Review of: Dr. Gail R. O'Day, John 7:53-8:11: A Study in Misreading,
JBL 111/4 (1992) pp. 631-640
Prologue: - Introduction to O'Day
"Step I": Defining the 'Rhetorical Structure'
Text On its Own: - Isolation and Quarantine
Confusion of Purpose: - John, or "Sources"?
Part I of Passage: Intro and Setting
Internal Structure: - Breaking it into Parts
'Part I' is Ignored: - verses (8:1-2) skipped
Two Parts or One Whole? - artificial division
Part II of Passage: Three Sections
Section 1 (8:3-6a): Woman Presented to Jesus
Feminist Language - not a real problem
Equality... or Injustice? - anachronistic reading?
Section 2 (8:6b-7): Jesus deals with Accusers
Sidebar on Commentators - seeking support
The Content of Jesus' Writing - can it be ignored?
The Writing Remains - unknown but beckoning
Section 3 (8:8-11): Jesus deals with the Woman
Woman... or Accusers? - Section boundaries fail
The Writing Revisited - Pharisee Eye-view?
The Function of the Writing - narrator's purpose
O'Day's Method Re-Examined - one trick not enough
Relating the Parts: Parallels: Form & Content
"Rhetorical Shape"? - a concept analyzed
"Step II": - Previous Interpreters of 8:1-11
O'Day's Categories: - and her own "reading"...
Category (1): - Augustine or O'Day?
Category (2): - Calvin: 'Fear of Fear of Antinomianism'
Category (3) Jesus' Writing on the Ground: - meaningless?
Apples and Oranges: - Commentary vs. 'Source Criticism'
"Step III": - O'Day's New Interpretation - Examining the Argument
"Objectification": - are previous interpreters guilty, or O'Day?
"Rhetorical Shape": - a paradigm, or a mirage?
"Speech Chiasm": - complimentary patterns
"Character Movement": - "Acquital", or betrayal?
Gender Equality: - does the text support it?
Separate but Equal? - gender equality remains elusive...
"Step IV": - Textual History and Interpretation
Dr. Gail R. O'Day, PhD is Associate Dean of Faculty and Academic Affairs and A.H. Shatford Professor of Preaching and New Testament, at Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA. As well as a PhD at Emory U. (/83) she holds an MTS from Harvard U. (/79), and a BA from Brown U. (/76).
Professor O'Day's current research focuses on the Gospel of John, the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and the Bible and preaching.
(From: Emory University Faculty Webpage)
Additionally, Dr. O'Day is an editor for the prestigious Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL), and coeditor of the Oxford Access Bible (1999). She has been published in a variety of theological journals, and is the author of Revelation in the Fourth Gospel: Narrative Mode and Theological Claim (Fortress, 1986).
O'Day and Johannine Studies
Obviously, Dr. O'Day enters into the arena of Johannine studies as something of a heavyweight, and also with an element of novelty in a field historically dominated by men. Her book on the Fourth Gospel (1986) is a remarkable piece of scholarship, exploring the function of irony in John's Gospel quite thoroughly, and is a welcome addition to the literature on John.
So her seasoned article on John 8:1-11 (1992) was quickly noticed for its ground-breaking candor regarding the historical handling of the Pericope De Adultera, and fresh approach to its interpretation.
A Cue from Culpepper
O'Day's insights were soon brought to popular attention by R. A. Culpepper in his recent book, The Gospel and Letters of John (Abingdon 1998), who devoted a half-page (pp. 170f) to them. Interestingly, Culpepper avoided O'Day's main thesis, that of equality in the treatment of both the Pharisees and the woman by Jesus.
While remarkable, this is perhaps not so surprising. At least Culpepper tips off the reader to the existance of the article by O'Day, and persistant students will find it. Modern feminist approaches still find significant resistance in this field.
Perhaps ironical on a different level, is that while Culpepper was asserting that John 8:1-11 is "not originally part of the Gospel of John" (p. 171), he himself unknowingly provided new key internal evidence for its authenticity in his book. Interested readers can see our review of Culpepper and the significance of his 'discoveries' here:
Culpepper on John 8:1-11 <-- Click here for remarkable evidence.
Now that the definition of 'internal' evidence has been significantly expanded in recent years, and its nature is better understood, a surprising amount of new internal evidence has been uncovered and brought to bear on the question of authenticity.
The Value of O'Day's Work
The reason for bringing forward O'Day's work for further analysis, is that it contains much of value for current interpretation of John 8:1-11. Not all of O'Day's arguments will stand up to deeper analysis, and some of her assertions need significant modification.
Nonetheless there is a hefty residue of observations and analysis which will assist further progress in the interpretation of John 8:1-11. O'Day's work breaks down into two basic parts:
(1) Her survey of previous commentators and interpreters of the Passage. This is a valuable, organizing and insightful work, involving a review, classification and critique of the main lines of interpretation of the past.
(2) Her own break with previous interpretation, making a fresh attempt at a modern academic reading that is sensitive to human rights and womens' issues.
Christians of all stripes will benefit from O'Day's sober assessment of previous interpretation, and also her insightful approach to the verses from both an academic and a woman's viewpoint.
A Review of :
John 7:53-8:11: A Study in Misreading,
JBL 111/4 (1992) pp. 631-640
Synopsis of Article:
Dr. O'Day notes that past approaches seem to have colored the understanding of this passage. This is evident from the significant variations in interpretation and emphasis by 'mainline' commentators. She points to the common methodology used by interpreters as a possible cause, and "reverses" the steps of the procedure for her own interpretation.
Her own approach takes four steps:
(1) An examination of the "rhetorical shape" of the passage.
(2) A survey of past "misreadings" of the passage.
(3) A new reading that uses the "rhetorical shape" as a guide.
(4) An examination of the textual history and its effect on interpretation.
O'Day's approach does result in a fresh and insightful reading of the passage. But we may well ask whether this comes from her new "method" as such, or if it results more from the personal insight and viewpoint of O'Day herself.
The article is focussed upon interpretation of the passage, rather than textual criticism per se. Her contribution here to textual criticism is limited to some insightful observations regarding the historical controversy and possible bias involved in the treatment this passage, both by ancient commentators and modern critics.
Investigational Method or Rhetorical Method?
The first concern regarding O'Day's work is that of her methodology. Her claim appears somewhat naive in that the mere 'order' of the steps in the investigation are a fundamental cause of the traditional 'misreading' of John 8:1-11.
"The conventional scholarly approach to John 7:53-8:11 is first to review and assess its complicated textual history, and from there to study the form and content of the text. I want to reverse this procedure, because it seems to me that assumptions about textual history have overdetermined the reading of the text.
This paper will therefore follow four steps..."
But in fact, it is not really possible to 'reverse' the steps. As a well-read scholar O'Day is perfectly familiar with the main interpretations of John 8:1-11. Her thinking is already colored by her rejection or acceptance of various claims about the passage. Presenting her material in 'reverse order' does nothing for O'Day.
It can hardly be true that O'Day reached her own conclusions by the artificial process (set of steps) presented in her paper. Instead, O'Day, like all other scholars, has acquired her knowledge and opinions over a long and haphazard process of reviewing previous work, independant thinking, and accepting and rejecting ideas.
The order of presentation and structure of O'Day's article can only really have impact upon the reader. (And this impact will be mediated by their comfort with O'Day's views and familiarity with the evidence and issues.)
The presentation order of O'Day's argument then, is simply a rhetorical device. Its meant to make both her claims regarding previous interpretations, and her own interpretation easier to accept.
Total Isolation and Quarantine
O'Day first completely bypasses all previous interpretation and commentary, in an attempt to begin with a "clean slate".
In this section, she also largely ignores both the New Testament background, the Johannine community context, and even the technical aspects of the actual embedding of this passage in the Gospel. All focus is upon the internal content of the passage.
This is a key component of O'Day's approach: completely isolating the passage (or rather the reader) from all outside influences. The idea is to let the passage speak for itself. Yet this itself also colors the interpretation of the passage. There can be no really 'neutral' ground.
No Neutrality Possible
Although O'Day appears to remain neutral regarding the authenticity and Johannine authorship of the passage, her actual method amounts to treating the passage as both a foreign insertion into John, and also as a story which is older than John.
In both these cases, one would naturally prefer to avoid coloring the interpretation of the passage with influences from John. Yet if the passage was written by the author of John, or if it was incorporated into his Gospel knowingly and intelligently with a purpose, isolating the passage can at best only be a preliminary step. It might even be significantly misleading and self-defeating.
This is why most critics at least try to (or pretend to) discover the relationship of the passage to John's Gospel before attempting an interpretation of the passage. Yet O'Day denies the obvious scientific legitimacy of such an approach.
Nor is she concerned at this stage with details of wording or variations in the textual tradition. She simply uncritically adopts the UBS text for her examination, as a preliminary starting point.
Radical Departure, or Status Quo?
In all this, O'Day gives the appearance of a radical departure from previous work. Yet while her approach is certainly a country mile away from traditional Protestant interpretation (e.g., from a believer's view), her approach is not novel at all from the modern academic standpoint.
O'Day only appears new, in bypassing all the modern questions. But in reality she has blandly embraced the academic position, the status quo: that the passage is an early piece of tradition independant and foreign to John.
This is shown by the fact that O'Day never really achieves "escape velocity" from this view, and no attempt prove it is an 'insertion' is offered.
The isolation of John 8:1-11 is not then a preliminary step in her analysis, but remains the only step. There is no serious consideration of other possibilities regarding authorship or its implications for both methodology and any resultant interpretation of the Pericope de Adultera.
Confusion of Purpose: John, or 'Sources'?
If instead we are seeking to understand the sources (oral or written) that John (or the interpolator) used, then we have to explain what our true plan is. O'Day should signal plainly in her Introduction just what her personal goals really are, and the presumptions that went into them.
If the story is to be viewed as an 'interpolation', then this will be one of the presumptions that goes into the decision to isolate the passage from the rest of the Gospel and study it as an 'independant' source.
In fact, it appears that this is the actual motivation behind O'Day's approach.
Yet even so, this presumption alone does not justify total isolation of the passage from the outside world or turning all of the text's external referents back into the text itself.
At best, it merely removes any a priori warrant for applying observations or conclusions that were derived from John to the passage.
Breaking Down the Passage into Sections
The first level of structure O'Day identifies is the natural division of the passage into two parts, and the second part into three sections:
[Division into Two Parts:]
"John 7:53-8:11 consists of two parts, an introduction (7:53-8:2) and the central conflict (8:3-11). The introduction establishes the setting for the story as the Temple of Jerusalem. ...
[Subdivision of Part II:]
"The story proper can be divided into three sections: vv. 3-6a, in which the scribes and Pharisees pose a question to Jesus; and vv. 6b-7 and vv. 8-11, which furnish a double response by Jesus to the question. 1
As we move through the story, it is important to pay attention to the parallels between vv. 6b-7 [Section 2] and vv. 8-11 [Section 3] . "
(O'Day, p 631)
1. F. Roussaeu proposes this structure for the story proper ("La femm adultere: Structure de Jean 7:53-8:11" Bib 59  469).
This minor divisioning of the text is recent, but not wholly original to O'Day's approach. On its face, it has a natural appeal, following the apparent stages in the unfolding of the incident. The choice seems reasonable, and she acknowledges the originator of this division of text in an open footnote.
First Verses of Passage Ignored
O'Day begins her analysis at verse 3. While this 'no nonsense' leap into the core of the story is efficient, serious questions arise over the bypassing of the earlier parts of the story.
The entire passage (and the section actually under dispute) is John 7:53-8:11. This is what is missing from some early manuscripts, in a block.
But even the Lectionary version of the story begins at 8:1 or 8:2. And these verses cannot simply be dropped on any internal criteria. If we were to start the pericope at 8:3 (as O'Day chooses), we would not even know who we were talking about until verse 6.
Jesus is mentioned only in 8:1 by name, and is not mentioned again until 8:6. The story could hardly have begun at 8:3.
|7:45-52- private dispute among Pharisees
|7:53 the previous day ends||Part I|
|8:1 Jesus returns to Mount|
|8:2 Dawn: in Temple teaching|
|8:3-6a - They come with woman
|| Part II |
|8:6b-7 - He deals with opponents||Sect.2|
|8:8-11 - Jesus deals with the woman
|8:12-20 - Jesus preachs about Himself as the Light of the World
Separate but not 'Equal'
The chart above shows the approximate sizes of each section. One immediate observation is that O'Day's 2nd section (8:6b-7) is hardly more than a verse in size, while the 3rd section (8:8-11) is nearly four times as large.
While this does not rule out O'Day's claim that the two sections are parallel and that Jesus treats the parties equally, it does a priori indicate that the author dwelt upon one section far longer than on the other, and therefore seems to have held it higher in importance.
From the narrator's view then, the two sections themselves don't seem to be 'equal', in size or importance.
This will become relevant later, when we examine O'Day's evaluation of previous interpreters of the verses below.
The Importance of the First Part of the Story
If then 8:1-2 are part of the original story proper, they need to be accounted for and interpreted, even if we allow O'Day's procedure of isolating the story from the rest of the Gospel and the rest of the NT.
O'Day seems to acknowledge that the first part of the story is original and integral to it:
"John 7:53-8:11 consists of two parts, an introduction (7:53-8:2) and the central conflict (8:3-11).
The introduction establishes the setting for the story as the Temple of Jerusalem. The people gather in the Temple to hear Jesus teach (v. 2).
The arrival of the scribes and Pharisees marks the beginning of the conflict (v.3). The narrative concerns the arrival of the scribes and Pharisees into the orbit of Jesus' dangerous teaching."
(- emphasis ours)
The bold blue highlight shows O'Day's awareness that the narrative hangs together as a whole, and that the introductory section plainly serves the author's purpose. O'Day does not intend to physically divide the two 'parts' as though they were from different sources.
O'Day seems to acknowledge the possibility that the first part of the story is integral to and from the same hand as the rest. The evidence she does present is in favour of this view, and no contrary evidence has ever been proposed in the literature.
Yet O'Day spends no time at all discussing the first 'part' (7:53-8:2), whereas these verses pose an incredible problem for those casting the passage as an 'independant' story simply 'inserted' into John.
Two Parts or One Whole?
For the story in this condition cannot stand alone, nor can it stand without the first part. And yet the first part appears crafted to entrench the story in its place in John.
This circumstance throws O'Day's first basic division of the story into two neat halves in serious doubt. (We shall see later that other divisions of the remaining 'part II' are also less convincing than would appear by O'Day's breezy presentation.)
Failing to properly account for the entire passage as it stands is a weakness in O'Day's analysis of the rest. It adds more doubt to her choice of division of the remaining portions and more importantly, her interpretation of them.
Avoiding discussion of the first Part of the passage appears to serve no purpose, except to avoid the strong evidence that the passage is entrenched in John, and can't really stand alone as written either.
These facts are inconvenient for anyone adopting the position that the passage is a simple 'insertion' into John's Gospel.
Here O'Day immediately begins with the content of the first, introductory part of the story:
The scribes and Pharisees bring the woman to the Temple and place her "in the middle" of the gathering (v. 3). The woman is physically surrounded by those who accuse her and seek to condemn her.
She is an object on display, given no name, no voice, no identity apart from that for which she stands accused, "a woman who had been caught in adultery."
The scribes and Pharisees ... are accustomed to controlling discourse in the Temple.
... As v. 5 makes clear, the woman is not a subject but an object, a point of law.
... Their first concern is with entrapping Jesus, not with the law or justice, or even the woman. She is a useful object to be exploited for their ulterior motives.
(ibid, 631-2. bold emphasis ours)
"Feminist" Language Not the Issue
Some conservatives may be disturbed by O'Day's apparent 'feminist' terminology. But this in reality is only a minor distraction, and we should not let this divert us from the main issues of the text.
We cannot simply dismiss O'Day's observations because of her choice of expressing them in popular feminist language. The fact is, according to the story itself, the woman IS being exploited, and her accusers have no concern for her as a person (cf. John 8:6).
The woman's basic human dignity, and probably her legitimate rights to a fair and impartial hearing are being violated. She is humiliated and exposed to potential mob violence. The appropriateness and the legality of the entire procedure are in doubt from both a Jewish (Lev.20:10) and Roman (John 18:31b) perspective.
Perceptive readers will also concede that both human rights issues and questions of Law are intentionally being raised by the author of the passage, and not just by O'Day.
And it should also be clear that the human rights issues take precedence over the legal technicalities in the text. This is indicated both from the response Jesus gives to the Pharisees (Jn 8:7b), and in His handling of the woman (Jn 8:11).
The Expanded Scope of O'Day's Claim
O'Day deliberately chooses feminist terminology, and boldy confronts us with her modern perspective both as an academic expert and a woman concerned with women's issues.
O'Day offers no apology for her choice of interpretational viewpoint and language, and she probably doesn't need to. For her, and many other modern readers, the issues she raises will be self-evident.
However, as we shall see later on, O'Day extends the meaning of the passage to include an intentional statement regarding the equality of men and women. This is a more ambitious thesis than the observations above can sustain by themselves.
We will examine her thesis in more detail in the Section III. For now we can concede that her basic observations here hold up well enough, and also seem to be intended for our consideration by the author of the passage.
The reader should be warned however, that while the author's concern over basic injustice and even misogyny is quite plausible (especially given the example of Luke for comparison), modern notions of 'equality' and a full-blown secular humanist/feminist agenda still remain a serious anachronism when 'backdated' to John's Gospel.
Whether or not one views the passage as Johannine or a somewhat later 'insertion', it remains highly doubtful that John or the 'interpolator' had a feminist's idea of equality at the top of their list of burning issues when composing this story.
"The second scene in the story proper begins in v. 6 when Jesus bends down and writes on the ground with his finger. Commentators are almost evenly divided on whether they will lodge the significance of the writing in the act of writing or its content.
Many commentators are fascinated by the seeming mystery of Jesus' actions and feel compelled to supply the words that Jesus wrote. As we will discuss below, an interpretive agenda accompanies this insistence on discerning the content of Jesus' writing.
The text itself, however, draws attention only to the fact of Jesus' writing, not the substance of what is written. Jesus' gesture indicates his unwillingness to spring the trap that has been set for him. Jesus writes on the ground to indicate his refusal to play the game according to the scribes' and Pharisees' rules. 3
Verse 7a indicates that Jesus' interlocutors (unlike many commentators) recognize Jesus' gesture as an act of refusal. They perceive Jesus' writing to be a nonanswer, whereby he discredits their challenge. They therefore continue to ask him their question. At v. 7b Jesus stands up and addresses his interlocutors directly. His statement is not a direct response to their question, but is rather an invitation to discern the answer themselves.
3. See the early discussion of E. Power, "Writing on the Ground (J 8:6,8)" Bib 2 (1921) 54-57.
Comments on Commentators
Over one third of O'Day's remarks on the 2nd section are about commentators (highlighted in blue). The feminist language has been dropped, but this is probably because the section gives little opportunity for it (as a male-male confrontation, it likely has less interest to O'Day).
Although O'Day has reserved an entire section for dealing with competing interpretations of previous commentators, she seems unable to resist making a significant sidebar here to slam those who would attach significance to Jesus writing on the ground, and to gather support for her own position that the writing is only a gesture.
O'Day insists that Jesus' writing has no value or significance beyond indicating non-cooperation. It is simply a novel expression of Jesus' refusal to engage in the entrapment game.
Ironically, O'Day elsewhere generally rejects the conclusions of commentators en masse. Here she draws upon their partial support for her own program of isolating the text from the outside world and having the text interpret itself.
Yet even the claim that commentators are "almost evenly divided" is dubious. There are few that would claim Jesus wrote nothing or only doodled, or that the incident was not historical, even if they insist it is inappropriate to "guess" what it was. Were O'Day to take such a premise dogmatically she would have almost no support .
Here however, O'Day seems to be engaging in a version of 'Sola Scriptura' extreme enough to shock a Calvinist. While the majority of commentators and interpreters of every stripe would at least allow conjectural scriptural cross-referencing, O'Day rules it out a priori by her self-imposed methodology and her interpretation of Jesus' gesture.
Lack of Outside Connection Seems Implausible
Jesus' writing in the sand is perhaps the least convincing instance of O'Day's interpretive practice. It seems to have far more significance than merely taking the text in isolation will allow:
(1) Normally stories of Christ's earthly ministry are packed with both O.T. references and innuendo. In fact, its hard to think of a single passage in the Gospels which has no intentional reference to either O.T. Law, ancient Israelite history or prophecy. Here in John 8:1-11 we have the obvious connection to the story of Susanna, as well as the O.T. Law reference in 8:5, and the often noticed prophetic allusions to Jeremiah/Isaiah. Clearly this extra-textual referencing is the norm for our author as well.
(2) Each NT episode is also often carries symbology and metaphor, allegory and double-meaning. This story is hardly any different: it conforms to the pattern on multiple levels. The motivations noted in 8:6, the ironically mystic pronouncement in 8:7b, the rhetorical question of 8:10b, the ironic typology of the woman, all warn of a text deliberately loaded with added contextual meanings.
(3) Deliberate connections to other parts of the same Gospel or other Gospels cannot be ignored. At least three whole clauses in this short passage are paraphrased from John chapter 6 (see John 6:2, 3, 15b, 21, and the remarkable "it was now dark" in 6:17!). The numerous apparent borrowings to/from Luke/Acts are well known (cf. Luke 21:37-38, etc.).
(4) There is no record of Jesus actually writing anywhere else in the NT, and this is surely significant. The author who recorded this fact must have recognised its uniqueness or at least remarkable rarity even as he penned it. Could this really be "incidental"?
(5) The Gospels are a written medium, which makes 8:6b a loud self-reference, especially for a later Gospel like John's, part of a written tradition. Elsewhere in the same Gospel, the act of writing is given great significance: "It is written" is a common expression in the narrative, and even on the lips of Pilate.
(6) Why did Jesus need to "write on the ground" at all? He was perfectly capable of avoiding traps and winning debates verbally with His opponents. The issue over taxes is eerily similar in nature to the trap here, and He easily refuted His opponents in discussions about divorce and resurrection without resorting to diagrams.
O'Day has not convincingly solved the riddle of Jesus' writing on the ground by any means.
Unusual narrative features are a key method that evangelists use to signal special meanings that must be derived elsewhere independantly (cf. Jn 19:33-37, and Mark 5:1-20, esp. "Legion" v.9). And the factors listed above at least strongly beg the question of whether or not the author intended his readers to wrestle with his puzzle by appealing to scriptures outside the story proper.
The Enigma of the Writing Remains
"The text itself, however, draws attention only to the fact of Jesus' writing, not the substance of what is written."
The omission of what was written by the narrator may make it momentarily appear as O'Day claims on the surface, while the story moves forward. But the writing still remains, as a strange and important residue long after the crowd and woman disperse.
O'Day's take, by contrast, that the writing has no reach outside the story in John 8:2-11, appears artificial. It seems constructed only to allow O'Day's method (of ignoring all outside referents) to be carried to absurd lengths.
One has to ask, just what would it take for O'Day to admit that the author did have some purpose beyond mere literary novelty in presenting such a glaring enigma?
And if we say that John is just recording a historical fact which he himself lacks more detail on, then all the more reason to at least consider the possibility that Jesus actually wrote something.
And if Jesus wrote something, the question must be asked, what could it have been? This is precisely how commentators handle other unknowns in the text.
The reason that, as O'Day says, "commentators are fascinated and feel compelled" is obviously because the case remains fascinating and compelling!
The problem here is that a purely 'literary' analysis of a serious political/religious text like this is probably doomed to failure. The text is simply too loaded with symbols and external referents for an isolationist-style approach.
The only hope of properly grasping the text is by reaching for outside referents that can illuminate and elucidate it.
The last section of the story begins in v. 8 when Jesus bends down and writes on the ground again. The language of v. 8 closely parallels that of v. 6b. Jesus' writing again indicates a refusal to engage his interlocutors; he has said what he has to say and any further conversation is superfluous. While Jesus writes on the ground, the crowd disperses one by one until only the woman remains. Verse 9a (the crowd's departure) corresponds to their pressing of the question in v. 7a. In both instances Jesus' indirection evokes a response.
They depart one by one, not as an undifferentiated crowd (cf. v. 2) but as individuals who have heard Jesus' invitation. The crowd physically surrounded the woman in v. 3; now they have left her alone (kai h gunh en mesw ousa). The physical description anticipates the theological conclusion: the woman was surrounded and threatened by the voices and power of condemnation, but now she is free.
At v. 10 Jesus stands up just as he did at v. 7b. He speaks to the woman twice. This is the first time she is addressed in the story. Jesus asks her two questions, "Where are they?" "Has no one condemned you?" Jesus gives the woman the chance to interpret her own situation. At v. 11a the woman speaks for the first time and answers Jesus directly, "No one, Lord." Jesus responds to the woman in v. 11b, and his words confirm what the physical movements of the story have already suggested: there will be no condemnation and the woman can go, just as the rest of the crowd did.
What Section is This Again?
By O'Day's own commentary here, the first two thirds of this 'third' section are still describing Jesus' dealings with the accusers, not the woman.
In other words, by content, this is still Section 2, not Section 3.
O'Day solves this problem by completely passing over it, as though it were non-existant. Structure by content is ignored, overridden by O'Day's new structural framework, which she calls "Rhetorical Shape".
We will examine O'Day's idea of "Rhetorical Shape" below, where she introduces the concept as an explanation for her division of Part II into three Sections. For now we only note the disparity between O'Day's division of the text and its content.
Writing in the Earth Revisited
Again O'Day insists the writing in the earth functions only to end the discussion. Its significance does not reach back to the O.T. or beyond the borders of story. But we again have to ask, why then was it necessary at all? And how exactly did writing on the ground function?
Writing on the ground the first time had essentially no effect at all on the accusers, according to O'Day's scenario. The pronouncement of Jesus however, did. What service then does either writing really offer? It can't be that it was 'necessary', if the first instance simply fails.
Jesus elsewhere pronounced "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's!" This was equally tricky for crowd and Pharisee alike to parse, and yet no handwaving or special effects were required on that occasion.
The Pharisee's 'Eye-View'?
For her evaluation of the writing on the ground, O'Day takes her cue from the Pharisees and scribes. From this cue she asserts the insignificance of Jesus' actual writing, and its lack of any reference outside the story. This intent is then transferred to the author as well.
This seems a priori an incredible blunder, which may explain O'Day's possible misreading of the action.
Normal interpretation does not prefer the (non-)understanding of Jesus' opponents over that of the words and deeds of Jesus, or His disciples, and the narrators of his ministry. On that basis, we might as well prefer the teachings of Satan himself in Luke 4:1-13 over those of Jesus. But Jesus said,
"Leave them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. If the blind lead the blind, they will both fall into a ditch."
(Matt. 15:14, cf. Luke 6:39, and esp. John 9:39 fwd)
Taking your guidance from the Pharisees and scribes seems to violate a basic principle of NT interpretation. How did O'Day end up painting herself in such a corner?
But its worse than this: It leaves us in this case with contradictory testimony. For the accusers ignore Jesus' first writing in the sand, while in the second, his action causes them to melt away into the crowd!
While this may be 'coincidental', leaving Jesus' spoken word primary in importance, it not only steals the fire from, but also takes away any reliable 'cue' from the Pharisees and scribes. Their actions are simply ineffectual in both cases, and hardly give us any clear insight into the purpose of Jesus' writing in the sand.
We are tempted to paraphrase the formerly blind man:
"This is amazing! You say it doesn't matter what He wrote: - and yet he opened my eyes!"
(cf. John 9:30)
The Function of the Writing
In point of fact, the question of the function of the writing is really two questions:
(1) What function does the writing serve in the story?
How does it involve the characters?
(2) What function does the writing serve for the reader?
What was the narrator's purpose in relating it?
Even a purely literary analysis of the passage would require addressing both questions. But O'Day stops at the first question, and doesn't really explore the function of Jesus' writing in the sand beyond its function from the viewpoint of the characters.
This is because O'Day wants to dismiss entirely any consideration of a deeper meaning or an outside reference for Jesus' writing in the sand. From her point of view, all previous commentators who have explored this question are simply ignoring the text itself, and bringing an agenda of their own to its interpretation. O'Day says these commentators also 'misread' the text, like all the others.
O'Day's Agenda of Dismissing Previous Interpretations
O'Day must dismiss all other interpretations of the passage in order to sell her own. But as independant investigators, we don't have that luxury. We have to consider every plausible interpretation and evaluate it both on its own merits and against the alternatives.
We must strongly suspect that here in this case O'Day has let her own agenda interfere with an open and neutral investigation of the text.
The second question, that of the function of Jesus' writing as intended by the narrator and as experienced by the reader is an important question, even if O'Day's claim about it having no outside reference is true. Unfortunately O'Day doesn't really pursue this question far enough.
A deeper investigation would start with the first question, namely the actual function of Jesus' writing in the story, and use that to begin to answer the second question, the function of Jesus' writing intended by the writer, and the resulting function for the reader.
But O'Day stops short of completing this exploration, because asking the second question raises the inconvenient question of whether Jesus' writing in the ground has any outside referent or additional significance, a discovery that would be diametrically opposed to O'Day's interpretation of the verses.
We are left without any convincing reason for believing that the writing in the dirt has no intrinisic or referential meaning at all, and must simply take O'Day's word for it.
To evaluate O'Day's claim then, we must ourselves pursue another avenue of investigation, that of O'Day's methodology itself.
O'Day's Method Re-Examined
O'Day's essential technique, that of isolating a text from all outside referents, is not out of the blue. In fact, O'Day previously used this approach on John's Gospel with astounding success, in her book Revelation in the Fourth Gospel, (Fortress 1986). In this work, O'Day showed that John turns the reader's focus inward to the Gospel itself, not outward to its external referents:
"The Fourth Evangelist does not say, "These things were done in order that you may believe." He says, "These things are written in order that you may believe." The locus of revelation does not lie in the myriad of signs and deeds done by Jesus that are not recorded in the text, ...
Revelation does not lie in deeds that exist outside the world of the Gospel because the deeds in and of themselves are not revelatory (cf. John 20:29). Rather, the locus of revelation lies in the written narration of those things to which the reader of the Gospel is given access.
By focusing on the written narration of Jesus' deeds, the Fourth Evangelist is asking us to take this narrative seriously. His words in these concluding verses explicitly draw our attention to the Gospel narrative as the locus of revelation.
...The Fourth Evangelist does not locate revelation in deeds, content, paradigms, dogma, or encounter that have an independant life outside of the Gospel text.
...Revelation lies in the Gospel narrative and the world created by the words of that narrative!
Revelation in the Fourth Gospel p.94 (1986)
O'Day's drive to disconnect the text from outside referents and let the text interpret itself, is something like a logical extension of her original method which she successfully applied to John six years earlier.
If this apparently reasonable technique worked so well on John's Gospel, why does it fail when applied to the Pericope de Adultera (John 8:1-11)? O'Day's method would seem to be precisely what is needed to clear away any coloring or presumptions and get at the root of the original story, especially if the passage is indeed an insertion.
Yet the method does fail, and this failure is related to two causes:
1. True Isolation is Impossible
(1) In part, O'Day's isolation of John is something of an illusion.
We don't really come to read the Gospel of John with a 'clean slate'. We come as sophisticated readers with an extensive Judeao-Christian and historical/political background.
In fact its impossible to read the Gospel in true isolation. If it were translated into an obscure language and presented to a person with no knowledge of the Middle East history, Judaism, Christianity etc., that person would hardly understand it at all, even in many places where they thought they did.
John the Evangelist not only knows that readers will typically approach his gospel with a copious background and a whole range of presumptions, he actually depends upon it.
Again and again, the Evangelist makes external referents without offering any built-in explanation. He alludes to history, Judaism, law, prophecy, typology, geography, politics, and so on. All without any but the briefest of explanations, definitions etc. John's outside referents are mostly pointer-like.
John expects the reader to have knowledge, in some cases insider's knowledge and experience of Jesus and His historical earthly ministry, and of Christianity and its doctrines, its conflicts with Rome and Judaism.
The reader is also expected to go and do the homework, searching the O.T. references etc., to see just how and in what way the Gospel is 'embedded' in the Old Testament, the Torah, its mother Judaism, and how it interacts and changes the meaning of facts, metamorphasizing its own roots and connections through revelation.
Because the Fourth Gospel is so different from other Gospels, we tend to think of it in isolation, and handle it separately. But in fact, it is entrenched in its external referents and linked to the outside world as strongly as any other Gospel is.
Its 'isolation' is largely an illusion. John is simply not a 'stand-alone' document in the true sense of say, a simple piece of fiction meant for a broad audience.
O'Day's treatment of John 'on its own', letting the text interpret itself, is something of a willing self-deception. It is a useful paradigm but one which must not be pressed to strongly or made to bear implausible burdens.
John's gospel indeed draws the reader into its own world, with its own rules and unique vision, but it cannot be successfully and intelligently entered without deep preparation and extensive knowledge.
However unique John's world is, it is not a Closed World, but one which sends its tendrils out deeply into the world outside in which it lives. In admiring this mighty oak, we must not underestimate its hidden roots, which give it its true strength.
In truth John cannot be interpreted without copious outside references, and neither can John 8:1-11.
...And now on to point two:
2. What Applies to the Whole does not Apply to Its Parts
(2) The failure of the technique when applied to John 8:1-11 is actually because of its success when applied to the Gospel as a whole.
Part of the reason that John's Gospel can be treated in relative isolation is that it creates its own world, with its own population and rules, even its own language. How was this done?
John does this by careful selection, organization, and interconnection between the pieces he has selected and fit together. But this is not based upon mere 'style' or even vocabulary. The language is simple and efficient, but not childlike or lacking in true sophistication.
The episodes are sewn together, not with clever narrative style, or detailed grammatical stitching, but in fact almost crudely and carelessly by literary standards. John's effort is spent not upon form or appearances, but in the mystical and almost magical linkages through ideas and their expansion and metamorphosis into the unexpected and profound.
As O'Day herself has deeply investigated and shown, it is abstract and slippery motifs and genres like "revelatory irony" and sophisticated theological themes that knit the gospel together and hold its disparate parts in place.
But the very thing that weaves John together into a virtual 'seamless garment' at the thematic level prevents its parts from being effectively interpreted in isolation, at least if what we are seeking is the author's intent in including it.
No Justification for Isolation
Even for an Independant Story
On the one hand, if John 8:1-11 is indeed a part of the Gospel, then attempting to interpret it in isolation from the Gospel is obviously wrongheaded, if we want to understand its full import and purpose.
And even if John 8:1-11 were originally an independant story, treating it in complete isolation would simply halt the historical investigation, and would only give a meager result that begs for further analysis.
Any real analysis must also appeal to externals like date of composition, political and cultural background, and the legal/social status of women (etc.). O'Day's method can only ever be merely one preliminary tool out of a full arsenal of methods that must be applied.
Nor can we then treat the passage with the same rules and methods that are appropriate for John's Gospel as a whole or even in part. Once authorship by the Evangelist is denied, we lose all ground for doing so.
The same critics who reject these verses also deny its Johannine origin: But with this also goes any justification for assuming its author intended the story to be treated as its own little world, the way we think the Evangelist wants us to treat his Gospel. There is simply nothing in the passage's style that would indicate this, once it is taken out of John.
By most accounts, John 8:1-11 has little likeness to the Gospel taken as a whole, in the sense of being a self-contained unit meant to be a 'closed system'.
What is most striking about the rhetorical shape of John 7:53-8:11 are the two closely paralleled scenes, vv. 6b-7 and vv. 8-11: 4
Content Scene I Scene II Jesus bends down and writes on the ground v. 6b v.8 Jesus stands up to address the conversation v. 7b v. 10a Jesus speaks v. 7c v. 11b
We shall return to how this shape can inform and guide our reading of John 7:53-8:11 below. First we shall examine readings of the text that move against this shape and indeed that can be supported only by remaking the text.
O'Day's "Rhetorical Shape" Explained
By this "Rhetorical Shape" O'Day means a structural skeleton based literally on the 'rhetoric' within the narrative: The rhetorical performance of Jesus.
In Jesus, O'Day finds the following pattern (twice):
1. Jesus bends down and writes (on the ground).
2. Jesus stands up to address the conversation.
3. Jesus speaks (a pronouncement).
It is on this basis that O'Day ignores the strong and natural division of the passage offered by categories that O'Day herself has already accepted (i.e., Jesus dealing separately with the accusers and the woman).
For the moment we only want to observe that in order to embrace this new framework for the division of the text, O'Day must ignore the obvious content of each 'episode' as a guide.
O'Day must still somehow keep the separate categories:
1. 'Jesus deals with accusers' and
2. 'Jesus deals with the woman' ,
at least in the abstract, in order to even credibly compare Jesus' treatment of each party.
O'Day's "Rhetorical Shape" Framework Examined
Division of Part II by simple content (participants) would result in the following: Section 2 = (8:3-9) and Section 3 = (8:10-11), with 8:9b acting as a bridge or intro to the last section in the same manner as 8:3a does for the previous section. A comparative chart will help in visualization:
Subdividing the Text
| 7:53-8:2 to Mount &
back, Jesus teachs
in the Temple
|7:53-8:2 (Part I)|
- not part of
8:3-8:9a: Section 1
Jesus deals with
| (Part II)|
8:3-8:6a: Section 1
is on boundary of
but not part of
|8:6b-8:7 Section 2|
8:8-8:11 Section 3|
8:9b-8:11: Section 2|
Jesus deals with
...2nd exchange with|
| Sections defined by 'Rhetorical Shape' |
are in Yellow
Analyzing O'Day's "Rhetorical Shape"
(1) Lack of Scope and Completeness: The first thing we note is that O'Day's structure does not encompass the entire passage. In fact, it can only legitimately be extended from 8:6b to 8:10. The pattern doesn't start until Jesus begins to move, bending down to write, and effectively ends after the first address to the woman.
Jesus continues the conversation with her, but this second exchange breaks the pattern, and makes no match in His exchange with the accusers. The parallelism, the very core of the new "Rhetorical Shape" is in fact only partial and breaks down at a critically important point in the story.
O'Day's "Rhetorical Shape" does cover an important section of the story: Jesus' exchange with the accusers and at least part of His exchange with the woman. However, it offers no obvious connection to or explanatory power over the other parts of the text.
(2) Lack of Alignment with Content: The second thing we note is that O'Day's pattern has no correspondence whatever to the natural divisions of the text. None of its borders line up with either the content or focus of the various easily identified sections.
This "Rhetorical Shape" offers no support or reinforcement of the clear and simple scenes or steps in the story's movement, which seem well established and recognized.
(3) Clash with Other Poetic Structures: It needs to be acknowledged by O'Day (and the originator of this idea) that the text actually goes strongly against the pattern suggested. Both times Jesus writes in the sand appear strongly connected to His exchange with the accusers. The 2nd writing is not easily split off and grouped with His dealings with the woman.
In fact, the text already has a strong chiastic structure (A-B-A) built around Jesus' first Pronouncment, already that suggests it is actually being deliberately surrounded by the acts of writing. These form a kind of 'housing' or brackets protecting and emphasizing Jesus' dramatic speech.
This previously existing structure is well-recognized by commentators and textual critics, and seems to contradict the alleged parallel structure here proposed by O'Day. It certainly offers no support for it.
(4) Proliferation of Divisions: Perhaps most problematic for O'Day, is that the new "Rhetorical Structure" introduces at least two, probably three, new divisions into the text that have no other literary support whatever, while obliterating the one reasonable and well recognized division: namely that between Jesus' dealings with the accusers, and His dealings with the woman.
These new textual divisions appear to serve no purpose. O'Day certainly doesn't explain them. Her analysis simply consists of "Here's a pattern. Jesus does the same thing with both parties." Precisely where such a discovery should inspire new insight or explanatory power, O'Day drops the ball.
(5) "Rhetorical Shape" is Nonessential: The new concept also appears unnecessary, calling it into further doubt. Christians have got by without it for 2000 years, without the lack causing any really severe errors. Even though O'Day has complaints about previous interpretations, she fails to trace such 'misreadings' directly to the lack of this 'insight'.
The significant faults O'Day does find with Christian interpretation have more to do with cultural bias and political concerns than any oversight in reading the textual structures.
(6) "Rhetorical Shape" Fails to Support Gender Equality: "Rhetorical Shape" itself contributes little to O'Day's argument for gender equality, and 2/3 of this supposed pattern seems virtually irrelevant to Jesus' treatment of the various parties.
Does it really matter if Jesus wrote in the sand before both parties, if as O'Day claims, he wrote nothing significant? If writing was just an avoidance strategy, or a signal of non-participation, how does this apply to the woman?
And is it even credible that in the 2nd act of writing on the ground Jesus was also avoiding any interaction with the woman, when it is actually Jesus who then initiates the conversation? If not, then how are the two acts of writing 'equivalent'? The second act doesn't even appear to be directed at the woman at all.
Does Jesus' straightening up or standing before speaking really indicate the equality of the two parties, or is it just a postural habit or a gesture of ordinary politeness?
Nor do the two speeches appear equivalent: With the accusers, Jesus seems to stare into space and attempts to summon a fictional 'sinless' character, ignoring them entirely. When he turns to the woman, he appears to talk to her directly, perhaps without malice, but he interrogates her all the same, and his final pronouncements appear stern. It seems like apples and oranges once again.
O'Day fails to explain how any of the three gestures demonstrate or even hint at 'gender equality'.
(7) "Rhetorical Shape" functions as a Smokescreen: It has all the appearance of a 'fad'. - A fashionable novelty picked up in passing from a recent obscure study, which O'Day uses as something like a magician's wand: it seems meant to amuse and distract while serious sleight-of-hand is performed elsewhere during the discussion.
As we shall see, O'Day's arguments are no better or worse with or without "Rhetorical Shape", and she must be aware of this. So what function does it really serve? It appears only to add novelty and distraction from the serious issues at hand.
The misreadings of John 7:53-8:11 on which I would like to focus form three clusters:
(1) readings that define the pericope in terms of the exchange between Jesus and the woman - readings exemplified, and, as we shall see, determined by Augustine;
(2) readings that are governed by a fear of and a resistance to Jesus' perceived antinomianism - readings exemplified by Calvin;
(3) readings that locate the key to the text in what Jesus wrote on the ground - no single commentator has held sway here.
(1) There is no question that Augustine's writings on John 7:53-8:11 have had the most decisive shaping influence on how this text is interpreted (at least in the Western church). Augustine's classic formulation on this text is found in Homily XXXIII on the Gospel of John:
"There remained alone they two, a wretch and Mercy ("miseria et misericordia")." 5
This line has been seized on by subsequent commentators as the perfect summary of the text. Rudolf Schnackenburg, for example, calls Augustine's words "a theologically precise lapidary phrase." 6 Raymond Brown supports his view that "the moment when the sinful woman stands confronted with the sinless Jesus is one of exquisite drama" by referring to Augustine. 7
Is John 7:53-8:11 really this bipolar, however? Does the shape of the story itself support locating the full weight of the drama in the final exchange between Jesus and the woman?
By highlighting the woman's sin, and hence her unworthiness as a candidate for grace, the rest of the text is reduced to prolegomena. The larger social questions of Jesus' relationship to the religious establishment and the challenge he presented to the status quo are lost to the woman's sin.
Jesus is grace and mercy in this text, but his mercy is not exclusively visible in contrast to the woman's sin. To summarize the story as sin (woman) and grace (Jesus) is to objectify and dehumanize the woman the same way the scribes and Pharisees do in v. 4.
It is to define her away because of her sexuality rather than to treat her as a full person as Jesus does in vv. 10-11. It is to accept the scribes and Pharisees' definition of the woman (and the issues) rather than Jesus'. It is to ignore the invitation issued by Jesus in v. 7 and to cast a stone.
(2) The second type of misreading is characterized by a fear of antinomianism. Calvin's commentary on this text clearly reveals what is at stake in this misreading:
"It is not related that Christ simply absolved the woman, but that he let her go free. And this is not surprising, for He did not wish to undertake anything that did not belong to his office. Those who deduce from this that adultery should not be punished by death must, on the same reasoning, admit that inheritances should not be divided, since Christ refused to arbitrate between two brothers. Indeed every crime will be exempt from penalties of law if the punishment of adultery is remitted, for the door will then be thrown open to every kind of treachery..."
Calvin then reinforces why adultery should be punished, including the threat that property will be passed to an illegitimate child, and the "chief evil is that the woman disgraces the husband..."
Calvin precludes finding grace in this text:
"Yet the Popish theology is that in this passage Christ has brought in the law of grace, by which adulterers may be freed from punishment...Why is this, but that they may pollute with unbridled lust nearly every marriage bed with impunity? This is the result of that diabolical celibacy..."
Calvin concludes that "although Christ remits men's sins, He does not subvert the social order or abolish legal sentences and punishments." 8
I have quoted Calvin at length because he provides an excellent example of the power of vested interests to reshape a text. What actually occurs in John 7:53-8:11 is secondary to what Calvin will allow to take place.
Calvin may be the most explicit in stating his views, but he is not alone among commentators. Many commentators hedge in their conclusions about this text and cannot allow Jesus' grace toward this woman. For example, Barnabas Lindars writes that Jesus' word to the woman "merely shows that he, too, dismisses the case." 9
E. C. Hoskyns writes, "In some sections of the church the supposed leniency of the words 'neither do I condemn thee' which are, however, not lenient at all, must have occasioned scandal." There is "no condoning of adultery, for the woman's action is roundly denounced as sinful, here also is no forgiveness of sin, for the woman expresses neither faith or repentance." 10
The possibility that in John 7:53-8:11 Jesus subverts the social status quo, particularly with regard to a woman's sexuality, is too dangerous for these interpreters. The need to depict Jesus as the maintainer of the social order (and it seems, to protect Jesus from himself) results in interpretation that reshapes the text.
(3) John 7:53-8:11 becomes completely malleable in the hands of interpreters who seek to discover what Jesus wrote in the ground. The text changes shape in accordance with what words one assumes Jesus wrote.
Jerome suggested (Contra Pelagium 2.17) that Jesus was writing the people's sins on the ground. J. D. M. Derrett, in a most elaborate argument, identifies Exod. 23:1b as Jesus' text the first time he writes, and Exod. 23:7 as Jesus' text the second time he writes. (Derrett reminds us that the Hebrew Jesus wrote would be unpointed, which would allow for some latitude in interpretation by the onlookers). 11
Some commentators propose that Jesus writes words from the story of Daniel and Susanna (v. 53) on the ground. 12 In a recent treatment of John 7:53-8:11, James Sanders suggests that when Jesus first bends down he writes the first five commandments of the Decalogue, and when he bends down the second time he writes the last five commandments. 13
Yet the shape of the story makes clear that Jesus' conversation partners, both the scribes and Pharisees and the woman, respond to what they hear Jesus say, not to what he writes. 14
Attempts to find the interpretive key to John 7:53-8:11 in something outside the given story reveal a dissatisfaction with and distrust of the story as it is written. Such interpretations constitute a refusal to take the text seriously. 15
They serve, once again, a need to rescue Jesus from himself. If one can discover a biblical precedent or external rationale for what Jesus does in this story, then Jesus' actions become less dangerous and objectionable.
5 . Augustine, Homily XXXIII, Hom. On John & First Epistle (Oxford: J. H. Parker; 1848) 1. 477.
6 . Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel Acc.to St.John (NY Crossroad 1982) 2. 167.
7 . Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel Acc. To John (AB 29; Doubleday 1966)
8 . John Calvin, The Gospel Acc. St John (transl. T.H.L. Parker, Eerdmans 1959) 209.
9 . Barnabas Lindars, The Gospel of John (London 1972) 312.
10 . E. C. Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel (2nd rev. Ed F. N. Davey, Faber & 1947) 570.
11 . Derrett, "Law", 18-23
12 . R. E. Osborne, Pericope Adulterae CJT 12 (1966) 281.
13 . James Sanders, " 'Nor Do I...': A Canonical Reading of the Challenge to Jesus in John 8," in The Conversation Continues: Studies in John and Paul (ed. R. T. Fortna and B. R. Gaventa; Abingdon, 1990) 337-47.
14 . Sander's comment is revealing in this regard: "Hearing on the part of the Pharisees includes also seeing what Jesus wrote; it might be understood as heeding" (ibid 339). In order to support this argument, Sanders has to rewrite the text.
15 . The tradition that associated Jer 17:13 with Jesus' writing on the ground is an exception to this statement, because Jer 17:13 is used to explain the significance of the act of Jesus' writing, not to supply the text that he wrote.
O'Day does not explicitly state that ALL previous commentators are buffoons, but on the other hand, she would likely deny any charges that she set up a 'straw-man' to attack either.
She admittedly selects a fair sample of popular commentaries and authors to examine, which indeed spans 1500 years of mainstream interpretation of the verses.
The sample size should be perhaps much larger and broader, but she can't really be faulted as misrepresenting the status quo regarding interpretation of John 8:1-11.
These apparent 'misreadings' are severe and widespread enough to be a serious issue for O'Day.
But are they really 'misreadings'?
Comparing 'Misreadings' to the Text Itself
O'Day would have us emphasize the 'equal treatment' which both parties (accusers & the woman) receive from Jesus.
But could her apparently anachronistic 'feminist reading' of John 8:1-11 be as bad a 'misreading' as that of say Calvin (1550), or even Augustine (c. 400 A.D.), labouring under the biases of their own era?
The verses after all are actually 400 years older than the oldest surviving commentary! The natural expectation is that the text will be more gender-biased than the commentators...
Augustine characterizes the scene as "misery" (the caught adulteress) versus "grace" (Jesus the Saviour), but is this Augustine's fault, or that of the text itself?
O'Day claims Augustine's eyeview clones that of the Pharisees and scribes: 'objectifying and dehumanizing' the woman, it 'defines her away', and fails "to treat her as a full person like Jesus does". It is to accept the scribes and Pharisses definition of the woman and the issues', and finally, it ignores the invitation of Jesus, and "casts a stone"!
The Pharisees and Scribes (the Accusers) in the Text
From a literary standpoint, the Pharisees and scribes begin as a faceless gang only identified by their profession. They have a spokesman, who starts out with a voice but this fades out into vague references to speech (8:7a).
The gang itself becomes a disorganized and defocussed group, performing even more vague actions (8:9), until they virtually fade away, drifting off like separating swirls of smoke.
Jesus' Relation to the Accusers in the Text
Jesus never even addresses the woman's accusers directly either as a group, or as individuals. Instead He appeals to a hypothetical but unlikely candidate (the sinless one) somewhere out in the crowd, who's absence becomes quickly apparent.
In some sense at least, Jesus however reluctantly, acknowledges a kind of peership with the Pharisees and scribes, by assenting to their request for a ruling or teaching. He accepts the title of "Teacher" (Rabbi), and cooperates at least formally, taking the honour from them (however insincere), and standing with them in their Jewishness.
Likewise, they assent to His ruling/teaching, however slowly, grudgingly granting Him the status they had offered from the beginning. His honour and status is derived straight from His words, and they are received solemnly as evidence. Like badges of identity and coats of arms, they mark Jesus with a stature and greatness.
And by acknowledging His words the Pharisees and scribes partake of His honour and status. They choose to accept rather than argue, and like the fool silently standing beside the wise man they appear wise also. The woman has no such opportunity.
The Woman as Portrayed in the Story
The woman on the other hand has no such comradery to latch onto, no mutual respect, no feeling of membership in an elite group of 'teachers' and 'lawyers'. She has no opinion to be sought. Her only title is 'adulteress', a label equal to "death-row inmate". She has no freedom to walk, or even speak unless spoken to. No hope of anything like the status of a man in ancient Jerusalem, much less a comfortable 'sexual equality'.
She moves from an unidentified culprit, to a legal and moral concern, and becomes simultaneously an unwanted interruption. Then she changes remarkably into an 'object' of contemplation, but not in the normal negative feminist sense, such as a sexual object. The reader is given nothing on her physical appearance. Its her circumstance that is to be contemplated, and she is defined by her predicament and status.
She finally evolves for Jesus at least into someone to question regarding her circumstance, without any apparent malice, and perhaps surprisingly, someone to accept some testimony from.
The Woman's Relationship to Jesus in the Text
Ultimately she receives personal attention from the Son of God. She receives a reprieve, freedom, an individualized warning, and a command.
Its extremely difficult to see how Jesus treated these two parties "equally". If anything, He clearly favours the woman, even if this favour is pure 'grace', and wholly unmerited from all appearances of the circumstances.
Perhaps most importantly, this 'favour' from Jesus never raises her to any credible status that could be called "equal" to that of the Pharisees and scribes. They retain their priviledged and exclusive status, while she retains the status of an adulteress, not even the rank of an ordinary Jewish woman.
The Centrality of the Woman Rises with the Climax
We must also note from the literary viewpoint that as the obvious climax of the story rises (the question of her guilt and future), the Pharisees and scribes, even the crowd hanging upon Jesus' every word, fade away in presence and significance completely, while the woman indeed becomes the complete center of attention.
Even Jesus Himself reluctantly takes the stage, only to deliver one terse line and then return to the sidelines awaiting the actions of others. How is this text supposed to be read as a paradigm for equality?
After all this, its hard to see any fault with Augustine, or with Ray Brown's characterization of the final scene: "...the moment when the sinful woman stands confronted with the sinless Jesus is one of exquisite drama."
Complaint Against Category (1) Seems Minor
We may grant some substance to O'Day's complaints. We may acknowledge the ever-present danger of being distracted from the heart and soul of the passage by legal details or misplaced emphasis.
But when all is said and done, Augustine and his hermeneutical heirs seem hardly guilty of much more than an emotional over-fascination with Jesus' treatment of a sinful woman.
Is this the great error? Can it be called a 'misreading' to focus on what the text itself seems also to underline?
Isn't the story about a woman taken in adultery after all? Shouldn't we expect the spiritual doctors to emphasize the subject of sin and forgiveness, rather than minimize it in order to highlight peripheral issues like gender equality?
Here is one place where a person might be initially inclined to think that O'Day has pulled a straw-man out of a hat to chop down. Calvin (writing in 1550), complete with Papist Conspiracy theories, and his all too human (read Paul's "natural man") fears of being cuckholded, is a frightening spectacle of "anti - antinomianism".
The Danger of Extreme Calvinism and Legalism (Phariseeism)
Extreme Calvinism, or at least "Ultra-Calvinism" is in fact Christianity turned inside out to such a degree that it becomes a cruel caricature of the real thing, a kind of "Satanic counterfeit" of the Gospel.
This line of theology swung the pendulum too far the other way in its knee-jerk reaction to the corrupt Roman Catholicism of the Middle Ages, with its Inquisitions, pogroms, heretic exterminations, anti-science, and witchhunts.
Add to this, the fact that Calvin himself was apparently personally responsible for having at least one man burnt at the stake for disagreeing with his doctrines, and you have such a repugnant character and teaching that it is hardly conceivable that anyone would follow his absurdities for very long today.
Only the incredible thing is, thousands still flock to Calvin's books and doctrines, seemingly oblivious to the errors, dangers and sorry history of this sad aberration within Protestant Christianity. So it turns out O'Day isn't just dredging ancient skeletons when she attacks the pompous self-serving "commentary" of Calvin.
There are thousands of Calvinist extremists, preaching all kinds of nonsense. And its the kind of perenial problem the Church will always have. Legalists and others who latch onto the bible and read it just deep enough to think that the New Testament is really essentially a revival of "old-time Judaism".
Commentators need Freedom to Discuss Political and Social Issues
But again O'Day exaggerates the problem and the error. It is perfectly right and within the mandate of a commentator to discuss the Old Testament Law (Torah) in regard to Adultery, and the issues of Law Enforcement and obediance to government when expounding a passage like this.
Calvin's error wasn't simply in being against "antinominianism". Calvin held a LOT of erroneous doctrines, and this skewed his understanding and exposition of John 8:1-11. But Tertullian was also in the same boat, and perhaps to a degree Augustine as well.
Calvin's main fault is simply that he didn't read the text properly or study it well enough to give a proper and deep exposition of the verses. Calvin's "misreading" lies in what he didn't do, rather than what he did do.
Many ideas and issues are involved when treating a typical Biblical legal case. Its wrong to call such expounding inappropriate even if a half-dozen concepts are discussed. And John 8:1-11 is one of those special cases. It begs for a thorough treatment, not a myopic one-sided approach.
Perhaps O'Day's small sample is part of the problem, but her third category is a mirage, simply scooping up all the other commentators that don't fit in the first two categories. In reality, the common thread, that of trying to discover what Jesus wrote on the ground, is a thin one. The range of opinion and interpretation for this group is wide and diverse.
Yet O'Day finds the same fault in all of them:
Just daring to seek "the interpretive key...in something outside the story reveals a dissatisfaction with and distrust of the story as written" and "constitute a refusal to take the text seriously."
For O'Day, "they serve...a need to rescue Jesus from himself." The explanation is simple: "If one can discover a biblical precedent or external rationale for what Jesus does...then Jesus' actions become less dangerous and objectionable."
O'Day groups them all together and tars and feathers them with the same brush. Perhaps sensing how preposterous this claim sounds, she qualifies it with an exception in a footnote:
"The tradition that associated Jer 17:13 with Jesus' writing on the ground is an exception to this statement, because Jer 17:13 is used to explain the significance of the act of Jesus' writing, not to supply the text that he wrote."
Yet even here the reasoning is completely non-sequitous. She allows the supporters of the "Jer.17:13" application to escape her scathing condemnation, because they don't dare to guess what Jesus actually wrote, but only its significance.
But this is merely convenient to her own theory that Jesus' writing signifies nothing at all.
She fails to explain why these ("Jer.17:13") men would be any less bigoted or inclined to 'misread' the text. But this is sorely needed since she condemns all other attempts to discover Jesus' writing so harshly.
What the Commentators are Really Like
But O'Day's claims regarding all such commentators is scarcely believable. Most Christians don't view Jesus' actions "dangerous and objectionable", even in John 8:1-11. Its only liberal agnostic scholars who do this. O'Day is projecting herself onto the most unlikely targets.
She analyzes them like a pop psychologist: their attempt to discover what Jesus wrote "reveals a dissatisfaction and distrust of the story as written". Yet a majority of commentators in the past were strict conservatives with strong opinions in favour of accepting the story "as written".
And the most active group of modern interpreters, namely evangelicals, mostly commit to extreme doctrines like 'biblical inerrancy' and 'Divine Inspiration and Preservation' of the text!
Again O'Day in her agnostic university setting appears completely out of touch with current trends in biblical scholarship, and who these people really are.
O'Day's Assessment is Unreliable
If she can't even penetrate the thinking and motivation of modern commentators, how can she be trusted not to 'misread' John 8:1-11? With wild claims like this, O'Day seriously undermines her own credibility.
Here O'Day's investigation falls on its face. Literally thousands of conjectures as to what Jesus wrote have been made over two thousand years. They range from brilliant proposals to absurd suggestions.
For O'Day to present a few lame examples, such as Sanders' Decalogue in two parts, Derrett's Exodus 23:1/7 or the improbable quotation from Susanna is totally inadequate. To follow this with a mean caricature of bumbling and embarrassed apologists seeking to legitimize a 'rogue Jesus' borders on mere clowning.
Why waste our time with the worst examples? It is O'Day's obligation to go and find the best, and critique those.
A Mystery that Deserves a More Convincing Treatment
The problem of Jesus writing on the ground remains unsolved. Most honest investigators will admit a number of possibilities. This doesn't make them "dissatisfied apologists for a 'crazy Jesus' who are desperately trying to legitimize embarrassing episodes".
Rather than alienate all other investigators and commentators by painting them as loons, O'Day should simply get on with the business of presenting a convincing case for her own position, if one can be made at all.
O'Day's complaint is that if interpreters seek to discover what Jesus wrote, then the text changes shape according to what we assume Jesus wrote. The concern over subjectivity is moot however, unless O'Day can show that her own approach can escape this same charge.
If all the main lines of exposition in the past were subjective 'misreadings' anyway, where's the danger? Why not experiment: perhaps someone will stumble upon a better interpretation.
The one claim O'Day makes about the passage in Category (3) is this:
"...the shape of the story makes clear that Jesus' conversation partners, both the scribes and Pharisees and the woman, respond to what they hear Jesus say, not to what he writes."
But is this even true? The Pharisees and scribes do appear to ignore Jesus' first writing on the ground:
But what about the second writing? If the Pharisees are reacting only to what Jesus said, they seem to be taking a long time to absorb it and react.
What if however, they had to react to BOTH Jesus' speech (8:7b) and what He wrote the second time (8:8)? Even as they are mulling over Jesus' spoken words, they stare down at what begins to appear in the dirt under Jesus' finger, as they crowd around him.
There seems to be a real potential there in explaining why they took a significant amount of time to grasp Jesus' message(s), and why they went away one by one as each got the idea, without sharing or discussing it.
To this day, no one has adequately explained how Jesus' speech alone could have had the unique effect upon the crowd of Pharisees and scribes that it apparently did according to the story. And this includes O'Day.
How to Test O'Day's Hypothesis
Interestingly, this is actually a repeatable experiment! We could easily ask a group of orthodox Rabbis or students of the Torah to respond to Jesus' teaching in a 'double-blind' experiment, and see if they indeed react similarly to those in the text. O'Day has not done this, yet that is precisely what is needed to support her claims about Jesus' speech versus His writing, in the story.
If O'Day wants to convince other interpreters to abandon the search for what Jesus wrote, then she must show how Jesus' spoken word could have credibly accomplished what it did, at least in the eyes of the author of the text. This O'Day fails to do.
In fact, she fails to perceive the subtlety of the actual problem here.
As it stands, O'Day has made sweeping and unreasonable assertions about the motives of commentators and the meaning of the passage, rather than providing solid evidence and argument for ignoring the content of Jesus' writing on the ground. She certainly doesn't make any convincing arguments for abandoning the search for Jesus' written words today.
Apples and Oranges?
Its important to make clear the distinction regarding whether one is pursuing John's sources or pursuing the intent of the Evangelist.
O'Day leads us to believe that previous commentators fall into three categories of "misreading". That is, all previous commentators have misunderstood the passage, in one of three ways.
O'Day would persuade us that her interpretation of the passage is the correct one. The problem is, O'Day is clearly not even doing the same thing as what the other commentators are doing.
In practical terms, O'Day appears to be analyzing and interpreting John's (or the interpolator's) source, whereas most commentators are interpreting what John the Evangelist himself is trying to tell us by including this story and giving it the form he does.
So there is obviously a huge difference between the two goals and their results. Is it fair to call other interpreters "wrong" because they have a different purpose in hand?
Johannine Context is Still Important
Even if O'Day and others are correct in classing the passage as a later interpolation, we still have the problem of what the passage is doing in John.
It is an important line of investigation to consider what purpose is served by its insertion in its present location. This can hardly be avoided, nor can it be said to be "wrong" to analyze the question:
What is the meaning of the passage in its present location?
And we may reasonably ask, what really is the task of a commentator on John when handling these verses? The majority of Christian scholars feel that the story is authentic tradition, even if it is not John's work.
And so they must take the position that it somehow belongs in John: i.e., that its current location is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. But if this is true, then its meaning must also in part derive from its location and presentation in its current form in John.
O'Day is Simply Not a 'Christian Commentator'
But O'Day's alternate interpretation of the passage is derived from treating it as a foreign intruder having no connection to or significance in its current location. While this may be a bona fide scholarly position, it cannot be a bona fide Christian interpretation.
Even a very liberal Christian stance might well acknowledge the passage is an interpolation, but would also allow its historical potential and accept the means by which it comes to us.
Surely then O'Day's dismissal of other commentators' efforts as "misreadings" is too extreme; - and is in fact a false portrayal of the case.
It would be better to say that even when other commentators diverge into three different groups, with different results, they are at least trying to achieve the same goal, the interpretation of the verses in their current context.
O'Day's purpose is quite different: She is trying to interpret the passage as an independant "source document" of some kind, and she even passes over the purpose and role of the "interpolator" who gave us the story in the first place, in its current locale .
By completely separating the passage and attempting to interpret it in isolation, O'Day is engaging in Source Criticism, not normal biblical commentary, exegesis, or even hermeneutics.
How then can she be 'right' and all others 'wrong'? Its a case of apples and oranges.
O'Day's own scholarly activities may not be illegitimate, but any claim that only her activities are legitimate would not be scholarly.
All three misreadings have in common that they reshape the text away from Jesus' treating the woman as a social and human equal of the scribes and Pharisees.
By narrowing the focus of the story to Jesus and the sinful woman, for example, the woman's situation is isolated from the situation of the other characters. Her sin thus becomes the pivot in contrast to Jesus' grace.
In the [anti-]antinominan misreadings, the text is reshaped in order to reclaim and reassert the stability of the social order. If the woman and the scribes and Pharisees are treated equally by Jesus, then social reordering is required, a reordering that some may perceive as social chaos.
In the search for the words that Jesus wrote on the ground, an explanation for Jesus' actions is sought outside the world of the text, so that Jesus' relationship to the woman can be made less threatening.
Yet it is precisely the equality of the woman and the scribes and Pharisees before Jesus that is the heart of this story.
In section I, I outlined the structural parallels between vv. 6b-7 and vv. 8-11.
Content Scene I Scene II Jesus bends down and writes on the ground v. 6b v.8 Jesus stands up to address the conversation v. 7b v. 10a Jesus speaks v. 7c v. 11b
The verbal similarities and undeniable parallels of these two scenes constitute the narrative strategy of the text through which the scribes and Pharisees and the woman receive equal treatment from Jesus.
There is one pattern for Jesus' actions: he bends down and writes on the ground; he stands up to address his conversation partner; and he speaks. By writing on the ground and not responding immediately or directly to the question put to him, Jesus nullifies the presumed control of the scribes and Pharisees and places them on the same level as the woman.
In this text Jesus will address neither party according to conventional social expectations but will speak to each in his own time, in his own way.
The speeches Jesus addresses to each party reinforces the narrative strategy of the text, that the woman and the scribes and Pharisees are social and human equals.
Verses 7b and 11b stand in direct relationship to each other. The following diagram helps to make that relationship visible:
The one of you who is without sin...
throw the first stone at here (v. 7b) Neither do I condemn you. Go... from now on sin no more (v. 11b)
These two verses relate chiastically: the first phrase of v. 7b and the last phrase of v. 11b mention sin explicitly. 16 The last phrase of v. 7b and the first phrase of v. 11b with condemnation.
Jesus' words to the scribes and Pharisees about sin in v. 7b envision the past, the way the scribes and Pharisees (and others in the crowd) have lived until this moment.
His words to the woman about sin in v. 11b envision the future, the way the woman is invited to live from now on. 17
Both the scribes and the Pharisees and the woman are invited to give up old ways and enter a new way of life. Both stand under the power of old ways, the power of sin, to use the rhetoric of the text, but the present moment (apo tou nun) invites both to a new way of life.
The woman is invited to participate in a new future for herself that will allow her to live not as a condemned woman but as a freed woman.
The scribes and Pharisees are invited to give up the categories by which they had defined and attempted to control life.
The encounter with Jesus narrated in John 7:53-8:11 has the seeds of new life for the scribes and Pharisees and the woman. The images at the center of the chiasmus present this new life concretely: condemnation and death ("throw the first stone") give way to acquittal and life ("Neither do I condemn you. Go..."). 18
Acquittal is also expressed in the movement and freedom of movement of the characters.
When those in the crowd hear the words of Jesus, one by one they go away. Those who would condemn the woman disperse. The elders, those who lived under the old ways the longest and thus had the most from which to walk away, leave first. They walked away from judgement and condemnation to the possibilities offered by acquittal and life.
The woman, who was physically hemmed in by those who would condemn and kill her, is now free to go and begin her new life. 19 She too is invited into new patterns made possible by Jesus' transformation of condemnation into acquital.
The power of the old ways of life indicts both parties, but the possibility of acquittal is also available for both parties.
The scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus with a question, but their question turned the woman and Jesus into objects. The woman was only a point of law, Jesus only an adversary to be trapped.
The scribes' and Pharisees' definition of Jesus and the woman do not govern this narrative however. The text is constructed to show that neither Jesus nor the woman will be their object. 20
Jesus' response to the conflict (vv. 7b, 11b) thus treats all parties as equals. The scribes and the Pharisees and the woman are invited to leave behind the world of judgement, condemnation, and death and enter a world of acquittal and life.
16 . Rousseau identifies the chiastic relationship between v. 7b and v. 11b ("La femm adultere", 470); however, he gives a different meaning to the middle section of the chiasm than I do.
17 . Rousseau, (ibid 470) The insights into the past and future orientation of these verses are Rousseau's. He moves in a very different theological direction in his assessment of the passage, however, because he locates the key in Jesus' bending down and standing up, acts that Rousseau sees as symbolic of the crucifixion/ resurrection.
18 . F. Genuyt notes the inversion of meaning between condemnation and acquittal in this text ("Jesus, les scribes et la femme adultere," Semiotique et Bible 42  29-30).
19 . ibid, 27-29
20 . ibid, 22-23. The structural analysis of Rousseau ("...) and the semiotic analysis of Genuyt were the only two studies I read that took as their starting point what the text was doing rather than trying to reconstruct wha Jesus was doing. As a result, they both provide fresh readings of this text and a fresh perspective on the relative place of the woman in the story. The are exceptions to the misreadings discussed in this paper.
O'Day begins her own Interpretation of the verses by reiterating her view on previous interpreters.
O'Day claims previous interpreters have twisted the text away from its natural purpose, which is to show Jesus treating both parties as a social and human equals.
But O'Day hasn't shown yet that the text itself even does this. Unless the text really shows Jesus treating the two parties equally, previous interpreters are innocent of this charge.
Augustine's Approach: "Objectification"?
While O'Day is surely right in her assessment of Calvin, who ignores the text, her criticism of Augustine is unsupported, and her accusation against those who seek what Jesus wrote in the ground is simply ludicrous.
Can Augustine really be accused of "objectivizing" the woman in the same way as the Pharisees?
The accusers want to kill her. They carelessly use her as a foil to trap Jesus.
Augustine may agree with her accusers as to her guilt (rightly or wrongly), but this is also how the text itself presents her. From this point on, the two parties diverge quite rapidly.
Augustine's compassionate concern for her is the very opposite of her accusers. Unlike Calvin, Augustine is less concerned with questions of "law and order", and more concerned with the operation of the Grace of the Christ upon a sinner.
Does Augustine "narrow" the issue to the woman, isolating her from the others, and focussing on her sin, or does the text itself do this?
Most people who have given it a fair reading don't think Augustine is "seeing ghosts" of Christian dogma, but that its a real human story that confronts sin, and its consequences in the world of Jesus, squarely in the face.
If sin is real, and its consequences risky and serious, then this story seems firmly planted in reality, or at least in the same worldview that the rest of the Gospel of John offers.
With or without Augustine, it still looks an awful lot like a story about sin and reprieve, not about "gender equality".
Nor has O'Day in any convincing way shown how Augustine and others with a similar take on the verses have "objectified" the woman in the same way as the accusers of the story.
What actually dehumanizes a person, turning them into an "object", and what grants them dignity and humanizes them?
In part it is our own attitude that does this.
Those who degrade and mistreat people, making them valueless and 'expendable', permitting abuse and denying the "sin" of such behaviour, are the real "objectifiers".
Those who care for others, who have concern for their future, and abhore injustice, mean treatment and abuse, and who believe in sin and personal responsibility are the "anti-objectifiers".
O'Day's problem is that philosophically she seems unable to allow the reality, even the 'category' of SIN. For modern agnostic academics, this is an "outmoded" way of thinking.
O'Day wants to analyze the human condition by way of psychology, seeking for human motive and its assessment in evolutionary theories, and animal instincts.
But people are not animals, and they have motives and feelings higher than mere animals. The value of humanity is in its distinction from lower animals. In its social values that transcend the material world and the "law of the jungle".
By denying the reality of sin, it is O'Day who "objectifies" the woman and all the characters. She seeks explanations for their behaviour in myopic worldly philosophies that allow her to avoid categories of "right and wrong", of "sin", "guilt" and personal culpability.
But Augustine rescues us from BOTH the "objectification" of the Pharisees, who value the woman only as a means to attack their enemy, AND the "objectification" of those who deny the reality of sin and the predicament of humanity.
Augustine reminds us that the woman is really all of us, people with weaknesses, real human frailty and who have real need: the need for a saviour, someone who can and will rescue us even though we may not deserve it, even when we got ourselves into some predicament or other common to all people.
No Escape From "People Assessment"
Is it 'objectification' to do what is natural? To identify a person by "their fruits", their works, their reputation? How do men prefer to identify and describe themselves? This man is carpenter, that one an engineer. This woman is an educator, and that one an actress. People are proud, and sometimes ashamed of what they do, and what they are.
But that is still how we know one another. Not just for mere "identity", but so that we can empathize, sympathize, have compassion, fall in love. Its what humans do. Its not "objectification" of a person to relate to them by their accomplishments and their experiences, good and bad, their personality and behaviour, their luck and misfortunes.
O'Day's complaint against Augustine and Christian interpreters in general who focus on sin and redemption is ungrounded.
"Yet it is precisely the equality of the woman and the scribes and Pharisees before Jesus that is the heart of this story".
Well, that is O'Day's thesis. Immediately she offers as evidence the interesting but strangely flimsy parallelism of Jesus' three Actions, her "Rhetorical Shape", which however, only covers a small segment of the passage:
Subdividing the Text
| 7:53-8:2 to Mount &
back, Jesus teachs
in the Temple
|7:53-8:2 (Part I)|
- not part of
8:3-8:9a: Section 1
Jesus deals with
| (Part II)|
8:3-8:6a: Section 1
is on boundary of
but not part of
|8:6b-8:7 Section 2|
8:8-8:11 Section 3|
8:9b-8:11: Section 2|
Jesus deals with
...2nd exchange with|
| Sections defined by 'Rhetorical Shape' |
are in Yellow
We have already examined the main flaws in this new structural framework to be imposed upon the text above:
"Rhetorical Shape" Examined <-- Click Here to re-read section, then use back-button on your browser to return here.
What we'd like to point out here, is that this structure appears to be a mistaken 'reading' or actually a misuse of elements that make up an entirely different structure in this narrative, one which is much sharper and more clearly defined:
|John 8:1-11: Real Chiastic Structure|
|8:2||..he (Jesus) sat down...|
|8:3||...they stood the woman in the midst...|
|8:6a||...they spoke tempting Him...|
|8:6b||...Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground...|
|8:7||He lifted Himself up and said,|
"The one without sin among you
may cast the first stone at her."
|8:8||...again He bent down and wrote on the ground...|
|8:9a||...they heard, and were convicted...|
|8:9b||...and the woman standing in the midst...|
|8:10||...Jesus lifted himself up...|
Here one can see the obvious [A-B-C-D-E-D-C-B-A] reversing chiastic structure of the story. It appears designed to emphasize and centralize the main pronouncement of Jesus.
But it makes O'Day's (or rather her source's) "Rhetorical Shape" very doubtful. Elsewhere John makes very little use of simple "parallel" patterns, but plainly prefers these reversing chiastic "mirror" patterns instead.
And even if we accept this flimsy parallel "shape" of O'Day's, it is incredibly difficult to see how it supports her claim that Jesus treated the two parties "equally". We have already carefully examined the passage story elements above, and noted that Jesus treats the two parties quite differently, from beginning to end.
How are we supposed to ignore the obvious, to embrace a scheme that has no apparent basis?
Yet O'Day speaks as though it was a foregone conclusion:
"The verbal similarities and undeniable parallels of these two scenes constitute the narrative strategy of the text through which the scribes and Pharisees and the woman receive equal treatment from Jesus.
There is one pattern for Jesus' actions: ...He places [her accusers] on the same level as the woman. ..."
Undoubtably some of O'Day's statements are true to an extent:
There are undeniable parallels in the two scenes. There is a pattern to Jesus' actions. Jesus does seem to nullify the presumed control of the accusers, although it seems more like they surrendered this control to acquire Jesus' cooperation. Jesus indeed apparently fails to address either party according to conventional social expectations.
But unfortunately, none of this is evidence that Jesus or the narrator intended to cast upon the two parties equal 'social' or 'human' status.
Rather, Jesus' treatment of each party creates disturbing problems regarding 'social' and 'power' status throughout the proceedings. And Jesus' unconventional behaviour creates its own problems as to His attitude toward both parties also:
Although reluctant, he cooperates with the accusers, granting them a credibility that seems unwarranted.
Although benevolent, Jesus leaves the woman with a very dubious social status and an uncertain future.
How is this "equality"?
In summary, O'Day's "Rhetorical Shape" is a dubious structure, with little merit next to other patterns in the narrative having more definiteness, detail and obvious purpose, and which are more congruent with John's style elsewhere.
Even if it existed, it doesn't properly support O'Day's thesis. Nor does her claim match the problematic content of the passage.
Next, O'Day pulls another "rabbit out of a hat" seemingly out of nowhere, to support some kind of complimentary parallelism between the two speeches, that which Jesus pronounces to the crowd in response to the accusers' pressure, and that which Jesus pronounces to the woman at the end.
This new interesting parallel comes from Rousseau. O'Day pronounces Rousseau and her other reference, Genuyt as acceptable in her footnote, because they "took as their starting point what the text was doing rather than trying to reconstruct what Jesus was doing".(note 20).
O'Day, finding two interpreters who don't guess what Jesus wrote, calls them "exceptions to the misreadings discussed in this paper". Yet misreadings they are, according to O'Day's footnotes, since Rousseau "gives a different meaning to the ...chiasm than I do." and, "He moves in a very different theological direction...he locates the key in Jesus' bending down and standing up, acts that Rousseau sees as symbolic of the crucifixion/resurrection." (note 16,17).
In other words, O'Day acknowledges (quietly in footnotes) that the originators for the structures she is using don't agree with her interpretation of them at all! They also are "misreaders" of John 8:1-11!
But this appears moot, however, since she fails to connect this parallelism between the speeches of Jesus to her claim regarding "social equality".
"The woman is invited to participate in a new future for herself that will allow her to live not as a condemned woman but as a freed woman. The scribes and Pharisees are invited to give up the categories by which they had defined and attempted to control life."
This language O'Day uses, such as "invited" and "acquital" seems to stretch the evidence suspiciously. Are the accusers really "invited", or simply humiliated and embarrassed to the point they must flee? Is the woman "invited" to the life of a "freed woman" (whatever that means), or simply sent away in shame as an adulteress, left to fend for herself in a primitive and violent society? Are the "offers" to each party really equal?
Jesus has already "refused to walk openly among the Jews, because they were trying to kill Him." (John 7:1). Has Jesus really extended a hand of friendship to His enemies? This seems extremely implausible in light of what immediately follows (Jn 8:44 etc.).
The "Speech Chiasm" appears like more smoke and mirrors, in place of solid evidence and arguments for her position.
Here we have perhaps the most desperate segment of O'Day's argument. She proceeds to describe the "movement of the characters" as a kind of parallel ballet, flowing from "the old ways of judgement and condemnation" to the "possibility of freedom and new life".
In the "transformation by Jesus of condemnation into acquital", the scribes and Pharisees' objectivization of the woman (and of Jesus) is also dispelled, with Jesus "thus treating all parties as equals".
But just saying it don't make it so. O'Day is able to paint this rosey picture by completely avoiding any real discussion of the details of the text. (She has already done this somewhat inadequately, but safely in an earlier part of the paper where she is not constrained to use the text to support her thesis. There she only makes passing observations and "suggestions".)
Here O'Day actually avoids the text, in imitation of the previous commentators she has condemned.
We however, don't have that luxury, and have already examined the text critically for evidence either supporting or contradicting O'Day's thesis. And there is plenty of problematic and conflicting evidence which casts O'Day's claims in serious doubt.
Analyis of Gender Equality
As we noted previously, O'Day extends the meaning of the passage to include an intentional statement regarding the equality of men and women. This is a more ambitious thesis than the observations in her initial sketch can sustain by themselves (See above here.).
What might the author have intended in recording this story in the form it takes? What issues might have been important? Here are some obvious possibilities:
(1) People over Law: to challenge attitudes regarding the relative importance of people in comparison to legalism (i.e., the "letter" of the law versus compassionate and appropriate application of it).
(2) A Change of Law: to challenge legal codes at the time of Jesus or their interpretation, and replace them with different standards (i.e., less stringent enforcement of adultery codes).
(3) Equality of Men and Women: to challenge ideas regarding the inferiority or lower status and/or power granted to women.
Any or all of the above issues might have been intended as the focus, and perhaps even others.
For example, we could draw supporting evidence from John and other Gospels for (1) People over Law, as in Jesus' statements in John 7:22-24, or in His famous statement regarding the Sabbath in Mark 2:27 (cf. Luke 13:15f etc.). For the more extreme (2) Change of Law, we could cite John 7:19, or Matt. 12:8.
Corroborating Evidence for Equality of Men and Women
Yet O'Day's thesis falls under (3) Equality of Men and Women, and we should at least expect supporting evidences to be cited such as Paul's famous statement in Gal. 3:28. One would also wish for evidence closer to the mark, such as Jesus' handling of the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4:5 fwd, esp. 4:27b), or the honor granted Mary brother of Lazarus (Jn 12:1-8, cf. Mark 14:9), or the value given the testimony of Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:12 fwd, esp. 20:18).
However, O'Day's method prevents her from citing any corroborating evidence whatsoever. The novelty in her approach is that she takes the text in total isolation, on its own merits. This is both the strength and Achilles' Heel of her program. For there are two weaknesses here:
(1) She abandons legitimate evidence that would support her argument.
(2) She fails to compete with alternate interpretations of John 8:1-11 on a level playing-field.
Nonetheless, as independant investigators, our goal is ultimately not any one interpretation or agenda, no matter how attractive. It is our responsibility to ask an important question not overtly stated by O'Day:
What was the author's intent here?
This is in fact what O'Day herself appears to seek by her very approach: She initially rejects popular interpretations that largely ignore the text itself in isolation. She ignores the Johannine context, and application of the passage to the Gospel (an obvious and purposeful activity of either the Evangelist or the "interpolator/inserter"). And she begins by appealing directly to the text.
O'Day finds in the text plenty of fodder for a modern feminist interpretation. So the question before us then practically becomes:
Does the text support O'Day's take on its intent?
The question initially resolves to this because O'Day's argument is based upon a premise that (all) other interpretations are "misreadings", because they don't follow the text. And so we must carefully appraise the claim of O'Day that she has followed the text and that it does support her own interpretation.
Separate but Equal Treatment?
The second problem with O'Day's interpretation here of the last third of the story is as follows:
The woman actually cannot go "just as the rest of the crowd did."
She must remain under arrest under threat of death, and await her disposal, while the Pharisees and crowd are free agents, who may come and go at their leisure, whether they comprehend Jesus' pronouncement (Jn 8:7b), or not.
Jesus' First Pronouncement (Jn 8:7)
Whatever the first pronouncement of Jesus (Jn 8:7) does do, it cannot find her accusers legally deserving of a mandatory death sentence or hold them prisoner, while they await a ruling over their own possible stoning.
They are always free to walk away. Jesus attempts no "citizen's arrest". Their status as free men is only endangered by some potentially foolish choice like provoking the Roman authorities with an unlawful stoning.
Her status remains in doubt until the end, an intolerably long wait under such conditions. Nor is this difference "just". It quickly becomes apparent that her accusers are equally guilty, yet suffer no similar consequences. They may retreat out of guilt and perhaps fear, but undergo no ordeal.
Unequal Treatment of Parties
And the first and second pronouncements are not equivalent. The first pronouncement may convict the heart, but it is not really equivalent to the stinging humiliation and public recrimination of "Sin no more." (Jn 8:11), addressed to the woman alone and vulnerable before the hostile crowd.
Jesus' words find her guilty of the very accusation she is released from, even as He sends her off. And she is not 'free'. The words will follow her everywhere, along with the eyes of the crowd. They will be chained to her, while she herself is branded 'adulteress' and scorned. And she is 'sent' from Jesus' presence, not embraced. This terse dismissal has no resemblance to the tender story in Luke 7:36-50.
The Mob of accusers however retain their anonymity even as they scurry off under a heavy cloud. They remain nameless faces in a lynch mob, and can hide indefinitely in their priviledged society. But to escape further stigma and guilt, they only need retire, to bask in their accumulated wealth and status.
New Testament Context
In the context of John's Gospel, the second statement recalls Jesus' warning to the cripple "...lest something worse happen to you!" (Jn 5:14).
O'Day would have us ignore the 'outside', even passages in John a few pages away; but these are the only two places this expression occurs in the whole NT. To say this is a mere coincidence strains credibility to the breaking point. It is more plausible that our author knew exactly what he was doing in referencing Jn 5:14.
Acknowledging this reference allows the text to more plainly note the difference in actual predicament between the woman ( 'guilty' under law, but being freed on a technicality) and her accusers ('free' under the Law, but guilty in reality). With or without the external reference, "Sin no more." continues to find the woman guilty of some unspecified but serious sinful behaviour in the past.
By contrast, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone..." is a conviction of a different kind and quality, more in keeping with the (probably later) teaching in Matthew: "Whoever even looks upon a woman with desire has committed adultery with her already!" (Matt. 5:28, cf. Matt.7:1!).
And again in both cases, strongly connected extra-textual references underline the meaning, and are hard to imagine as mere coincidences in a carefully written story about Jesus.
Its easy to understand why O'Day downplays extra-textual connections like these, which underline the differences between the accusers and the woman. But even without them, the two cases may be parallel, but they are not "equal".
Not Much of a Break for the Woman
While some compassion has been granted to the woman through reluctant intervention by Jesus, this hardly addresses the obvious differences in status and power between the parties.
The woman remains constrained by the conventions of Jewish society, and worse, will suffer extra penalties via public recognition as a 'previous offender'. She doesn't have the priviledge of challenging Jesus on a point of Law or doctrine. She is 'sent off', apparently without even a concern for where she may now go.
The Pharisees on the other hand continue in their priviledged status, never brought to justice for their obvious impropriety. They remain wealthy and powerful, in a position to abuse their power over other unfortunate women.
They are repelled, but not defeated; - not even punished.
The Dark Side: Not 'Susanna' by a Long Shot
The ending is utterly unlike the Story of Susanna in this respect. Jesus is not the young hero who saves a damsel in distress, and who exposes the wickedness of the evil rulers and brings them to justice. Instead, the evil rulers wander off shamed but escape judgement entirely.
The woman similarly is apparently no 'innocent' victim. The whole story is remarkably and realistically ugly in contrast to the virtual fairytale of Susanna. John 8:1-11 may be a drama, involving law, politics, sin, danger, and life-and-death action, but it is no Sunday School story: it is an R-rated 'adult thriller' with complex, dark and mysterious characters, including Jesus.
The woman is reluctantly 'rescued', but left on probation, her trial suspended, her reputation left uncleared, her future uncertain. She escapes, but it is no happy ending. Rather its the suspenseful brooding 'ending' of an unresolved drama that imposes the expectation of an immediate sequel, which may be even 'darker' than Part One.
Equality Remains Elusive Here as a Principle
While the realism is strong evidence for a historical incident in the life of Jesus, it is extremely weak as evidence of a "doctrine of equality of sexes", even a secret one.
On the surface at least, Jesus is plainly reluctant to even judge the woman's case. Would He have actually preferred to leave her in the hands of her accusers? Or is He counting on their persistence?
In any case, Jesus acts by appearances as an incredible "anti-hero" here. Rather than enthusiastically championing her cause, He plays the part of a 'Pilate', openly unwilling to participate, and seemingly preferring to wash his hands entirely of her judgment!
Is this really what a 'Defender of Gender Equality' would do here? O'Day fails to show how the story as we actually find supports her Gender Equality interpretation.
She makes no credible case that either the story action or the author/narrator is guided by principles of Equality over other motivational factors.
And if we admit other factors or issues were overriding in this case, O'Day's interpretation of the passage as a 'sleeper' for sexual equality seems to go right out the window!
We may fairly ask whether Gender Equality is the true or even main purpose of this story: Why couldn't it have been written less ambiguously, or even more to the point, why couldn't Jesus have just stood up and given a sermon or parable on this topic? He certainly had no reluctance in doing so on other equally controversial subjects!
It may be that it is really Jesus, John, or an unknown author who has disappointed us here in terms of providing support for Gender equality, and not O'Day.
Yet its O'Day who makes the claim, and the claim remains very weak if not ambiguous. While not incompatible with the text, which is at least something, the case has yet to be convincingly fleshed out by O'Day.
The history of interpretation of John 7:53-8:11, as noted above, has consistently misread the shape of this text and hence misread its substance. The triangularity of the text -- that is, Jesus has two sets of conversation partners --- is lost. The conventional distorted reading places a primary focus on the woman and her sin and relativizes the role of the third party of the triangle, the scribes and the Pharisees.
Interpreters have the propensity to operate out of the scribes' and Pharisees' valuation of the woman's sin rather than Jesus'. When the text speaks in its own voice, it is regarded as too dangerous for the interests of the interpreters, and so has been misread against the woman.
I would like to suggest the possibility that the danger of the text provides a clue to the textual history of this passage and its relationship to the canon.
Textual History of Passage
As is well known, the canonical status of John 7:53-8:11 is debatable. It is missing from the important early Greek textual witnesses. . 21 Once the text appears in manuscripts, the textual witnesses are divided on the location of the text. Although John 7:53-8:11 is the primary location in the tradition, there is also manuscript evidence that locates the text at Luke 21:38, after John 7:46, and at the end of the Gospel of John. The text of John 7:53-8:11 also has an unusually high number of textual variants, approximately 80 variations out of 183 words. . 22 Interestingly, most of the variations tend to domesticate the text and are the first evidences of interpretive reshaping. . 23
The canonical instability of John 7:53-8:11 leads to questions about the provenance of the text: that is, does it belong to Johannine tradition at all? Most scholars reject the text as Johannine, some argue that it is Lucan, while most accept it as an independant piece of Jesus tradition. . 24 One will therefore find John 7:53-8:11 discussed in its canonical order in commentaries on John, treated in an appendix, or overlooked all together. . 25
Importantly, although the text's relationship to Johannine tradition is debated, the consensus is that the story does indeed preserve a primitive piece of Jesus tradition. That is, John 7:53-8:11 could be as old as most any pronouncement story in the Jesus tradition. . 26 Claims for or against the historicity of the text play no role in resolving the mixed testimony of the manuscript evidence.
Marginalization of Passage
How, then, is one to explain the canonical marginality of John 7:53-8:11? I suggest that there was resistance to including John 7:53-8:11 in the written Gospels -- that is, to the canonization of this story -- because of the androcentric fears this text evoked. The judgment of Ambrose is instructive here:
"At the same time also the Gospel ...could produce extraordinary anxiety in the inexperienced, in which you have noticed an adulteress presented to Jesus and dismissed without condemnation...How indeed could Christ err? It is not right that this idea should come into our minds."
- Ambrose, Apologia David altera (1.1, 3)
Augustine notes similar misgivings on the part of many churchmen with regard to this text. . 27 The leaders of the Christian community feared that this text would allow wives to be adulterous with impunity. W. Bousset nicely sums up this sense of the text:
"It is surely not happenstance that this story...is not passed on to us. ...The earliest group of Jesus' disciples seem to have been ashamed and not passed it on." . 28
Harald Riesenfeld argues that Jesus' leniency here contradicted stricter penitential practices in the church and that the story did not enter the canon until church practices became less severe. . 29
Continuing Fear from Male Interpreters
The interpretive community thus freely acknowledges that embarrassment and anxiety about Jesus' actions in John 7:53-8:11 contributed to silence about and de facto censoring of this text.
Even where there is some skepticism about this embarrassment as the full explanation for the troubled canonizing process of this text, 30 scholars do not acknowledge the embarrassment or its source. There is no acknowledged shame among such interpreters, no sense of scandal about the way the story testifies against a male-dominated status quo.
In fact the narrative evokes men's fear of what Jesus' teaching might suggest to their wives, of what would happen if women's sexuality pass out of men's control.
I submit that even when unacknowledged, these fears are real and have dominated both the canonizing process and the history of intepretation. As a result, this text is kept on the margins of the tradition by the canonizing process and on the margin of theological and ethical reflection by the interpretive community.
Patriarchal prejudices thus contributed to, perhaps caused, the canonical marginality of John 7:53-8:11. Within the story, the scribes and Pharisees attempted to marginalize the woman. The early church and the interpretive community then attempted to marginalize not only the woman but her story as well.
21 . For a review of the text-critical question, see Bruce M. Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek NT (UBS 1971/75) 219-20.
22 . The text assumed throughout this article is Nestle-Aland 26. Sander's assessment of the state of this text (ibid) is hard to understand: "The text of the pericope is reasonably stable in the manuscripts where it appears, whether in John or Luke."
23 . See, for example the variants on v. 9 cited in Nestle-Aland. 26.
24 . The argument against Johannine composition is based upon stylistic grounds. For example, the expressions "the Mount of Olives" and "scribes and Pharisees" occur nowhere else in John. Those same expressions are usually taken as being more Lucan. See Schnakenburg, (ibid) for a full review of the discussion. For a treatment of John 7:53-8:11 that provides both stylistic and theological evidence for Lucan authorship, see Michael Gourges, " 'Moi non plus je ne condemne pas': Let mots et la theologie de Luc en Jean 8, 1-11 (la femme adultere)," SR 19 (1990) 305-18.
25 . Schnackenburg (ibid), for example, follows the canonical order. Hoskyns (ibid) and Leon Morris (Gospel acc. To John Eerdmans 1971) treat 7:53-8:11 in appendixes. Rudolf Bultmann overlooks the passage (Gosp.John Westminster 1971).
26 . See Metzger, Textual Commentary 220.
27 . Ambrose and Augustine are cited in Z. C. Hodges, "Problem Passages: The Woman Taken in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11)," Bsac 136 (1979) 331.
28 . This is from one of Bousset's sermons, as cited by Frederick A. Schilling, "The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress," ATR 37 (1955) 92; see also G. H. C. MacGregor, The Gospel of John (NY Harper & Bro. 1928).
29 . Harald Riesenfeld, " The Pericope de adulterae in the Early Christian Tradition," in the Gospel Tradition; essays (Phil. Fortress, 1970).
30 . For example, Metzger, Textual Commentary, 221.
Unconvincing Dismissal of Previous Interpreters
Right from the outset, O'Day attempts to explain the remarkable textual history of this passage as a result of misunderstanding and prejudice. In this she is largely correct.
She is not wholly successful in this attempt however, because on the one hand, she has too broadly and too easily dismissed previous interpreters of the passage, while on the other hand, she has failed to offer a convincing alternative understanding of the verses.
That having been said, O'Day has usefully cleared away the more implausible and subjective interpretations of the passage, such as Calvin's anti-antinomianism approach, which ignores the text, and the speculative adventures of amateurs: These have so far unfortunately failed to convincingly explain key problems of the passage, such as Jesus' writing on the ground.
Unusual Intuitive Insight
By far the most stunning and intuitive insight in O'Day's paper is the following observation:
"Interpreters have the propensity to operate out of the scribes' and Pharisees' valuation of the woman's sin rather than Jesus'. When the text speaks in its own voice, it is regarded as too dangerous for the interests of the interpreters, and so [the text] has been misread against the woman."
Remarkably, the most profound evidence from the text itself supports this statement, although O'Day herself has missed it.
Yet it is certainly there, in the original Greek, without significant textual variation: As we have pointed out in our own commentary long ago, John in the narrative indicates that the woman may in fact be innocent of the particular crime her accusers frame her for, by carefully contrasting his own description of the situation with the claim of the Pharisees:
John in the narrative, says 'taken in an adultery':
(Greek: - εν μοιχεια κατειλημμενην )
But the Pharisees say, "committing adultery"(!):
(Greek: - επ' αυτοφωρω μοιχευομενην )
Both agree that an adultery has taken place; but John, guided by the Holy Spirit, condemns no one. (Matt 7:1)
The Pharisees, on the other hand, accuse the woman. (Acts 10:28)
John seems to go out of his way to emphasize the difference between his own view and the claim of the accusers, by contrasting them so starkly, putting the two heterogenous statements nearly side-by-side.
Unaware of the Differing Views on Authenticity
O'Day's "suggestion" regarding the cause of the omission of the passage has been well known to defenders of the authenticity of the passage for nearly 200 years.
Because O'Day's investigation into the textual criticism aspect of the problem doesn't seem to have delved much past the overquoted and near-useless summary of Bruce Metzger (propagandist for the UBS Greek text & "modern" versions), its not surprising that she seems unaware of the vast and varied evidence for the passage's authenticity in the sense that it belongs to John's Gospel.
Less than Useful Textual Discussion
O'Day's summary of the textual evidence is too brief and misguided to be of any serious use to biblical students, and the bibliography is also a dry well. Those interested should look at other more thorough articles on-site here.
We will content ourselves with noting a few of the more severe gaffs. The "important early Greek textual witnesses" are only important in the eyes of those with the agenda of promoting the ecclesiastical text found in these 4th century heavily edited church productions (Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus).
The "manuscript evidence" (Family 1, 13) locating the passage in other places than the traditional position are all late, (post 12th century) and their archetypes cannot be traced earlier than the 9th century. Most of the manuscripts containing the passage place it after John 7:52, and this position goes back to the 4th century:
The alleged high number of "variants" in the text of this passage is a 19th century guesstimate using an unscientific methodology (which included such abberant texts as Codex Bezae, and the Lectionaries). This was not the procedure currently used for tabulating significant variants elsewhere. Its just disinformation.
This misleads O'Day into thinking that Sanders' assessment that the text is stable is "hard to understand" (note 22). In fact Sanders is correct. The text is virtually identical in the majority of manuscripts of all ages and even most 'versions' (early translations).
Her assessment of the quality of the variants is also off the mark, because a proper assessment requires a textual history and a stemmatic reconstruction, which O'Day has not undertaken.
That "most scholars" reject the text is understandable when we realise O'Day is limiting those being counted to university scholars who have no belief in the historicity of the text or any real interest in Christianity. Polling Christian scholars, commentators and apologists would give a very different statistic, and many of these people are as well educated and intelligent as university professors.
One thing O'Day helpfully does, is stay neutral about the passage's authenticity herself. This again is good intuition in spite of the biased evidence available to her.
Her observation that claims regarding historicity of the text play no role in resolving authenticity is ironic but also insightful.
In summary, those seeking textual critical information must go elsewhere, and not rely upon O'Day or her references.
Causes for the Omission
In contrast to the previous section, O'Day's discussion of the causes of corruption of the text is remarkably detailed and insightful, as these summaries go. She manages to cite at least two early fathers (Ambrose/Augustine), although thoroughness would require a half-dozen, including Didymus the Blind and Jerome.
Riesenfeld's observation of early church bias is important, although he misinterprets the meaning of the evidence, posing a false history of the text (he assumes it is an insertion).
Male Gynophobia and Patriarchal Prejudice
This last section is probably closer to the mark than most scholars would allow, and so it is one area where O'Day not only has useful insight but also contributes importantly to the problem of understanding the textual history of the verses.
For this final discussion we can be grateful, because the nature of the case almost guarantees it will not likely be given even a proper hearing elsewhere.
The purpose of this final section is not to merely disparage O'Day's contribution to the interpretation and textual discussion. On the contrary, much of her work should be praised and highly valued.
O'Day has offered new insights and approaches to a difficult passage of Holy Scripture, which presents itself as a virtual Gordian Knot. Any assistance to this problem ought to be appreciated.
We deal with O'Day's shortcomings first, in order to put these aside and get to the lasting contributions of O'Day to this famous problem.
Deficiencies and Flaws
High Points and Valuable Contributions
(1) O'Day certainly clears away a lot of 'dead wood'. Her modern feminist viewpoint allows her to penetrate a large amount of the farcical patriarchal baggage accumulated over the centuries. That she goes too far, jettisoning virtually "all" previous interpretations should not detract from this plainly valuable service.
(2) Reading the text in total isolation was a necessary experiment, long overdue. Although not intended by O'Day, it could provide a much needed "worst case scenario" useful in assessing claims regarding non-Johannine authorship of the passage. It cannot substitute for a thorough commentary on the verses, but examining texts in isolation remains a useful tool in NT studies, which could be utilized more often.
(3) O'Day's intuition is often sound. O'Day's methodologies may be lacking in rigour and consistency, but her basic insight (which is what really guides her) remains sound and on the mark much of the time. She is surely right in identifying patriarchal prejudice as an importance source of problems in transmission and interpretation of the verses.
(4) Gender discrimination is a key element in this story. O'Day rightly identifies "objectification" in the way the accusers of the story abuse the woman, and use her as a pawn in an entrapment scheme. The over-extension of this theme of "objectification" to others not credibly implicated, such as many modern commentators, does not take away from the fresh insight into the motivations of the parties her perspective provides.
(5) Interpretation and Exegesis needs to be firmly connected to the text itself. This insight and complaint against commentators by O'Day is surely well-founded. Too often commentators bring to the text a prefabricated agenda unconnected to the text. That O'Day herself was unable to succeed at grounding her own interpretation firmly to the text does not negate her point.
(6) Literary structures need to be searched for and analyzed. The NT texts have been repeatedly demonstrated to be sophisticated literary texts with conscious and intentional structures built into them, which convey important meaning. That O'Day's examples fail to survive careful analysis doesn't remove the need to look and take seriously the plan and construction of NT authors. Her approach (literary criticism) is important for biblical exegesis.
(7) We must look past the viewpoints of the characters in the story. Again O'Day's insight penetrates into the heart of many interpretational errors. It is not the "Pharisee eye-view" or even necessarily that of Jesus, an apostle, or the evangelist /author's eye-view that should dominate and guide the interpretation. All these viewpoints need consideration, including modern view-points such as feminism, which can give us added perspective and understanding in assessing the message of the NT.
O'Day has actually for the most part raised important questions, rather than provided adequate answers. But O'Day has made an important and lasting contribution to the advancement of the assessment and interpretation of John 8:1-11.