Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
Casting the First Stone

One of the most striking accounts in the gospels is that of the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8.1-11). Somehow, over two millennia, it has captured the imaginations of many. Perhaps its power rests partly upon imagining oneself in the place of the woman. Or perhaps the Jesus it portrays is the man we would all like to meet and befriend.

When  wondering whether or not to regard this story as good history, I asked myself if I wasn't intent on keeping it for sentimental reasons. People tend to find ingenious ways of preventing the loss of things in their lives they have found valuable. Another way in which some parts of the Gospels are kept when they shouldn't be is because we are so familiar with them that we can't imagine Jesus without them. The nativity stories are a good example of familiarity breeding contempt for evidence.

It's inclusion is even more suspect because the earliest ancient Greek manuscripts don't include it. So, for example, my Greek New Testament includes it as a footnote, but not in the main text. The Good News Bible says of it, "Many manuscripts and early translations do not have this passage ... others have it after John 21.24; others have it after Luke 21.38; one manuscript has it after John 7.36." Many scholars from the earliest times seem to have had this story in doubt. Some scholars, using the Didascalia Apostolorum, a third-century document, conclude that the story was known in Syria in the second century.

The style of the story doesn't match that of the rest of John's Gospel. Also, its inclusion here breaks the flow of the narrative  between John 7.52 and 8.12. Having said that, the behaviour of Jesus towards the woman and the accusers is clearly typical of that preserved in the best historical parts of the gospels. His refusal to apply the Jewish laws of morality in the face of loving acceptance is a defining feature of those accounts.

Whatever else we can say about this passage, it is almost certainly inserted by someone, probably the author of John's Gospel, at a point he thought was correct, or at least appropriate. Whenever a passage is so obviously so out of place, it must be regarded with initial caution. 

A very early Christian scholar, Papias, who died in about 130, knew of the story. So wherever it came from, it wasn't something invented very late. Papias (according to Eusebius of Caesarea, some 100 years later) got it from the Gospel of the Hebrews - one of three gospels with that name, all of which have been lost. Given a number of other old references to the story, it's safe therefore to conclude that it's quite old. At a guess it may be an oral tradition which goes back to the very early days when Christian communities were establishing themselves throughout the Roman Empire.

Some commentators think that it derives from the time just before Jesus was arrested. Luke 21.37-39 says that Jesus used to teach in the Temple area and go up onto the Mount of Olives at night. But as this Lukan passage isn't good history, the cross-reference isn't conclusive. All-in-all this piece of text should, I think, be assessed on its own merits rather than as part of John's Gospel.

What if we'd discovered this segment as a separate piece of papyrus from the late first or early second centuries? The answer is that very few scholars today would take it to be anything but a genuine part of a lost gospel. We have the fragment, not separate but part of John's Gospel (clearly "fitted in" out of context) and we have a fairly certain dating in the very early second century. So it's reasonable to think that this is quite possibly an account of "what really happened" or at least quite close to it. Having said that, we'll never know at what point in Jesus' life it occurred.

The instruction to stone an adulterer derives from Leviticus 20.10 and Deuteronomy 22.22-24:

If a man is caught having intercourse with another man's wife, both of them are to be put to death ... Suppose a man is caught in a town having intercourse with a girl who is engaged to someone else. You are to take them  outside the town and stone them to death.

A section on the administration of justice in Deuteronomy 17.7 requires that

The witnesses are to throw the first stones, and then the rest of the people are to stone that person ...

Note, however, that in this passage it is only the woman who is presented to Jesus. The man, who should have been stoned to death as well, is left out entirely. This omission may also indicate that the story may have been patterned on the tale of Susanna in the Book of Daniel. In that account, the issue is perjury by two false witnesses, who get their due comeuppance. In that tale she is accused by a crowd of elders.

We know that Jesus refused to use the Jewish Law or anything else to judge others. As a matter of good history, we also know that he was on occasion tested by some of the Jewish authorities who disagreed with him. So a test portrayed in this context isn't improbable.

Knowing that the gospel authors often used the Old Testament to "prove" their case, and even to invent or dress up something they'd heard about Jesus, isn't it thus possible that this tale may have been similarly dressed up? Perhaps it was an oral tradition passed around in some short form and gradually elaborated. And perhaps John constructed his own version from it.

This as I've noted many times, would not have been dishonest in the early first century when John's Gospel was being assembled. People didn't look at history as we do today. More than that, we know now that all four Gospels are more about theology than history. They are more about "what God really did" than about "what actually happened."

It seems, therefore, that I was right to be doubtful about including this section as "good history." But, all-in-all, I think the weight comes down on the side of this having been inserted by John's author from an oral fragment to which he had access - either in the lost Hebrew Gospel or some other source. If his other work in John's Gospel is anything to go by, he did not hold back from dressing up his source material to suit himself.

If, however, John was so obviously clumsy in the way he inserted this section, then why was he not equally clumsy in dressing it up? In fact, the story as a whole holds together well - indicating that he inserted (clumsily) a story which already had its own form.

That last is a long shot, however. The balance for and against this being good history is pretty even. It should be noted that some critics think that John's Gospel contains no good history at all [1]. Others seem to ignore it completely [2]. Perhaps they are correct and the story should be discounted.

My personal choice has been to retain it as a modified account of what really happened - if only because I think the balance tips towards good history. It is not only a convincing account, but as a verbal story it would have been easily recalled and therefore passed on in reasonably good shape.
[1] For example, Gerd Ludemann in Jesus After 2000 Years, SCM Press, 2000
[2] I find no reference in A Marginal Jew by J R Meier, Doubleday, 1994

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