The story of a woman caught in adultery in John 8 is familiar to a lot of church-goers. Some versions of the Bible include this story without comment, but many will now mention in a footnote that these verses are not in the oldest copies of the text now available to us. Some copies of John insert the story in other places, add it appears in Luke instead in some ancient manuscripts. What this suggests is that the story was not part of the original text, most likely because it was not among the stories about Jesus that circulated in the first century. It may have been concocted by a scribe, added in from a fragment of some other collection of writings, or even invented in Christian community and inserted into the existing text. Even with the knowledge that this was not part of the original book of John, many people still appreciate this story and Bible publishers continue to include it. We might learn something from examining why this is.
Of course, the inclusion of this later tale that clearly is not well-remembered from the life of a historical Jesus might present a challenge to the authority of the Bible. Some believers profess that the Bible is infallible, and others that the book is inerrant. Does the appearance of a story that is obviously a later addition to John cast doubt on the veracity of scripture? Or does it at least call into question where all the other stories came from? If at some point scribes were willing to make an addition that was not part of what they were copying, they obviously did not define the legitimacy of the biblical text the same way many people do today. They apparently were concerned less with historical accuracy and more with some spiritual value of the stories. Is it possible that twenty-first century readers are sometimes so caught up in the superficial arguments about historical accuracy that they miss discovering a deeper value of the texts they defend?
Whether the event actually happened or not, this story conveys a powerful vision of how society ought to work -- of how human relationships could be strengthened. Lots of Christian commentators have explored the nuances of this story. They consider all of the things the woman could possibly have been doing to be legitimately convicted of adultery (anything from smiling at a soldier when she serves him wine to earning a living as a prostitute). They theorize about the fate of the man in the situation (which the story never mentions and thus is pure conjecture). Some commentators make much of the statement that the Pharisees were testing Jesus, recognizing that they seemed to care little about the actual fate of the woman or actual integrity to the "law of Moses."
Many commentators also apply the story to the lives of readers in helpful ways, centering on three basic values they find in the story. Generally speaking, the central ideas are: (1) we should not judge other people because we have our own transgressions to answer for; (2) forgiveness is more virtuous than justice; and (3) everyone has the capacity to change what they're doing and live better. These are not bad lessons for anyone, believer or non-believer. If people were less bloodthirsty and more graceful with one another, a phenomenal number of societal issues might dissipate. Of course, a lot of the commentators find it necessary to write about the character and desires of God, but that's to be expected.
This is one of those instances, then, in which a Humanist reading of a story can line up pretty closely with a believer's reading of the story. Whether the event ever actually took place is not an issue worth exploring. It's more worthwhile to consider where we find ourselves in the characters of the story and where we might shift our habits a bit in order to reflect our deepest, most noble selves a little more.
When are we the Pharisees? There are times at which we are eager to catch someone else in a logical or ethical trap. We like to "win" verbal exchanges by uttering the best zinger or tearing apart another person's perspective. From personal experience, I can say that it's hard to know exactly what I have won in those situations. It feels good to be verbally or logically superior for a minute or two, but I'm not sure that there are long-term benefits. It certainly doesn't seem to create the kind of connections with other people that I really value.
When we find that we are being critical of other people's choices, or even so judgmental that we are inclined to do harm (physical, verbal, or emotional harm), we might remember this story. We might imagine the stones that we metaphorically hold in our hands, and the ease with which we hurl those stones at the people we judge and criticize. Our imaginations might even get more graphic about the harm we would do if our harsh words were actual stones, but that may not be necessary.
We know that we don't want someone to harm us, and we know that harsh words and critical judgments can do harm. If we stop and think about it, we also probably know of a few things that other people might judge about us. We've all missed the mark at some point. We could stand to be a little more compassionate and recognize our connection with other human beings.
When are we the woman? There are times in which we feel exposed, either publicly or just to our own selves. There are times when our actions do not line up with who we want to be -- when our behavior does not match our values and our guiding principles. We may feel like curling into a fetal position and giving up, but we don't have to do that. If we know what we want our lives to stand for, we can commit to doing a better job of living into that vision.
Shame is powerful. Shame is a common limiting factor in our lives. When we believe that we are not enough, or that we are worthless, it's a real challenge to live into a vision of a best possible version of ourselves. That doesn't seem to be far off from what the woman in this story might feel. Overwhelming shame, to the extent that no future is possible. It's important for us to find people who will acknowledge our worth and our value, and it's important for us to be willing to affirm our own worth and value.
There will be people who want to tear us down. There will be resistance. That doesn't mean that we can't move forward. We are capable of doing something different in our lives. Of course, we have to recognize what we really want first. We have to know what we're living into. We need to hold a best possible version of ourselves in mind -- a vision of how we want to be in the world. Otherwise, we are more likely to keep repeating the same mistakes. It's easy to miss the mark when we don't know what the mark is.
When are we Jesus? We see in this story one character who is not swayed by the anxiety of the crowd, who is not burdened by his own sense of shame, who is clever without being insulting and loving without being permissive. Certainly, the Jesus character in this story never approves of adultery, and he doesn't disapprove of stoning people as punishment for a crime. The authors of the story are in a particular cultural context, after all. The idea is that there is more to us than that. There is more to us than cold, vicious justice. There is more to us than oppressive shame. If we are willing to see our own worth and value, it's a short step further to acknowledge the worth and dignity of everybody else.
Jesus in this story is the anti-Pharisee as well as the anti-adulteress. He lives by a set of guiding principles that reflect his own sense of purpose, not the ideals and habits of the society around him. He confidently and calmly expresses his perspective because he doesn't feel threatened by the anxiety of others. He has done enough personal work that he isn't uncertain or wavering about his own values. He accepts the authority that other people grant him, yet he doesn't feel the need to do what they want him to do with that authority.
We are like the Jesus of this story when we reach out in love to others and maintain our own integrity. This story actually demonstrates loving action toward both the woman and the crowd. Toward the woman, it's an obviously loving and empowering act to affirm her worth, to affirm her capability of doing things differently in her life, to publicly restore her sense of dignity. We can do that for others if we are willing. Toward the Pharisees, the loving act is perhaps less obvious. Yet, to give violent people pause before they have a chance to do something they'll regret is surely an expression of love. To gently call attention to a moment when actions are out of alignment with guiding principles can be loving. To demonstrate another way of being to people who are caught up in their own anxiety is loving.
So, this story points to the fact that we are all human beings who have at some point fallen short of our deepest values. It's easy for us to find ways to punish other people when they fall short. Sometimes we do this physically. Often we punish people with labels and insults. We can also punish ourselves. We're quite good at that, actually. We can be so overwhelmed with our shame and anxiety that we see no way forward. We have the capacity to do something different, though. We can love other people and ourselves better than we are in the habit of doing. Human beings are innately beautiful and creative, whatever else may be true about us. Sometimes it's just a matter of what human traits we are willing to pay the most attention to.
A Little Experiment: Be the Pharisees. This can be very revealing, but it may reveal some things that make you uncomfortable. Pay attention to your words this week. Count every harsh criticism or judgment you speak against another person. Especially include conversations that you feel like you "win." Do your words in these moments align with your values and guiding principles? Is there another way you could speak honestly with someone without inflicting harm?
Another Little Experiment: Be the adulteress. (Careful, now!) Count the number of times this week you say aloud or consciously think a criticism against yourself. Include moments that you feel shame. Are your statements about yourself really accurate? Is there some truth about your beauty, creativity, and capability that you are neglecting? If your actions aren't lining up with your guiding principles, does it help you to beat yourself up, or is there another way you can bring your actions into alignment with your values?
A Long Experiment: Be the Jesus. Seek out ways to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the people around you. Listen to people without trying to solve their problems. Set an example of how to live into your values with integrity and intentionality. What changes do you notice in your life and in your relationships after a month? After six months? After three years?