Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike 5/12

Hyperbole? Hyperbole! This is outrageous, sir, and I demand… Yes, in fact I love hyperbole. But, this terrible slander aside, I agree that the Bible at its best, which in all honesty means the Bible as I choose to understand it, is moving us into alignment with the te (way) of God: doing justly, loving compassion, and walking humbly.

There are a few other things I would like to raise here before we move on to the next commandment. The first is the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman presented in the Gospel According to John. The second is the role of celibacy in early Christianity and the Catholic Church. And the third is the possibility of articulating a sacred sexuality based on the Song of Songs. The latter two may seem far fetched, but I think this commandment opens the door to at least a cursory discussion of celibacy and sexuality.

I will offer each in a separate blog, inviting, as always, your thoughtful response. Here is the passage from John:

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:2-11)

First, let me say I love this story: with this one text Jesus puts an end to the obsession with condemnation that marks so much religion in his time and ours. Second, let me admit that it poses problems for me as well. Chief among these is the fact that by the time of Jesus the law regarding adultery and capital punishment had already been changed from the biblical form mentioned in John. The Sadducees might have followed the older law, but not the Pharisees.

John tells us that the woman had been “caught” in the act of adultery. The story hinges on the fact that adultery is a capital offense, and we went into the details of convicting people of such offenses in our discussion of the commandment against murder. So, with those legal requirements in mind, let’s assume that the two witnesses who caught her followed the rabbinic law of Jesus’ day and interrupted the adulterous couple to explain to them that if they continue in their lovemaking they will be executed. And let’s imagine further that the lovers stopped, listened to what the witnesses had to say, verbally affirmed they knew what they were doing and what would happen to them after they did it, and then, in full view of the witnesses (how else could they witness the act?) the couple returned to their now public lovemaking. Even if all of this took place, there is still a problem: where is the woman’s lover? According to the law both of them must be executed. And, my final point, the means of execution in Jesus’ time was strangulation not stoning. So what gives?

Bart Ehrman, in Misquoting Jesus, notes that this story does not appear in the earliest manuscripts of John and may have been a latter addition inserted by copyists who were not up on rabbinic jurisprudence in the time of Jesus. I suspect something along these lines is the case. The story is written in such a way as to highlight Jesus’ differences with the Pharisees, and to underscore the triumph of compassion over law.

Regardless of how the text got into the Gospel, if you take it as gospel, what do you make of it, and how do you handle the fact (a fact at least to me) that the Church seems to have sided with the faux-Pharisees of John rather than John's Jesus?

We desperately need Jesus in our time: a prophet of God who can force the country and the world to look at the evil it does while hiding behind the mask of law, and affirm the triumph of justice and compassion over legally mandated corruption and oppression. Yet the people who are the most Jesus-obsessed seem to align themselves with the stone-throwers rather than the John's Jesus. With no malice intended, and with only a deep sorrow in my heart, as one who loves Jesus and the Judaism he taught, Christianity, or more accurately the culturally dominant Christianity of so many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, disappoints and frightens me terribly.

On to another aspect of this story. I am totally intrigued by the two mentions of Jesus writing something on the ground. Jesus wrote on the ground in response to the Pharisees’ challenge, “Now what do you say?” And returns to his writing after saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” No one bothers to read what Jesus wrote, and John doesn’t bother to tell us what he wrote, yet this is the only time in the Bible that Jesus writes anything! If this were still a Jewish text subject to the midrashic mind that revels in this kind of puzzle, there would be dozens of stories focusing on what Jesus wrote. As a Christian, the question may be mute, but as a Jew who sees Jesus as a Jew, it is compelling.

What are your thoughts on this story and the “missing writings of Jesus”? Actually, now that I think about it, a book purporting to reveal what Jesus wrote, and its relevance for our lives and salvation would be bigger than the Prayer of Jabez and the DaVinci Code combined. How’s that for hyperbole?

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