Wednesday 11 July 2018

Laws do not lead to an increase of good - but only good motivations (The woman taken in adultery, from the Fourth Gospel)

The whole story of 'the woman taken in adultery' is fascinating (see below); but its core seems to be in the phrase He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

This is contrasted with I think Jesus is Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

So, the essence of what is going on here is the clash between the law: objective and public definitions of behaviour versus subjective, private and motivational facts. When Jesus says that only he that is without sin is entitled to stone the women; he is saying that the motivational state of a person is what makes an act good.

Even when a law comes from Moses, and even when its transgression is certain, and when there is a prescribed punishment... this way of morality is not Good. Jesus is pointing out the evil motivations of the people who want to stone the woman; and on reflection each potential stoner recognises this fact; and recognises that this evil motivation (vengeance, disgust, sadism, lust... whatever it may be) destroys the rightness of inflicting the punishment.

Jesus is not discussing how to set-up a system of justice or how to run a society; he is talking about true morality; and making clear that true morality is Not a matter of having a set of rules and implementing them impartially and with factual correctness.

He is saying, instead, that true morality is a thing of Man, it is about the motivations of Man - and that Good morality is only to be found when a person's motivations are Good.

So, to be good, to do-good, a punishment - or any other kind of judgement - must be Not be 'implemented', but must come from a loving heart, and for the right reasons. Jesus is, here as in many other places, stating that The Law is Not the ultimate authority - but is on fact orthogonal (nothing-intrinsically-to-do-with) to Goodness.

The new dispensation of Jesus is that Goodness comes only from a loving heart: from right-motivation.

John: 8 Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. 2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. 3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, 4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? 6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. 7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. 9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? 11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. 12 Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life....


The Social Pathologist said...

" When Jesus says that only he that is without sin is entitled to stone the women; he is saying that the motivational state of a person is what makes an act good."

I didn't read it that way Bruce.

As far as I can see the Pharisees were highly religious people. They had confused their wickedness with God's justice. i.e. they hated the adulterous and thought it good she be stoned according to Mosaic law. Christ actually held up the command to stone her, on the proviso that those who do so have no sin. It appears that the Pharisees had a "crisis of conscience" and realised that they too were sinners and hypocrites. I don't think that Christ made them reflect on their motivations but rather got them to put themselves in the place of the adultress.

The really interesting thing in this passage is why Christ does not punish the adulteress. The passage itself gives us no exculpatory elements which would let the adultress "off the hook". So why doesn't Christ punish her? I mean can I expect the same treatment from Christ if I have a fling with the next door neighbour.? Clearly the Christian tradition tells me that I have committed a mortal sin. So what gives?

My own take is that Christ has discretionary powers to punish which I feel are linked to the circumstances of the particular case. Mortal sins are mortal but not not all sins are equally punished since they occur in different circumstances.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SP - Well, my point is that this passage is Not about justice, nor systems of justice - it is not meant to yield principles of how to run society, or control sexuality etc...

I think it is about the moral vacuity of The Law - however expedient, however pragmatically necessary it is or may be. It is a vision of the morality of Heaven.

a_probst said...

Please put that stone down, Mother, I am trying to make a point here!


I wonder what he was writing on the ground.

Bruce Charlton said...

Its a mystery to me... But most of the sequences in the fourth gospel seem to be about the contrast between this life and Heavenly life.

Bookslinger said...

@The SP ,

The Pharisees _were_ adulterers themselves. Their previous demands for signs from Jesus proved it. ("wicked and adulterous generation that seeketh after signs".) That's one way they were hypocrites.

another way they were hypocrites, is if they caught her "in the act", where was the man? They let him go. That's the second way they were hypocrites. He "deserved" the same punishment as her, according to Mosaic Law.

Thirdly, the whole thing was their set-up on the Savoir, because the Jews were forbidden by the Romans to execute anyone. Only the Roman state could do that. Or at least they needed approval. But even if approved, maybe it was the state that had to do the execution. So,the whole thing was to trap the Savior, either get him to deny the Law of Moses, or on the other hand, denounce him as disloyal to the Romans, if he said to stone her. And, AFAIK, adultery was not a capital crime under Roman law, so the Romans would not have given approval to execute her.

In other words, the Pharisees didn't care about stoning the woman one way or another. She was just their pawn. They could not have done it even if they wanted to.

The Pharisees left one by one, so my guess is that Jesus was writing the names of their liaisons in the dust.

So it was a matter of the Savior outwitting the hypocritical pharisees.

The Social Pathologist said...


I don't think that law is "morally vacuous". It is, after all, derived from the teaching of the prophets who who were "in tune" with the mind of God. Christ repeatedly reminds us that he has not come to overturn the old Law but to fulfill it. As I see it, the Law is a second order consequence of The Thing. The individual laws can't be considered as stand alone things but must be interpreted within the context of The Thing in totality.
Adultery is a mortal sin but the specific instantiations of its punishment must be done with reference to the whole totality of the Law. Christ affirms this to the Pharisees. Luke 11:42

This little bit of Shakespeare is a good illustration of what Christ was getting at with regard to his treatment of the adulteress, with the Pharisees being played by Scroop, Cambridge and Grey.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

That's more or less how I read it, too, Books. The Pharisees were challenging him to defy the Roman government, much as they did when they asked him whether it was lawful to pay tribute money to Caesar. If Jesus had openly defied Roman law, he would have been -- well, crucified, I suppose. If, on the other hand, he had seemed afraid to defy Roman law, afraid to obey God rather than man, that would have discredited him. As usual, Jesus found a way to sidestep the issue while at the same time using it as a teaching opportunity.

The Social Pathologist said...


The issue here is not what the Pharisees did but what Christ did.

The Bible gives us no contextual information with regard to the actions of the adulteress. I think it's very dangerous to infer things onto Christ's actions,lest we accidentally colour the story with our own biases, we must analyse his actions strictly from the information presented.

The Bottom line is that:

a) She was adulteress.
b) Christ was without sin.
c) Therefore, why didn't Christ cast the first stone?

The Pharisees are sort of a side story to these events.

Traditional Christian theology is quite explicit as to what happens to people when they commit adultery. So why did Christ let her off the hook? Does God not punish adultery? Clearly he didn't in this instance.

There's quite a bit to think about here.

Bruce Charlton said...

What we need to think about is why the author of the Fourth gospel includes This incident, we need to consider what This gospel is about.

Chiu ChunLing said...

"If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel. If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour’s wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you. But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die: But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter: For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her."

Somewhere in this passage is what I believe Christ wrote in the dirt with His finger.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Bruce, I suppose you know this episode is apparently not part of the original gospel. It does not appear at all in many manuscripts, and in others is inserted in various places, sometimes in John and sometimes in Luke.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - I think the significance of what Christ wrote on the ground was its contrast with The Law.

@William - Well, I don't 'know' this; but then I don't accept the implications of your statement in relation to the truth of genuine scripture. The inspired scripture I deal with is - obviously - based on the English one.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Bruce, I don't mean to imply that the passage in question is not inspired or not "genuine scripture" or whatever -- just that it was probably not originally written as part of the Fourth Gospel. I was responding to your statement that "What we need to think about is why the author of the Fourth gospel includes This incident." That may not be an appropriate question to ask in this particular case.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - The thing is, scripture cannot be made to depend on secular scholarship - much of it dishonest and incompetent; most of it actively and strategically malign. So it is dangerous in extreme to make it the 'bottom line'. I don't know how well established the idea you mention is, and evaluating that is not a 'rabbit hole' we should go down. However, If it is a straightforward fact, it would not surprise me, since I have independently reached a qualitatively similar conclusion concerning what this passage is meant to convey (and what not). I think this is the way to proceed. I feel much happier about having reached this conclusion from internal evidence than if I had regarded my reading as merely trying to reach a set of pre-established conclusions (the 'right answer').

Chiu ChunLing said...

Well, secular scholarship has so completely missed that the execution the Pharasee's proposed was contrary not only to Roman law, but to that given by Moses, as to leave many people unable to notice the latter even when it is pointed out.

So I am fully agreed that we must not rely on secular scholarship.

Chiu ChunLing said...

BTW, if it is going to be seriously asked why Christ did not act as a witness against her, it was simply that He was not among those who actually caught her committing adultery (in the ordinary, physical, sense). While I have no doubt that Christ knew her sins, the Mosaic law does not allow people to claim they know another persons transgressions through revelation.

A crime that is known only through the power of God must be punished by the same means. We see this pattern fairly often in the scriptures.