Casting the Second Stone

lottolrgAnd the scribes and Pharisees brought unto [Jesus] a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto him, “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?”

This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him.

But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?”

She said, “No man, Lord.”

And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”

This has always been a centerpiece story of the Christian faith. It appears in the Gospel of John, one of the later Gospels — scholars tend to date it as being written sometime in the 90’s, or perhaps as late as the 120’s. It was a core piece of Christianity for at least two centuries before the Council of Nicea met and formalized the Christian Faith, and it survived that culling.

This story seems so terribly at odds with modern Christians’ reputation — particularly US American Christians — of being moralistic and judgmental, exactly as the scribes and Pharisees are described in this story.

One of the twisted excuses I’ve heard revolves around the last five words of this story: “Go, and sin no more.”

After all, the argument goes, Jesus said to sin no more. So what if she didn’t do what he said to do? What if she went straight out and committed some more adultery? What then?

Well, the argument continues, she’s basically disrespecting Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit. We can quote from other places in the Bible that the only “unforgivable sin” is to “blaspheme the Holy Spirit,” and if totally dissing Jesus — Jesus Himself — is not blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I don’t know what is. So there you have it. She’s gonna roast in Hell. So go ahead and stone her. She deserves it.

Unless, of course, she later responds to an altar-call. Or goes to confession. Or offers up a two doves and spotless heifer. Then she’s completely off the hook (again). She can go — and sin no more, this time for real.

Messed up again? Okay, that’ll be another altar call/confession/dove-plus.

But it all turns around such a delicate subtlety of language.

Now I’ve read that some Qabalistic strains of Judaism had an interesting take on the literality of the Jewish scripture: their idea was that God made not only Jews, but also their language and their script. So — since God made all of these miraculously, in one piece out of one fabric, there’s nothing odd about saying that you can contemplate the first word of the Torah, Bereshith, which begins with the Hebrew letter Beth, and infer from the fact that this is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet that something hidden precedes the beginning of the universe — the mysterious Aleph, the thing before the Beth that initiates Bereshith. It takes literalism to a completely new level, and it works (sort of) because presumably God Himself spoke and wrote in ancient Hebrew. There could be all sorts of hidden messages and codes in the Torah, left like bread crumb trails.

No one has that luxury with English. Try to read Chaucer in the original English: and good luck with that. Yet Chaucer was writing in the relatively recent English of the 1300’s, and it only gets worse the further back you go. There was no English language in Jesus’ era, nor anything like it, much less at the beginning of creation, when God might (theoretically) have been making white Englishmen from white English chalk.

To be more specific: the passage as it appears above was translated into a now-archaic dialect of English from an ancient Latin translation of a Koine (Greek) translation of a story that might have been first told in a first-century Galilean dialect of Aramaic. Aramaic was, in turn, a language that stretches back to the Neo-Assyrian empire, a thousand years before Jesus spoke, and subsequently broke into a thousand different dialects, one of which is believed to have been spoken in first-century Galilee by a certain itinerant rabbi endorsed by John the Baptist. There are various Aramaic dialects still in use, and they are reportedly very poetic, metaphorical languages with many layers of meaning that shift according to context: it’s entirely possible that Galilean Aramaic was also an imprecise, poetic language, a language that lends itself to parables, metaphor, and shades of meaning that come clear only after a thing has been said many times in many different ways.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” How many times did Jesus use those words to start a new parable about the Kingdom of Heaven? And then, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

If you want to parse commas in something “Jesus said,” as it appears in the King James Version of the Bible, you are three kinds of ignorant fool.

My wife and I talk about translation frequently, because we both enjoy words, and she is a professional translator. She often comes to me to talk about idiomatic English phrases. What exactly does it imply to “make your bed and lie in it?” When someone says, “He hit a home run” in a romantic novel, exactly what does it mean? Try it, some time: translate any idiomatic phrase in English into a dry, literal, objective, universal meaning. It’s always tricky — sometimes, it’s virtually impossible.

Even worse, exactly the same thought can often be conveyed only by using completely different words. “His shit doesn’t stink,” is a bizarre statement if translated literally into Spanish, but the expression, “He pisses perfume” is a well-worn phrase with exactly the right nuance. “He’s batshit crazy” is unknown in German, but “He has birds in his head” gets the idea across perfectly.

In particular, the little words — the if, the and, the but — carry a huge burden of significance in English. A misplaced comma can wreak havoc on a sentence: read about the Oxford comma. All languages have subtleties of this sort, but they are all different, and the subtleties often come between the words.

So I’m going to try out a retranslation of this final sentence:

And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, for you sin no more.”

Interesting, no?

In the modern, judgmental interpretation, that tiny word “and” is freighted with a ton of subtle meaning. The word “go” appears in the imperative, English shorthand for “you can/may/should/must go now,” as a command that applies to the woman in the immediate future; this word “and” is generally taken to imply a second command, also applying to the woman in the immediate future, as “you can/may/should/must sin no more.” That is a peculiarity of the use of the word “and” in this purely English construction.

Is that precisely what was said in archaic Latin? In Koine? In first-century Galilean Aramaic?

I’m suggesting we treat the “and” as a King James English way of connecting two Latin (or Greek, or Aramaic) phrases that appear in conjunction for a completely different reason  — the first phrase is still an imperative, but the second clarifies the first by expressing why she is now free to go.

She can go, because no one can judge her sin, not even Jesus. If no one can judge her sin, then she has not sinned.

Does anyone really want to parse the word “and” this closely in King James English? Knowing that it’s a translation of a translation of a translation of a poetic, metaphorical language?

What we need to do instead is, as in Aramaic, listen to all the stories told over and over in different ways, until the meaning is clear.

Throughout all the stories, Jesus was unflinchingly brutal in his treatment of religious leaders: the scribes and the Pharisees. He called them “vipers” and “whitewashed tombs.” That’s how it comes out in King James English, but this loses all the bite those words would likely have had in first-century Palestine. A slightly better contemporary translation might be “toxic cockroaches” and “perfumed sacks of shit.”

Jesus was not being nice in these passages.

Religious leaders were pretty much the only people Jesus ever went after this way. He didn’t go after whores, nor tax collectors, nor lepers, nor even bloody worthless Samaritans. He didn’t even go after the Romans.

He only went after the religious leaders of his own people.

And all those sinners? “Your sins are forgiven.” Over and over. That’s what got him into so much trouble.

So I have to ask myself how it is that so many Christian leaders in the US have somehow decided that Jesus would have — for some reason that completely escapes me — drawn the line at homosexuals. That is, he can completely forgive an adulteress, but a homosexual?

Nah. Jesus surely would have cast the first stone in that case.

So, of course, these modern religious leaders — Jesus would never have called them toxic cockroaches — are free to cast the second stone.


Those who have ears, let them hear.

This entry was posted in General.

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