Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 5/13 Post

OK. Let's follow your agenda for a bit, starting with John 8:1-11

Who doesn't love the story? It appeals to us in a number of ways: the shift from condemnation to empathy-driven response; the confounding of wrong-headed religious authority by its challenger Jesus; the drama of the story itself; and the phrase that has become part of our culture ("Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.").

To the best of my knowledge, all major modern commentaries assume the story was added to John's Gospel. Many skip it altogether, others deal with it in footnotes or appendices, but all admit it does not quite fit John. At the same time, the story had become embedded in John long before the New Testament canon was debated and finalized. It is part of the canon, and most Christians treat it as such. That is, we assume it "belongs" in John and has something vital to say to us.

Rami, in glancing through several sources, I find few, if any, commentators allude in any way to the penalty of strangulation. Instead, they refer to Deuteronomy and assume stoning remained the penalty. Some say the Mishnah also teaches this was so. On the other hand, Christian commentators nearly always note several issues. For example, the "scribes and Pharisee" present no witnesses, as required by Mosiac law. In addition, the presumably guilty man is strangely absent. Finally, the accusers' words seem to imply that only the woman was to be held accountable.

Obviously, such matters do not square well with first century practice. I do not think the story teller (or inserter) cared much about such things. What is the story's point? Let's unpack the tale and see.

A crowd, led by "scribes and Pharisees," drags a woman "caught in adultery" before Jesus for judgment. As the the story makes clear, they don't particulary care about the woman or the case at hand. Their goal is to entrap Jesus, to force him to make a choice between their brand of religious-authority driven justice and some alternative. If Jesus opts to condone their perspective and actions, any threat he presents is defused. On the other hand, if Jesus dares denounce their position, he can more easily be branded dangerous and portrayed as "the enemy." This is classic, cut-throat politics, whether in the first or twenty-first century.

Jesus simply refuses to play the game. In the story, he bends down twice to write on the ground. Some modern commentators argue these actions had well understood implications in the first century world, at least in the Middle East. Writing on the ground would have been recognized as his refusal to engage the matter verbally (as they wanted) or on their terms.

The religious leaders decline to accept his response and press for a verbal response. They want to hear a declaration of judgment: "Stone her," or "Free her." Jesus confounds them all, when he looks up and says, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." He changes the grounds of the dispute from "who is to blame and how shall we punish her," to "who among you, indeed, dares claim to be without sin and entitled to pass such judgment?" Even the most respected among the scribes and Pharisees present cannot pass the test. Jesus then writes in the dirt again, signaling that he is finished with them. Recognizing either their own sin, or at least that this encounter is over, the crowd slowly departs.

Only the woman remains. To this point, no one has spoken a word to her. Her accusers treated her an a object, a tool in their hands to use against Jesus. Jesus speaks to her. Interestingly enough, he says nothing about her purported sin, about that which may or may not be part of her past. Instead, Jesus treats her as someone now freed from all accusation. He focuses on her potential future. In effect, he says, "You have the gift of a new start; make good use of it."

Now, as to your point about the church's tendency to side with the accusers, you're sadly correct. This may drive us to despair, if we believe in a one-time cure for "our bent to sinning." I (and most Christians, I think) do not harbor such optimism. In fact, many of us argue that when we read such stories we ought to place ourselves within them, not with Jesus but most often as among those opposed to Jesus. Only then might we really hear his words and be called back to our senses.

Even if we experience such a recall, we dare not assume we are "cured" of the human tendency to practice judgmentalism or use others to protect our own interests. We see the "cure" more nearly as a kind of life-long, daily treatment. Some respond to the treatment better than others, but anyone may be made better than would otherwise have been the case.

Tracking back to the seventh commandment, we might say Jesus taught us to take it seriously in our own lives yet never to use it as a means to hurt another,heighten our own stature in the community, or protect our theological turf.

This is a long post. I'll pause now and await your response or the next installment of the your promised agenda.


MaryAnn said...

I remember reading in something by Marcus Borg or John Dominic Crossan that that being landless carpenters put Jesus and his family on the very lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, and that under the circumstances, the possibility he could write at all was slim. That would make what he wrote or why he wrote it moot. But as a Jew, I can't imagine the poorest child not being taught to read and write, so perhaps the Jesus Seminar people are wrong on that point. However, I also seem to remember that Torah was mostly an oral tradition until after the Bar Kochba revolt, so maybe not?
My bet is on the writing incident being a literary convention, meant to express his attitude as Mike suggests.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Mike. Thanks for taking part in the discussion. On the flip side, many scholars now argue that Joseph worked in metal and wood and probably was employed in the construction of a nearby "planned city." Their point is that Joseph and his family may not have been poor but, instead, part of the skilled artisan class.

If this should be the case, it strengthens the possibility of Jesus being literate.