Schneider on John 8:1-11 (1997)

Exerpted from: Matthew Schneider,
Writing in the Dust:
Irony and Lynch-Law in the Gospel of John
, (1997)

Schneider on Jn 8:1-11


I am going to quote a significant portion from the following article.

It is a good discussion of the interpretation of John 8:1-11, but that is NOT the reason I quote it here.

I was initially tempted to place this reference in the commentary section on John 8:1-11, however what I really want to draw the reader's attention to is the remarkable INTERNAL EVIDENCE of COMMON AUTHORSHIP between John 8:1-11 and the Johannine TRIAL before Pilate. This is once again rarely considered, but significant evidence for authenticity of the passage:

Anthropoetics III, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1997)

Writing in the Dust:
Irony and Lynch-Law in the Gospel of John

Matthew Schneider

Department of English
Chapman University
Orange, California 92866



The Pericope de Adultera and Irony

The two aspects of the Pericope de Adultera (Jn 8:1-11) upon which this essay has so far concentrated -- the famous saying and Jesus' writing in the dust -- have something in common: both seem calculatedly ambiguous and ironic, requiring of the hearer a degree of interpretive intrepidity far beyond that of even the most obscure of the synoptic parables.

In fact, the ambiguity of this pericope extends past obscurity to enter into the realm of irony, not in the narrow literary-critical sense of meaning the opposite of what one says, but in an existential sense akin to that developed in Soren Kierkegaard's doctoral dissertation, The Concept of Irony. Kierkegaard begins his examination of the unsuspected depths of irony with an observation about questions that emerges as remarkably pertinent to this essay's interpretation of the story of the woman taken in adultery:

"It is manifest that the intention in asking questions can be twofold. That is, one can ask with the intention of receiving an answer containing the desired fullness, and hence the more one asks, the deeper and more significant becomes the answer; or one can ask without any interest in the answer except to suck out the apparent by means of the question and thereby to leave an emptiness behind. The first method presupposes that there is a plenitude; the second that there is an emptiness. The first is the speculative method; the second the ironic."

(Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Irony, Princeton,
New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989.)

Jesus' first utterance is a response to a direct question posed by the Scribes and Pharisees, and his second utterance is comprised of two questions he directs to the erstwhile victim of the mob, with whom he is now left alone: "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

Strictly speaking, these are rhetorical questions, since their answer is obviously provided by the context in which they are asked. The shamed crowd has trudged off, having abandoned in embarrassment their grim purpose.

While, as Duncan Derrett observes, the text fails to provide any explicit guidance as to whether Jesus' tone in asking these questions is "sarcastic or humorous" 1 , it seems likely that a faintly wry smile of irony -- the look that says "Ah, I knew it" or "Just so" -- crossed his face at that moment.

The credulous woman answers the questions, which in the context of what has just occurred illustrate the unacknowledged ethical dimension of Kierkegaard's concept of the ironic mode of questioning.

The ambiguity of Jesus' words and actions in the presence of the mob ironizes the menacing scene constituted by those who would condemn the woman to the extent that their scene is disassembled, leaving an emptiness behind. Or, to put it another way, the ironic distance Jesus is careful to put between himself and the woman's accusers has the ultimate effect of exposing the ultimately debilitating internal contradictions of "lynch law."

The Pericope de Adultera and John's Gospel

In addition, irony provides an important thematic and formal link between the interpolated story of the woman taken in adultery and the rest of the Fourth Gospel, which, for all the resolute Christology of its famous opening sentence -- "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" -- presents us with a picture of Jesus at his most human: loquacious, emotional, occasionally bitter and mocking, and almost always teasingly ambiguous when he speaks.

It is, after all, only in John's gospel that Jesus' troubling rebuke of his mother at the wedding in Cana occurs: informed by Mary that the wine has given out, Jesus responds "Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My time has not yet come" (2:3-4).

It is also only in John that we find the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, in which Jesus may or may not declare himself the Messiah. The woman says to Jesus "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us."

Jesus' response in the original Greek is ego eimi, o lalon soi: does that translate (as most Bibles have it) to "I am he (that is, the Christ), the one that is speaking to you?" Or is it just "I am the one that is speaking to you?" as if to say, "Don't talk to me of the Messiah now; listen to what I am saying to you."

The Trial before Pilate

By far the most striking and extended example of irony in John, though, comes in the trial before Pilate, longer and far more detailed here than in the synoptic gospels. As in the story of the woman taken in adultery, irony and verbal ambiguity arise in the context of a capital accusation.

Unlike the lynch mob in the pericope de adultera, however, Jesus' preistly accusers admit -- though not to Pilate, of course -- that their real motivation for bringing the charge of sedition against Jesus is not to punish him for his crimes but to secure Jewish unity at the expense of a scapegoat.

In chapter 11, the infamous Caiaphas berates his fellows on the high council with "You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die than to have the whole nation destroyed," a statement which persuades the elders "from that day on" to plan to put Jesus to death.

The Roman governor's ignorance of this conspiracy initially places him in something akin to the impartial stance Jesus assumes when called on to judge the woman taken in adultery. His anthropological intuition, though, is no match for Jesus': that this is the case is indicated by Pilate's mode of questioning, which is, in Kierkegaard's terms, predominantly speculative rather than ironic:

18:33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

34 Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"

35 Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"

36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."

37 Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

38 Pilate asked him, "What is truth?"

There is a great deal of psychological and anthropological significance packed into this subtle and complex verbal dance, the complete elucidation of which lies beyond the scope of this essay.

For our purposes, it is necessary first of all to notice that irony and ambiguity once again arise during a forensic examination [i.e., a trial] -- that is, at a time and place in which discursive clarity assume life or death importance.

Second, it is noteworthy that Pilate's famous ironic question--"What is truth?"--produces an emptiness similar to that revealed by Jesus' questions to the adulteress: without staying for a reply, the Roman governor leaves his captive and returns to the crowd to report "I find no case against him" (18:38).

Again, questioning in the ironic mode reveals the moral emptiness of the charges brought against the scapegoat. But the events of the next few hours will demonstrate that there inheres yet another wrinkle to what the pericope and Pilate's examination reveal as irony's ethical dimension.

By turning away from his interlocutee after asking his sardonic question, Pilate pinpoints the distinction between mere mockery and the revelatory irony Jesus employed to disperse the crowd in the pericope. In this context, mockery is irony's pale and ineffectual shadow, as is illustrated when Jesus, mocked and scourged as the "King of the Jews," truly has his body broken and actually dies on the cross.


Irony and Paradox

It may be observed from the above analysis of the scene between Pilate and Jesus that irony's structuring role in the Fourth Gospel is ultimately paradoxical, since what serves in the first case to avert a violent outcome appears to produce one in the second. How can this be?

Solving this riddle requires recognizing what the two episodes reveal in juxtaposition. In both, the essential function of the originary scene--the generation of meaning out of crisis -- may be observed. In employing verbal irony and gestural ambiguity to divert the attention of the woman's would-be lynchers from the object of their malicious intent, Jesus demonstrates the fragility of the sign/signified relationship which the lynching hopes to establish.

The crowd, provoked by the scribes and Pharisees, want the dead body of the lapidated adulteress to serve as a guarantor of the authenticity of the Law which they feel has been delegitimized first by the Romans and then by Jesus. That is, they want to make the body into a sign that will derive an unshakable stability from the permanence of the woman's death.

The law of Moses, say the scribes and Pharisees, "commands" this. Jesus' response is consistent with his statement in Matthew 5:17 that he came not "to abolish the law or the prophets." To reveal through ironic detachment the law's cognitive and linguistic sources is not, strictly speaking, to abolish the law.

It is, however, to show how the law, as a system of representations, is vulnerable -- perhaps even fatally so -- to deconstruction. In the pericope, Jesus destabilizes the hoped-for sign -- and thereby spares the woman -- not by merely questioning the crowd's right to execute her or by suddenly superseding the old law with a new.

Rather, he approaches the question of the law anthropologically: he tacitly asks the crowd, "What is a law? What is the relationship between the law and the language in which law is expressed? What, if any, essential characteristics of social interaction are exemplified in setting up systems of law and punishing transgressors?"

Schneider on John 8:1-11 <-- original article at:

original footnotes:

1. Derrett, J. Duncan M. Law in the New Testament: The Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery. New Testament Studies X, i (October 1963), 1-26.

We don't need to accept Schneider's anthropological approach in every detail. Nor need we assume that his interpretation is exhaustive or entirely correct. But Schneider's deep insight into the ironic structure of the two passages is plainly powerful and contains real substance.

In Schneider's rich and penetrating analysis of both passages, we are immediately struck with the obvious: the high probability that both passages were composed by the same hand.