|The Historical Jesus
Casting the First Stone
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
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
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
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
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 .
Others seem to ignore it completely
. 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.
 For example, Gerd Ludemann in
Jesus After 2000 Years, SCM Press, 2000
 I find no reference in A Marginal Jew by J R Meier, Doubleday,