Last Updated:

Oct 23, 2010

Staley: the PA

Excerpts & Review: J.L. Staley, LIAR LIAR and “THIS WOMAN” IN JOHN 7:1--8:59, SBL 1999 Annual Meeting, (internet, 1999)

Page Index

Staley on the PA: “THIS WOMAN” IN JOHN 7:1--8:59
    The Concept of A "Reading" - Literary Criticism
    The Unity of Jn 7-8 - rhetorical analysis, & the PA
    Argumentative Pattern - “less personal” to “more personal”
    Rhetorical Analysis - previous and current
       The Pericope Adultera - remarkable unity with context
       My 1986 Analysis - Chiastic Structure of Jn 7:14-8:59
       Other Analysis - evidence of purpose behind "glosses"
    An Intertextual Reading - with the movie "Liar Liar"
       The PA Again - and character Samantha Cole
       Postmodern Intertextuality - and Canonical Authority

A Brief History of Reading

Preliminary Remarks

"This essay has a long pre-publication history. I began writing this paper in 1985, just after completing my dissertation,1 and I presented it in an unpolished form at the 1986 meeting of the Pacific Northwest regional SBL in Portland, Oregon. That paper had the rather mundane title, “The Rhetorical Structure of John 7:14-8:59,” and in it I argued that a close reading of the Johannine dialogue revealed an intricate rhetorical unity.

At the time I knew that “reading” was a problematical category for many literary critics, but for me the words “reading” and “reader” were unambiguous terms that referred to a textual entity and process evoked by those little black marks on white paper. For me, “reading” and “the reader” had no existence apart from texts. They were, in fact, rhetorical constructs within texts; constituent elements of an “implied reader” which could be carefully reconstructed by eagle-eyed critics like myself.2

As this essay will make clear, today I believe in many other kinds of readers besides just an implied, textually encoded reader. I now give credence to supplied and replied readers; to the single-plied and the double-plied; to the real and the unreal; to historical and hysterical readers; and to multiplied combinations of all of these. Even more importantly, I believe that all these readers and their attendant reading processes are fictional constructs in some way, whether I am talking about an intratextual “implied reader,” a first century reading audience, or myself as a “real, intertextual reader.” Every reader is an intentional, fictional construct with its own distinct rhetorical purpose and ideology.3 And this essay is an attempt to explore some of those intergalactic, intercalations of contemporary readers and ancient texts.


The Unity of John ch. 7 - 8

literary and rhetorical analysis

When I first started writing about John 7-8 I wanted to show how a literary and rhetorical analysis of the text could reveal the unity of one of the most fragmented Johannine scenes. 4 I had not spent much time thinking about lengthy direct speech segments like John 7-8 when I wrote my dissertation.

But I knew that in the history of the text (both real and imagined), this direct speech section of John seemed to have undergone more corruption than any other Johannine monologue or dialogue. So if I could show that there was a rhetorical unity to John 7-8 in its present canonical state, then my literary reading of the entire gospel would gain credibility, and my construction of its “implied reader” would be vindicated in the academic world.

The Pericope de Adultera

The most obvious corruption of this Johannine text is, of course, that lady come lately — the woman caught in adultery (7:53-8:11). “This woman” somehow forced her way into the canonical gospels, and from there, was thrust into the midst of Jesus’ Johannine conversation. Eventually she strutted out into the open, into the heated exegetical conversations of contemporary scholarship. 5

But she was no concern of mine. She didn’t play any role in my interpretation of John 7-8, since there was excellent manuscript evidence for excluding her from the text. However, in the imaginations of many Johannine scholars who studied John 7-8, not far beneath this woman’s abrupt textual eruption were the text displacement theories of Bultmann, Schnackenburg, and others before them. These scholars proposed transposing chapters 5 and 6, and then parts of chapters 7 and 8, in order to make sense out of the peculiar narrative sequencing of John 4-8. 6

Thus, the multiple narrative disjunctions and aporiae of John 7-8 (whether real or imagined) were the perfect grounds on which to test my unitary theories of the Johannine implied reader."

Evidences of Argumentative Pattern

From “less personal” to “more personal”

While working on my dissertation, I thought I had detected a certain argumentative pattern in Johannine dialogical style, one that consistently moved from what I termed a “less personal” to a “more personal” tone and content. 7

This movement could be seen in the specific metaphors that the narrator used to describe Jesus, in terms of Jesus’ own argumentative strategies, and In the broad, overall outline of the book’s plot. For example with regard to the narrator’s language, many scholars have noted how the Johannine prologue moved the Logos from God, to the world, and back to God again. 8 But what had not been observed were the changes in metaphors that went along with this progression.

Curiously, in the chiastic structure of the prologue, the abstract language of logos, light, and God (Jn 1:1-4) moves to the more personal language of kinship (only child, bosom, father) in Jn 1:17-18. 9 Moreover, in the narrative’s second monologue (Jn 5:19-47), the same progression can be found. There, Jesus begins by speaking vaguely about “the father,” “the son,” and “everyone” (5:19-29). But then in the second half (Jn 5:30-47), his language becomes more direct and personal with “I” (εγω), “my,” “you” (υμεις), and “my father” becoming more prevalent.

Finally, this same movement can be traced in the general plot of the book as a whole. For example, in the second half of the Gospel (Jn 11-21) Jesus speaks for the first time of his love for friends and followers, the narrator describes Jesus’ love for individuals, and Jesus gives a lengthy farewell speech to his disciples.

These elements all point to a more personal turn in the narrative. 10 Thus, in my early reading of the Fourth Gospel, a remarkable argumentative unity permeated the book’s narrative design.

A Rhetorical Analysis of the Text

my 1986 SBL paper

I began my 1986 SBL paper by arguing that despite the seemingly confused, disjunctive dialogue of John 7-8, there was a clear chiastic structure to the narrative unit and an overarching progression in its argument. Thus, despite any proposed source-critical or displacement theories, the final form of John 7-8 was coherent and unified on at least two rhetorical levels: symmetry (stylistics) and argumentation. An underlying subtext in the paper made the additional point that if one really wanted to enjoy Johannine rhetoric, one needed to move beyond the mere analysis of narrative symmetry. The critic should also explore the narrative’s argumentative structure—which might or might not follow its symmetric, chiastic divisions.[11]

The Problem with the Pericope Adultera

Now what I didn’t say in the title of that 1986 paper (or explain anywhere in the body of the paper) was why I excluded John 7:53-8:11 from my rhetorical analysis of John 7:1-8:59. The answer to that implicit question was all too obvious. John 7:53-8:11 just didn’t belong in John. It was a late addition to the text, as proven by manuscript study and vocabulary analysis.

But still, why leave John 7:53-8:11 out of my analysis? Especially since I was struck at the time (though I didn’t voice the opinion out loud), with the fact that “this woman’s” story [the PA] was actually positioned near the center of my chiastic structure and fit into it rather nicely. 12

But of course I was writing nearly ten years before the moiceia of Bill and Mo[n]iceia (8:3); long before President Clinton dropped his citwn for “that woman” in the hallowed halls of the White House. It is perhaps not coincidental that “this woman” has enjoyed a fairly wide appeal of late in Johannine studies.[13] Perhaps “that woman” might even be the underlying cultural pretext for why I eventually put “this woman” back into the Johannine narrative of John 7-8.

But with or without “this woman,” my 1986 analysis of Johannine narrative structure argued that John 7-10 stood together as a narrative unit whose primary focus was on two central Jewish institutions: synagogue and temple. Surrounding the two dialogical temple scenes with its “police” (7:14-8:59; 10:22-39) was the story of the man born blind and Jesus’ monologue about the good shepherd, both of which seemed to focus on the synagogue and the Pharisees. [14]

My 1986 Analysis

Here, then, is my 1986 analysis of John 7:14-8:59—now filtered through the bifocals I was finally forced to purchase a few months ago. My first look at the text focused on stylistic analysis—that is to say, on the text’s chiastic structure and the repetition of ideas or vocabulary within that structure. I hoped that by highlighting the repetition of certain words and ideas I would convince the uninitiated reader of a symmetrical structure which might otherwise appear highly imaginative or grossly idiosyncratic. My second look at the Johannine text focused on its argumentative structure, borrowing heavily from Chaim Perelman’s analysis of rhetoric in his The New Rhetoric.[15]

Now as anyone working with chiasms knows, their beginnings and endings are often the easiest parts to delineate. That is because those segments usually deal with important plot developments.[16] In John 7-8, for example, the rhetorical unit 7:14-8:59 is clearly marked off by Jesus’ entrance into and exit from the temple. But as I mentioned earlier, I did not include the textually suspect John 7:53-8:11 in my analysis, even though it lay near the center of the exposed chiasm and made reference to another exit and re-entrance to the temple (7:53-8:2).

The second movement of the chiasm was not as easy for me to delineate. But after many hours of slow, tortuous reading, I was able to isolate the next inward chiastic step. This segment focused on the crowds’ (’ocloi) arguments with Jesus over the authority of his teaching (Jn 7:15-24). I believed its seven argumentative points were paralleled in chapter 8, but with important new elaborations and developments in plot. There, “the Judeans” (’Ioudaioi)[17] argue with Jesus over the implications of his teaching (Jn 8:31-58).[18] I tried not to worry about the fact that the segment in John 8 was nearly twenty verses longer than its parallel segment in John 7.[19] Furthermore, the only way that I could come up with a convincing delineation of these two parallel segments was by not requiring that their seven argumentative points be repeated slavishly in consecutive order.

Up to this point, the argumentative points I highlighted in Jn 7:14-8:59 were these:

A - Jesus goes up secretly to Jerusalem, enters the temple, and begins to teach 7:10-14
A' - Jesus hides himself and leaves the temple 8:59
B - The crowds argue with Jesus over the authority of his teaching 7:15-24
i)  “if any one wants to do his will he shall know about the teaching . . .” (7:17)
ii)  “the one who speaks from himself seeks his own glory . . .” (7:18)
iii)  Moses gave you law, but none keep (poiei) the law (7:19)
iv)  “Why are you seeking to kill me?” (7:19)
v)  “You have a demon!” (7:20)
vi)  “I performed one work” (7:21)
vii)  an analogy: circumcision on Sabbath (7:22-23)
          (an allusion to Abraham [“the fathers,” Gen 17:9-14])
B' - The Judeans argue with Jesus regarding the implications of his teaching 8:31-58
i)  “if you remain in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth …” (8:31-32)
          (“if anyone keeps my word he will never taste death” (8:51))
ii)  “I do not seek my own glory” (8:50)
iii)  “if you were sons of Abraham, you would do (epoieite) the workmy 1986 SBL papers of Abraham” (8:39)
iv)  “you are seeking to kill me” (8:40)
v)  “Aren’t we right in saying . . . you have a demon?” (8:48)
vi)  “You do the works of your father” (8:41)
vii)  an analogy: a slave in a household (8:34-38)
          (an allusion to the Abraham story [Genesis 21:8-15; cf. Gal 4:21-31])[20]

The third symmetrical movement of the chiasm was the most difficult for me to frame. For although Jn 7:25-36 is easily delineated by the arguments Jesus has regarding his identity (7:25-36),[21] John 8:13-30 does not fall as easily into a discernable segment.[22] However, a certain parallel framework became evident when I compared the latter with Jn 7:25-36.

C - Arguments with Jesus regarding his possible identity 7:25-36
(the first subdivision emphasizes who Jesus might be [the Messiah], the one who sent him, the Jerusalemites, and Jesus as one doing signs 7:25-31)
i)  “you know me and you know where I am from” (7:28)
ii)  they were seeking to arrest him, but no one laid a hand upon him (7:30)
iii)  his hour had not yet come (7:30)
iv)  many in the crowd believed in him (7:31)
(the second subdivision emphasizes where Jesus might be going and the Pharisees 7:32-36)
v)  “you will search for me and you will not find me” (7:34)
vi)  “will he go to the Dispersion . . .?” (indirect question) (7:35)
vii)  “where I am you cannot come” (7:36)
C' - Arguments with Jesus regarding his true identity 8:13-30
(the first subdivision asks where Jesus’ Father is, emphasizes the Pharisees, and Jesus as witness 8:13-20)
i)  “you do not know where I have come from” (8:14)
ii)  no one arrested him (8:20)
iii)  his hour had not yet come (8:20)
(the second subdivision asks who Jesus is, emphasizes the Judeans, and Jesus as one doing what is pleasing to his Father, 8:21-30)
iv)  many [Judeans] believe in him (8:30)
v)  “you will search for me but you will die in your sin” (8:21)
vi)  “is he going to kill himself . . .?” (indirect question) (8:22)
vii)  “where I am going you are not able to come” (8:21-22)

So far this chiastic arrangement looks pretty nice. However, I may have cheated a bit to make it look as neat as it does. To be honest, in 1986 I thought that both Jn 7:25-36 and Jn 8:13-30 could be broken down into two additional segments (7:25-31, 32-36; and 8:13-20, 21-30). But when I did that, the following imperfection was revealed:

C - The Jerusalemites wonder whether Jesus might be the Messiah, and Jesus responds by talking about the one who sent him 7:25-31
i)  “you know me and you know where I am from” (7:28)
ii)  they were seeking to arrest him, but no one laid a hand upon him (7:30)
iii)  his hour had not yet come (7:30)
iv)  many in the crowd believed in him (7:31)
D - The Pharisees and Judeans wonder whether Jesus might be going to the Dispersion when he talks about where he is going and about the one who sent him 7:32-36
i)  “you will search for me and you will not find me” (7:34)
ii)  “will he go to the Dispersion . . .?” (indirect question) (7:35)
iii)  “where I am you cannot come” (7:36)
C' - The Pharisees challenge Jesus’ testimony and ask where his father is 8:13-20
i)  “you do not know where I have come from” (8:14)
ii)  no one arrested him (8:20)
iii)  his hour had not yet come (8:20)
D' - The Judeans wonder whether Jesus is going to kill himself when he talks about where he is going and about the one who sent him 8:21-30
iv)  many [Judeans] believe in him (8:30)
v)  “you will search for me but you will die in your sin” (8:21)
vi)  “is he going to kill himself . . .?” (indirect question) (8:22)
vii)  “where I am going you are cannot come” (8:21-22)

Clearly, if one wants a “perfect” chiasm, Jn 8:13-20 should come after 8:21-30 (e.g. C-D, D-C). And so the only way that I could keep my chiasm “perfect” was by combining C and D under one general heading (“C”). A generation ago I could easily have reconstructed an “Urtext” with these two segments reversed, and invented a redactional argument for the present (corrupt) state of the text. No doubt a reputable journal would have published the “research.” But my training has been in literary and rhetorical criticism, and a reconstruction like that was not a viable option for me. Back in 1986 I still wanted perfection in my John, but it would have to come from the argumentative and stylistic structure of the text as it now stood (excluding Jn 7:53-8:11), rather than from some hypothetical, reconstructed pre-text.

Thankfully, the final two segments of the chiastic structure of Jn 7:14-8:59 were much easier to identify than B and C.

D - Jesus’ metaphorical proclamation regarding his true identity 7:37-39[23]
(the one who believes in me . . . shall flow rivers of living water)
D' - Jesus’ metaphorical proclamation regarding his true identity 8:12
(the one who follows me . . . shall have the light of life)
E - Arguments among the crowd regarding Jesus’ identity 7:40-43
(the Christ is not to come from Galilee)
(Jesus is not on the scene)
E' - Arguments among the authorities regarding Jesus’ identity 7:45-52
(no prophet is to arise from Galilee)
(Jesus is not on the scene)
F - The second attempt to arrest Jesus ends in failure 7:44

Thus, the simplified chiastic structure that appeared in Jn 7:14-8:59 was:

A - Jesus goes up secretly to Jerusalem, enters the temple, and begins to teach 7:10-14
     B - The crowds argue with Jesus over the authority of his teaching 7:15-24
          C - Arguments with Jesus regarding his possible identity 7:25-36
               D - Jesus’ metaphorical proclamation regarding his true identity 7:37-39
                    E - Arguments among the crowd regarding Jesus’ identity 7:40-43
                         F - A second attempt to arrest Jesus ends in failure 7:44
                    E' - Arguments among the authorities regarding Jesus’ identity 7:45-52
               D' - Jesus’ metaphorical proclamation regarding his true identity 8:12
          C' - Arguments with Jesus regarding his true identity 8:13-30
     B' - The Judeans argue with Jesus regarding the implications of his teaching 8:31-58
A' - Jesus hides himself and leaves the temple 8:59

What gradually became apparent to me as I struggled to make John 7-8 chiastically coherent was that I was operating on two different rhetorical levels. While my large chiastic segments focused on the development of Jesus’ arguments with his opponents, the miscellany of words and themes simply isolated common material—regardless of plot or direct discourse arguments. So I wrote in my unpublished 1986 regional SBL presentation,

'We have clearly established that the narrative unit delineated by Jesus’ entrance and exit from the temple has a chiastic structure, determined by the clustering of certain themes and motifs (a kind of “surface structure”). However, we want to show that there is also a rhetorical cohesiveness from an argumentative per­spective. Here we will be looking not so much at the repetition of similar motifs, as at the differ­ences and development of thought in John 7-8.'

Jerome Neyrey's Analysis

Jerome Neyrey has published extensively on the argumentative structure of John 7-8 since I first wrote these lines in 1986.[24] In his analysis of the text he argues that John 7 and 8 are best understood as a “trial” in which Jesus undergoes a “formal forensic process.”[25]

Forensic rhetoric is simply another term for what Perelman & Kennedy call judicial rhetoric; that is, a species of argumentation where the speaker “is seeking to persuade an audience to make a judgment about events occurring in the past.” [26]

More appropriate to John 7-8, however, is Malina &Rohrbaugh’s term “challenge and riposte” - an expression Neyrey also uses in the second half of one of his essays.[27]

But when I first analyzed the argumentative structure of John 7-8, the two chapters seemed to reflect the deliberative genre of rhetoric, rather than the judicial or forensic genre as Jerome Neyrey has argued.[28]

The deliberative genre is directed toward persuading an audience of a future decision. This made the most sense to me at the time, since Jesus’ opponents raise questions about the authority of his teaching (7:15), after which he reacts with a statement that is oriented toward the future (“Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own” [7:17]).[29]

A judicial argument would have focused more on the past: e.g., “Rabbi Joseph was my teacher, and you all respect him, so go ask him what he taught me” (cf. 18:21). Obviously, Jesus cannot put forward a judicial argument in his own defense, since the origin of his teaching is not open to the same kind of external verification (God is his teacher, not a human).[30]

Thus, challenge and riposte, insinuation, innuendo, and gossip—all informal means of argumentation and exhortation, will play a more prominent role in John 7-8 than any formal “forensic trial.”[31]

In John 8:12-59, Jesus manages to put the issue of his authoritative teaching back into the maelstrom of ultimate authority—“the Father who sent me” ([8:18] “ . . . though you do not know him”[8:55])—which is an issue he has been trying to raise since John 7:15.

But the changes in vocabulary between John 7 and 8 are significant here:

Now the personal pronouns ’egw and ‘umeiV are more prevalent, as is kinship language (pathr, ‘uioV, and ’Abraam). The word ’egw occurs four times in John 7:14-52, but twenty-one times in John 8. Similarly, the pronoun ‘umeiV is only found four times in John 7:14-52, but fourteen times in John 8. Moreover, the kinship nouns pathr, ‘uioV, and ’Abraam are found one and seventeen times respectively; zero and three times, and zero and ten times in their respective chapters. The noun qeoV is found only one time in John 7:14-53, but seven times in John 8. Finally, the climactic inclusio “’egw  ’eimi” (8:12, 24, 28, 58) exemplifies the heightened drama of the challenges and ripostes between Jesus and his opponents.[32]

Now theology mutates into christology as Jesus’ deliberative claims begin to center more and more on himself (e.g., “if any one wants to do his will” (7:17), “if anyone remains in my word” (8:31), and “if anyone keeps my word” (8:51); and “you will seek me and will not find me” (7:34), and “you will seek me and die in your sins” (8:21). Just as in the prologue, the monologue of John 5:19-47, and in the Gospel as a whole, the movement from John 7 to John 8 moves always toward a more personal, revelatory, and confrontational climax.

I concluded my 1986 paper with the following paragraph:

"John 7-8 is framed by the inclusio of Jesus’ entrance and exit from the temple, and within this inclusio the plot to arrest Jesus and put him to death is highlighted. These repetitions, along with others, help to separate the text into a chiastic superstructure.

But this seemingly static superstructure undergirds a deliberative argument that is only revealed by subtle changes in the language between John 7 and 8. These changes are similar to other argumentative developments in the Fourth Gospel, and thus they are not isolated argumentative devices. What once were thought to be aporiae and editorial glosses in John 7-8 are, in reality, evidence of a remarkable narrative unity."

But my interaction with John 7-8 is much messier than this antiseptic textual analysis would lead one to surmise.

An Intertextual Reading

with the Jim Carrey movie "Liar Liar"


Liar Liar is, indeed, a Bible film. Jim Carrey, a.k.a. Fletcher Reede,[35] actually quotes the New Testament in the movie—John 8:32, to be exact. With arms raised in triumph, after having just won a settlement for Mrs. Samantha Cole, he shouts out the much abused phrase to a packed courtroom: “And the truUuuth shall seEeet you freEEEE!”

The film begins with nothing, with a blank, black screen. Then a voice speaks out in the darkness, just as in Genesis 1:1. It is the feminine voice of a schoolteacher—wisdom personified—spelling out the word “work” for her students. Work is an important theme of Genesis 1 and one that the film develops in some detail. Furthermore, the implications of Jesus’ teaching and his “work” (’ergon) just happen to be the starting point of Jesus’ volatile argument with the Judeans in John 7-8 (7:14-17, 21; cf. 5:17-20; 6:27-29).

...And thus we are introduced to ... two important themes from John 7-8: - lying (8:44) and the law (7:19-24).

...Liar Liar seems to evoke explicit christological metaphors from the Gospel of John. John is well known for its seven “I Am” metaphors, and the film quotes what is perhaps the best known secular “I Am” saying in contemporary American culture—the one from Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham.


I notice other Johannine motifs in the film. For example, “the hour” is a significant plot device in both the film and the Fourth Gospel. However, unlike Jesus or his Father, Fletcher is never able to keep his promises about the “appointed hour.” The father/son relationship (Fletcher/Max) is also central to the film, as is the son’s leaving (on a jet plane to Boston). All three are interconnected, foundational metaphors in the film and the Gospel of John.

Water also plays a significant symbolic role in John and the film. In the movie, a revelatory moment occurs when Fletcher sees a pitcher of water sitting in front of him in the courtroom, during Samantha’s divorce hearing. Fletcher pours himself one glassful after another until he drinks the entire pitcher empty. He then takes a break and goes to the bathroom. Fletcher’s ensuing prolonged absence from the courtroom represents his desperate attempt to postpone the trial for a few hours. The ruse works, and Fletcher is granted a reprieve. As a result, he is able to “save” Samantha and himself the next day. Thus in both the film and the Gospel, water is linked to salvation.

The film is beginning to look like a piece of art to me, a grand theological expression, the work of a mastermind. I begin to worry about myself. Do I see John everywhere, anywhere I look? I know the answer to that is no. I am not insane. But I am beginning to think I need to go for a walk to clear my head. I need an interruption—my son, to sneak up behind me and wrestle me to the ground. But my son is across the street babysitting, and my mind continues to work, long after I’ve asked it to shut down.

The PA and Samantha Cole

Then suddenly I realize I’ve missed the film’s most obvious connection to John 7-8: Samantha Cole, the woman Fletcher is asked to represent in court. Because I had excluded John 7:53-8:11 from my original rhetorical analysis of John 7-8, I had overlooked what was the clearest narrative connection between the Gospel of John and the film.

As with Fletcher, Samantha Cole’s entire life is held together by lies.

She lied about her age in order to get married at the age of seventeen, without parental consent; she lied about her weight and hair color on her driver’s license; and she is in court now because her voice was caught on a tape recorder, as she was in the very act of committing adultery. She is the adulterous woman of John 7:53-8:11, and is so carefully set into the plot of the film that her story is easily overlooked—until J.C. shouts out “The truth shall set you free!”

No one in the film picks up stones to throw at Samantha because of her sin—or at Fletcher either, for that matter (Jn 8:5, 7, 59; cf. 10:31). However, throwing is an important motif in the film. Fletcher gives his son Max a baseball and glove for his birthday, and although father and son never actually play catch, they make plans to. The only person who throws anything in the film is Fletcher himself, who throws his shoes at a jet plane as it taxis down the runway, with his ex-wife and son on board. After the shoes bounce off the plane’s windshield, the pilot stops taxiing, and Fletcher saves his son and ex-wife from leaving him. In the film, then, the act of throwing is a motif that reflects familial love and brings about ultimate redemption. The motif is not connected with violence and hatred as it is in John 8 and 10.

Postmodern Intertextuality and Canonical Authority

A postmodern sense of text and intertextuality does not require that the writers or director of Liar Liar have John 7-8 in mind when making the film. Rather, it argues that all texts, simply by being texts, are intertwined with other texts.[40] They feed on each other and nourish each other. So by explicitly quoting John 8:32, Liar Liar invites biblically attuned viewers to look for other Johannine allusions in it. And surprisingly, there are fragmentary connections. For some people, how they assess the significance of the allusions will be a matter of political and/or religious importance. Minimally, one can argue that viewing the film against the backdrop of John 7-8 gives the viewer an appreciation for a Jim Carrey movie that otherwise might appear to have no redeeming qualities. But a postmodern sense of intertextuality moves in more than one direction.

Unlike the “adulterous woman” of John 7:53-8:11, Samantha Cole is not an arbitrary addition to the plot of Liar Liar. However, she is a flat character with no positive character traits. She is a “bad” woman who only cares about herself, and Fletcher feeds upon her selfishness. Yet without her, Fletcher himself would not be redeemed. Samantha’s one true insight—that her husband, who has just divorced her, is a good father—is the catalyst that causes Fletcher to see himself in a new light and sends him running after his former wife and son. By way of contrast, the adulterous woman in John 8 has been viewed as an unnecessary intrusion into Jesus’ controversy with the Judeans, with no particular plot function. But can the film Liar Liar lead one to reassess “this woman’s” connection to John 7-8? Can the she somehow redeem the biting challenges and ripostes of Jesus and the Judeans?

As a Johannine scholar and first time viewer of Liar Liar, Fletcher’s grand exclamation, “The truth shall set you free,” was my entrance to another intertextual level of the film. Until that moment, nothing in the film would have made me think about the Gospel of John. It was pure entertainment. Funny, but not worth watching more than once. The divorce proceedings with Samantha Cole were easily forgotten, since they seemed like an unnecessary subplot to the “lying” conceit that drove the film. That is to say, any type of legal proceeding, any cast of characters could have been used to make fun of Fletcher, the stereotypical lying lawyer. However, once the choice was made for an adulterous woman to be the catalyst for Fletcher’s turnabout, she became a necessary character in the movie’s plot.

When the Johannine intertext is evoked (8:32), “this woman’s” voice, Samantha’s voice—caught on tape in the very act of adultery—becomes another important Johannine connection. But in John 7-8 “this woman” intrudes, interrupts, and arrests the fierce diatribe in the temple. In contrast to Samantha Cole, she has no name. And she has no voice, except when she says “No one, sir” (8:11). In the Johannine text she is a narrative interlude, a glaring, in-your-face, disconnected question mark that turns the virulent voices of John 7-8 into an intensely personal confrontation. She literally brings the rhetorical situation of John 7-8 down to stony earth. She is the canonical counterpoint to Fletcher’s intrusive, jarring quote of John 8:32; that intertextual connection that raised the movie to another level.

I have come a long way from the reading of John 7-8 I did in 1986, where the boundaries of “text,” “rhetoric,” and “reader” were clear and distinct; where I was careful to keep my personal experience out of my scholarly discourse on the biblical text. Today I am more apt to find John anywhere, and apt to consider all sightings seriously. Some people may challenge what seems to be an idiosyncratic reading, wondering at the end whether I am even reading John at all. What is at stake in a postmodern sense of rhetoric and intertextuality? If Liar Liar gains some credulity from its intertextual repertoire, is it not conceivable that John 7-8 could also gain something from its connection to Liar Liar? Need it lose in the exchange? If Jesus can stoop so low as to write in the gritty dirt of ordinary human experience, then perhaps we should feel empowered to lift up popular culture’s allusions to the Christian canon into serious dialogue with postmodern rhetoric and textuality.[41] So I shall go back and read John 7:53-8:11 once again. Perhaps this time, in the midst of a complex Johannine chiasm, I will find Jim Carrey poised, contorted in silence, ready to cast the first shoe. And perhaps I will find this woman, now named, shouting with a voice that moves her beyond the confines of patriarchal stereotypes; with a voice strong enough to redress the judicial subtleties that have thrust her and her rescuer so dangerously into the spotlight of imperial power.

Return to Top

This page powered by: