§ 13. The adulteress

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by Neil Godfrey


§. 13 The adulteress

7:53 – 8:11.


1) The position of the question as to the authenticity of this passage.

The tale of the adulteress possesses an irresistible power which, by its first impression, excites and captivates the hearer by evoking in him the presentiment of a collision which transcends all real relations and yet is not untenable, and surprises him by the solution of this clash. Even the contradiction that the event takes place in the rough real world, which cannot be easily transcended, and yet exceeds all the heights of this world, has something mysterious for the listener, occupying them in the beginning in a pleasant way instead of hurting them, and it loses the appearance of excessiveness, as the Lord, this real and infinitely sublime personality above empirical reality, unites the two conflicting sides within himself and brings them back to peace in this unity. Without the power of this impression, this narrative would probably never have found a defender, and even those of its patrons who have completely misunderstood it would not have been prompted to make any attempts to defend it.

The question as to the so-called authenticity of this narrative is wrongly posed and its answer not only made more difficult, but impossible, as long as the two questions as to the Johannine composition of this piece and the reality of the incident as it is narrated here are regarded as one and the same question. For this standpoint, the Johannine origin of the piece would have to be immediately proven impossible if it turns out that the incident as reported here could not have happened. Or, if another view of the Bible is hesitant to admit the inauthenticity of a part, the account is twisted back and forth and the reported incident is tamed by force until it knows how to adapt to reality, so that the account appears genuine. Neither of these paths can entice us anymore, since even in the worst case, we must admit that even an eyewitness in a report can violate the real circumstances and exceed their limits.


But the transition to this section (7:53, a verse that still belongs to the disputed piece) immediately proves, the opponents of the authenticity of the same saw, that here comes a section that stands out decisively from the whole. Everyone, they say, went home. Who, one asks, the members of the Sanhedrin, of whose meeting the author has just spoken, or the people who had come to the holy city for the feast? Furthermore, in what connection is it with the foregoing that Jesus (8:1) goes to the Mount of Olives to spend the night there? Is it because it was his usual place of refuge at night? “But how should not John, who shortly before had told all things so clearly and vividly, have given this meaning and connection more distinctly and definitely?” *) Because he could not, we answer, because, as we have experienced not only shortly before, but always up to now, he never brings it to a clear view of the circumstances. But the difficulty is not so great even in the present case: “everyone,” says the evangelist, “went home” everyone, that is, of those who had hitherto stood on the stage, as well the members of the Sanhedrin as the masses. What is meant by “home,” whether it is the home of the foreign festival-goers or the residence of the members of the Sanhedrin, had to remain unclear because the author wanted to speak of everyone and bring all the characters he had brought onto the stage home. And supposing the passage to be obscure, and the report, after having just spoken of the meeting of the Sanhedrin, says: “Again, therefore (8:12) Jesus spoke to them,” the vividness is still more lost, and it requires the greatest agony to see any connection where even the appearance of it is not present. This appearance is at least there if that passage is retained as a genuine part of the whole, and this circumstance alone should be sufficient to confirm its authenticity. The author is not at all afraid of carrying on a conversation of Jesus with the people to such an extent that it becomes an endless quarrel and we can no longer understand that the Lord has not long since broken it off. From the outset, we cannot therefore prove wrong those who imagine the context to be so comprehensive *) that from 8:12 onwards, the continuation of the speeches that were given in Ch. 7 would be provided. Whether the author of the Gospel continues the disputations by a few links or not is irrelevant to the inappropriate character of the whole, as even one link, like the speeches in Chapter 7, goes infinitely beyond all likelihood, and before this infinity of inappropriateness, a new offense sinks to insignificance.

However, the author was unconsciously compelled by a correct feeling to give an appearance of boundary to that unsuitable extension of the disputations and to provide a kind of conclusion that builds up the turmoil of the dispute. In Chapter 7, this movement towards the conclusion is the intensification of the division in the crowd, the decision for a firmer belief, and the more pronounced emergence of the hostile attitude, whose extreme appears in the members of the Sanhedrin, but in such a way that here again the image of the division that took place in the crowd is shown, and thus also the image of the believing part of the masses. With this, however, the interest that runs through this section is completely satisfied, as it is led through all stages and relationships. The dispute that begins in Chapter 8, verse 12, also has its point, namely that it intensifies to the point where the Jews want to stone the Lord *). Both sections have their own conclusion, they are a whole in themselves and if the Lord withdraws at the end of the second section 8:59, the same must have been reported at the end of the first section, i.e. the intervening story of the adulteress, which is connected with the conclusion of the previous scene, cannot be dispensed with and belongs to the whole of the Gospel.

*) Lücke, Comm. II, 220.

*) As Lücke, Comm. II, 242.

*) Lücke (II, 243) also thinks that this view, that the speeches of the two chapters were not held on one and the same day, can be asserted. But the reasons he gives for this are not correct. One day, he says, seems too short for so many speeches and counter-speeches, if one assumes that John “only communicates the main moments from the speeches of Jesus, usually very briefly. However, a writer who reports an exchange of words does indicate that he does not only want to give the main points, but the whole. If Lücke refers to the different contents of the speeches reported here, this is also misguided, for only the dignity of the person of the Lord is spoken of, for only the same interjections are always reported.


2) The collision of the positive and the heavenly law

Now, if we want to understand the narrative according to the Evangelist’s perspective, we must bring our eyes to the point of the narrative where it sees a twofold world, the empirically real and the ideal world of the kingdom of heaven, united. Only by bringing together these two worlds in the point of the narrative that determines its entire perspective can we explain how a collision existed here and how the Lord could solve it in this way. The Pharisees brought to the Lord a woman who had been taken in adultery, presented to him the case and the penalty of stoning prescribed by the law, and asked him for his opinion. They had done this (v. 6) to try him and to have a reason to accuse him. However, the Pharisees had the Lord in mind here, who had said that he had come for sinners, so he wanted to overturn the order of the world, to rescue what was rejected and ruined in the world from disgrace and ruin, and to humble what was exalted and sublime in the eyes of the world. The difficulty in which this question was to entangle the Lord, therefore, consisted in whether he was also determined to protect the sinner, who had been guilty of a certain deed, in relation to this deed against the obvious law of the world. But precisely by turning away from the obvious law and authority to Jesus as this individual person, the collision was already solved by them, and the question was brought before a judge before whom the letter of the law fell silent. They, as this individual, ask for the decision which the Lord, as this individual, is to give, and under these circumstances the Lord could only grant the right of condemnation to him who would know himself to be without sin and stain. When the Pharisees were struck and silenced by this turn that they themselves had taken first, the Lord not only addressed the sinning woman as this individual person but also with the essential significance of his personality.

If He faces her only as this individual, as the Pharisees first regarded the matter, He has no right to judge and condemn, but as Judge of the Kingdom of Heaven He has the infinite right of forgiveness and the authority to declare the offence undone. So now he says to the sinner: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”


3) The resolution of the collision.

The collision thus seems to be resolved, but it only seems that way, for the resolution is only achieved in that one side, the revealed law and the law of reality par excellence, only dissolves and evaporates in the ideal world of the Kingdom of Heaven. But then a collision is only truly and thoroughly resolved when both conflicting sides have received their right and the general divine order emerges from the struggle in which they abolish their exclusiveness. This has not happened here, when the right of the real world appears only as such, which cannot be executed by the individual person as such, and is abolished par excellence by the personality who is the Judge of the Kingdom of Heaven. But the judge who executes the revealed law of the real world does not act as this individual person, but the accidental definiteness of his personality is reduced to insignificance at the moment of judging, and appears only as a means, and that as the purely transparent means of the law which relates to the particular case. On the other hand, the law of the kingdom of heaven does not carry itself out in such a way that it directly annihilates the claims of the real world and its law: but only in such a way does it establish its world above the real one that it mediates itself through it. The ideal annihilation of the offence in repentance and forgiveness would only be an illusion if the offence were not also annihilated on the side where it had intervened in the real world and in appearance, and by the recognition of the necessity of punishment. In this seriousness of the real punishment and of the suffering that pervades marrow and bone, the inner, spiritual annulment of the offence is first conveyed in a powerful and real way.


Otherwise, the Lord knows how to resolve such collisions in a completely different way. Either he shows how one side of the contradiction is resolved in the other – the Son of Man is Lord over the Sabbath – or he recognises the right of both sides – give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s – and thereby awakens the perception of a general order that embraces both sides. It is therefore not only an arbitrary statement of power when it is asserted that the Lord could not have solved this collision in the way the report sees it. But it is not even foreseeable how the opponents of the Lord could have dared to take a collision out of a case that was so definitely taken into account by the law.

If the incident as it is reported here could not have happened, this does not at all prove that the report is not based on anything historical. The evangelist has already accustomed us to the fact that it can no longer alienate us or lead us to a purely negative judgement when his reports go beyond the measure of the real circumstances. His view, which in itself strives for contrasts, surpasses contrasts where they give him reality, and when he wants to report a collision, it is entirely in his nature to push it so far that it can no longer hold up at all for an understanding observation which keeps in mind the magnitudes of the real world. This disposition of our evangelist is like the spirit of those peoples who still stand on the first standpoint of art and who, instead of creating freely, can only use the figures of the real world and push them beyond their form and their natural measure. Thus it is probable that the report of the adulteress was based on a real incident – even if we cannot trace it back to its first form: in that case, however, the case in dispute did not have to have so much the form of the extreme offence in its kind and did not have to be so expressly decided by the law that no doubt remained, otherwise the thought of a collision would not have been possible.


Those commentators who deny the report to the author of the Gospel conclude from individual formulas that it originally belonged to the oral tradition through which the synoptic reports passed. But it would remain inexplicable if the report were later inserted into the fourth Gospel, why it would not rather have been inserted at that point of the synoptic narrative, especially of the first Gospel, where the scribes and Pharisees are in the best course of presenting trying questions to the Lord. The echoes of the Synoptic account are, however, sufficiently explained by the similarity of the content and the presupposed situation.


In more recent times it has been conceded that the evidence of the manuscripts which do not contain this passage is not decisive against its authenticity, since many, and among them excellent, manuscripts read it. It was too easy that one could not find oneself in the report or even took offence at it *) and therefore excluded it. One has therefore wanted to refer the decision of the question of the authenticity of the passage to the internal grounds **): but this, if one wants to depend on the inner probability of the reported incident, is precisely the skewed position of the question which we have already corrected. If, therefore, the question is more correctly whether the passage corresponds to the whole structure and attitude of the fourth Gospel, one must ask whether it, like the other parts of this Gospel, heightens contrasts to the improbable and to the point of unrelatedness. And since this question must be answered in the affirmative, this would also confirm the authenticity of the passage, at least in this sense.

*) In the circumstance that the narrative is missing especially in the Oriental manuscripts, Bretschneider (Probabil. p. 73) aptly reminds us of how it was precisely in the Orient that monastic austerity first and very early developed.

**) De Wette, p. 103.


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