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A stone's throw from grace: in biblical times, it was definitely a man's world. But in the story of the adulterous woman, Jesus writes in the earth a new way of living and forgiving.

BEING A BIBIACAL WOMAN WAS NEVER EASY. FROM THE story of Eve through the vision of the pregnant woman chased by a dragon in the Book of Revelation, these women had to put up with a lot of misery. They were blamed for the advent of sin in the world. They were routinely sold by their fathers for the bride price and bought by their husbands as a down payment on sons and those were deemed the lucky ones.

A woman widowed or divorced, without a father or grown son to take her in, was most often cast upon the questionable charity of society Many women without moorings to a man were lumped into the general category of harlot.

It was the rare woman who was able to hold onto her own estate and live unmolested like Judith, the holy woman of Bethulia. Even she had to put up with the continual line of suitors who couldn't accept that a woman might prefer a quiet life with her maid to the role of wife, mother, and lawful possession.

Even while under the auspices of male protection, women weren't exactly safe. In Genesis, females are regularly betrayed by family members, guests, and strangers. Adam blames Eve for his disobedience. Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister in foreign lands to save his own skin, and she becomes a sexual prize in complicity with her husband's lie. Leah is the dupe of her father, who insists she occupy the marriage bed intended for her younger sister Rachel.

Jacob's daughter Dinah is raped by the prince of Shechem, who offers to make it up to her family by marrying her. In Judges, Jephthah the general executes his young daughter to fulfill a foolish vow he made after a successful battle, in 2 Samuel, David's son Amnon incestuously assaults his half-sister Tamar and then develops a loathing for her.

In at least two biblical stories, fathers offer to surrender their daughters to hostile crowds for sexual abuse in order to safeguard their male guests (Gen. 19 and Judg. 19). As you can see, the life of a woman didn't count for much, even by her closest relatives.

Is it any wonder that the Jewish male prayed daily: "Blessed be God that he has not made me a Gentile. Blessed be God that he has not made me a woman. Blessed be God that he has not made me a slave." A Gentile was excluded from the chosen people of God, and a slave was denied civil rights. But a woman was in the twilight zone of both categories, since she had few rights apart from a man and was hardly a partner in the legacy of religion.

FOR ALL OF THESE REASONS WE CAN IMAGINE THAT UNHAPPY women filled the homes of ancient Israel. The gospel story of the Samaritan woman with five serial husbands and more dalliances exemplifies the dissatisfaction some women felt with their options. Jesuit scholar John McKenzie suggests this is why there were so many warnings against adultery in scripture: because it was quite a common occurrence.

Devalued wives in loveless marriages and sad young women contracted to wed impossible spouses would be tempted to find love or something like it elsewhere. Since any sexual situation was deemed adulterous from the time of a girl's betrothal, the laws regarding what should be done were explicit for each circumstance.

Biblically speaking, it has to be stressed that the sex itself was not the problem. The trespassed property rights of the male constituted the grievance. If two unmarried people engaged in intercourse, or a married man had sex with a female who was not yet spoken for, the damage was easily repaired from a legal perspective. Since the father of the girl would have a harder time marketing a non-virgin daughter, the offending male was expected to pay 50 silver pieces to the father and marry the "spoiled" female. Furthermore, such a marriage could not be dissolved by divorce.

Technically, then, Shchem's offer to Jacob regarding Dinah would have been considered fair and aboveboard. If not for her brother's prejudice regarding foreigners, chances are a wedding would have resolved everything nicely for the male parties involved. Dinah's own thoughts about marrying the man who raped her would have been inconsequential.

An unmarried woman was considered an unstable substance, a sexual predicament waiting to happen. If a betrothed woman shouted out when a man tried to force her into a sexual act in the city, he alone would be put to death. If he forced her in a rural area it didn't matter if she shouted or not, since no one would hear her, and again the man alone would be killed for the crime. But if the woman was raped in the city and was not heard to cry out, the woman would be put to death along with the man as an accomplice. It is chilling to consider all the reasons that a woman might not cry out under attack and still die for the lapse.

A married woman, however, would be put to death for adultery along with the man, no extenuating circumstances considered, in order to "purge the evil from your midst," as scripture has it (Deut. 22:22). What is noteworthy in all these instances is that invariably the man who trespassed against another man by making use of "his" woman forfeits his life if caught in the act. The woman may be put to death as well, depending on the circumstances, but the man always is.

SO WE CONFRONT THIS OBVIOUS GAPING HOLE IN THE STORY OF the woman caught in the act of adultery that appears in John's gospel. When the scribes and Pharisees drag the guilty woman before Jesus, where is the guy? Since this woman was "caught in the very act," as the elders insist, surely the identity of the man is known to them. But he is not presented to Jesus for judgment. Already this story stinks to high heaven.

But aside from the problematic content of the story, the passage about the adulterous woman causes trouble for biblical scholars on other levels. For one thing, this passage does not appear in any of the earliest existing versions of John's gospel nor is it mentioned in the early commentaries, suggesting it was added later. The fact that it bisects a story already in progress, does not fit John's tightly diagrammed overall structure, and does not match John's style or concerns pretty much cements the case that the original gospel did not include this story. Still, Catholic Bibles include it at this spot in the gospel with brackets to indicate its tentative position, while many Protestant Bibles excise the passage and drop it in after the conclusion of the gospel as an "extra."

Most scholars agree that the story belongs more in spirit and style to the gospel of Luke--and some early New Testament manuscripts do include this passage at the end of chapter 21 in Luke. Some giveaways regarding this position include the reference to Jesus' frequenting the Mount of Olives, the themes of forgiveness and women, and the reference to Jesus' daily teachings in the temple--all of which are Luke's special traditions.

Is it important that this one story in the gospels has no single "home" in the text? At least it suggests that, upon reflection, the story became desirable enough to some later scribe to want to include it in John's gospel, which is notorious for scrapping the traditions of the other three gospels. Framed within Luke, the story is one of God's infinite compassion for sinners. In the context of John, it becomes the story of Jesus being greater than law and tradition. Straddling the two gospels, this little story becomes more significant because it was deemed too good to miss even in the highly selective tradition of John.

SO WHAT DOES THIS STORY AIM TO TEACH US? FIRST of all, that even religious law can be twisted to meet the ends of self-serving mortals. The remarkable absence of the man caught in adultery reveals the hearts of the elders: They are not interested in fulfilling the law of God but simply with ensnaring Jesus in a judgment that could go badly either way. If Jesus agrees the woman should be stoned, he is in violation of the Roman law forbidding capital punishment by any other authority than its own. If Jesus sets the woman free, he is setting himself against the authority of his religion and exposing himself as a blasphemer.

To the elders this woman is just another coin tossed in an effort to test Jesus before the crowds. The "God or Caesar" litmus test was designed to divide his fans and diminish his power base. To the religious leaders the woman herself is irrelevant, not a person with extenuating circumstances to be explored before judgment, not even worthy of pity. She is simply a sensational prop, a fact betrayed by the way they set her in the middle of the assembly before Jesus.

It was not strictly necessary for her to be present when they confront Jesus with their question, especially since she is not consulted or questioned as in a trial. The idea that she was dragged out of bed "in the act" presumes that she was hardly clothed, which would have had added to the prurient interest on the street.

But the elders do not get the satisfaction of a great show. After they establish their sexy theater, Jesus simply bends down and writes on the ground. Some scholars read this as a display of boredom on Jesus' part. Early church fathers remembered a line from Jeremiah 17:13: "Those who turn away from you will be written in the earth?' Was Jesus inscribing the name of every sinner present to bolster his next move? At the eiders' persistence, Jesus stands and delivers his everlasting judgment on the business of judging others: "Let the one among you without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."

The religious leaders would have recognized the reference to the protocol for stoning: Witnesses must accept responsibility for initiating the execution (Deut. 17:7). But Jesus qualifies the character of the witness. Only the blameless can speak against a sinner, which pretty much empties out the square, beginning with the older and wiser members of the assembly, who realize they've been out-maneuvered. Once again, Jesus has not sidestepped God or Caesar, but set a higher standard than legislators of either authority can reach.

When artists began illustrating this passage around the fifth century, they chose to portray the final scene: Jesus and the woman alone together after the crowds disperse. After the 15th century, artistic interest shifted to the accusing crowd, but the earlier instinct captured something vital. Here is the crux of the matter, the intimacy between Jesus and the sinner that no amount of law, civil or religious, can dissolve.

The woman does not plead her case or deny her guilt, as many of us in the confessional seat scramble to do. Jesus, for his part, does not dismiss her sin as unimportant or without its own scars. The woman simply awaits the judgment of the only one "without sin" who might condemn her--and he refuses to do it. Instead he sets her free along with some good advice that no one involved in this scene would be likely to dispute.

Some of us might wish for more, a short treatise from Jesus denouncing the whole system that treats women so unjustly and inhumanely, for starters. But to wish this is to miss the astonishing thing Jesus does do: side with a sinner over her self-righteous accusers. Jesus champions and rescues the sinner ensnared in the eyeteeth of religion.

Some quiet reflection on the implications of this choice are in order. How many of us prefer to pledge our allegiance to the law and take our place among the accusers?

ALICE CAMILLE author of Seven Last Words, a meditation on the sayings of Jesus from the cross (ACTA Publications), and a forthcoming book about the Christian route to forgiveness.
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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