Responding to Reader Questions on John 8

Judah Himango asked me to render an opinion about the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Wasn’t Yeshua violating Torah? (I know Judah doesn’t think Yeshua violated Torah; he was probing).

I responded as follows:

The story of the woman caught in adultery is not in any of the early texts, is found in more than one location in later (less reliable) texts, and may or may not be authentic. Possible interpretations of the story are numerous. One thing is certain: that if this story really happened it was a trap. If Yeshua supported stoning, he was in violation of Roman law. And it could be argued he violated Torah if he opposed the stoning. Many unanswered questions plague interpretation (where was the man also caught? what did Yeshua write in the sand?). The story is problematic no matter how you look at it.

Then another reader (judeoxian) responded:

John 8 may be shaky from a textcrit point of view, but I think it’s solid theologically.

The Master did exactly what any qualified Torah-judge would do, scrutinize the witnesses. Given that this story closely parallels the apocryphal story of Susanna, and that Daniel disqualifies the witnesses in this story, so does the Master in John 8.

The issue of testimony is a strong theme throughout the Gospel of John. John 8 is no different. The accusers had no valid witnesses. Yeshua sees through this trap. If he had said, “Stone her,” he’d be guilty of more than just violating Roman law. He would have made a premature judgment that did not align with Torah or halacha.

As for your blog, you hit the nail on the head regarding the Jewish Gospel.

…………………..

Now, let me say a little more.

I’m not writing to solve the puzzle of John 8. It’s arrogant to assume that we can always find answers. Let’s be honest and say that ancient texts are sometimes mysterious. What we don’t know often outweighs what we do know.

A common but insufficient interpretation of this story is that Yeshua is just nicer than the “God of the Old Testament.” No one has suggested that (yet) on this blog. But many commentaries will say that Jesus had compassion and didn’t want to let the woman die even though God commanded it in the Law (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). There might be different ways of explaining this. Some would say Yeshua came to overturn the unnecessarily burdensome laws (relaxing the Sabbath, overruling the dietary law in Mark 7, and weakening capital punishment here in John 8).

This type of interpretation is exceedingly weak historically, exegetically, and theologically. The scribes and Pharisees would never have walked away if Yeshua were overturning Torah. A Jewish leader of that time would never suggest such a thing, so why assume Yeshua would? And theologically it divides God into the mean God of Israel and the nice God of the Christian Age.

Judeoxian attempts to resolve the passage by saying that it parallels a piece of 2nd Temple Jewish literature (Susanna, an addition to Daniel) and that this is a clue to what Yeshua was doing. Like Daniel in the story of Susanna, perhaps Yeshua was disqualifying these men as judges. Really? How? And finding an idea in one story does not carry over into a different story and fill in the gaps of the narrative. The case for a parallel here is not so strong. I do appreciate Judeoxian’s scholarship and his opinion, but I find this argument insufficient evidence to give meaning to the John 8 story. It remains a possibility, but one with little evidence to support it.

Judeoxian says the scribes and Pharisees had no witnesses. How does he know that? The text does not say. Rather the text says “this woman was caught in the act,” as jonboze aptly pointed out in his comment.

Jonboze said that death penalty was considered by the rabbis the most severe and was avoided without the most certain proof. I have read that somewhere also and it may be relevant here. Yet it is not enough to go on and it may be a later opinion not relevant to the first century (anyone who knows specifics about the halakhah of capital punishment, we’d love to hear from you).

What we know for sure is as follows:
1. John 7:53 – 8:11 may not be historical and does not belong in the Gospel of John even if it is historical.
2. The scribes and Pharisees are attempting to trap Yeshua into violating either Roman law or Jewish law.
3. Yeshua would never violate Jewish law (Torah).
4. The man was apparently not present or on trial with the woman, which throws the entire trial into question since both were to die.

The story of John 8 remains a mystery. If anyone has more information that could illuminate this discussion, please comment. Speculations, such as those of Judeoxian, are fine, though they should be worded as speculations and not as definitive arguments. For example, it is fine to say, “Yeshua may have been disqualifying these men as witnesses or judges as Daniel did in the apocryphal book of Susannah, though how he disqualified them is not clear in the story.”

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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3 Responses to Responding to Reader Questions on John 8

  1. kalevbenaharon says:

    I remember a Torah teacher once mentioned the possibility of a link between Numbers 5 and this passage in John 8.

  2. judahgabriel says:

    Derek

    Excellent discussion! Thanks for answering my [probing] questions. :-)

    About 2 weeks ago at our little home Torah study, this question came up and we had a variety of opinions.

    My younger brother suggested something I disagreed with. He said, “I believe the woman wasn’t guilty, which is why he pardoned her. No way Y’shua would have broke the commandment about punishment of adulterers.”

    I rebutted, “If that’s so, why did Y’shua tell her, ‘Go and sin no more’? Maybe he was fulfilling a greater matter of the Torah — mercy.”

    Anyways. Thanks again for your answers, Derek.
    Shalom.

  3. judeoxian says:

    Derek,

    Fair assessment, but allow me the grace to back up the Susanna parallel a bit more.

    You stated, “…finding an idea in one story does not carry over into a different story and fill in the gaps of the narrative.” No, it doesn’t prove it, but if both documents come from the same people group with a shared religious tradition, and one is known to have been circulated in the community of the later’s (the LXX, which was heavily relied upon in the apostolic community), then finding parallels between the two stories is not irresponsible.

    Nonetheless, I had a professor in school who was a Johannine scholar, Dr. Brian Johnson. He did his doctoral work on eyewitness testimony in John’s Gospel at the University of Aberdeen. He was the one who I originally heard this suggestion from (and, I don’t think he was the one who came up with it either). Coming from him, and the scholar he was, this was more than a mere speculation.

    I will contact him and see if there are any journal articles or info he can point me to.

    Shalom,
    Seth “JudeoXian”

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