Re-Reading John 8
My grandfather once paid me to do some work on his farm. He drove around in his truck while I followed behind with a shovel. My job was to literally shovel bullshit into the bed of his pickup. Even though my grandfather’s jobs paid at the going rate of farm work in 1955, I had a great time hurling bullshit 10-20 feet into his truck like I was shooting a hook shot in basketball. He would stick his head out of the window and loudly compliment me with a mouth full of chewing tobacco, “Good job, Aviator!” At the end of the day, I was tired, sweaty and stinking of, well…, and I asked my grandfather, “Why do you keep calling me ‘Aviator’?” He laughed, “Cause you sure know how to pile it!” I guess you could say, I’ve always had a talent for shoveling.
Eleven years ago, I was sitting in my room on a Monday night watching television alone. 10:00 pm meant that I was watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The guest for the evening was Harry Frankfurt, professor of philosophy at Princeton University, discussing his new book, On Bullshit.
For me, it was revelatory.
I was a marketing student – I studied bullshit. I was on my way to seminary to be a pastor in the UMC – I aspired to bullshit. Everywhere I went, I thought I was the smartest person in the room, and I wanted everyone to know it – I was full of bullshit. As Frankfurt wrote, “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.”
Frankfurt believes that the essence of bullshit isn’t that a statement is true or that it’s false, it’s that the source of the bullshit – the bullshitter – doesn’t care either way. To paraphrase Frankfurt, liars tell lies. They misrepresent the facts as they understand them. Truth tellers tell the truth. They represent the facts accurately as far as they understand them. Bullshitters don’t just misrepresent the facts – that would be lying. And, they often make statements that would otherwise be true. What bullshitters misrepresent is themselves. They would have you believe that they care for the truth or that the statements they make are decided upon according to the facts of the situation. Instead, bullshitters are up to something else entirely. They make statements in support of their hidden motivation, and the facts, whatever they may be, have no bearing at all. Frankfurt claims, “He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
If, like me, you’re interested in bullshit, or if like my grandfather, you just like to watch people pile it, there isn’t a better time than election time, and there isn’t a better scripture for it than John Chapter 8.
John 8: The Woman Caught in Adultery
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.’
This story is the Howard Hughes of bullshit stories. And everybody is working to pile it. In fact, there’s only one character in the story who isn’t shoveling.
First, there are the scribes and the Pharisees who bring a woman to Jesus who “had been caught in adultery.” The scribes and the Pharisees drag this woman in front of Jesus and his companions and use her as a prop to ask a question concerning the law.
You should be able to smell this immediately. They’re trying to trap Jesus. If you hadn’t figured it out by now, the text explicitly tells you right after the scribes and Pharisees pose their question, “They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him.” “The charge” mentioned in the text would be sedition. Only the Romans can impose capital punishment. If Jesus demands they stone her, he would be violating Roman law by encouraging usurpation of Roman authority. The punishment for sedition: crucifixion.
But what if he doesn’t recommend stoning? That’s why this is a trap. Deuteronomy clearly states that those caught in adultery are to be stoned. If he doesn’t recommend stoning, so the thinking goes, then he’s abandoning Torah, and he cannot be a prophet, nor can he be the Messiah. By abandoning Torah, he would lose all his support from the crowds that are now protecting him.
This is exactly the argument made by many interpreters in order to condemn either Jesus for not following the Torah or to condemn the Torah for being opposed to Jesus. This line of interpretation lays out a trap to modern Christians. Jesus? Or the Torah? Heads, I win. Tails, you lose.
These modern interpreters represent our second round of bullshitters. At the surface they claim to care for the proper interpretation of scripture. Is Jesus following the law or not? But the argument is painfully shallow. All they have done is accepted the terms of the trap as laid out by the scribes and the Pharisees. While claiming to care for the proper interpretation of scripture, they have ignored that this is a trap, devised by the scribes and the Pharisees in a book serving as apology for belief in Jesus.
Furthermore, if this is concern for properly following Torah, it ignores that the scribes and the Pharisees seizing a woman and bring her to Jesus for advice on what to do next wildly flaunts the law in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 17:6 states, “On the evidence of two or three witnesses the death sentence shall be executed; a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness.” In our scene in John 8, where are the witnesses? There are none. All we have are the accusers, the scribes and the Pharisees. Deuteronomy 22:22 states, “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman.” In John 8, where is the offending man? Without the witnesses and without the offending man, there cannot lawfully be an execution.
Jesus responds, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
His response, as usual, is much more than it appears. The statement “be the first to throw a stone at her” is not a statement that accepts the punishment only if those who judge are sinless. It’s a reference to Deuteronomy 17:7 which reads, “The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterwards the hands of all the people.” The first stone to be cast in such a judgment, would be by the witnesses, not anyone else. This emphasizes the fact that in John 8, there are no witnesses! And those that are making the claim against her, the scribes and the Pharisees, are attempting to take the place of the witnesses required by scripture. By saying “Let anyone among you who is without sin…”, Jesus is not-so-subtly calling them out on their bullshit, and calling them sinners. Jesus has set a trap of his own. They can’t stone her because they aren’t the witnesses to the crime, and by not stoning her, according to Jesus’s words, they also admit to being sinners. And if they were the witnesses to the crime, however unlikely, then they are obliged to cast the first stone and face the punishment from the Romans. The only option left is to quietly walk away after public defeat.
The scribes and the Pharisees clearly do not care about properly following Torah. Their motivation is, instead, to shame or to kill Jesus. Jesus shames them in return. This trap and shaming is the whole point of the story. It’s not about mercy or about following Torah. It’s not about Jesus showing respect for women that was uncommon in the ancient world. It’s not about a pacifist Jesus refusing to take aggressive action in the face of a barbarous society bent on retaliatory justice. It’s not about claiming that judgment belongs to the sinless Lord alone. Those who make such arguments, whether or not their arguments are right, are the third group of bullshitters in John 8. These arguments are disconnected from the text.
This story is about making the scribes and the pharisees look like fools and making Jesus look wise. It’s about making Jesus look merciful while making the scribes and the Pharisees look like they drag poor women before a stranger as a prop for their own schemes. It’s about making Jesus look victorious. It’s about making the followers of Jesus feel victorious. It’s about a public debate in an honor/shame culture where the stakes of the game are life and death.
If this is true, and if this is Jesus’s motivation as well – to shame the scribes and the Pharisees – then all Jesus’s talk in the text about sinning and casting the first stone in response to the question of the scribes and Pharisees, isn’t speech about the matter at hand even though he’s acting as if it is. If the scribes and Pharisees are bullshiting by concealing their purpose in the question about the woman, so too is Jesus by playing along.
In John 8, the fourth bullshitter is Jesus.
But as Frankfurt says to Jon Stewart, “I think it keeps piling.”
It’s not just the scribes and the Pharisees, or the modern interpreters, or even Jesus in our story who keeps piling the bullshit. To me, something even more disturbing is going on.
If you look in the footnotes of your bible about John 8, you may notice that this story, John 7:53 – 8:11, doesn’t exist in the oldest of the ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of John. And when you read the sections directly before and directly afterwards, this story seems a bit out of place. The most likely scenario is that the story of “The Adulterous Woman” is not original to John, but was added in later by an editor. This scenario is strengthened by the fact that the antagonists in this story, “the scribes and the Pharisees” is a phrase used nowhere else in the Gospel of John. “The scribes and the Pharisees” is used in other gospels and in other ancient manuscripts, but John doesn’t use it anywhere else. Awkward narrative transitions, text missing entirely in the oldest ancient manuscripts, and unique vocabulary, syntax, and phrasing are all clear signs that a particular section of an ancient text is not original, but was added in later by someone else.
An editor at some later date thought that this story from some other source would fit in well in the Gospel of John. The editor tries to make it appear as if this was original to John. The editor isn’t concerned with whether or not Jesus said this, or whether or not the original writer included it. The editor’s motivation is hidden from us, but his statements are still here for us to see. By Frankfurt’s definition, John 8 itself, is bullshit.
The only part of this story that isn’t bullshit, including the very story itself, is the woman who was “caught in adultery”. “Has no one condemned you?”, asked Jesus. “No one sir.” She wasn’t bullshitting, but by accepting the terms of the trap set by the scribes and the Pharisees as outlined in John 8, we have made her into a liar. We have accused her, without proper evidence, of being the sinful, adulterous woman. The accusation smells.
The final bullshitter is us.
Over the next few days, I will continue with parts 2 & 3 which will explore how all of us use bullshit and how it is used in the church. I hope you join me.
I understand this argument may be offensive to some, and I think that the response is perfectly acceptable. Our interpretation of the text, the text itself, and the subject of the text, Jesus, are dear to us. Accusations of “bullshit” directed at that which is dear to us necessarily cause offense. However, we must remember what we are talking about. We cannot separate the stories of Jesus and the person of Jesus from the facts as we understand them (well, we can, but I would call bullshit). He’s a man who Christians claim is divine, and he was arrested, tortured, and crucified. His arrest, torture and crucifixion was, by definition, offensive. Those who wall off the “offensive” from their own theology of Jesus are separating the humanity of Jesus from his divinity. They’re denying the reality of his life from their own beliefs concerning him. By doing so, the great chasm between ourselves and the divine is no longer bridged. By protecting Jesus from the “offensive”, we render his work moot. The Gospel is inherently offensive. The offensive is not only inevitable, the offensive is salvific.