Review: S. A. James, The Adulteress and the Death Penalty, JETS 22/1(1979) 45-53
Prologue: - Introduction to James and the Death Penalty
Review: - S. A. James on Jn 8:1-11:
Introduction - a Survey of modern Death-Penalty apologists
I. History of Interpretation: (A) Ancient Theologians
Sudden Change: Reformation brings Doubt
Calvin: Hidden Law & Order Agenda
History of Interpretation: (B) Modern Commentators
Jewish Law & History: nothing new under sun.
Modern Academia: university babble.
History of Interpretation: Section Conclusion
II. The Problem: proper interpretation and application (1 paragraph)
III. Hermeneutical Factors: No allegory allowed?
The Meaning of αναμαρτητος: (A) the Standard View
The Meaning of αναμαρτητος: (B) S. A. James' version
The "Moral" Element : According to James
James' Hermeneutical Case: overview and analysis
IV. Legal Factors: O.T. Background
The Incident: James' Legal Analysis
V. Article Conclusion
At the time of publication (1979) Stephen A. James was a recent graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.
James and John 8:1-11
James' interest is not in the authenticity or interpretation of the Pericope de Adultera (Jn 8:1-11) per se, but rather in its use in arguments for or against Capital Punishment.
The importance of his article rests in his own personal interpretation of our passage (Jn 8:1-11) and his practical application of it to modern ethical and political issues, such as the question of Capital Punishment (e.g., the appropriateness and legitimacy of the 'death penalty' as imposed by the modern state.)
James interprets the Pericope de Adultera in a Nomist ("Law-ist" i.e., pro-Law) manner, and he uses this interpretation both to negate any application in support of the abolition of the Death Penalty, and also to support his own pro-Death-Penalty position.
Because his points are not by any means crude or easily seen to be erroneous, but are actually very sophisticated legalistic and hermeneutic arguments, they must be examined very carefully and fully weighed against both the traditional Mainstream understanding and in the light of proper hermeneutic principles as well.
We believe that properly interpreted, the passage cannot be used in support of either the death penalty or even generally in the sense of a "God-given" mandate for modern governments to enforce law.
Because James' paper has been widely read and is available to both Christians and American lawgivers, its arguments are not insignificant or without influence, both among Christians and non-Christians.
It is imperative then, that his arguments be carefully examined and corrected, so that life-affecting policies and decisions are not mistakenly made on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of Holy Scripture.
Review: S. A. James, The Adulteress and the Death Penalty, JETS 22/1(1979) 45-53
James' Introduction: A Survey of Modern Apologists
James begins by reviewing other apologists on both sides of the modern death-penalty issue, who have referenced Jn 8:1-11. This is important, because as he himself notes, even those in favour of the death penalty have accepted the common interpretation that Jesus in this Scripture has abolished the death penalty at least in the case of adultery:
'...one must agree with those opponents who charge that proponents [of the death penalty] have failed to interact significantly and dynamically with the implications of the text for application to the modern controversy concerning capital punishment.
Richard H. Bube, for instance, in arguing in favor of capital punishment for murder accepts that
"Jesus Himself in His treatment of the woman taken in adultery indicated the negation of the death penalty for that offense [adultery]," 5
and Charles C. Ryrie similarly argues that while the incident may be used to teach that adultery should not be punished with death, abrogation of the death penalty cannot fairly be extended to the crime of murder.' 6
5. R. H. Bube, "New Testament Christianity and the Morality of Capital Punishment," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 13 (December 1961) 115.
6. C. C. Ryrie, "The Doctrine of Capital Punishment," BSac 129 (1972) 214.
- S. A. James, intro, pg 1
The Uniqueness of James' Interpretation
Thus it needs to be noted that even proponents of the death penalty have historically conceded that this passage has given strong moral force and ethical motivation to abolish the death penalty at least in the case of previously death-penalty crimes like adultery/fornication.
S. A. James' pro-death-penalty interpretation then was an extremely novel one at the time of publication, and he stands alone here against nearly 2,000 years of history of interpretation of these verses. Even if others have since been swayed to join him in his position, it remains a historical innovation with no precedent in either law or historical Scriptural interpretation.
This critically important fact cannot be ignored, since the verses have been on display and available for public interpretation since at least the 3rd or 4th century A.D., and deal with common domestic issues of great interest to a majority of people (adultery, divorce). Some of the greatest theologians and brilliant thinkers of the last two centuries have wrestled with these verses from many angles, but have never drawn the extreme conclusions that James does in his paper.
The best that can be said is that during the Post-Reformation Era, a number of "Nomists" or Protestants with 'legalistic' tendencies have made cautious statements or warnings meant to prevent the undermining of civil authority by a too liberal interpretation of the passage. (We'll see this in the next section.)
The Early Church Fathers (400 A.D. - 1600 A.D.)
James claims to have made a survey of 'prominent interpreters throughout the history of the Christian Church', but lists only the following, prefaced by "such as...":
James' List of 'Prominent' Early Writers
Augustine (c. 400 A.D. )
Chrysostom (c. 350-407 A.D. )
Theodoret ( c. 393-457 A.D. )
Tertullian (c. 160-220 A.D. )
Martin Luther (c. 1500-1546 A.D. )
John Calvin (c. 1520-1564 A.D. )
We must immediately become suspicious of James' survey however:
Three out of Four named Early Fathers NEVER discuss John 8:1-11!
How then can they be included in a list of 'prominent interpreters'?
Perhaps worse from a scientific research standpoint, dozens of important early Christian writers who DO comment upon the verses are left entirely out of the loop. In fact these verses were popular and frequently commented on between 400 and 1500 A.D., by such fathers, theologians, and Christian apologists as:
The Real List of Early Writers
The Didache (c. 60-120 A.D. )
Papias (c. 100 A.D. )
The Didaskalia (c. 250 A.D. )
Apostolic Constitutions (c. 350 A.D. )
Ambrosiaster (c. 350 A.D. )
Didymus the Blind (c. 360 A.D. )
Pacian (c. 370 A.D. )
Jerome (c. 384 A.D. )
Ambrose (c. 388 A.D. )
Epiphanius (c. 350-400 A.D. )
Faustus (c. 380-400 A.D. )
Augustine (c. 400 A.D. )
Rufinus (c. 408 A.D. )
Sedulius (c. 425 A.D. )
Mara (c. 560 A.D. )
Bede (c. 700 A.D. )... etc.
Early Fathers on Jn 8:1-11 < - - Click here for details.
All of these early Christian and non-Christian writers quote the passage (Jn 8:1-11) as Holy Scripture.
James notes that early are "unanimous in interpreting the pericope of the adulteress as being indicative of Jesus' forgiving grace applied to the woman." But besides the fact that only one of four on his list even discuss the verses openly, he also has it wrong regarding the testimony of at least two, Theodoret and Tertullian.
Theodoret seems quite aware of the verses as he relates a remarkable report concerning the Council of Nicea, but his application of the story has the purpose of exposing the hypocrisy of Emperor Constantine and the bishops, and he offers no clear ruling as to the woman or the original meaning of the passage.
Theodoret on John 8:1-11 < - - Click here for details.
Tertullian's testimony is even more remarkable, because if he is aware of the passage, he certainly does not allow forgiveness for adultery. Instead, Tertullian provides evidence of the passage's existance and authority (he reports a bishop issuing an edict that can only be based upon this passage and its application by the author of the Didache etc.). At the same time, Tertullian himself rejects any 'anti-Nomist' interpretation of the passage. It is clear however, that Tertullian's interpretation of the passage is flawed, skewed by his poor soteriology and his Nomist/Legalist heresy. His bias and hatred of women also appears to heavily influence his rejection of the passage, and this aspect of Tertullian is well known. It hardly provides a recommendation for the 'Nomist'/Legalist interpretation of the verses.
Tertullian on John 8:1-11 < - - Click here for details.
Another problem with James' poor methodology is that the list of 'modern commentators' is made to look about the same size and importance as the list of early Christian writers. But this is hardly the case. On the one hand you have a long consistent tradition involving many dozens of church teachers and theologians and spanning almost 2000 years, while on the other we have a handful of modern amateur commentators (modern Protestants) whose work spans a mere 50 years.
Another anomaly in James' grouping is that he includes Luther and Calvin (16th century Protestant reformers) in the ancient list, whereas they really should be included in the 'modern' list of Protestant commentators who break away from traditional church teaching. The reason for James' grouping appears to be because these two founders of modern Protestantism have views quite different from the supposedly "unanimous" view of 'modern commentators'.
As James notes however,
Luther asserts that the woman was forgiven, 8 while Calvin ...notes that the text does not specify her forgiveness. 9
8. M. Luther, Luther's Works (ed. J. Pelikan; Saint Louis: Concordia, 1959), 23. 310.
9. J. Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries: New Testament (ed. D. W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance, trans. T. H. L. Parker; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 4. 206-209.
- S. A. James, I. Hist. JETS, p. 46
This seems to indicate an important "crossover-point" in the history of interpretation beginning with Calvin, but James gives no adequate explanation at all as to why 1500 years of "unanimous" interpretation would suddenly be struck down by a Protestant reformer. But clearly, such a stunning reversal in the meaning of the passage at least in some minds demands a full investigation.
Sure enough, this change can be linked to another innovation, the 'Nomism' (Legalism) of Calvin. G. R. O'Day explains:
'...The history of interpretation of this text demonstrates the power of interpretive interests to read the text against its own shape.
...The misreadings of John 7:53-8:11 on which I would like to focus form three clusters:
...(cluster 2) readings that are governed by a fear of and a resistance to Jesus' perceived antinomianism - readings exemplified by Calvin; ...
This second type of misreading is characterized by a fear of antinomianism. Calvin's commentary on this text clearly reveals what is at stake in this misreading:
"It is not related that Christ simply absolved the woman, but that he let her go free. And this is not surprising, for He did not wish to undertake anything that did not belong to his office. Those who deduce from this that adultery should not be punished by death must, on the same reasoning, admit that inheritances should not be divided, since Christ refused to arbitrate between two brothers. Indeed every crime will be exempt from penalties of law if the punishment of adultery is remitted, for the door will then be thrown open to every kind of treachery..."
Calvin then reinforces why adultery should be punished, including the threat that property will be passed to an illegitimate child, and the "chief evil is that the woman disgraces the husband..."
Calvin precludes finding grace in this text:
"Yet the Popish theology is that in this passage Christ has brought in the law of grace, by which adulterers may be freed from punishment...Why is this, but that they may pollute with unbridled lust nearly every marriage bed with impunity? This is the result of that diabolical celibacy..."
Calvin concludes that "although Christ remits men's sins, He does not subvert the social order or abolish legal sentences and punishments." 8
I have quoted Calvin at length because he provides an excellent example of the power of vested interests to reshape a text. What actually occurs in John 7:53-8:11 is secondary to what Calvin will allow to take place.
Calvin may be the most explicit in stating his views, but he is not alone among commentators. Many commentators hedge in their conclusions about this text and cannot allow Jesus' grace toward this woman. For example, Barnabas Lindars writes that Jesus' word to the woman "merely shows that he, too, dismisses the case." 9
E. C. Hoskyns writes, "In some sections of the church the supposed leniency of the words 'neither do I condemn thee' which are, however, not lenient at all, must have occasioned scandal." There is "no condoning of adultery, for the woman's action is roundly denounced as sinful, here also is no forgiveness of sin, for the woman expresses neither faith or repentance." 10
The possibility that in John 7:53-8:11 Jesus subverts the social status quo, particularly with regard to a woman's sexuality, is too dangerous for these interpreters. The need to depict Jesus as the maintainer of the social order (and it seems, to protect Jesus from himself) results in interpretation that reshapes the text.'
8. John Calvin, The Gospel Acc. St John (transl. T.H.L. Parker, Eerdmans 1959) 209.
9. Barnabas Lindars, The Gospel of John (London 1972) 312.
10. E. C. Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel (2nd rev. Ed F. N. Davey, Faber & 1947) 570.
G. R. O'Day,
A Study in Misreading,
JBL 111/4 (1992) pp. 631-640
Clearly what we learn from a closer examination of the change in interpretation during the Reformation is this:
There was no 'breakthrough' of insight or brilliant discovery regarding the text at all.
Rather, the text was systematically ignored in favour of vested interests: That is, 'law and order' issues were given priority and overriding authority AGAINST the authority of Holy Scripture and its 1500 year long traditional interpretation.
Calvin did not discover the 'true meaning' of John 8:1-11, but actually subverted it in order to promote his personal views on Law and Order and his pet theories regarding the origin of the traditional interpretation (Papal corruption due to celibacy). We can look backward with calmer, sober hindsight and see that Calvin's theories regarding passage are fatally flawed.
O'Day's investigation clearly shows that others followed Calvin down this road for the very same reasons: They were not interested in the proper interpretation of the passage, but were acting out of a paranoid fear that the traditional interpretation would lead to the corruption of society. They sacrificed the traditional understanding of Jn 8:1-11 to promote a 'law and order' agenda alien to the actual Jesus of the Gospels.
The irony here is that Augustine had given this fear of encouraging adultery as the very reason that some had omitted the verses in the 4th century! Now the post-Reformation Protestant commentators were doing something quite similar for the very same reasons. This shows that Augustine's 'conjectural' explanation was well founded, and based on a solid understanding of human nature.
O'Day firmly establishes that the "Nomist" interpretation of John 8:1-11 originates with Calvin, and that it is not based at all on any new Spiritual insight into or even attention to the text, but rather based on the 'law and order' agenda that James (400 years later) is in fact promoting; i.e. the legitimizing and reinstatement of the Death Penalty.
James' List of 'Modern Commentators'
Next James tells us:
"Modern commentators, such as Bernard, Godet, Hoskyns, Morris and Westcott, are unanimous in noting that the text does not say that Jesus forgave the woman."
- James, The Adulteress..., p 46
Again the list is so skewed and flawed that it amounts to a 'forgery'. There have been literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of 'modern' commentators published in the English language since the publication of the Bible (c. 1550s), and perhaps dozens of personal and novel interpretations of this passage. Every 'modern' commentary on John has been obliged to comment on these verses, since they stand in the text in spite of the arguments of 19th century German critics to expunge them.
This list appears to be an act of desperation:
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) French theologian and reformer
Frédéric Louis Godet (1812-1900), a Swiss Protestant theologian
Sir Edwyn Clement Hoskyns (1884-1937) a priest of the Church of England
Leon Morris (1914-2006) Australian theologian
B. F. Westcott (1825-1901) English bishop and theologian
Although admittedly famous, these crusty old dinosaurs of yesteryear are not famous for solid Biblical doctrine, or even an Evangelical perspective, but rather they are famous for adopting and promoting the views of 19th century German Higher Critics who shipwrecked a whole generation of English speaking Christians.
Westcott for instance was one of the conspirators who foisted the infamous "Revised Version" of 1882 upon the British public, in which some 200 verses of the traditional text of the NT were removed or relegated to footnotes casting doubt upon their authenticity.
We have reviewed the sad performance of many of these commentators here:
Crackpot Commentators on Jn 8:1-11 < - - Click here for details.
None of these commentators are "modern" in any reasonable sense of the word, and it appears that James has had to search far and wide to come up with five people who agree "unanimously" on the minor point that the woman is not explicitly pronounced "forgiven".
Even though these (Protestant) legalists of yesteryear were reserved about forgiving the adulteress, they are not "unanimous" on the meaning of the text, or even committed to any one interpretation.
Many other "prominent commentators" could have been consulted, even if we were restricted to Protestants, such as Raymond Brown (1960), C. Bushnell (1925), W. Barclay (1956), Z. Hodges (1979).
And the result would not be any kind of "unanimous" verdict that the woman was unforgiven, but it would at least be an honest reflection of truly 'modern' Christian commentary on the verses prior to 1979.
So James is also wrong about the "unanimity" of modern commentators, and the reason appears to be either his lack of even an attempt at adequate research, or perhaps deliberate bias in order to present a simplified and convenient picture for his thesis.
Most readers would not have the time or skills to properly check James' points and these would go unchallenged with unfortunate results.
James dismisses the "modern" commentators in any case with the following claim:
"None of the persons mentioned above seriously examines the words and actions of Jesus in the light of Jewish legal procedures regarding the capital crime of adultery."
- S. A. James, p.46
This may be true regarding James' short list of 5 commentators, but it is plainly a straw-man attack.
The fact is, that ever since critics noticed the verses were omitted in a handful of old copies (c. 1560), they have been exhaustively analyzed and critiqued on the basis of Jewish tradition and Rabbinical interpretation, beginning with the Torah and Talmud, and ending with the most sophisticated discussions surrounding O.T. Law, ancient and modern jurisprudence over the last 4,000 years.
Perhaps most remarkable is that one of the first Reformer's Commentaries on John's Gospel, that of John Lightfoot (1675) was based almost entirely upon the Talmud and other Judaic literature. Lightfoot's commentary became a standard reference work for nearly 200 years, and was often used as a model for later commentaries.
John Lightfoot (1675) on Jn 8:1-11 < - - Click Here to review
A good example of the great depth in analysis are the some dozen pages on Jewish historical and legal background presented to the public by Samuel Davidson (1848) in his Introduction to the New Testament pp. 356-369.
Consideration of the Jewish historical and legal issues began as far back as the early 1600s, and continued with Bloomfield's Annotations Sacrae (1826), Rosenmuller's Scholia (1827), Tholuck's commentary (1833, transl. 1842), Alford's Greek NT, (1849-1863), Trollope's Critical Commentary (1842), and Meyer's many revised editions. Tregelles, J.B. Lightfoot, Philip Schaff, F. J. A. Hort, Nestle, all gave their analysis of the content of John 8:1-11 in light of Jewish history and practice.
To put it bluntly, James' remark is simply false. Almost every European, British and American scholar of note throughout the last 200 years has carefully considered the historicity of the passage in the light of Jewish Law and historical background, drawing on everything available from the Babylonian Talmud to Josephus.
Christian scholars have been both prolific and thorough on this Jewish/historical aspect of the verses for the last hundred years. Some of these scholars were masters of ancient languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Syriac and Latin, as well as church history, dogma, and apologetics. Remarkably, none of them concluded that John 8:1-11 taught that the woman wasn't forgiven.
What is unanimous among commentators, is the assumption that the woman was probably guilty, and Jesus mercifully defended her by forcing the witnesses to examine themselves, and then He let her go with a warning.
The list of Protestant commentators (if we so choose to limit ourselves) interpreting the passage as an example of pardon and forgiveness is long and prestigious:
Martin Luther(1530) asserts the woman is forgiven;
Dr. Mill, Dr. Whitby, Heumann,
Michaelis, Storr, Languis, Dettmers, Kuinsel,
all accept the passage and interpret it normally;
Staudlin alone has Jesus refuse to judge the case,
Bp. Middleton, notes legal precision of "THE stone",
John Lightfoot (1675) expounds with Torah Num 5:17-23
S. T. Bloomfield (1826) sees writing as a Jewish gesture
Trollope (1842) sees Jesus (Jn 8:7) include all sin, not just adultery;
Horne (1856) holds the passage & interpretation authentic
Godet (1865) grants the woman a path to repentance/salvation
Nolan (1865) sees her pardon as necessary to Gospel message
Kelly (1888) sees truth & light in Jesus' convicting grace
Bushnell (1925) says she was repentant, from Jesus' testimony (8:11)
Barclay (1956) calls the story "so gracious men were afraid to tell it"
Hoskyns says it fits the theological theme of judgment in ch 8
Raymond Brown (1966) accepts it as authentic tradition
F. N. Jones (1999) a strict Nomist(!), still confirms her as forgiven
James fully admits the preponderance of interpretation in his final remark while reviewing ancient and modern commentators:
'The fathers and Luther uniformly supposed that Jesus' motives for action were his desires to grant mercy to the woman and to escape legal entrapment by the Jews, and the modern commentators do nothing to indicate disagreement with this view.'
- James, p. 46
Combining what we have discovered about commentators ancient and modern, with James' own admissions, we must conclude that the following basic situation holds:
(1) Early Christian writers and later commentators were not deficient in examining the Jewish legal and historical background for the passage, and the issues raised by its interpretation.
(2) Early Christian writers and later commentators were overwhelmingly in favour of interpreting Jesus' actions as merciful and forgiving, leading to the woman's repentance and salvation.
(3) The combined expertise and experience of nearly 1,500 years of Christian analysis and commentary and its resultant conclusions cannot be dismissed with an unsupported accusation that they didn't understand the Jewish historical and legal background of the passage.
Next James looks at modern academic journals, and discovers (to no one's surprise) that there is nothing of any value among the many articles and journals that re-iterate supposed evidence against the authenticity of the passage and endlessly ponder what Jesus wrote in the sand:
'The journal articles during the past twenty years, at least those indexed in New Testament Abstracts, focus almost entirely on the two issues of the authenticity of the text of John 7:53-8:11 and speculation as to the content of what Jesus wrote on the ground. Virtually nothing has been done on the interpretation and application of the passage to modern needs.'
- James, p. 46
In this assessment at least we wholeheartedly agree. Modern academia has always vainly babbled about non-issues in order to denigrate the Holy Scriptures and avoid the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
However, the non-productive hand-waving of this conclave of blind fools is hardly worth observing, and does nothing to affirm James' main argument that supposedly nobody has understood and applied our passage correctly in either ancient or modern times. James' thesis is over the top and grossly inaccurate both from a historical and scientific point of view.
James' Conclusion to the first section, his Survey of the History of Interpretation appears as superficial as what preceded:
He says the "most valuable study" is that of J. D. M. Derrett, ["Law in the New Testament: The Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery," NTS 10 (1963-1964) 1-26.], and that 'the person who comes closest to the truth in interpreting this passage is R. D. Mawdsley" ["Capital Punishment in Genesis 9:6," Central Bible Quarterly 18/2 (1975) 24.]
In fact, while Derrett's study is certainly a useful examination of Jewish and legal issues, it is not the last word, and certainly not the only word on this subject, but is merely one of many excellent articles and books that review the same evidence. Finally, Derrett's work is hardly error-free, and his opinions on many points have been challenged by other experts and researchers.
Many of Derrett's theories and claims are over the top and unsupported by the historical evidence and the story. One example may suffice. Leon Morris who quotes Derrett postively, remarks in a footnote (Gospel According to John, Appendix: The Woman Taken in Adultery, pg 781 ):
'he [Derrett] stresses that the witnesses must have seen the couple in coitu.
"There is absolutely no question of their having seen the couple in a 'compromising situation', for example, coming from a room in which they were alone, or even lying together on the same bed. The actual physical movements of the couple must have been capable of no other explanation, and the witnesses must have seen exactly the same acts at exactly the same time, in the presence of each other, so that their depositions would be identical in every respect"
J. D. M. Derrett, (pp. 4-5).
He points out that conditions were so stringent that they could have been met only on rare occasions. Thus provision was made for the ordeal (sotah) when the husband was suspicious, but had not the proof required.
- Leon Morris, John, p 781
But any modern reader should be aware that all this is sheerest conjecture, based upon later Talmudic traditions (post fall of Jerusalem c. 90 A.D.), and it flatly contradicts the behaviour of the religious authorities as actually and consistently portrayed throughout the Gospels and Acts.
No matter how favourably we interpret the actions of the Herodians, the Pharisees and scribes, the Sadducees and temple priests, the bottom line is that they were quite willing to ignore the rule of law, the subtleties of "fair trials", and even manipulated their oppressors, the occupying Roman forces. The crucifixion of Christ, the stoning of Stephen, the persecution of Saul/Paul are glaring examples of a legal system wholly corrupt and a people willing to commit crimes in the name of law (Jn 16:2).
The theoretical fine points of law that Derrett attempts to apply to our passage must be relegated to distant legal "ideals" rarely seen in practice, if not sheer fantasies. In the real world, justice and fairness are rarer than cases of adulteresses caught in the act.
Trying to assess what "must have happened" on the basis of legal or moral ideals never even practiced, is akin to dreaming about the Kingdom of God on earth.
Similarly, James' choice of R. D. Mawdsley as the best interpreter of the passage appears to be based on nothing more than the fact that Mawdsley supports James' view on one key legal point:
'He did not condemn her to death by stoning since the witnesses against her had vanished (John 8:10). An analogous situation today would be the dismissal of the prosecution's case with prejudice for want of prosecution.'
- R. D. Mawdsley, ibid., p 24
But the entire second half of the story is essentially ignored by such a quick and superficial interpretation of the incident. In contrast to James and Mawdsley, careful Christian interpreters have been studying the interaction of Jesus and the woman for millenia, and drawing great religious and moral meaning from the actual words and actions of Jesus and the woman as recorded in the Gospel.
In contradiction to James and his program of oversimplification and loss of valuable Spiritual instruction, we would recommend the reader consult the dozens of Godly teachers, commentators and theologians who have carefully considered these verses and offer much insight into the story and the Gospel of Christ.
There is no reason why we should rely upon a single researcher on Jewish traditions (Derrett) anymore than we should rely upon a single interpreter of the passage (Mawdsley), and ignore the faithful labours of thousands of experts and teachers provided by God for our benefit:
'In a multitude of counsellors there is safety.' (Prov. 11:14, 15:22, 24:6)
Interpretation and Application
James correctly observes that if we don't think that John 8:1-11 is Holy Scripture, and conveys the word of God spoken by Jesus the Christ, then its meaning and interpretation is practically irrelevant:
'Inasmuch as this passage has greatest significance if it is regarded as authentic and canonical, the author will treat the passage as such and ignore the actual controversy concerning its authenticity.'
- James, p. 47
We applaud James for treating the Holy Scripture here as authentic and penned by John the Evangelist.
(This position is directly opposed to the majority of academics who on the basis of flimsy textual and linguistic evidence reject the passage as a later 'insertion'. See the link below for full reviews of the evidence:).
Authenticity of Jn 8:1-11 < - - Click Here for info
Nonetheless, it is clear by James' careful wording here that he is not necessarily assenting to the authenticity and authority of the passage at all.
He has merely agreed to treat it as Scripture for the purposes of argument.
We should not then expect any undue awe or concession regarding its content and its meaning for Christians. James has already written off ALL early Christian writers, ALL 'modern commentators', and ALL academics as worthless for interpreting this passage, with the exception of the opinion of one researcher (Derrett) regarding Jewish tradition and law, and with very limited support from one interpreter (Mawdsley).
James wants to interpret the passage strictly according to Biblical Law, and ignore all other aspects or connections that might influence the purpose and meaning of the text:
Proper interpretation and application of this passage to the capital punishment controversy can only result if a sound hermeneutic approach is used, which necessitates taking into strict account the Biblical legal data relevant to prosecuting a capital case.
This paper contends that, far from abrogating the Mosaic law, the actions and words of Jesus in this passage reflect an incredibly strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the Law.
- James, p. 47
We can certainly concede that proper understanding depends upon sound principles of interpretation. And we accept that careful consideration of the O.T. Law is also essential.
But the question of Jesus' (and John's) purpose and teaching here is exactly what must be proved, and James' contention simply reflects a Nomist belief in the meaning of Jesus' life and teaching. This is merely James' theme, and it remains a proposition of undetermined value.
The reason that James' approach is already inadequate, is that he stops his analysis with these preliminaries, and assumes that he has the whole picture, when in fact, other questions must be investigated, which have an even greater bearing on the purpose and meaning of this passage.
For instance, it is clear that (accepting authenticity, which James has done) we must at least ask what the purpose of John the Evangelist is, by including this story in his Gospel, placing it where he does, and relating it the way he does. For the Gospel is plainly a carefully composed structure with a clear and focussed goal.
John himself gives us clear roadsigns to guide us in his own purpose,
'But these have been recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and so that through believing you may have life in his name.'
(John 20:31, ISV)
Statements like this alone should sound a warning bell that the purpose of the passage is NOT mainly or even likely to have been written to support a Nomist agenda, but has rather a wholly different and Spiritual purpose, probably beyond the comprehension of a legalist:
'The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him: Nor can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned.'
It follows that unless the purpose of the author of John's Gospel is taken seriously, we are unlikely to properly understand the purpose and meaning of the story as it was intended to be taken. This is the 'Achilles heel' of James' claim to know what the passage is about.
The author's purpose is all the more important when a text like this passage interacts so deeply with its surrounding context. For this is hardly an 'interpolation by a copyist', but rather a deeply embedded structure that was deliberated designed to resonate with the Gospel.
Chiastic Structure & Jn 8:1-11 <- - Click here.
This whole second section (II. The Problem, p. 47) is really the opening theme statement for James' thesis, and should have been placed at the beginning. It is not (mis)placed later in the paper by accident however. This is a clever but deceitful tactic, that allows James to soften up and deceive the unwary or uninstructed on this subject, by means of his skewed, misleading and oversimplified "history of interpretation", before stating his real purpose and claim. Even now, however, James is careful to use conservative and reassuring wording, so as not to trigger any alarm bells:
The procedure of the paper is
(1) to show that it is a hazardous hermeneutic that applies this incident to the modern concern over capital punishment and
(2) to demonstrate that this incident does not support an overthrow of capital punishment, either for adultery or for any other crime, in its legitimate context of a theocratic state.
The relevance of the passage to the modern state will be noted in the concluding section.
- James, p. 47
Of course there IS a serious hazard in possibly misapplying Holy Scripture to a life-and-death issue like the reinstatement of the Death Penalty by modern secular states. And all should take the utmost care in the study and drawing of conclusions surrounding this issue, since the lives of men and possibly their salvation is at stake.
This does not mean that others have not already been responsible and competent in interpreting this passage. This is what James must demonstrate, and his dismissal of the whole previous 1,500 years of analysis of the verses does nothing whatever to inspire any confidence in his ability to apply a "safe hermeneutic" to this incident.
Of special importance however, is James' own concession in statement (2) above: ..."in its legitimate context of a theocratic state."
This is a severe restriction already upon any application of the death penalty, since there IS no modern state that could make any legitimate or plausible claim to be a "theocratic state" (a country following God's Laws, with God's approval and mandate).
To most people, this would be considered a FATAL flaw in any plan by a modern (secular) government to reinstate the death penalty. Even if Jesus upheld God's Laws in Israel, and the right of the Religious authorities of Jerusalem (the priesthood) to enforce them in His day, this could not legitimately be extended to non-Israelite, pagan, or secular governments who flagrantly ignored God's law.
Whatever the outcome of James' thesis for the interpretation of John 8:1-11, it is hard to see how this gross discrepancy between an ancient theocracy and modern atheistic regimes could be overcome, to allow any reinstatement of the death penalty.
'The interpretation of John 7:53-8:11 is vastly simplified by the fact that it does not utilize allegory, simile or other forms of symbolic language that increase the subjective element in interpretation.
The passage uses straightforward language that should be interpreted according to the normal sense of the words and grammatical constructions used, taking into consideration clear idiomatic usage of the time. The historical context of the incident is also vital...
- James, p. 47
What all agree is a good starting point for textual interpretation becomes for James the 'be-all and end-all' of NT hermeneutics.
The result is that all spiritual meaning, all deep principles, all instruction for our own conduct is automatically shut out from consideration. Its just a simple 'newspaper story' to be read and dismissed.
But it is only James who says that the story has no allegory, no symbolic language, and his claim just doesn't hold up:
(1) The mysterious "Jesus went to the Mount of Olives" forms the center-piece of a Chiastic structure of monumental proportions and deep symbolism:
Mount of Olives Chiasm <- - Click here.
(2) The story reopens with "At Dawn He came..." the unusual LXX idiom, "ορθρου" being a direct link to key LXX O.T. texts, such as the Greek Jeremiah, the Psalter, and Judges 19:26.
Dawn & Grk Jeremiah <- - Click here.
(3) The Adulteress is a classic Prophetic motif, symbolizing apostate Israel and Judah numerous times in the O.T., such as Ezek. 23 etc.
(4) Jesus writing in the earth twice is not just remarkable and mysterious by itself, but helps create a strong Chiastic structure around the central pronouncement:
a. they bring a woman taken in adultery
c. "such should be stoned"
d. in the midst
e. wrote in the earth
>> "Let the Sinless One among you cast the first stone."
e' wrote in the earth
d' in the midst
c' "Does no man condem thee?"
a' "Go, and sin no more"
(5) The "Sinless One" (v.8:7) is yet another stunning piece of Johannine irony, with the scribes and Pharisees first apparently waiting for Jesus Himself to throw the first stone.
(6) The vivid image of the scribes and Pharisees walking out "one by one" beginning with the elders, could hardly be more stunningly symbolic and profound.
In sum, it would be hard to find a passage more pregnant with religous symbolism than John 8:1-11, if it were not for the fact that the entire Gospel of John is written in just this way.
After a short lecture on "deductive vs. inductive reasoning", James warns us:
'It is very hazardous to attempt to derive a general principle concerning the propriety of capital punishment from the few incidents in Jesus' ministry which may be thought to be relevant.'
- James, p. 48
In fact, we have four whole Gospels, plus dozens of letters and the book of Acts to draw from. There are literally dozens of important teachings and incidents in Jesus' ministry available for deriving principles regarding capital punishment and related issues.
It would be hazardous NOT to make a thorough examination of these issues, using the full body of the New Testament literature and the early Christian writers.
James is constantly shutting out and cutting off resources which would help achieve Christian understanding and consensus, and for obvious reasons: to admit the bulk of Christian teaching and bring it to bear upon capital punishment would bring his own artificial constructions crashing down before the Light of the World, Jesus Christ.
While continuing to censure others for attempting to draw conclusions, James offers several dubious claims and conclusions himself:
Jesus' response was not directed to the crowd in general (as it would have been if he were teaching publicly) but to the small, select group of persons who were intimately involved in the event. ...[Jesus'] principles [were] addressed [only] to the scribes, Pharisees...
- James, p. 48
But the plain text states that Jesus effectively ignored the scribes and Pharisees (twice !): "But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote in the earth, as though He heard them not..." (v. 8:6). His address is an emphatic public announcement, again ignoring the self-important scribes and Pharisees (v. 8:7). And then once again Jesus completely ignores His opponents: "And again He stooped down, writing on the ground." (v. 8:8).
If James can't even acknowledge such plain statements as this, how are we to put any confidence whatever in his interpretation of the deeper aspects of the case?
(A) The Standard Interpretation
"Let the sinless one among you be first upon her, the stone to cast."
"ο αναμαρτητος υμων πρωτος επ' αυτην τον λιθον βαλετω."
Even most Christians remain as shocked at the profound scandal of Jesus' words here as whenever they first heard about them.
The attention which they command and the difficulty they generate simply never goes away. They are foolishness to this world, and yet strike as deep and true concerning justice as any words can.
Men have tried to wrestle these words down and make them conform to a normal statement ever since they were uttered. But the scandal remains.
As long as we translate the words as actually spoken and written, we are instantly struck by the fact that Jesus is NOT quoting O.T. Law, in any form or paraphrase whatsoever. Jesus is NOT affirming "the Law of Two Witnesses", or the basis of Priestly or secular authority. Jesus is NOT merely requiring honest witnesses, judges, or executioners to be present.
Jesus' demand is wholly unreasonable, and unfulfillable. The proof is that it goes unfulfilled.
The proof that Jesus intends the woman to go free is in the very fact that she actually does go free, and that this is clearly meant to indicate a victory for Jesus over His tempters and her accusers. Only a blind man could miss this clinching observation. And if Jesus intended the woman to go free then He intended that this requirement never be fulfilled.
In these simple observations the meaning of His pronouncement is made utterly clear and vouchsafed for all time.
If there were any other man in the crowd who could fulfill Jesus' requirement of being a "sinless one", he would be compelled to come forward and cast the official first stone. Jesus demands this one come forward first and show himself.
It is utterly inescapable that Jesus does not order the eyewitness(es) to come forward, as the Law requires. Jesus does not order the husband to come forward with a claim he was wronged without cause. Jesus does not order a full inquiry to punish false witnesses, as would be required were false testimony suspected. Jesus does not demand an account of her accomplice's whereabouts as surely demanded by the circumstances. Jesus does not order the woman held until the truth be established.
Jesus DOES accept the suspect testimony of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus DOES ignore the call to the standard of the Law of Moses (v. 8:6b, 8:8). Jesus DOES find the woman guilty without witnesses (v. 8:11). Jesus DOES release the woman on the flimsiest basis (v. 8:10). Jesus DOES does override the penalty called for by the testimony (8:4, 11). Jesus DOES follow after a crowd to do evil. (8:7, Exod. 23:1-3).
And all of these flagrant breaches of the Law of Moses completely shout down and utterly squash any attempt at a "Nomist interpretation" of John 8:1-11. Jesus here does just what He pleases. He is above the Law.
Nor does the context of John's Gospel allow any other interpretation than Jesus' complete superiority and authority over the Law of Moses.
From the very first chapter we are warned that Jesus is as far above and beyond the Law of Moses as is heaven from earth, as is West from East, as is Light from Darkness. (Jn 3:13, 8:23)
John 1:17 gives us the first loud warning: Moses offered "the Law". but Jesus gives TRUTH and MERCY. And this contrasting theme is accelerated and amplified:
Jesus commands the cripple to get up and carry his bed, causing the man to risk the death penalty for breaching the Sabbath, yet in the same breath commands him to "sin no more", implying that breaching Moses' Law is not a sin!
Jesus accuses the religious authorities and all the Jews (Judeans) of utter Lawlessness even by Moses' standards (Jn 7:19).
Finally the conflict between Jesus and Moses climaxes in the incident of the Woman Taken in Adultery, which typifies fallen Israel herself. Jesus pardons the woman by His own fiat: He simply chooses to free her and let her go.
His power over those imposing the Law of Moses is ABSOLUTE: The Gospel deals the Law of Moses one final death blow in the giving of sight to the blind man:
"We are Moses' disciples!" shout the Pharisees (Jn 9:28).
The blind man responds:
"You don't know where He's from! - yet He opened my eyes!" (Jn 9:30).
Jesus adds, "If you were blind, you would have no sin.
Since you say 'we see', your sin remains." (Jn 9:41)
Nomists can only avoid the stunning impact of John 8:1-11 by completely divorcing it from its legitimate context embedded in the Gospel of John. This is why Protestants and others who support earthly secular authority as against the heavenly authority given to the Church of Christ wish to literally tear the passage right out of the Gospel of John, and give it some other conjectural source, like "oral tradition".
If the passage were successfully divorced from the Gospel, then Nomists could interpret it in isolation "according to Jewish standards", and avoid the catastrophe of Jesus' absolute rejection of earthly power, even of those attempting to enforce the Law of Moses.
This is the real motive behind the modern hidden agenda of trying to remove the verses from John, while (safely) claiming they are "still authentic scripture". Its all to support a Calvinist agenda of earthly power and authority to enforce God's Law on others (as conveniently interpreted by the rulers of this world).
(B) S. A. James' Interpretation
James acknowledges that the meaning of αναμαρτητος ("sinless one") in Jn 8:7 is critically important:
'The meaning of the term translated "without sin" is vital: In what way must one be without sin in order to be qualified to act as a witness, judge or executioner?'
- James, p48
But James' followup question here is misleading in itself, and begs the question. We must first establish what Jesus meant, and not presume Jesus was concerned with "court protocols" or legal issues regarding the enforcement of the Torah. Only a person with those questions as his main concern would be framing the question above in such terms.
In fact, Jesus' other actions indicate He has little or no concern with legalities, and this is extremely important for interpreting the intent of His statements in verse 8:7 and 8:10-11.
James refers to "witness" as well as executioner, but this is a presumption based upon Deut. 17:6-7 ("The Hands of the Witnesses"). Yet this "procedure" regarding stoning is based upon the crime of Idolatry, not Adultery.
Even if others have tried to extend the application of Deut. 17:6-7 to include crimes like adultery, there is no historical evidence that this was so at the time of Christ, or even in the later Talmud (2nd cent. A.D.).
The narrative itself makes no reference to Deut. 17:6 ("Hands of Witnesses") at all, but only apparently Deut. 22:22-27 ("Adultery", verse 8:5).
The Witness, or the Husband?
A more plausible or at least pragmatic expectation would be that in the case of an adulterous wife at least, the husband might be given the priviledge of the "First stone", along with possibly the power to commute (cancel) the sentence through forgiveness (providing no other marriage contract was violated, e.g. the accomplice was unmarried).
This line of investigation has been examined adequately by Alan Watson ("Jesus and the Adulteress", Biblica 80 (1999) 100-108):
"The one without sin" is ironic. The Greek αναμαρτητος is singular. This does not mean "anyone". He is singling out an individual. The person he means is the ex-husband: for the Pharisees the husband had not sinned in divorcing his wife, for Jesus he had. For the Pharisaic position we have Mishnah Gittin 9.10:
a. The House of Shammai say,
"A man should divorce his wife only because he has found grounds for it in unchastity,
b. "since it is said, Because he has found in her indecency in anything (Dt. 24:1)".
c. And the House of Hillel say, "Even if she spoiled his dish,
d. "since it is said, Because he found in her indecency in anything".
e. R. Aqiba says, "Even if he found someone else prettier than she,
f. "since it is said, And it shall be if she find not favor in his eyes (Dt. 24:1)"16.
Thus, at least for the supporters of the school of Hillel (of around 70 BC to AD 10) and Rabbi Akiba (of around 45-135), the divorcing husband needed no excuse for his act, hence was without sin. It would be unreasonable to suppose that their position was not also held even earlier. Much early evidence is lost. Jesus’ attitude is different, expressed most notably at Matt 5,31-32:
"It was also said,
‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce’.
But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery".
A husband who divorces his wife, except for unchastity, causes her in the eyes of Jesus to commit adultery, i.e. when she remarries.
We can go further. We know from Matt 19,3-9. that this was an issue of contention between Pharisees and Jesus: The Pharisees put the question of the lawfulness of divorce in the context of testing Jesus. In fact, the Greek πειραζοντες is the same in Matt 19,3, Mark 10,2, and John 8,6, "tempting (him)"
Also, in all three passages the issue is framed in terms of a supposed disagreement between the law of Moses and the stance of Jesus. This is precisely a tricky issue to bring to Jesus. Indeed, it is the issue on adultery for the Pharisees to bring before Jesus.'
- Alan Watson, J. & the Adulteress
These are important early Jewish traditions of interpretation known to be current at the time of Jesus, and Watson's analysis certainly has as much weight as that of Derrett, whom James wishes us to rely upon.
But the net effect of these alternative and equally plausible interpretations of the historical Jewish background behind the incident, again bodes ill for the Nomist interpretation of Jesus' action.
What has been discovered is that Jewish traditions were far more fluidly "interpretive" and malleable than previously thought, and Jesus' actions also are far murkier than assumed by Nomists.
James leaves little doubt as to how he wants us to interpret Jesus' famous pronouncement:
'The actual and basic meaning of the word αναμαρτητος is "without fault". ...
"without sin" goes beyond the original intent of the word, which is basically secular. 15
In effect, Jesus is asking the witnesses if they are truly eligible before the law to testify. ...
It is unfortunate that the term is translated "without sin"... It would have been better translated, in context, as "competent to testify".
15. TDNT, s.v. "anamartetos". [i.e. Theological Dictionary of the NT, entry: "anamartetos"]
- S. A. James, p.48
Once again however, his claim is nonsense, and his authority is dubious.
The word "sinless one" αναμαρτητος ('anhamartetos') means exactly what it says, "sinless one" or "one without sin".
It is based plainly on the root-word αμαρτια ('hamartia'), - "sin", "wrongful deed", "crime", "offence", "trespass".
The verb form αμαρτανω ('hamartano') is also consistent and firm in its meaning: - "to sin", "to offend", "to trespass".
The root words are used in just this way consistently throughout the Greek Old Testament (the LXX) as well, not just the New Testament.
The error of S. A. James is even more striking, when we note that there actually is a Greek word already available in the vocabulary of the New Testament that carries the meaning that James wants to insert here:
The REAL word James is seeking
αμεμπτος ('amemptos'), derived from μεμφομαι ('memfomai', - "to find fault"), means - "without fault", "blameless", "worthy", "with clear reputation": Precisely what James had claimed that αναμαρτητος ('anhamartetos') meant.
This word is used in the NT in exactly the way we would expect, to refer to ordinary but Godly people in obediance to the Torah and of an upright heart. (see Luke 1:6, Phili. 2:15, 3:6, 1st Thess. 5:23 etc.).
O.T. Usage of αναμαρτητος ("Sinless One")
This rare variation of the word does seem to appear once in the Greek (LXX) translation of Deut. 29:19-20, in the context of the curse for disobedience to the Covenant:
'And it shall be that if one of you were to hear the words of this oath,
and should imagine in his heart, saying,
"Blessings to me will happen,
though following my own (wayward) heart I will go.",
in order that they should not be destroyed together,
the sinner, (ο αμαρτωλος) with the sinless (τον αναμαρτητον),
[The Heb. has here: "...to prevent disaster on the watered lands as well as the desert"]
in no way does God wish to forgive him,
but then the anger of the LORD shall burn,
and His zeal will fall upon that man (only);
and all the curses of this Covenant will cleave to him,
those written in this Scroll of the Law;
and the LORD shall blot out his name from under heaven.'
Here in this one passage the context does suggest 'guiltless' in the humanly possible sense, that is, it speaks of a hypothetical innocent bystander, who is to be protected from the wrath to fall upon the Covenant breaker. Yet even here, the plain topic and sense is sin and actual guilt, not 'fitness to testify' or merely fulfilling legal requirements to qualify for status in the community.
What the Pharisees Meant by αμαρτια ("sin")
"Sin" is precisely the meaning in John 9:34:
"In sins you were wholly born, and you (dare to) teach us?!?"
εν αμαρτιαις συ εγεννηθης ολος, και συ διδασκεις ημας ?!?
The complimentary word αμαρτωλος ('hamartolos') - "sinner" (of opposite meaning) is also consistently used in John's Gospel to refer to sin, i.e., the fact of guiltiness and culpability:
"We know that this man is a sinner!"
ημεις οιδαμεν οτι ο ανθρωπος ουτος αμαρτωλος εστιν!
(Jn 9:24,25 etc.)
These heated arguments (e.g. Jn 9:13-34) are not mere debates about suitability as a witness or status as a responsible member of the Jewish community.
Clearly the Pharisees as well as Jesus and the blind man are focussed on the question of SIN, even if the 'context' and standard for testing is the Law of Moses and/or the Israelite Covenant.
What Jesus Meant by αμαρτια ("sin")
Similarly, in the discussion immediately following the incident, Jesus plainly turns the focus away from 'legal status' (e.g. Abraham's descendants) to the question of SIN and personal culpability, using the very same vocabulary:
"We are the seed of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. How do you mean 'You will become free.'... ?"
Jesus answered them:
"Amen amen I say to you,
Everyone doing sin (ποιων την αμαρτιαν) is a slave to sin (αμαρτιας).
(Jn 8:33-34 etc.)
In the Gospel of John, the focus is on SIN throughout, starting from the very first page and the testimony of John the Baptist (Jn 1:29), and the vocabulary too is equally consistent:
"Behold the Lamb of God, Who takes away the SINS (αμαρτιαν) of the world!"
That Jesus in John 8:7 means something entirely different (from James' idea) and quite extraordinary is shown by the fact that this exact word, αναμαρτητος ('anhamartetos') only appears this ONCE in the entire New Testament (it is NT hapax legomenon). Nowhere else is there an αναμαρτητος, a "sinless one" or "one without sin" to be found in the entire Bible, especially with the meaning of merely an 'honest man' or 'competant to testify'.
Yet the idea actually does appear in slightly different wording elsewhere in the NT:
'And you know that this One [Jesus] appeared so that our sins He might remove;
and in Him there is no sin.
(και αμαρτια εν αυτω ουκ εστιν).
'For we do not have a High Priest [Jesus] unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but rather One having been tested in all similar respects, yet without sin (χωρις αμαρτιας).
(1st Jn 3:5, Heb. 4:15)
Again the usage of the vocabulary indicates the topic is real sin and guilt, not legal status or suitability for any office participating in carrying out law enforcement. The concern and focus of the NT writers is consistently on real sin, not legality or appearances.
And the only person who qualifies as "without sin" using this vocabulary is Jesus the Christ. The NT writers are careful to reserve this status, not for mere honest men, holy men, or obedient God-fearers, but only for Jesus Himself.
The conclusion is inescapable that Jesus has here in John 8:7 said something extraordinary, and has obliquely referred to Himself!
James offers one more remarkable, if not comical "observation" regarding the passage. He has already admitted that there is a significant moral element in Jesus' saying in Jn 8:7:
'Jesus' statement, "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7), raises a question concerning the moral qualifications of witnesses, judges and executioners.'
- S. A. James, p.48
James feels compelled to extend this moral question to judges and executioners, as well as witnesses, because the very statement of Jesus is annoyingly ambiguous.
James would like to limit the statement to witnesses (and reduce it to a mere reminder of Deut. 17:7, "the Hands of the Witnesses").
But Jesus' choice of words extend themselves to the entire group about to engage in a judgment and execution. So James must be satisfied with attempting to limit Jesus' words to the party of scribes and Pharisees, and their alleged witnesses (who remain unidentified nameless faces hiding in the party).
The Most Public Event Possible
But Jesus' words go even further than this, in spite of James' attempts to control them. For Jesus plainly calls upon the entire crowd gathered to also be witnesses, as to the honesty and fairness of the group of judges and executioners. Now it is they who are under observation, by an international body of Israelites gathered to the Temple for the Festival. In fact, Jesus is practically compelled to appeal to the whole crowd standing there as witnesses to this "court process".
There can be no "private" debate or secret execution of an adulteress. All Israel is watching, because the party of scribes and Pharisees have themselves chosen the venue: the public courts of the Temple on a high feast day.
Now James sums up the purpose and meaning of Jesus' words as a two-pronged requirement:
'Jesus must be understood as commanding the scribes and Pharisees to be without evil motive in bringing the woman before him - which means, in part, that they must be obeying completely the Biblical commandments relative to trying a case of adultery.
If there is any application beyond the immediate incident, it can only be to require:
(a) innocence of motive and
(b) conformity to legal procedure,
by persons engaged in the prosecution of criminals.
- S. A. James, p.49
Nobody would deny that if a trial based on an offence under the Law of Moses were to be conducted, it ought to be conducted by the legal rules of procedure laid down by the same authority, the Torah. Were a trial to proceed, this should be taken for granted.
But if this were Jesus' main point, then the trial should by all means proceed, and the woman if guilty be stoned. Yet Jesus' words are plainly intended to halt the proceedings, and He does so quite successfully and dramatically.
Motive and Intent
What then is the moral element in Jesus' saying?
James would have us believe that it is a question of motive, intent.
But the O.T. Law shows little concern for internal motives, and makes little provision for intent.
Presuming the witnesses tell the truth, whatever their motive or attitude toward the accused, they can and should (must) testify. This amounts to a rubber-stamping of the guilty verdict irrespective of the heart and motive of the witnesses.
This should be in favour of James' Nomist position, but it undermines it: because Jesus very obviously IS concerned with the internal heart and the guilt of any accusers, judges, witnesses, and executioners. This is plainly inconvenient, and hardly allows a simple interpretation that only expects the application of O.T. Law.
Jesus plainly calls for something above and beyond the Law of Moses here, and James' "solution" to the difficulty the text presents is wholly inadequate.
James' Hermeneutical case consists of this:
(1) It was a (mere) legal dispute: " - That ...is clear from the legal terminology of the passage." (p.47 note 13).
(2) There is no religious or moral meaning, no "allegory, simile, or symbolic language" in the passage, and "without sin" goes beyond the original intent of αναμαρτητος, "which is basically secular" in meaning. (p. 47)
(3) The meaning of αναμαρτητος is "without fault", and "would have been better translated...as 'competent to testify' (p. 48).
(4) Jesus is specifically asking the witnesses "if they are eligible before the law to testify in this case." (p. 48).
(5) The pronouncement in 8:7 is part of a private "dialogue between Jesus and the accusers.. not ...directed...to the crowd in general that overheard, ... but to a small select group" (p.47-48).
(6) Jesus is asking (in 8:7) that the trial party be (a) "without evil motive" and (b) conform to legal procedure.
(7) We should agree with Calvin that "none must let his own sins stop him correcting the sins of others and even punishing them when necessary..."
- S. A. James, p.47-49
But as we've seen, James is seriously wrong on every point.
(1) The Pharisees may have begun it as a "legal" dispute, but Jesus turned it into a moral one.
(2) The passage is rife with symbolic language and allegorical impact.
(3) The subject is essentially religious, not secular, because Jesus focuses the discussion on SIN. The Johannine context also re-enforces the question of SIN as opposed to "legalities" or appearances.
(4) Jesus deliberately ignores the Accusing party itself, and sidesteps the "witnesses", while focussing on the guilt and consciences of the Accusing party and any potential participants before the whole crowd.
(5) Jesus presents the case in turn before the international crowd, shrinking the authority of the scribes and Pharisees further.
(6) Jesus in 8:7 confronts the sinful past (and present sinful status) of those seeking to condemn the woman, and successfully vanquishes them.
(7) Calvin is the least reliable interpreter of the passage, since he ignores its content entirely in favour of his preconceived views on law and order, and the legitimacy of earthly secular authority.
James completely strikes out in his analysis of John 8:1-11, because he:
(1) Dismisses entirely 1,500 years of open discussion, debate, and interpretation of the passage in favour of one Jewish researcher and one Nomist commentator.
(2) Embraces Calvin's Nomist agenda, and has already utterly made up his own mind on the Death Penalty issue.
(3) Ignores the plain meaning of Jesus' statements in the passage in favour of a "wish list" of ideas that don't appear there.
(4) Distorts the lexical and linguistic evidence to impose his own implausible 'interpretation'.
(5) Ignores the symbolic and allegorical language and nature of the passage, its context, and the whole genre of Christian Gospel literature, in favour of a "secular", "Jewish", "Legalist" reading of the passage.
(6) Refuses to acknowledge his own debt to previous "misinterpreters" and the plagarized ideas he has adopted from them.
(7) Holds an inferior, "legalist", 'Jewish Rabbi' view of Jesus, and so has no real Christian interpretation at all to offer readers who seek the Christian meaning of the passage.
James' failure to properly assess and understand the passage is complete, because it represents the most narrow, unscientific, and prejudiced treatment of John 8:1-11 ever penned.
His own methodological dishonesty ensures a total disaster.
In this section, James claims to demonstrate that the passage doesn't remove the right to use capital punishment, and he also denies that in it Jesus even addressed the issue of applicability.
But as before, his claims and his demonstrations are at odds. He quotes Deut. 22:22-24 / Lev 20:10, merely reiterating O.T. Law on Adultery, without any enlightening discussion (and these laws need it!).
(1) James then makes the ridiculous claim that "errors in judgment were virtually nil", because of the Law of Two Witnesses (Deut. 17:6-7).
Such a claim is historically naive and absurd however:
Stories like that of Naboth (1st Kings 21:11-13), who was falsely accused and stoned to death, show that conspirators were quite willing to lie and convict the innocent for personal gain.
The story of Susanna also tells of groups of men in power blackmailing, and finally falsely testifying to frame an innocent woman for adultery. The problem of conspiring witnesses was common enough to generate multiple records of such crimes in Holy Scripture.
(2) James also claims "perjury was minimized" by the variable penalty" laid out in the Perjury Law (Deut 19:16-19).
The histories (1st & 2nd Kings etc.) testify that to a nation steeped in corruption and chronically sinful, especially of the government itself, and those in power. The Prophets describe Israel repeatedly as a nation full of adulterers and violent criminals.
Modern studies show the same. We know that the practical results of courts are not based upon fictions like legal precision, but rather on the level of competance and corruption of those in power. In regard to most unplanned crimes of violence, threats of punishment are irrelevant, because they are not even considered in the heat of the moment when emotions or drugs like alcohol cloud the thinking.
(3) James then quotes assorted Warnings and Proverbs (Exod. 23:1-3, 6-8), supposed to guarantee scrutiny of witnesses.
James then imagines vainly that his work is done:
'With this background, the incident narrated in the pericope of the adulteress can be interpreted.'
- James, p. 50
This can only be described as sheer fantasy. James has done nothing to provide an adequate Jewish/historical background for the verses. At least others like Derrett and Jackson had actually bothered to study the Talmud and other contemporary Jewish sources, for light on the problem.
James' Legal Analysis
James now begins his legal analysis of the incident. James notes that:
'...the trap focused on the Mosaic requirement of the death penalty for adultery...'
- James, p. 50
This may very well be how the scribes and Pharisees initially perceived the issue, however, it is strikingly obvious from the outcome that they quickly lost control of the situation, and that the focus had shifted completely under the guidance of Jesus, to the question of the sinfulness of the participants.
James next tells us:
'...it may be safely assumed that the minimum of two eyewitnesses was present - perhaps more - and that some of the scribes and Pharisees present were willing to accept responsibility for judging and executing the woman.'
- James, p. 50
But this is precisely what must not be safely assumed, neither by the congregation overseeing the trial, nor the judge, nor Jesus who must address the question of stoning, nor by the reader either, especially in the light of the subsequent behavior of those who have brought the case forward in the first place.
Again James simply ignores the testimony of the story itself, in deference to his own pet theories. This can only be described as wreckless, and bound for error.
Having imagined that he has established the existance of these eye-witnesses (although they are nowhere described, identified, or even mentioned in the text), James presses his next claim:
'[Jesus'] verbal reply [in 8:7] was aimed directly at the witnesses, for the right and obligation to cast the first stone belonged to no others.'
- James, p. 50
Once again, James begins by talking through his hat, instead of checking the Law itself.
The Book of Leviticus knows nothing of the 'Hands of the Witnesses Law' (Deut.17:7) recorded by the later Deuteronomist, even though stoning is specifically prescribed for three different offences (Moloch worship Lev 20:1-5, Witchcraft 20:27, Blasphemy 24:16,23)
Again in Numbers (15:35-36) a man is stoned to death on clear and specific instructions from the LORD, but there is no "right and obligation" for the witnesses to be first. Rather the congregation as a group stones the guilty party.
Even in Deuteronomy (21:18-21) a rebellious son is not stoned first by the parents (the testifying witnesses), but rather by the whole assembly (of men) of that city. Women witnesses were not eligible for such 'priviledges' (certainly not for Deut. 21:18-21).
Thus there is no call to apply the 'Hands of the Witnesses Law' (Deut.17:7) to every case of stoning. Its natural scope is in the case of Idolatry mentioned in its natural context (Deut.17:2-7)
In fact rigid application of such a rule would favour the criminal: Suppose that a criminal struck a witness and paralyzed him from the neck down or crippled him?
Should the criminal escape, because the witness was unable to throw the first stone?
Common sense tells us no, there is no rigid requirement or priviledge granted to eye-witnesses generally. This only sensibly applies to the Idolatry Law (Deut.17:2-7) with certainty.
' Jesus directly challenged the integrity of the witnesses...
The most amazing aspect of the challenge is that Jesus seems to have held each witness responsible for examining his own conduct.'
- James, p. 50
But having admitted this stunning admission, James seems completely unaware that he has unravelled his entire case.
For it is no part of 'Mosaic Law' to allow the witnesses to "judge themselves" and dismiss themselves from testifying! Such a suggestion is a serious breach of legal procedure and would result in countless injustices.
One might just as well ask the accused if they are guilty, and release them also based on their own word and opinion as to their guilt! For we ought to presume innocence until a proper inquiry is held:
"Does our law judge a man before hearing him?"
But we don't have to be as stupid as this.
Because we know from a proper reading of the Law of Moses that no witness has the right, or can even be presumed to have the intelligence, to judge whether he/she is fit to testify, and so excuse themselves.
That is the task of the judge, but only after first hearing the testimony!
We are rescued from this foolishness by recognizing that Jesus wasn't addressing the witnesses at all. Jesus was addressing the mob of accusers as a group (and those who would join them).
And Jesus' pronouncement had nothing to do with "competency to testify", but rather with their sinful condition and their sinister purpose in gathering (which the text plainly tells us is to entrap Jesus, Jn 8:6).
The Land of Speculation
Then (perhaps because he senses he may have raised a problem), James switches to a page-long discussion of wild speculations based loosely on Exod. 23:1-8, and borrowed from Derrett's previously cited article.
But James admits throughout that,
' No man knows the accuracy of Derrett's surmise,...
...objections (1) and (2) are not firmly based on Scripture...
We cannot know exactly how the witnesses received Jesus' challenge...'
- James, p. 51
But we can know how the plainly identified hearers of Jesus' words received them, because we are actually told that the entire Accusing Party left.
And this as clearly as anything indicates firmly who Jesus was addressing, who heard His speech, and how they understood it and applied it, according to all who witnessed the surprising but extended event:
'And they which heard, being convicted by conscience,
went out one by one, beginning at the elders, unto the last.'
Once again, we can hardly help noticing that we must either completely ignore the passage, or tear it to shreds and furiously re-write it, to adopt the fanciful and wholly imaginary reading being pushed by opponents of the clear and simple Gospel of Christ.
At this point it shouldn't really surprise us that James has demonstrated neither of his claims, i.e., that the passage doesn't remove the right to use capital punishment, and that in it Jesus didn't even address the issue of applicability.
James has in fact demonstrated nothing of the kind, because he himself never addresses these issues in this section. He merely repeats some of the claims he previously made in his "Hermeneutical" Section.