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Let Her Speak
How Jesus the gentle rabbi treats female spiritual abuse survivors
A book about healing from spiritual abuse in John’s gospel would be incomplete, neglectful, and possibly even harmful if it didn’t pay close attention to the way John portrays Jesus’ interaction with women. So I will be devoting three Substacks to that subject.
Why a Special Focus on Women?
Women are more likely than men to be victims of abuse of all kinds, including spiritual abuse. The text of Scripture and and the records of history show women repeatedly being subjected to male oppression, prejudice, bias, and unfair hypocrisy. We will explore 3 scenes in John in which we see how Jesus views women and, as the divine Son of God, calls them to participate in the triune mission of Father, Son and Spirit.
First, in this post we will consider the woman of John 8; although most scholars recognize the story is not original to John, it is true history. Second, we will explore the Samaritan woman of John 4 and the tragic history of (mostly) male interpreters. Third, we will take a look at Mary Magadelen’s encounter with Jesus in John 20 and consider the possibility that her story represents the high point in the overall narrative progression of John’s characterizations of women in Jesus’ ministry.1
The Woman Caught in Adultery?
What strikes you most about the story of the woman “who had been caught in the act of adultery” (8:4)?2 For me it is the absence of the man she was alleged to have slept with. Where is he? Back at home by himself? Skulking in the back of the crowd, hoping no one will notice? Or I wonder, was the man himself a scribe or Pharisee? Given how many public stories there are of male leaders covering for their fellow leaders, the last one is certainly a possibility. But regardless of the reason, surely the man too was guilty, and his absence is telling.
As I put it shortly after the SBC Guidepost Report, “it would seem that the tendency for men (and here, men in power) making women more responsible for sexual sin and letting men off the hook is nothing new.”
Wounded by God’s Word
But we are focusing on spiritual abuse. How is that present in this story?
First, these leaders abused God’s law by using it to deceitfully test God’s Son. The women was objectified, used as a prop in a clerical play for power: “This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him” (8:6). In other encounters between Jesus and the religious authorities, controversy is sparked by Jesus’ healing and teaching. Those who are abused like the man in ch. 9 had already made some manner of healing contact with Jesus. This woman was not so fortunate. When she is brought to Jesus, there is nothing in the text suggesting she had any reason to believe Jesus would be gracious. She has no agency, no rights, and no voice (until Jesus speaks to her, as we will consider below). That’s what happens when religious leaders misappropriate spiritual power for selfish reasons: they become more powerful, those with less power become powerless, and those who side with the powerless put themselves in danger, as Ridderbos notes:
“If he [Jesus] would take a stand for the woman, he would thus, in their opinion, be in open conflict with Moses.”3
Seeking to test Jesus, these leaders were far more concerned with biblical fidelity than with sin and justice. Adrienne von Speyr captures this so well:
“The law is more important to them than the sin…For them, the law has become an absolute entity. They do indeed acknowledge that it was given by God and was communicated through Moses. But they have gradually forgotten its first origin, and, when they think of the law, they mostly see only Moses as standing behind it, Moses who is in their eyes the model of the righteous…[T]he most important thing is Moses and the Pharisees themselves: Moses, the model of the Pharisee, and themselves as copies of Moses. Thus the divine law gradually changes into the Mosaic law, and this in turn changes into the Pharisaic law, and this becomes their own law.”4
This is what abusive religious leaders, pastors and elders do: they elevate themselves to being equal, if not with God, then with the authors of Scripture. Thus, going against them is the same as going against God’s Word. When men claim such an unassailable position, what are women to do? Like the woman in John 8, they are often speechless, perhaps even convinced that these men who claim to speak for God are in fact speaking with God’s authorization. But when Jesus shows up—or one of Jesus’ faithful representatives—women are given a voice (more on that in a minute).
Second, these leaders caused harm by misinterpreting and misapplying Scripture. They said, “Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women” (8:5). What commandment are they referencing? Most likely these texts from Leviticus and Deuteronomy:
“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 20:10)
“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.” (Deuteronomy 22:22)
God’s law given to Israel was clear: both guilty parties in cases of mutual sexual sin were to be punished. By failing to hold the guilty man accountable, these leaders committed spiritual abuse. They knowingly contradicted God’s word. This would have harmed the woman, as so many female abuse survivors can witness.
One of the hardest parts of healing from any form of abuse is the nagging and incessant voice of shame which shouts, “Guilty!” Survivors hear this voice inside even when all outside voices offer reassurance that they were not responsible. So when there are external voices of blame, it makes healing that much harder. And when that blame is supposedly coming from the mouth of God himself, the damage is yet deeper still. Deeper, and infected: for the voice that communicates grace and comfort gets confused with the voice of evil. Survivors are often unable to find comfort in Scripture, or only with extreme difficulty.
Jesus the Gentle Rabbi
Such is the spiritual harm inflicted on this woman. How does Jesus heal? He does the exact opposite of these wicked men. As I have explained previously, all abuse is rooted in a misassignment of responsibility.5 Blame must be rightfully named and rightfully re-placed in order for abuse survivors to heal.
By saying, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” Jesus likely alludes to Deuteronomy 17:7:
“The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
Who would the witness be in this case? I find it highly suspicious, given the overall deceitful nature of these male leaders, that they claim to have “caught” (2x) this woman “in the act of adultery” (8:3-4). I haven’t researched this, but I assume sex was as much of a private affair in 1st century Israel as it has been across time and culture. So I wonder, were there actual eyewitnesses? Or did the scribes and Pharisees learn about the adultery from the guilty male? Was Jesus implicitly asking that man to come forward and declare his guilt, to own up to the fact that he had no moral ground on which to claim to be “without sin”?
In any case, Jesus knew the woman was not 100% responsible for an act of sin that required two people. And so he refused to wrongfully condemn her. Instead he treated her with gentleness, asked her questions, and allowed her the dignity of a voice. He reversed, and thereby healed, the harm caused by spiritual abuse.
Let Her Speak
In response to Jesus’ questions, the woman only says two words in Greek: ουδεις κυριε, “No one, Lord” (8:11). It’s likely that she wouldn’t have had the chance to speak at all had Jesus not addressed her directly. I imagine a degree of timidity in her reply. She answered Jesus’ second question (“has no one condemned you?”) but not the first (“Woman, where are they?). Although Jesus was looking down at the ground (v. 8), he surely heard the shuffle of feet as man after man “went away one by one” (v. 9). So the questions are not for Jesus’ sake, but the woman’s. He gives her healing in inviting her to reflect internally more than she says out loud. Perhaps she thought something like this:
Where are they? I can’t believe it. They all left! I was about to be put to death! My whole body is shaking. I just want to run away and hide. Why is this man talking to me? We’re alone now. Alone, with another man! That’s what almost got me killed, why is he still here? He should have left too, so there won’t be any more accusations! What can I say to him? I’m speechless. No words. Too scared to speak. But this man spoke to me. To me, directly, when all these other men just used me for their own selfish, manipulative, deceitful schemes. So maybe he is safe. Say something. Answer him. It doesn’t have to be much. “Oudeis kyrie”; “No one, Lord.”
How healing it must have been for Jesus, a teacher of the law, a rabbi, to have so reversed the harm caused by these other teachers of the law. The desire for that healing is shared by women whom the church has accused and cast out while simultaneously acquitting their male abusers (if he was even charged with sin in the first place).
This story, even though not canonical and inspired, nevertheless gives a consistent portrait with what we see in John 9, where Jesus reverses the religious authorities’ assignment of sin to the blind man, and confronts them with their own sin. In an era when women are facing much more spiritual abuse than men, and when men predominate positions of authority and often abdicate their responsibility to account for sin in their fellow male leaders, it is important, crucial, yes, necessary, to see Jesus. To see how he sees women. To see how he speaks to women. To see how he listens to women. To see how he holds their abusers accountable. To see how he offers to all women the dignity of being restored to the status and position of Eve.
We will explore that last point, regarding the biblical typology of Eve and women, in a few weeks in studying Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Risen Christ. But first, the next post in this series we will take a critical look at the sordid interpretive history of the Samaritan woman in John 4.
Quote from Adrienne von Speyr
“[Jesus] sees this woman in his love, he sees the love that is possible between her and himself. Therefore he sees before himself, shining through her, the image of his Mother. For he lived together with his Mother during the years of contemplation, and at that time her immaculate purity was something he took for granted. His Mother, whom he loved, was, as the one free from sin, the embodiment of woman and the model of all human love for the Lord, in a manner so definitive that from then on he can see all love and every woman only in the light of this archetypical love between himself and his Mother.6
Overlooking the Catholic theology of Mary, with which I disagree, Adrienne von Speyr’s comment on how Jesus’ relationship with his mother influenced his relationships with all women is rich with suggestion. Might that relationship account for the recurring pattern in all 4 gospels of the way Jesus treated women with such dignity and love?
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There are five extended scenes with women in the canonical text of John (in ch. 2, 4, 11, 12, and 20), six if you include 7:53-8:11, and seven if you included 19:25-27 re Jesus’ mother and John.
As most commentaries on John explain, the Greek text of 7:53-8:11 is not in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. When it does occur in later manuscripts starting in the 5th century, it’s placement varies, showing that scribes were unsure where it belonged, and thus probably not in John’s original. But as Leon Morris observes,
“There is no real reason for thinking that John included this story in his Gospel. But that does not mean that it did not happen. The story has an authentic ring to it. As we read it we feel, “This is what Jesus would have said!”…We may profitably study it as an incident in which we see Jesus’ compassion and the way he handled ingenious and hardhearted opponents.” Reflections on the Gospel of John, p. 291.
The Gospel according to John: A Theological Commentary, p. 288.
The Discourses of Controversy: Meditations on John 6-12, p. 142-145.
As articulated by Christian therapist and educator Bob Hamp: “The key dynamic of abuse is the inappropriate assignment of responsibility. This is far more devastating and insidious than it may sound at first.” https://twitter.com/bobhamp/status/1189864800253304833
The Discourses of Controversy: Meditations on John 6-12, p. 145-146.