Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
Facing the Holy Whole: Reading John 8 with Chastened Eyes
Knight, Henry F.
John 8 is introduced by a familiar scene that most scholars treat as an imported story, not of Johannine origin. A woman caught in the act of adultery is brought by religious leaders (scribes and Pharisees, according to the text) to stand in judgment before Jesus who was teaching at the time in the Temple. He is asked what he would do, how he would dispose of the matter according to Torah; he responds that the one who is without sin may cast the first stone. The text then proceeds to recount a series of encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders that the text, in the remainder of the chapter, identifies in categorical fashion as “the Jews.” Increasingly, the tension and accusation escalates until Jesus condemns his accusers (“the Jews”) as children of the devil and they regard him (their accuser) as having a demon. The accusation escalates and stands in ironic contrast to the opening story of the woman brought before Jesus.
As we face the text critically, we recognize that its polemic reflects a state of affairs more consistent with the conflict that punctuated the relationship of later followers of Jesus (near the end of the first century CE) with other Jewish leaders at that time as they each struggled with the conditions following the destruction of the Second Temple and the form that covenant fidelity would take for God’s people thereafter: Would it remain centered in halakhah and ongoing dialogue with Torah or would it turn to Jesus as the new image for understanding covenantal existence, moving beyond the law, and more deeply, into the Gentile world?
Even though this understanding is helpful as well as necessary, it can take us only so far. The polemic and its scathing treatment of Jews remains in the canonical text. But, as I try to show, such an unsettling conclusion does not allow me to abandon the text since, as a confessing Christian, I am accountable to this text for my identity. How then do I, or others like me, proceed? There is a violent attitude toward the other that is embedded in the text, and the polemic is an expression of a deeper problem, which I am forced to address even as I grant authority to a text that carries violence in it. Indebted in part to insights from Emmanuel Levinas, the strategies of midrash allow me to grasp the text with increased rigor, hoping to wrest from it a midrashic place to stand and from which to handle what I now see all too clearly. Facing the text and my own participation in its violence, I am forced to ask: who and what stand accused?
Whereas most scholars have treated the imported character of the opening scene as a story to be isolated and then read separately, I have followed a different strategy, treating this episode as a midrashic wedge, placed there to expose the accusation and problems which follow. In these verses, fellow travelers of the covenantal way accuse another of covenantal infidelity. In the biblical text she is a woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus and others who had sought his counsel. In the subtext that John scholars calls its second level, the followers of Jesus are confronted by other Jews, leaders of the synagogue of a later time, as they accuse the woman of infidelity. However, in subsequent generations of Christian testimony, as in the verses that follow, the ones brought before Jesus and accused of adulterous infidelity are always “the Jews.” Reflecting history to come, “the Jews” of John 8 are rendered as joining themselves in a progressively more intimate way with the enemy of all creation. They are caught, as it were, trapped in accusations of committing spiritual adultery from the very beginning. And the Jesus of this progressively negative testimony sounds sharply different from the Jesus who earlier challenges any of God’s representatives to cast the deadly stones of judgment and death at the one caught in adultery.
When Jesus was confronted with the woman before him, and her accusers asked Jesus what he would do, he stooped and drew or wrote on the ground. What Jesus was drawing/writing in the sand, the text, of course, did not report. Many exegetes have speculated, using the silence of the text in this regard as an occasion to suggest christologically driven readings of the Hebrew scriptures. Some even go so far as to link Jesus’ use of his finger to write in the sand with God’s writing of the Ten Commandments in stone with a heavenly finger! I am struck, instead, by the fact of an absent text and ask what might be significant about the text not being reported. That text, whatever it was, was temporary, drawn in the sand. My own midrashic musings lead me to recall that in conflict mediation a temporary text can often serve to refocus accusatorial conversation on a common object or problem that allows disputants to withdraw accusations, save face, and disengage from unhealthy conflict. The problem is separated from the person and the accusative voice of conflict is freed to become a problematically focused, indicative voice. The closing lines of the episode suggest that something like that happened after Jesus made his comments while drawing, doodling, or writing in the sand. His finger, we might playfully note, was pointed at whatever he was drawing, not at those who had confronted him. The accuser-accused dynamic that they brought to him was reconfigured. And then the woman was sent away after her previous accusers had dispersed. Perhaps, the temporary text of midrash can provide a similar opportunity.
Facing the I AM
With this in mind, we turn to the I am’s of Jesus in John, recognizing, especially with regard to several of the phrases in John 8, that they are hot text, linked intratextually to a variety of references to the divine name that appear throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Behind each of them lies the story of Ex 3 and the giving of the Great I AM in and through the burning bush. Consequently, they remind us that the summoning gestalt of I AM-you are’s for Israel, for others lies behind Jesus’ I am’s. This means that if we are going to identify Jesus with the I AM-you are of creation, (i.e., the constituting word of life that punctuates John’s prologue and the rest of his Gospel) then we should do so in a manner consistent with how that summoning gestalt speaks in and through the burning bush. The bush is not consumed. The summoning I AM speaks in and through it. This is a crucial point. How Christians identify Jesus’ relationship to this creation-constituting summons to life can be rendered in two ways. Jesus can be seen as re-presenting it to others. That is, Jesus, in and through his life and his burning passion for life, for others, becomes the Christian burning bush. But Jesus can also be viewed as identical to the constitutive I AM-you are such that when one encounters Jesus one actually encounters God. When viewed this way, we see how John’s primary christological focus has driven the story. However, it reduces Jesus and others to symbols, categories and figures of meaning. They are no longer real people. Or to use the language of Ex 3, the bush is consumed in the revelatory summons.
Early in its life, Christian theology recognized the dangers of monophysitism and sought to guard against it. If we are attentive to the issues raised here, we recognize that the danger is still present and even encountered in the witness of scripture. However, the I am’s of John’s Jesus, because they link responsible readers with the divine name, give us another way of reading and addressing these matters. They give us a way, should we choose it, to gain healing distance on the accusative voice of John 8 – a way, I hope, by which we can face the holy responsibly.
Of course, this task is unfinished with more confessional work to be done. Nonetheless, in turning to the story of the burning bush to face John 8, Christians like me find confessional ground for a relationship with Jesus that does not force us to view others who see Jesus differently to be our enemies. Furthermore, it is my claim that I can even make such a confession drawing on the constitutive I AM-you are that has intended creation as life lived in responsible relationship from the beginning – as John sought to do. But, if I hope to stand on that sacred ground, the bush can never be consumed in the telling of such a story and in responding to its summons.