light of what has gone before. Barrett notes that grammatically speaking the word ‘you’ () is placed ‘in a position of emphasis, inviting Jesus to set himself against Moses’ (1978: 591). He duly takes up the challenge!
Explicit Challenge to Both Roman and Jewish Legal Codes
Although the story seems primarily concerned with the issue of Jesus’ attitude to the Jewish law, on the level of the wider narrative a double dilemma is a set up for Jesus in this challenge. On the one hand, if he refuses to condemn the woman to death, he will be accused of rejecting the authority of Moses and the Torah.
Of course, the Johannine Jesus has already indicated his claim to superiority over Moses in a prior speech (5.46) and will do so again in the following dialogue (8.58), but the insertion of this story heightens the drama by appearing to make him explicitly override a legal prescription.
On the other hand, if he accepts the verdict and allows the woman to be stoned, he not only subverts the portrayal of his role as the very embodiment of grace and truth (1.14), but also stands in potential conflict with the authority of the Roman law.
Even if we cannot be certain whether the saying in Jn 18.31 was an accurate description of the functioning of Roman rule in Palesine at the time of Jesus, it is quite clear that on the level of a narrative reading, this conflict potentially exists for the Johannine Jesus.
The narrator interrupts the flow of the story at this point (8.6) to make explicit to the reader what has all along appeared to be the case: the woman is merely the bait in a plot to catch a bigger fish – Jesus. Although this aside does not appear in all manuscripts and is considered secondary by such a careful commentator as Becker, it fits well with Johannine style, as Johnson (1966) has pointed out. 14
The late addition of this statement 15 may again reflect the activity of knowledgeable scribes, who adjusted its style to echo Johannine usage. However much the aside now places the focus on the plot against Jesus, the reader remains conscious that it is the woman who lies in most immediate danger of death.
Writing in the Earth
Jesus responds by bending down and writing with his finger on the ground. Perhaps predictably, this mentioned of ciphers in the sand, with its twin in v.8, has been the subject of intense speculation by historical critics, who advance the claims of a variety of possible subjects.
Some commentators assume that Jesus must have written out a text, which eventually pricks the consciences of the accusers. Others think he makes a more general accusation, for example by writing down the sins of his opponents. Yet others see it more in the form of a symbolic action, perhaps evocative of a particular text like Jer. 17.13:
Among the texts advanced as possible subjects for Jesus’ scribbling, Derrett is confident in identifying consecutively Exod. 23.1b and 23.7. This reflects his opinion that Jesus is challenging the legality of their witness and the honesty of their motives in bringing the charge (1963-64: 16-25).‘Those who have turned away from you will be written in the dust, because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water’.
Derret goes so far as to suggest that, from his position of crouching down, Jesus could only have written some 12 Hebrew characters – which miraculously coincides with the texts he quotes! Ingenious though this is, it is completely speculative and, as Brown comments, ‘if the matter were of major importance, the content of the writing would have been reported’ (Brown 1966:334).
Brown’s own conclusion about the action is untypically lacking in imagination. He thinks that Jesus is simply taking time out ‘doodling on the ground’ in order to contain his anger and revulsion (1966: 334). Even if this were the reason for the first such action, it does not explain the second occurrence.
Strangely, too, the exhaustive treatment of Becker is somewhat banal at this point, since he sees the action of Jesus as merely an insertion by the narrator to offer a pause in the controversy dialogue (1963: 87).
In his commentary on the text he calls it a ‘novelistic-decorative detail’ (1979: 283), rather ignoring the point, taken up by Schondorf, that the double appearance of the motif in such a short text indicates a significant emphasis on it by the writer (Schondorf 1996: 92). 16
Various Explanations of the Writing
Schondorf himself is almost triumphant in his identification of the significance of Exod. 31.18, the closing verse of the giving of the law on Siani, with its telling phrase, ‘the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God’. He concludes: ‘Jesus’ finger would be, in fact is the finger of God, which writes down the divine Law and thereby expresses his opinion regarding sin’ (1996: 92; my translation and emphasis).
As an example of intertextual echo around the word ‘finger’ this would make some sense, but as a historical judgement it could scarcely justify Schondorf’s optimism.
In his analysis of the background to the text, Manson cites yet another possible approach to defining the content of the writing. He thinks it may well reflect the practice of the Roman courts, where the judge would first of all write out the sentence before delivering it to the accused (1952-53: 255-56).
This might work with the first instance, the sentence being that announced in v. 7, but in terms of the unfolding of the narrative, the second occurrence, which would by Manson’s analysis be the words of Jesus to the woman in v. 11, already anticipates the departure of the accusers in v. 9.
Beasly-Murray also rightly cautions against reading wider Roman practice into the Palestinian context (1986: 146). 17
Luise Schottroff’s comment probably contains more insight on the realities of the situation, however, when she says:
Schottroff rightly points to the assumption in both the narrative world of the text and the harsh world of the Pax Romana, that the woman is at best a disposable commodity.‘I do not believe that Rome’s representatives, especially the prefect in Caesarea, would have regarded a woman’s execution by stoning as a trespass against Rome’s sole jurisdiction over capital punishment’ (1995: 184).
Writing Issue is Left Open...___________________________________________
Given this variety of suggestions from those approaching the text from a historical perspective, it is clear that there can be no simple single solution to the riddle of either its content or symbolism. From a narrative perspective, the action of Jesus presents a whole range of imagery for the reader open to its intertextuality.
There is no question that Jer. 17.13 makes a compelling narrative link both with the internal discussion of the pericope (the apostasy theme noted above) and with the surrounding material in the text’s present location in the Fourth Gospel.
Jeremiah’s reference to the ‘spring of living water’ has often been seen as a background to Jn. 7.38. Then on the wider internal level of the Johannine narrative, the story would make a double connection to that of the Samaritan woman through the presence of a woman considered of dubious character and the identification of Jesus either verbally or symbolically as ‘living water’ (see Jn 4.12).
7. This text in Zechariah also connects with this section of John by reference to the Feast of Tabernacles (Zech. 14:16). Jn 2.16 also alludes to Zech. 14:21, indicating the measure to which this text was known and reflected upon by early Christians.
8. Brown 1966: 333. This reading is not evident from the critical apparatus of the Nestle-Aland 27th edition. The edition by C. Tischendorf, Novum Testamentum Graece (1869), however, lists four miniscules which contain the reading 'chief priests'. It is significant insofar as it indicates the care taken by some copyists in inserting material in a manner sensitive to context.
9. See Scott 1992: 184-98.
10. See Blinzler (1957-58: 32-47); Derrett (1963-64); Becker (1963: 165-69).
11. Brooke (1988: 107) suggests that this was the case, and I see no good reason to doubt the ability of an intelligent copyist in making this connection.
12. For details of the main texts, see Brooke (1988: 107).
13. See Scott (1992: 105-106). The comparison begins in Jn 1:17 and continues throughout the Gospel.
14. See also Trites (1974: 147-46).
15. We should note here the astonishing interpretation of Young (1995). He sees the addition of this verse to the tradition as an indicator of a quite different purpose in the original form of the story. Far from being a tale which sought to denigrate the Pharisees, he argues that the text is really about an attempt by the Pharisees to find a way to save the woman from the awful sentence of the law. In the young Rabbi Jesus they find an interpreter who enables them to achieve this end: "They wanted to saver her, and Jesus helped them' (1995: 70). Suffice it to say that only a male commentator was ever likely to think that one up!
16. Also note Schnackenburg (1980: 165-66).
17. See also Schnackenburg (1980: 165).