Friday, February 24, 2012

A Witness to Absurdity

We continue through the Gospel of John, where recently Jesus sneaked into the Passover Feast in Jerusalem to avoid a risk which never actually existed. After the Feast, Jesus hung around and taught in the Temple courts, where some Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery to Jesus as a trap, but He ended up turning her condemners by telling the person without sin to cast the first stone.

A Witness to Absurdity
The Gospel of John, more than any of the Synoptic Gospels, stands out clearly as a fabrication to anyone with a critical eye. One witness to that is the sheer absurdity which some of Jesus' dialogs take; with Pharisees raising objections which just do not make sense. Take the dialog in John 8:12-20 for example.

At some undisclosed time after nobody cast a stone at the adulterous woman, the dialog begins with Jesus stating that He is the light of the world (John 8:12). In John 8:13, the Pharisees try to question Jesus' authority like so:
The Pharisees challenged [Jesus], "Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid." NIV
This claim is absurd. Jesus is not in a legal proceeding here, so He is not appearing as His own witness. Nor did Jesus describe anything which would have been an event in which witnesses would be required, at least in the traditional sense. Jesus is appearing as an anointed prophet, the Messiah, not someone presenting a legal case where He needs witnesses to support Him. Deuteronomy states that a prophet should be tested, not that a prophet should have witnesses. The Pharisees would have known that, and thereby the author of the Gospel of John proves that he only has a superficial understanding of God's Law, and, in turn, proves this episode to be fiction.

Is that too bold of a conclusion to make from one sentence? Very well, let us continue...

Jesus could have corrected their misunderstanding, but He did not. Instead, He continued on in that same misunderstanding. Jesus replied that despite the fact that He is testifying on His own behalf, His testimony was valid, because He knew about Himself, and while they judged by human standards, He was guided by God, the Father (John 8:14-16). He concludes the reply in John 8:17-18 with these words:
"In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. I am one who testifies for Myself; My other witness is the Father, who sent Me." NIV
First, note how the phrase "your own Law" is spoken, as if Jesus was not a Jew and thereby subject to the Law, and as if the Jews had come up with the Law themselves as opposed to having it given to the Jews by God. This is not to say that Jesus is implying these points. Rather, from the way in which He worded it, you would have no idea that He was Jewish or that the Law had a divine origin.

OK, now about the witnesses.

Jesus could have mentioned how there were all kinds of different witnesses in the Law, and sometimes they were singular. Abraham gave seven lambs to Abimelech as a witness that Abraham had dug a well (Genesis 21:25-30). Jacob used a pillar and a pile of rocks as a witness of a peace treaty with Laban (Genesis 31:43-53). (During that example, Jacob also called God as a witness between them in Genesis 31:50.) There are also a couple times when the heavens and earth are called as witness (Deuteronomy 4:26, Deuteronomy 30:19). There is a song which is a witness (Deuteronomy 31:19). Even the book of the Law itself was considered a witness (Deuteronomy 31:26).

Instead, Jesus appeals to the Law, citing that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. There are only three times when multiple witnesses are mentioned in the Law. Numbers 35:30 states that a murderer can only be sentenced to death if there is more than one witness. Deuteronomy 17:2-7 states that if you find anyone living among you who worships other gods, or worshiping objects in the sky, then based on the testimony of two or three witnesses, that person should be put to death. Deuteronomy 19:15 states more generally that it requires two or three witnesses to convict someone of any crime. (It must have been pretty easy to get away with crimes back then!)

The common thread in these legal references to multiple witnesses is that they are required to convict someone of a crime, and have nothing to do with what a prophet says. It does not make sense that the Pharisees would have raised the issue, and it does not make sense that Jesus would have responded to them in kind.

Furthermore, Jesus' own reply falls apart logically. According to the Law, the testimonies of two men(!) were required, whereas Jesus states that He is His own witness, and His Father is a witness as well. The way in which the Law is written regarding multiple witnesses, nobody could claim God as being one of the required witnesses. It is an absurd abuse of the Law, made all the more absurd by Jesus being the one to make such a claim.

The matter concludes with Jesus telling the Pharisees that they do not know the Father (John 8:19-20).

So we see the purpose for which this episode is written: to emphasize Jesus' harmony with God, while contrasting Him to the Pharisees, with the Pharisees not even knowing who God really is. That is an important theological distinction to make, for sure. It is just too bad that the author of John stumbles all over himself in the process of making it.


  1. Well, I dunno. What about Jehovah's witnesses, based upon Isa 43:10?

    “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD,
    “and my servant whom I have chosen,
    so that you may know and believe me
    and understand that I am he.
    Before me no god was formed,
    nor will there be one after me.

    It seems to me that you're insisting on a very narrow legalistic definition of a word which plainly, per all the examples you gave, was quite flexible in its use.

    1. I think you may have missed what I was doing, Tom. It is not that I was insisting on a very narrow, legalistic definition. Quite the contrary, and as you note, I point out the many different ways in which "witness" is used, but then I let the context define which use is correct.

      This is a perfectly legitimate approach, just like if you heard someone use the word "bank," you would use the surrounding context to know if that person was speaking about a financial institution or a river's shoreline.

      Jesus made the appeal to the Law. Jesus cited the requirement of two witnesses. That is a fairly specific context.