Friday, October 16, 2009

Jesus and the Adulteress

The story of Jesus and the Adulteress is in John 8 and is arguably the most famous of the Jesus stories. It’s certainly my favorite.

I’m not going to quote the bible; the story is in John 8:3-11. The Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman “caught in the act of adultery” and ask him to pass judgment. They figured he’s trapped and must either condemn the woman to death or release her in violation of the Law of Moses which clearly calls for an adulteress to be stoned.

Of course Jesus is too smart for them and pronounces the famous judgment “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Obviously no one is without sin so the Pharisees and the crowd disperse. Jesus then asks the woman if anyone has condemned her and she answers no. Jesus then says “neither do I condemn you” and tells her to go and sin no more.

It’s a great story and the probability that it’s pure fiction shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it. Even if it didn’t happen, it should have.

The fact is that the story doesn’t appear in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of John and Bart Ehrman, among others, has highlighted a number of problems with the story.

If the woman was in fact “caught in the act of adultery,” where’s her male partner? Leviticus 20:10 is very clear that both the adulteress and the adulterer are to be stoned to death.

Then there is the apparent contradiction between this event and Matthew 5:17 where Jesus claims that he has come to fulfill the law and not abolish it. Yet here he is clearly stepping around the law.

Another problem is if the crowd disperses “until only Jesus was left,” who was it that heard his final conversation with the woman in order to record it?

Apologetics is the art of coming up with explanations for objections of this sort and, make no mistake about it, Christian Apologists are pretty creative and their job is actually easier than you might think. They’re not in the business of convincing the skeptics as much as they’re in the business of re-assuring the faithful.

They don’t have to come up with a probable explanation, merely a possible one. Consider the problem of who heard the conversation between Jesus and the woman. Clearly it was the apostles because they weren’t considered part of the crowd but rather an extension of Jesus. When John says “until only Jesus was left,” that really included himself and the apostles as well.

Louis de Wohl, in his novel “The Spear” developed, quite inadvertently I’m sure, a story that accounts for the first problem and perhaps the second as well.

In de Wohl’s novel the girl that would eventually be brought before Jesus is the relatively new bride of a much older and very rich merchant. She’s about 16 if I remember correctly and has led a very sheltered life. Her husband’s family views her as a threat to their inheritance and they never pass on an opportunity to criticize her to her husband. Even the servants get into the act and constantly compare her unfavorably to the deceased first wife.

Needless to say she is absolutely miserable. She’s convinced she’s worthless and a great disappointment to everyone, and especially to her husband. After all, if a woman can’t be a good wife, what else is there for her?

The household is in the process of moving to Jerusalem for Passover when they’re accosted by bandits. Several of the servants are killed and the girl is absolutely terrified when, like the 7th cavalry, a Roman patrol, led by a handsome young centurion, rides over the hill and drives off the bandits.

Talk about culture shock. The young soldier is so far beyond the experience of the young girl it’s utterly ridiculous. The soldiers ride off, the household continues its journey toward Jerusalem and the girl is left to ponder the possibility that the world may be much broader and much different than she’s been led to believe.

As it turns out the bandit attack wasn’t random. The “bandits” were actually Zealots targeting the girl’s husband specifically because of his wealth and association with the Temple Party that collaborates with the Romans.

Jerusalem at this time is a restless city and rioting breaks out in the night. The Zealots use this as cover to make another assault on the husband’s household, set fire to the house and kidnap the girl intending to hold her for ransom.

Holy coincidence Batman, but the young centurion just happens to be leading a patrol in that sector to deal with the rioting, notices the girl being dragged away and chases the kidnappers while his troops help deal with the fire.

He catches them, kills them with his gladius, using stabs of the Roman Army approved three inch depth, and rescues the girl. Unfortunately they find themselves surrounded by a hostile mob taking a dim view of a Roman killing two Jews.

The soldier manages to barricade himself and the girl into a cellar where one man can defend against a crowd. There they’re forced to spend the night together, alone, which is a major violation of a whole bunch of cultural taboos. The girl finds herself under the overwhelming assault of darkness, fear, the smell of blood and the smell of the young soldier guarding her through the night. Clearly this situation is fraught with all kinds of possibilities and I’m sure you can guess where things end up.

The next morning the two are rescued by Roman troops and members of the husband’s family. The centurion is whisked off to make his report and the girl is brought back to her husband’s house under a cloud of shame and suspicion. This is a golden opportunity for the husband’s jealous family to get rid of her.

The husband is badly shaken by the situation but offers to forgive her if she swears that nothing happened between her and the soldier. The girl, perhaps unwilling to go back to her old life after a taste of what could be, confesses to having made love to the centurion.

She is immediately divorced and dragged by her gleeful brother-in-law before the priests who recognize an opportunity to trap that thorn in their side, Jesus.

The rest you know.

The story resolves the first problem because the girl’s male partner was a Roman and not subject to the Law of Moses. The fact that they were caught together in the basement is close enough to “caught in the act.” Jesus steps around the law because of the extenuating circumstances including the misery of the girl, the situation and the overwhelming effect that the soldier was sure to have. Jesus wasn’t violating the law; he was simply tempering it with mercy.

So what was the point of all this? Nothing really, I just felt like writing something on this topic. If you really need a point, let it be how easy it is to come up with a defense of the so-called contradictions and absurdities in the bible. This is especially true if you’re not particularly concerned about little things like feasibility and rationality.

You’ll also never find me arguing that the story of Jesus and the Adulteress isn’t true. Like I said before, if it didn’t happen, it should have.

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