John 7.53-8.11: It may be spurious, but it feels like the real Jesus

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July 8, 2013 by jmar198013

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Been thinking some lately about John 7.53-8.11, even though I am fully aware of its dubious claims to authenticity. I read the footnotes in my Bible. Like the one for this passage that says, “Critical editions of the Gk New Testament do not contain 7:538:11.”

Most of us know this story, if only from its famous challenge from Jesus: Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone. Back in school, I knew a lot of preacher boys who would get mighty testy about attempts to excise the longer ending of Mark. They found any suggestion that 1 Cor. 14.34-35 was an interpolation downright heretical. But some of those same preacher boys were quick to throw John 7.53-8.11 right out of the Bible. I always suspected it was because they were looking for a pretense to cast the first stone at someone. On the other hand, it’s not my job to cast stones at them. Just writing my suspicion on the ground, as it were.

Anyway, in case you’ve forgotten the story in which Jesus’ invitation to non-sinners to hurl rocks at everyone else is embedded, here it is:

They each went to their own homes, And Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he returned to the temple. All the people gathered around him, and he sat down and taught them. The legal experts and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery. Placing her in the center of the group, they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?” They said this to test him, because they wanted a reason to bring an accusation against him. Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger.

They continued to question him, so he stood up and replied, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.” Bending down again, he wrote on the ground. Those who heard him went away, one by one, beginning with the elders. Finally, only Jesus and the woman were left in the middle of the crowd.

Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”

She said, “No one, sir.”

Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” (CEB)

Some folks like to sit around wondering what it is Jesus was writing on the ground. I’ve passed some time pondering that myself, but what I’m really interested in is, What was Jesus thinking? Even more so, When Jesus looked at this woman who had been dragged before him, whdid he see?

I suspect he saw his mama.

For obvious reason, questions about Jesus’ origin swirled about in scandalous whispers even in his own day. Matthew (Matt. 1.18-35) and Luke (Luke 1.26-38) set the record straight by telling the story of the miracle of the virgin birth, explaining how Jesus’ virtuous virgin mother Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit. Don’t get me wrong–I am a firm believer in the virgin birth. But I also know peopleAn unwed teenage girl shows up pregnant in the village and tells people, “It’s not what you think. The Holy Spirit did this to me!” Pretty sure people rolled their eyes and looked at each other while pointing to their temples. And even though God mercifully made a way for Mary to be out of town once she really started showing (Matt. 2.1; Luke 2.1-7) so folks wouldn’t gawk at and probably stone her, you can bet rumors about who Jesus’ real father was continued to be told. And when he became a famous preacher, former neighbors were lining up to give insider interviews to the Jerusalem Enquirer.

Some people suspect that the Pharisees who presented Jesus with the woman taken in adultery were trying to provoke him into telling them to stone her, so they could snitch on him to the Romans and get him killed. Maybe so. But I see something more perverse going on. I can hear, instead, a Pharisee who happens to sound a lot like Rush Limbaugh saying indignantly: “This elitist hippie liberal Jesus wouldn’t let these respectable men obey God’s law by stoning this slut to death. Which makes sense, because his mom was a slut, too. Yeah, you read about that too, Snerdley?* Oh right. Right! Says God did that to her! Give me a break!”

These lecherous old coots who drug this (probably) naked and (certainly) terrified woman to Jesus, thinking to turn her into an afternoon of gonzo-porn fun slathered in God-gravy, are the very ones who elsewhere in John’s Gospel insinuate some nasty things about Jesus’ parentage. Jesus embarrassed the Pharisees in the vignette about the woman taken in adultery. The next day, they attempt to embarrass him by asking, “Where is your father?” (John 8.19). That’s a loaded, pointed question, and they will come right to the point in John 8.48 when they accuse Jesus of being a demon-possessed Samaritan bastard child.

I think Jesus saw right through those snaky bastards (not my words–Jesus’ crazy cousin John the Baptist came up with that one, Matt. 3.7, Luke 3.7; and Jesus seemed sufficiently impressed enough with that way of describing them that he adopted the phrase himself, Matt 12.34, 23.33). And I think he saw through whatever mess that woman was in and saw not an adulteress, not a whore, not a temptress, not a slut–just a frightened girl in over her head.

I think he saw his mama. She had once been a frightened girl in over her head, too. And God had made a way for her to escape humiliation, and this day, Jesus was about to do the same for this woman.

Jesus lets them have it: Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.

He stoops down to write on the ground. Can’t you just hear the Pharisees whispering among themselves? What’s he doing? Watch out–I bet he’s crazy like his mama! Probably runs in the family! Now these Elmer Gantrys don’t get to stare at the woman anymore. They’re too busy watching the weird guy. Bet he’s demon-possessed, one of them probably whispers. But his words linger on the breeze: Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone. 

The Pharisees have nothing to say–Jesus has just gone and made the whole thing awkward, which is probably the best weapon anyone has against folks like the Pharisees. They need things to be dignified and make sense. They are simply left to skulk back to their Pharisee man-caves, probably whispering, “We’ll get you next time, you dirty hippie.” I always imagine that there was an audience (this is the sort of thing you do in front of an audience), and that the audience they thought would be on their side chanting whatever the ancient Palestinian equivalent to, U. S. A.! U. S. A.! was had actually started laughing at them.

Of course, Jesus being the Son of God has to dispense practical advice to the accused adulteress at the end of this very special episode. Go, he tells her, and from now on, don’t sin anymore. What this says to me is, yes–this woman needed some correction. But those Pharisees, those snaky bastards, were not the ones to do it.

Why is it that I’ll entertain the idea that 1 Cor. 14.34-35 is an interpolation, but claim this textually suspect passage with pride? Maybe it’s because 1 Cor. 14.34-35 is too often used by men who, like the Pharisees in this story, want to gang up on a woman and strip her of her dignity.

But I think the deeper lesson is, what if, when someone is brought to our attention who may have done something awful, we look at them and see our mama, or our brother, or our best friend? What if instead of seeing a monster, or a slut, or a thug, we see someone we know in over their heads? Would we be so apt to want to see an “example” made of them, to see them thrown away like garbage? Or would we be more likely to want to see them reclaimed, restored, and reconciled?

Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone. Brilliant! Even if the story is deemed fake by textual critics, the Jesus it portrays feels incredibly real.

* Snerdley is the nickname Rush Limbaugh gives to his call-screener, James Golden. I am ashamed I know this.
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5 thoughts on “John 7.53-8.11: It may be spurious, but it feels like the real Jesus

  1. Jack Hairston says:

    My sinful past also leads me to be more gentle with other sinners that I encounter. Well done, Jeremy.

  2. Art says:

    Nice, Jeremy. Christians doing textual criticism have their place, but yeah, the Jesus we know personally shines through in this story. It’s so him. Christians with that personal edge also have an important place in discerning what is true.

  3. artbucher says:

    You got me thinkin’. Maybe he saw the “adulterous” nation of Israel in this woman, too.

  4. Dan says:

    Im sorry, I really dont want to be a curmudgeon, but Im bothered by your repeated use of the words “spurious” and “fake.” If it were not in the original writing of the gospel of John, it does not mean it is spurious or fake, but simply added. The fact that we have *first century* attestation to his event in the lost, but oft quoted works of Papias, who himself as a disciple of John, is evidence of its authenticity. Some think Papias himself added it. Papias wrote 5 books of the works of the Lord by going around and interviewing the living witnesses. The reason it sounds like the authentic Jesus is because is most likely is.

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