Excerpt from: Alfred Edersheim,
The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, (1883)
Last Updated: Sep 14, 2010
Taken from: a footnote in Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,
(1883, corrected version) in Book IV, Chapter 7 (Jn 7:37-8:11):
Headings have been added for clarity and navigation purposes.
Book IV, Chapter 7
Footnote: John vii. 53 — viii. 11.
'The reader will observe, that the narrative of the woman taken in adultery, as also the previous verse (St. John vii. 53-viii. 11) have been left out in this History - although with great reluctance. By this it is not intended to characterise that section as Apocryphal, nor indeed to pronounce any opinion as to the reality of some such occurrence. For, it contains much which we instinctively feel to be like the Master, both in what Christ is represented as saying and as doing.
All that we reluctantly feel bound to maintain is, that the narrative in its present form did not exist in the Gospel of St. John, and, indeed, could not have existed. For a summary of the external evidence against the Johannine authorship of the passage, I would refer to Canon Westcott's Note, ad loc., in the 'Speaker's Commentary.'
But there is also internal evidence, and, to my mind at least, most cogent, against its authenticity - at any rate, in its present form. From first to last it is utterly un-Jewish. Accordingly, unbiased critics who are conversant either with Jewish legal procedure, or with the habits and views of the people at the time, would feel obliged to reject it, even if the external evidence had been as strong in its favour as it is for its rejection.
Archdeacon Farrar has, indeed, devoted to the illustration of this narrative some of his most pictorial pages. But, with all his ability and eloquence, his references to Jewish law and observances are not such as to satisfy the requirements of criticism. To this general objection to their correctness I must add a protest against the views which he presents of the moral state of Jewish society at the time.
On the other hand, from whatever point we view this narrative - the accusers, the witnesses, the public examination, the bringing of the woman to Jesus, or the punishment claimed - it presents insuperable difficulties:
- That a woman taken in the act of adultery should have been brought before Jesus (and apparently without the witnesses to her crime);
- that such an utterly un-Jewish, as well as illegal, procedure should have been that of the 'Scribes and Pharisees';
- that such a breach of law, and of what Judaism would regard as decency, should have been perpetrated to 'tempt' Him; or
- that the Scribes should have been so ignorant as to substitute stoning for strangulation, as the punishment of adultery; lastly,
- that this scene should have been enacted in the Temple,
presents a veritable climax of impossibilities.
I can only express surprise that Archdeacon Farrar should have suggested that the 'Feast of Tabernacles had grown into a kind of vintage-festival, which would often degenerate into acts of licence and immorality,' or that the lives of the religious leaders of Israel 'were often stained' with such sins.
The first statement is quite ungrounded; and as for the second, I do not recall a single instance in which a charge of adultery is brought against a Rabbi of that period. The quotations in Sepp's Leben Jesu (vol. v. p. 183), which Archdeacon Farrar adduces, are not to cases in point, however much, from the Christian point of view, we may reprobate the conduct of the Rabbis there mentioned.
(1) The first thing we may fairly observe here is that Edersheim's recommendation is worthless as to where to get more info on "external evidence" . Westcott's Speaker's Commentary on John has several pages on the text of John, but only a few brief paragraphs on the PA. Westcott's textual evidence is in fact second hand from F.J.A. Hort, and he later distanced himself from Hort's excesses:
Westcott on Revised Version NT (1882) < - - click here for more on Westcott.
We would be far better off consulting a modern and less biased presentation of the textual evidence, such as that found in Hodges:
Hodges on Jn 8:1-11 < - - Click here for Textual information.
(2) The state of Textual Criticism was primitive at this time. The field was under the sway of men like Tregelles and Hort who followed the school of Griesbach, but opposing scholars (Scrivener, Burgon, Miller) were being downplayed and ignored. The most important discoveries (the papyri etc.) hadn't been discovered. The last 100 years have seen an uneasy dominance of eclectic methods by liberal critics like B. Metzger, while many evangelical Christians and conservative scholars like Hodges have preferred the Traditional Text (Textus Receptus) .
(3) Edersheim's characterization of the PA as "un-Jewish" is baseless. The real question is the passage's correspondance to the rest of John's Gospel. Here it shows multiple overlaps in phraseology and grammar, and its content (no exorcisms, focus on confrontation with authorities, exchange with an individual) is exactly typical of John. From a literary standpoint, the irony, clever wording, and profound innuendo is the Johannine signature par excellence.
(4) By "un-Jewish", Edersheim refers to its divergence from anecdotes and opinions found in the Talmud (c. 200 A.D.). But we must qualify this test by the obvious fact that the Talmud (and modern Rabbinical Judaism) was born out of the failed Roman/Jewish war and the destruction of the Temple and priesthood. Judaism was radically changed by this great catastrophy. The opinions and practices of the Central Jewish authority in the time of Jesus were completely overhauled and all but obliterated. Only a handful of fragments of earlier traditions survive, and these must be carefully and cautiously interpreted.
(5) Problems with "historicity" which Edersheim lists were first proposed in the late 1700s and early 1800s by German higher critics. But these complaints are misdirected. The "historicity" of the passage is moot, when the same critics classed the entire Gospel to be "unhistorical": a kind of "theological fiction", or re-telling through the eyes of later Christian thought. In other words, if the passage were indeed "unhistorical" this would have no bearing on it being part of the original Gospel. As early as the 1830s, other textual critics noted this logical flaw regarding "historical credibility". Edersheim's points had been discredited nearly 40 years earlier by more competent critics.
(6) The consultation of Jesus is really not unhistorical or suspicious, given that the Scribes and Pharisees are portrayed in all Gospels as constantly manufacturing traps and confronting Jesus. This trap is uncannily similar to the one regarding taxes to Caesar.
(7) The illegality of the "procedure" also loses weight next to the stoning of Stephen, along with the riots surrounding Paul, documented in Acts.
(8) The "decency of Judaism" is irrelevant, given that the Gospels consistently portray the Jewish authorities as plotting Jesus' murder, even paying bribes to Judas.
(9) The later Talmud tradition of "strangulation" instead of stoning is not Biblical and the only case recorded documents a Biblical "burning", not a strangulation. There is no contemporary evidence that strangling was preferred in Jesus' time.
(10) The Temple was the scene of confrontations with Jesus over many points of doctrine. Contrary to Edersheim, (and consistent with Acts etc.) it seems a natural place for this episode. Where else would they try to find and publicly entrap Jesus?