Review: The Gospel of John: Theological-Ecumenical Readings, ed. by Charles Raith (Cascade, 2017).
Review by Neil Dhingra
One cost of reading Scripture from within a tradition instead of adopting a position of neutrality would seem to be the inability to critique that tradition. Any interpretive development would presumably have to be gradual, continuous, and organic. If the tradition has been short-sighted or imbalanced, well, then, we must either be very patient or give up and look for outside influences. But what if our tradition directs us to question our complacency and compels us into dialogue? Can a tradition be self-correcting? For example, can part of reading the Gospel of John, whose feast day is today, mean grasping our inability to read that Gospel, at least alone?
The Gospel of John: Theological-Ecumenical Readings, a recent collection of ecumenical and traditional readings of the Gospel, raises that interesting possibility. Let’s look at two examples. David Jeffery notes that John 7:53-8:11, the pericope about the woman taken in adultery (the pericope adulterae), has often been very badly handled and even subtracted because of a fixation with adultery. This fixation reflects a cruel “double standard” between not only men and women but also courtesans (John 4) and married women (John 7-8). Jeffery notes that John Calvin, for instance, highlights the volatile issue of adultery, and Jeffery imagines “him and Tertullian happily smoking a cigar or two together in mutual congratulation over their superior rectitude on the issue.” (Tertullian had insisted that adultery could only be forgiven once.)
However, the Roman missal places the pericope adulterae alongside the story of Susanna and the Elders (Daniel 13 in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles), in which “two wicked old men,” driven by lust, were “full of lawless intent to put Susanna to death” (13.28) with false testimony of adultery. As such, the tradition pulls the passage back from cultural anxieties about policing women’s behavior and to the crowd’s misuse of the law, which reflects a real and far deeper unfaithfulness to God.
The comparison with the case of Susanna redirects our attention to certain aspects of the pericope adulterae. Now, we may note the convenient absence of the male partner to the alleged adultery in both the story of Susanna and the Elders and the pericope. We may also note the absence of any repentance of the part of the women, which means that the stories are not really about any adultery. Further, if I can speculate past Jeffery, I wonder if the comparison with Susanna draws our attention to a puzzling element — Jesus’ writing (or drawing) in the dust (8:6).
In the story of Susanna, the innocent woman was rescued by a young Daniel who exposes her accusers and causes the “whole assembly” to “cry aloud” and “rise against them,” with predictably fatal consequences (13:60-1). In contrast, Jesus writes (or draws) on the ground, and “those who heard began to go away one at a time” (8:9), no blood spilled. The mysterious writing seems to take the place of the crowd’s righteous vengeance. The late René Girard suggested that Jesus “writes because he has bent down … in order not to look back at those people who look intently at him. He does not want to provide them with another scapegoat.” Somewhat similarly, Matthew Schneider has claimed that the act of writing provides a new focal point for the crowd, but one that’s not as concrete and likely more ambiguous than a potential scapegoat, forcing “interpretive deliberation” that will calm the heated mob. If Jesus demonstrates a judgment that is superior than that of the corrupt mob, he also shows an authority that is greater than that of any mob, including those righteous mobs in which we may still find ourselves caught up. Generally, then, the tradition of the pericope forces a self-questioning about all scapegoating rituals, as it does about depressingly commonplace tendencies to misogyny.
In a second example, Timothy George examines the striking narrative of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, including Jesus’ anger (11:33), his weeping (11:35) and his disconcerting delay (“when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” [11:6]). George claims that the text unmasks many of our assumptions, from “comfortable theodicies” to a view of death as a safely “normal, controllable, and manageable part of human life” to a preference for a Stoic and impervious Jesus who would never weep. The problem isn’t just easily confined to modern readings: George notes that even Augustine shrunk from the thorny portrayal of an angry Jesus.
For George, the tradition has to be sifted to allow us to see a Jesus fiercely struggling against death. George quotes a Negro spiritual , not the “comfortable theodicies,” on Jesus’ delay, arrival, and subsequent miracle: “The Lord, he may not come when you want him to, but he’s always right on time.” Following German translations in place of English versions that say that Jesus merely “groaned in the spirit” (11:33, KJV), George says that Jesus directed harsh anger “against Satan, the Evil One himself, who presides over the realm of death, wreaking havoc throughout God’s good creation.” Finally, George suggests that Jesus’ tears show his full human involvement in our mourning, not “the sovereign apathy of the great Outsider” (Herman Ridderbos) in so many faulty Christologies.
George’s judicious reading of tradition implicitly asks why the passage might be so hard to figure out or why it has provoked hesitation. The answer, I suspect, is that, as George writes, the passage provided striking assurance that death is not the final word for early Christians faced with persecution. If the account was set down for this reason, it seems to acknowledge, as Wendy E.S. North has written, that there was a deep need for consolation — that early Christians worried about Jesus’ delay amid persecution, so that the dangers of “falling away” and “disaffection” were dark but real possibilities. When they read Mary saying, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32), early Christians could hear their “dashed hopes over the delay of the Parousia.” Thus, perhaps, we only understand the passage when we finally realize the urgent need for anger and weeping against death, the last enemy, and when we see the unwelcome shadow of disillusionment that hangs over us. As such, the tradition provokes a degree of self-awareness about our fallibility.
The Gospel of John: Theological-Ecumenical Readings doesn’t provide solutions to all the problems of reading within a tradition. There may be times when interruptions within a tradition may be necessary. Further, there are times when one tradition seems to be very different from another, such as regarding the jurisdiction of the papacy in Roman Catholic versus Eastern Orthodox traditions.
However, it may be possible for a tradition to be self-correcting. The placement of the pericope adulterae alongside the story of Susanna and the Elders may serve to preempt otherwise common misinterpretations. The multiple readings, many quite tentative, of the striking portrayal of Jesus in the raising of Lazarus show us the inevitable limits of our interpretive capacities. All in all, traditional readings may resist premature closure or convenient exclusivity. There are trade-offs, but they may be less severe than we think.