Harstine on John 8:1-11

Review of: Stan Harstine, Moses as a Character in the Fourth Gospel:
A Study of Ancient Reading Techniques
, (Continuum Int. Pub., 2002)

Page Index

Prologue: - Introduction to Harstine

Review: - Harstine on John 8:1-11:
    Appendix A: John 7:53-8:11

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The following is a review of a recent book,
Moses as a Character in the Fourth Gospel:
A Study of Ancient Reading Techniques

By Stan Harstine (Continuum, 2002)

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Harstine on John 8:1-11

Harstine accepts 'current critical opinion' regarding the Pericope de Adultera. For him and most academics, this means ignoring entirely any discussion or controversy regarding the authenticity of the passage, and simply adopting the position of Bruce Metzger and other liberal critics, i.e., that it is an 'interpolation' of some kind into the text of John's Gospel.

Consequently, Harstine relegates his entire discussion of this passage to a short (2 page) dismissal of the story, and its possible contribution to the discussion of Moses' character in John. Sadly, while Harstine dismisses John 8:1-11 as offering "nothing new regarding the function of Moses as a character", we find we must similarly dismiss Harstine's explanation of the function of the passage.

Harstine makes a claim that the passage "is not totally consistent with the portrayal of Moses elsewhere". He offers two supporting arguments:

(1) The passage "demonstrates no concern for the origin or identity of Jesus".

This is in fact a big claim, and needs some kind of discussion or support besides an 'argument from silence'. But Harstine offers none.

(2) The addressing of Jesus as 'Teacher', acknowledging his command of the law" stands in stark contrast to their questions in Jn 7 concerning his authority to teach. (footnote 3).

Of course it does. But Harstine has made no allowance for the fact that the party of Pharisees is hostile and crafty, and acting deceptively, as is noted in the very narrative under examination (See Jn 8:6 etc.). So this point also rings hollow if the text is allowed to simply speak for itself.

Lack of Anything New in the Passage about Moses

Harstine adds a supplementary claim, namely that this pericope "offers nothing new regarding the function of Moses as a character."

However, this point has not been shown to have anything to do with the question of authenticity. In fact, Harstine seems to have completely missed the point that this is actually evidence in favour of authenticity.

Had Harstine found that the passage DID give a new or altered interpretation of Moses, or that it had supplied unexpected character development for Jesus or any others, he would certainly have claimed that too as evidence against authenticity.

Its a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation, involving double jeopardy. But if every possible outcome is evidence against authenticity, then no test for authenticity is possible at all.

Harstine has focussed on his own problem, one which he has created for himself; namely "Moses as a character in John". He is disappointed that the passage, while referring to Moses in a very noticable way, offers nothing for his personal thesis. But this has nothing at all to do with the authenticity of John 7:53-8:11.

The lack of any glaring anomaly in the handling of Moses or Jesus by the narrator is the strongest 'internal evidence' of this kind we can hope for in favour of authenticity.

Contribution to Plot

In his last footnote for this appendix, Harstine claims that, "This pericope does not adhere to the main plot of the gospel, namely the acceptance/rejection of the identity of Jesus."

But on the contrary, the episode is one of the clearest antagonistic incidents, in a series of escalating provocations climaxing with the resurrection of Lazarus, and culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus. It provides historically credible motivation for the villains, and strongly drives the plot of the book.

Although plot development is out of the range of Harstine's subject (Moses' character in John), it is hard to understand how ignoring the main plot lines and themes of John can result in a convincing analysis of the characters in the book.

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Harstine's Appendix on the PA

Appendix A (p. 166-7)


The appearance of Moses in Jn 8 is part of a passage with a history of textual insecurity. It is recognized that Jn 7.53-8.11 is not present in the most ancient manuscripts and many commentators prefer not to discuss it as part of the Johannine text. 1 However, because of the limited number of appearances by Moses in the Fourth Gospel, it should be examined for possible relevance. It is important to remember the textual history of the passage before drawing any conclusions on the portrayal of Moses.

Jesus is challenged by the crowd to render a judgment upon a woman they have brought before him. Her guilt is already decided in what may, in fact, be a case of entrapment.2 The scribes and Pharisees address Jesus as 'Teacher', acknowledging his command of the law. 3 Their challenge is issued in the form, 'Moses says, what do YOU say.' 4 The accusers hope to place Jesus in a public dilemma. 5 They are not seeking an exposition of the Mosaic commands, but an opinion that conflicts with the law. 6 Jesus is placed in a position, inescapable in the eyes of the woman's accusers, of submitting to the authority of Moses - thus subjecting the woman to stoning - or contradicting the authority of Moses - and placing himself in their hands for judgment. 7

How does Moses function in the passage? Jesus and Moses are compared publicly, specifically the coherence of Jesus' teaching with that of Moses. Moses is the public authority whose law dictates religious life in that nation. Jesus' authority is placed in (potential) conflict with Moses' authority. This question of authority is consistent with other passages of the gospel. Indeed, comparison is frequently made between Jesus and Moses. While Moses is only the mediator of the law, Jesus provides grace and truth. In the hands of Jesus the law of Moses is 'a source of life rather than an instrument of death'. 8

This brief story is not totally consistent with the portrayal of Moses elsewhere in the gospel. Moses is the current religious authority for the Jews and his teaching must be adhered to. Moses is associated withthe law, the guiding principles of the nation. The current scene again focuses on the teaching of Jesus. But this episode demonstrates no concern for the origin or identity of Jesus. Instead, Moses is only the trap in which Jesus is to be caught by his words. The introduction of Moses in Jn 8 confirms other findings regarding this pericope and offers nothing new regarding the function of Moses as a character. 9

Original Footnotes:

1. For an analysis of the textual history, see Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary onthe Greek New Testament (n.p.:UBS, 1994), pp. 187-89; Beasley-Murray, John, pp. 143-144; and Hoskyns, Fourth Gospel, pp. 563-66. Among those deciding against comment are Bruce, Gospel of John; Bultmann, Johannes; Dodd, Interpretation; and Talbert, John.

2. J. Duncan M. Derrett, 'Law in the New Testament: The Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery', NTS 10 (1963), pp. 1-26 (5), and Brown, John, I, p. 338.

3. This approach is in stark contrast to their questions in Jn 7 concerning his authority to teach.

4. The second person singular is emphatic in the Greek text.

5. Hoskyns, Fourth Gospel, p. 568.

6. Ridderbos, Gospel of John, p. 288.

7. Schnackenburg, St John, II, p. 165.

8. Brodie, Commentary, p. 338.

9. This pericope does not adhere to the main plot of the gospel, namely the acceptance/rejection of the identity of Jesus. The internal evidence concurs with the external textual evidence concerning the authenticity of this passage but given its emphasis on teaching, it is located at an appropriate point in the text.

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