Tuesday, April 5, 2016
The Gimlet Eye: The art of persuasion; Stooping to conquer...
The Pharisees present him with a woman accused of adultery, and petition him for advice.
'Master', they say. '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?'
The Pharisees, of course, aren't really interested in Jesus' moral take on the matter. And Jesus knows it. Instead,their motives are altogether less salubrious. What they're actually trying to do is get him embroiled in a legal wrangle. According to Mosaic Law, the woman, as the scribes correctly point out, should be stoned. No problem there - under normal circumstances. But with Palestine now under Roman occupation, things have changed. Mosaic Law has ceded to Roman Law - and if Jesus upholds the former over the latter, he leaves himself open to the inevitable charge of incitement. But that's the least of his worries. Conversely, if he decrees that the woman should not be stoned, he stands accused of precisely the opposite charge - turning his back on the ancient traditions of his forefathers. And that's no picnic either.
A crowd has gathered, and tensions are running high. Getting out of this, it would seem, is a pretty hard ask even for the smoothest, of smooth-talkers - let alone an itinerant carpenter with no rhetorical training whatsoever. What happened next is described thus:
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.(John, 8: 6-9; author emphases.)
This passage from the Gospel of St John is unique. It's the only recorded occasion in the entire New Testament during which Jesus writes anything. Speculation is rife among Biblical scholars as to what those words might have been. The sins of the woman's accusers? Their names, perhaps?
They will, of course, forever remain a mystery. But from a psychological perspective, precisely why Jesus should feel the need to write anything at such a moment constitutes an even greater conundrum.
It doesn't make sense.
Unless, that is, he had something up his sleeve. Might the words themselves have been a smokescreen? The significance of his actions lie less in the writing itself - and more in the act of producing it?
Let's take another look at Jesus' body language during his encounter with the Pharisees. The exchange, in fact, comprises three distinct phases. On first being challenged, what is his initial reaction? Well, we note from the text that he immediately 'stoops down' (antithesis: incongruity: appeasement). Then, when the elders persist in their sophistry, he 'lifts himself' back up again to deliver his famous riposte (confidence: assertiveness) -before reverting to a stooping posture and resuming a pose of appeasement. It's a well-crafted move aimed at shifting and stealing momentum.
Sure, Jesus certainly has a great line in 'casting the first stone'. And, what's more, he almost certainly knew it: it's one of the finest examples of flipnosis I've ever come across.But he does, however, still have a problem. At the end of the day, no matter how great a line it may or may not be, no matter how insightful the argument, it still delivers a challenge to the Pharisees. And could, despite its genius, have seriously pissed them off.
An eventuality, no doubt, of which Jesus was well aware. And which explains, contrary to theological conjecture, why he didn't just speak in the one language, he spoke in two. One modern, phonemic, opaque. One ancient, silent, profound .