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An Analysis of The Story of the Adulterous Woman
Look which of you that never sin wrought,
But is of life cleaner than she,
Cast at her stones and spare her not,
Clean out of sin if that ye be.
(N-Town: Woman Taken In Adultery: Medieval Drama; Bevington, David; Houghton Mifflin, 1975)
Who among us has never sinned? And, in our place as fellow victims of our own all too human nature, have we any right to pass
judgement on those who do the same as we do, if with less discretion? If so, this begs the question of whether morality lies in
following the social mores or if it is all in hiding from the public eye how often you don?t follow them. It seems that Jesus, or at least
John?s version1 of Jesus and, later, the playwright of the N-Town Cycle, following in his footsteps, believed that the appearance of
a moral life is worthless without the genuine article to buttress it. It sounds like a solid principle, and one that could be applied, even
today, but despite the similarities in the texts, did the mediaeval context provide less charitable messages along with the story?s
original intended moral? And, for that matter, is there more than first appears to that original moral?
Among the gospels, only John makes mention of the Adulterous Woman, which brings to question the probability of the actual
occurrence. However, the differences between John and the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have led many scholars
to believe that John may have been written to supplement the material found in the other three gospels. It is believed that the Gospel
of John was written later than the Synoptic gospels, but the debate still stands as to how much later; estimates range from 75 A.D.
to 145 A.D. However, scrolls containing versions of John?s gospel dated to 135 A.D. have been found as far as Syria, which
improves the likelihood of John?s claim that he is a disciple of Jesus. This would place the original writing of the gospel at no later
than 100 A.D., and very likely somewhere around 80 A.D. John?s writings, then, are the reminiscences of an elderly man looking
back on his time with the Messiah; the views presented in the gospel are more likely to be what he felt and could believe in at the
time of the writing, not at the time of his discipleship. This gives John?s gospel a more mature ambiance than those of the Synoptic
writers, who were younger men, and more inclined to write clear-cut, propaganda packed texts.
Unlike the Synoptic writers, John avoids descriptions of the origins and early childhood of Jesus, which none of the gospel
writers would have known much about, except through less accurate tales than the ones upon which the rest of the writings are
based. John also includes a significant amount of material not found in the Synoptics. In addition to the Adulterous Woman, all the
other material in John 2-4, which covers Jesus’ early Galilean ministry, is not found in the Synoptics. Prior visits of Jesus to
Jerusalem before the Passion Week are mentioned only in John. Nor do Matthew, Mark or Luke mention the resurrection of
Lazarus found in John 11. John presents his material in the form of extended dialogues or discourses rather than the pithy sayings
found often in the Synoptics; this holds a certain appeal to the scholarly mind, which seeks accuracy rather than epigrams. This air
of accuracy may be what originally persuaded the N-Town playwright to keep his text so true to the gospel account.
The N-Town play of The Woman Taken in Adultery follows the account in the Gospel of John very closely, and with only one
notable embellishment ? the scene wherein the adulterous woman is abducted from the brothel, including the young man present in
that scene. I suspect that this addition was not purely for comic purposes as may be assumed, but that the forceful capture of the
adulterous woman invites the audience to have sympathy for her predicament. I believe that the gospel was followed more closely
here than in other plays because, in addition to John?s general air of accuracy, there was little that could be added to make his
portrayal of the event more evocative, or if you?re a Pharisee, provocative, except for the brothel scene.
Both John and the N-Town playwright have Jesus talking to his followers and writing in the dust as the accusers approach and
make their case. Throughout their presentation, Jesus ignores the three men; he is too busy teaching goodness to appear to listen
too intently to their folly. However, despite his best efforts to ignore the three men, they persist in requesting his assistance in a
simple matter of Law, which is clearly stated in both Leviticus 20:102 and Deuteronomy 22:223.
It is an interesting side note that three men stand to accuse the adulterous woman, just as there are three parts to so many things
in the Christian tradition; the three kings, the Holy Trinity, and the number of times the angel comes to Mary Magdalene, just to
name three. The three accusers set an interesting trap for Jesus by bringing the adulterous woman before him; if he maintains his
own teachings, and says she should be spared, he speaks against the Law, and will have to be duly punished. If, however, he
maintains the Law, he will be a hypocrite to his own teachings, and again subject to punishment. Despite the intentions of the
Mediaevally composed accusers, it seems that the historical accusers may have held no definite ill will toward Jesus, for Rabbi
Gunther Plaut, in his commentary on what became Talmudic teaching on Leviticus 20:10, says:
The Talmudic rabbis, with their great concern for the sanctity of human life, were openly opposed to capital
punishment. But, since they had to recognize the letter of the Torah law, they sought a variety of means to
render these penal laws inoperative. Thus, in some instances, they held that the Torah referred to death by
divine intervention, not to death imposed by a court. They further devised a system of technicalities to prevent
the conviction of a defendant for a capital crime. This somewhat offhand approach was relatively easy for
them, since the Roman government denied Jewish courts jurisdiction over capital cases.
(The Torah: A Modern Commentary; Plaut, Rabbi Gunther;
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, p.907.)
In John?s account, there are two marked irregularities in the accusers? presentation of their case. First, they provide no
witnesses, thus Jesus has not been presented with the information necessary to correctly judge the use of the Law in this matter.
Second, the accusers speak as though Mosaic law requires the death penalty for adulterous women only, when, in actuality,
Mosaic law states explicitly that both the man and the woman stand under the penalty of death (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy
22:22). These deviations from the standard procedure may have been further protection for the accusers, so that they could save
themselves from the stigma of having to stone the woman or to severely punish Jesus for blasphemy by claiming procedural errors.
Not everyone was so open hearted, though; during the accusations by Annas and Caiphas, at the beginning of The Passion Play,
Annas attempts to execute a similar ploy, and Jesus, using a Roman coin as the bait. The repetition of the theme is not merely
coincidence, as it echoes for the third and final time as Judas makes his presentation to Pilate. Jesus sidesteps the snare, as it is set
by the adulterous woman?s accusers, rather neatly by suggesting that a sinner who would judge against sinners invites the same fate
upon himself. The playwright?s adaptation of the scene opens this document, so, I now offer John?s account, that you may compare
the similarity of the text:
So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them,
He that is without sin among you, let him first casta stone at her.
(John 8:7; Bible, Revised Berkeley Version; Zondervan, 1977)
Thinking on this proclamation, the accusers begin to realise that they have sinned just as greatly, in less public fashions, if not
more greatly because of their dishonesty in hiding their sins. They are stricken with a sense that Jesus is not merely speculating that
they are sinners, on the basis that all men will at some point or another be jealous or lustful, but that he can actually see through
them to their sins. The Pharisee expresses, if only as an aside to the audience, his gratitude that Jesus did not immediately expose
his sins, for:
My sinfull levinge if they out-crye
I wot nevyr wher mine heed to hide.
The other two are equally ashamed of their own hidden immorality, with the Scribe going so far as to profess that no matter how
much he pays for his sins in death, he will never see the face of Jesus again:
If I were onys out of this place,
To suffer deth gret and vengeaunceable
I wil nevyr come befor his face-
Thow I should die in a stable
Bevington interprets the Scribe?s meaning as, ?I would rather suffer a terrible and vengeful death than appear before him
(Jesus).? (Bevington, 468) However, in this translation, he seems to be ignoring the Scribe?s reference to the stable, which, in my
opinion, is probably a reference to the Nativity; in effect meaning that though, in his repentance, he would travel to the point of
God?s entry into the world to suffer his penance (a terrible and vengeful death), the Scribe cannot envision himself forgiven. This
leads one to speculate what things he could have done that would lead him to believe that God, in His theoretically infinite wisdom,
would not grant him forgiveness. I think this moderately skewed perception can be attributed to the Scribe?s sudden discernment of
his blasphemy in challenging God in the form of Jesus.
After the accusers have slunk back into the town, hiding their faces in shame, the crowd that gathered to observe and throw
stones also dissipates. Jesus at first appears confused by their disappearance, likely because he was too busy writing in the dirt to
pay attention. Looking around, he asks the adulterous woman:
Where be thy fomen that did thee accuse?
Why have they lefte us two alone?
Then, she tells him, in an immense outpouring of gratitude, that they have gone because he shamed them, at which point, he asks her
why she?s still standing around. The adulterous woman continues to express her profound gratitude and love for Jesus, until he
finally imparts to her, in their third exchange, that the best thanks she could offer him would be to go home and start leading a true
Jesus, or in a later text, the Doctor, a clerical figure often used to pass on side notes and end speeches in the plays, gives a small
speech at the end of the play explaining that all repentant sinners will be forgiven by God, if they are truly repentant. He goes on to
God wele not kepe olde wreth in minde;
But, bettyr love to hem he has,
Very contrite whan he them finde
In other words, those who have sinned the most will be loved the best when they repent, which while it is a lovely sentiment,
poses some logistical problems. If God is the Father, and all of mankind are his children, then some childish behaviour is no doubt
expected on our part; one facet of the child-mind being the desire for attention. Would a statement such as this inspire those
seeking more divine attention to go out and commit terrible deeds that they would not ordinarily turn to so that they may later
wholeheartedly show their contrition and gain more praise from their divine Father? Needless to say, such a ploy would be
ridiculous and earn the executor nothing, but to a child, is it not better to throw a ball through a window and be noted for your
idiocy, than to go entirely unnoticed? Of course, when the fool finally repented of the whole silly scheme, God would no doubt be
there to accept and cherish him.
Although the play from N-Town presents the scenario in the standard anti-Semitic style of religious plays of its day, the
suggestion that can be gleaned from the writings of John and research into the religious and political attitudes of the time is that the
?test? that Jesus is subjected to is an experiment on the part of the ones in power, to better understand the strange teachings of this
new rabbi. What we learn watching the play or reading the gospel account, and what the adulterous woman?s accusers were
probably reminded of, is that morality must be solid, like the ground we stand on, and that the hollow morality of the masses is not
sufficient. But the accusers, at least in the play, seem to miss out on the best part of Jesus?s message, that just as they could find
mercy for a fallen woman, so God could find mercy for them, if only they would ask. This finding of space for life has traditionally
been a Jewish endeavour in the attempt to understand and apply Torah, and now, with this story, it is brought to the forefront of
Christian thought and teachings, as well. Perhaps that is what the testing of Jesus is all about; perhaps it is a call for us to test our
own virtues, and find forgiveness for others and ourselves.
1: John 8:3-8:11 contains the story of The Adulterous Woman.
2: Leviticus 20:10
If a man commits adultery with his neighbour?s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.
3: Deuteronomy 22:22
If a man be caught lying with a married woman both must die, the man lying with the woman and the woman; thus you shall purge
evil from Israel.
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