the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

a famous but contested passage

'Christ with the woman taken in adultery', Guercino, 1621. Not quite the way I pictured it.

Every page of the gospels could be commented on - and of course has been commented on - fruitfully from many perspectives. My own perspective is that of a sceptical dilettante of course, and since I know barely a word of Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic, my commentary is of doubtful value, but I feel compelled to plug away...

I want to look at the 'good stuff' - to borrow from the Skeptic's Annotated Bible - to be found in the parables and conversations attributed to Jesus. So now I'll turn to John 8: 1 - 11. This is the famous passage in which the Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery, and asks what should be done with her - should she not be stoned, according to Mosaic Law? Jesus finally says, after some poetical writing in the dust, possibly playing for time, that anyone present who's without sin should throw the first stone at her. The crowd disperses, the woman is left without accusers, and Jesus tells her to go and sin no more.

The passage is often cited as an example of the mercy of Jesus, but it turns out that there's a lot more to it than meets the eye. Before I talk about that, though, I'll give my 'innocent' take on the scene.

Sin isn't a word in my vocabulary, and I don't consider adultery a crime, especially knowing that the historical context is one of largely forced, arranged, loveless marriages, often accompanied by horrendous domestic violence. Jesus's response was a clever one, in that he managed not to flout the Mozaic Law while also securing freedom for the woman. His assumption that the woman has sinned merely makes him a man of his time, though probably a lot more compassionate than most.

There's no evidence that Jesus said anything attributed to him in the New Testament, the historical JC being as elusive as the gryffon, but this passage - the Pericope Adulterae as it's affectionately called by us scholars - is more tenuously connected to the allegedly self-styled Light of the World than the rest of John's gospel. It was apparently a later intrusion, not present in any of the earliest and most reliable texts. It was circulating orally in the 2nd century AD, according to this analyst, and would presumably have been inserted at that time. There's also internal evidence of linguistic inconsistency with John's style (its Greek being more suited to the synoptic gospels), though this is contested, naturally.

I don't want to get too bogged down here, though, in amateur Biblical scholarship. There's plenty of that elsewhere. I'm more interested in the psychology behind religion, of which more anon. All the same, I'm still reading the New Testament, and will feel the need to let off some steam about it from time to time.


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