Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

The Rhetoric of Jesus Writing in the Story of the Woman Accused of Adultery (John 7.53-8.11)

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

The Rhetoric of Jesus Writing in the Story of the Woman Accused of Adultery (John 7.53-8.11)

Article excerpt

Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was leftalone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."

-John 7.53-8.11, New Revised Standard Version

In a 2010 New Yorker review of several books on the historical Jesus, Adam Gopnik asks, "Is there a more miraculous scene in ancient literature than the one in John where Jesus absent-mindedly writes in the ground while his fellow Jews try to entrap him into approving the stoning of the adulteress, only to ask, wide-eyed, if it wouldn't be a good idea for the honor of the first stone to be given to the man in the mob who hasn't sinned himself?" Gopnik is intrigued not only by the aesthetics of the narrative but also by how Jesus's morality is "neither quite Greek nor quite Jewish" but "is fresh and strange even now" (74). Some have speculated that this is the most widely known story of Jesus in the Bible (Ehrman 63; Keith 1-2), and its appeal may be in that fresh and strange morality Gopnik points to. But just as striking-especially for those who study rhetoric, composition, and literacy-are the two moments when Jesus bends to write, both before and after he utters, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8.7).

John 7.53-8.11, also called the Pericope Adulterae, is the only canonical biblical passage in which Jesus is represented as writing.1 Commenting in the fourth and fifth centuries, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine were among the earliest and most influential explicators of the story, and ever since biblical scholars have been debating the origins, meaning, and implications of it. Most readings, popular and scholarly, treat the fact that Jesus stoops twice to write on the ground as a marginal, if interesting, detail in a larger drama of law, sin, mercy, and forgiveness. However, a number of commentators, ancient and contemporary, have fixed on those moments of writing and argued for various interpretations of what is written and why. Here I am less concerned with intervening in that long tradition of biblical exegesis on John 7.53-8.11 than with proposing how this story, when read through the lens of rhetoric and composition, reveals intriguing ways that writing, and especially silent writing, can both work in tandem with speech and persuade in ways that speech alone cannot. My ultimate aim is to draw attention to silent writing as a public performance, especially two aspects of it: the distinctive capacity of writing to provoke reflection (not just for the writer but even for those watching a writer); and the rhetorical power of silence (in this case moments of silence introduced and sustained by physical acts of writing). To set the stage for a detailed discussion of reflection and silence, the next three sections (1) describe how my approach fits into the burgeoning scholarship in composition studies on religion, (2) address a few prefatory issues about the origins and reception history of John 7. …

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