The Devil and the Daniels
Chapter 8 of John includes one of the most beloved stories in all the Gospels as well as one of the most troubling. The former involves a woman caught in adultery and the latter involves Jesus and the Jews caught in a vitriolic debate. I want to approach this chapter with a little help from…the devil. I set out writing but I’m gonna take my time. If I finish this post before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight…
In the 1930s American author Stephen Vincent Benét wrote a short story called “The Devil and Daniel Webster” in which a man named Jabez Stone sells his soul to the devil a la Goethe’s Faust. Inspired by Washington Irving’s short story “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Benét adds his own spin in which a famous and beloved lawyer named Daniel Webster defends Jabez in a trial against the Devil plaintiff named “Scratch” and saves his soul while risking his own. The short story was made into an entertaining film in 1941. You can watch Daniel Webster’s speech in defense of Jabez Stone here in which he attempts to convince a jury hand-picked by the devil himself (including the likes of Benedict Arnold) to give Jabez Stone another chance. In 1978, John Sebastian wrote music for an animated version of “The Devil and Daniel Webster” called “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” which is even more cheesy than it sounds. And most recently, in 2005, a documentary was made about the wildly talented and even more wildly disturbed musician Daniel Johnston, whose fragile psyche cracked under the psychedelic effects of LSD. As a result, he suffered from demonic self-obsession, believing that he had sold his soul to the devil for fame. In “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” Daniel seems to struggle to embody both the devil’s victim and the victim’s advocate.
I find these stories fascinating not only because of all the Daniels but because of the roles played by the devil and the Daniels. The devil is the plaintiff, eager to collect the soul he has damned, and Daniel is the defense attorney, willing to save the damned by risking his own soul. The one who sticks her neck out for the accused is likely to be accused herself. The Hebrew word for the devil is Ha Satan, which literally means “the accuser.” And the name that Jesus will use for the Holy Spirit later on in John is “Paraclete” which is Greek for “advocate” or “defense attorney.” The Devil (the accuser) and Daniel (the defender).
Chapter 7 concluded with Nicodemus standing up for Jesus and then receiving insults as a result. In this case, Nicodemus acts as Daniel and the Pharisees as the Devil.
But those poor Pharisees are always being demonized. And doesn’t this language contribute to Christian anti-semitism?
The Gospel of John contains more ammunition than any other book in the New Testament for Christian anti-Judaism. And the Fourth Gospel has been used to justify Christian violence against Jewish people. And whenever this happens, the Christians are the Devil and the Jewish people are the victims. They have had very few ‘Daniel’ advocates throughout the centuries and the few who have stood up in their defense (like Edith Stein) have risked and often lost their lives to the demonic “Christian” violence.
So using the Gospel of John to accuse Jews (of deicide or legalism or whatever) is completely missing the point of the Gospel’s harsh rhetoric. Jesus associates the Jews with the Devil not because they are Jews but because they are acting collectively as the Accuser (the Satan) and seeking Jesus’ death. And when Christians accuse and seek to do violence to Jews, then they are acting as the Devil.
The devil is the personification of the lynch mob. Whenever a person or a group of people contributes to the accusation and punishment of an innocent victim they are under the sway of the Devil (1 John 5:19). When Nicodemus notices the Pharisees falling under this sway, he speaks up and points to the Torah, which is intended to protect the victim. Given by God to the people of Israel, the Torah is meant to safeguard the community from the influence of this Satan. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing” (7:51).
Jesus was trying to teach this to the Jewish leaders, who were using Scripture to build themselves up and exclude, accuse and punish others. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf” (5:39). When Jesus says that the Scriptures testify on his behalf, yes, he is referring to the messianic prophecies, but he is also saying that the Scriptures (the Torah) testify on behalf of the victim. The Torah is the victim’s advocate, the defense attorney, the “Daniel” who stands up to the Devil.
Jesus chastised Nicodemus in Chapter 3, asking, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Nicodemus didn’t seem to understand the Torah so Jesus tells him “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (3:10, 14).
The serpent, which you interpreted as a sign of God’s violent accusation and punishment, was lifted up to show you that what you associate with accusation is actually meant to heal and protect those who are hurting and in need. In the same way, you see me as a threat and you associate me with accusation and with the Satan, but in fact, I am here to heal and give new life (to whoever believes in me). “God did not send the Son into the world to accuse and condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17).
Nicodemus was starting to get it. God is not about accusation and condemnation. That’s the job of the Accuser. Nicodemus was starting to understand the purpose of the Torah: to defend the accused, to stand up to the Devil like Daniel at the risk of your own neck.
This is how I make sense of the story of the woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees and scribes (a phrase which only appears once in John by the way) seek to accuse Jesus of disobeying the Torah by using it as a tool for their accusation of a woman supposedly caught in the act of adultery.
They see the Torah as a tool given by God to exclude, accuse and punish others. Jesus, on the other hand, sees the Torah as a safeguard against these satanic accusations.
(Now I am not saying that all punishment and condemnation are from the devil and that God always supports and safeguards the accused, even if they are completely guilty. God, the Torah and humanity are, of course, much more complicated than that. However, in general, the Devil works towards accusing while God works towards protecting the accused.)
According to Deuteronomy 22:22 and Leviticus 20:10, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.” The Torah insists that adultery is a serious offense punishable by death. Today we in the Western world would consider this punishment extreme. And one might ask how this commandment protects the victim. This commandment clearly upholds the sanctity of marriage and protects men and women from becoming victims of sexual betrayal. But how do these commandments protect the accused? They don’t, but another part of the Torah does: Numbers 5:11-31, which describes the “ritual of the bitter water.” In this ritual, the priest pours holy water in a clay jar and then sprinkles it with dust from the temple floor. Then the priest writes curses on parchment with ink and dips in the water. “The writing,” Barker points out, “had to be such that it could be washed away, not permanent.” The woman drinks the dusty and inky water and if she does not grow ill then she is declared innocent. If she does grow ill, does her illness and subsequent miscarriage suffice for a punishment? The Numbers passage does not seem to say.
So the Torah can be used as a weapon to accuse and kill others based on some staccato commandments to punish wrongdoing (Deuteronomy 22:22 and Leviticus 20:10). At the same time, the Torah can be used to safeguard the accused through a ritual (described in Numbers 5) that might seem bizarre to us but does in fact serve to protect the victim.
The Pharisees want to use the Torah as a weapon to accuse and kill the woman and they want to see if Jesus will use it in the same way. If Jesus refuses to use it in the same way then they can say he is disobeying the Torah and therefore accuse and kill him too!
“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. (8:5-6)
I believe Jesus’ mysterious act of kneeling down to write on the ground is his way of saying through bodily gesture, “You’re forgetting the part of the Torah that intends to protect the accused. Just as the priest would write something that would wash away in order to learn from God about the guilt or innocence of the accused so am I writing on the ground something that the wind will wash away. I am handing this process over to God. Although you claim to have caught her in the act of adultery, I’m not sure I trust you (2:24). In fact, I think you have staged this whole thing in order to accuse me. If so, you are accusing in order to accuse, which means you are clearly in the clutches of the Satan (the Accuser).”
And then he says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7).
This popular and profound statement is usually interpreted to mean something like, “Hey, you have also made mistakes so who are you to judge and condemn?” I think there is some truth to that reading, but I think he is also implying that he sees through their lies and knows that they are all sinning by bearing false witness against the woman.
I don’t think she committed adultery at all. I think she was a Susanna whom jealous Jewish leaders wanted to kill because they couldn’t have her for themselves. And she was in need of a Daniel, stirred by the Holy Spirit (the Advocate) to say, “I want no part in shedding this woman’s blood” (Susanna 1:46).
Like Daniel in the Book of Susanna, Jesus convicts them of bearing false witness (Susanna 1:61) but he does it in such a way that they are not all put to death as they are in the Book of Susanna. Jesus convicts them without reciprocating the violence. Jesus does not violently accuse, he nonviolently convicts.
So if the woman is innocent, why does Jesus say, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (8:11)?
The Greek is literally, “Go, and from this now no more sin.”
He said the same “no more sin” to the ill man at Bethesda: μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε
I don’t think this phrase implies that she committed adultery anymore than the same phrase spoken to the ill man implies that he committed a sin that caused his illness. The only sin the text shows that the ill man committed was blaming others for his illness. After being healed, however, he tells the Jews that the guy they want to blame is Jesus. He remains stuck in his blame-bound existence.
This could be Jesus’ way of saying, “Leave this and don’t perpetuate this sin of violence any longer by seeking ways to get back at your accusers.” Or “Go and leave this and live into your innocence and your freedom from condemnation.” Or “Go and be the Susanna that you are for you were found innocent of a shameful deed” (Susanna 1:63).
Either way, Jesus, like Daniel Webster, Daniel Mouse, Daniel in the Book of Susanna (and maybe even Daniel Johnston), saved a victim from the clutches of Satan and “innocent blood was spared that day” (Susanna 1:62).
The Devil and the Jews
Now when we come to verse 12, it looks like we’re picking up the conversation from 7:52 when the Pharisees tell Nicodemus (who was being a Daniel to Jesus) to “search [the Scriptures] and see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” Jesus responds by referencing a passage in Scripture that does associate the messiah with Galilee: “He will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them a light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2).
In verse 12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
The story of the woman caught in adultery ends up serving as a kind of commercial break advertising Jesus’ role as the defender of the accused and as true interpreter of the Torah (God’s safeguard for victims of accusation). Although it interrupts the flow of the conversation (causing many readers to miss Jesus’ reference to Isaiah 9:2), the story of the woman helps introduce and frame the heated debate that is about to go down. Culpepper points out how ominous the language becomes in chapters 7 and 8: “ kill (7:1, 19-20 25; 8:37, 40), hate (7:7), arrest (7:32, 44), devil (8:44), murderer (8:44), demon (8:48), and stones (8:59)” (Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John, 164).
James Alison offers a helpful and creative reading of John 8: 31 – 59 in “Jesus’ Fraternal Relocation of God” in Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay. Alison sees Jesus making a distinction between Abraham’s sperma (biological descendants) and Abrham’s tekna (cultural and spiritual children). Jesus acknowledges that the Jews are indeed biological descendants (sperma) of Abraham (8:37) but does not think they are his spiritual children and cultural heirs (tekna): “If you were Abraham’s tekna, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God” (8:39-40). Alison writes, “The sort of thing Abraham did did not include seeking to kill one who told the truth which came from God. Abraham had quite complex reactions to the various truths he heard from God. He laughed with incredulity, despaired of the promise and so got a child by Hagar, but the most important reactions was to have believed the truth he was told concerning his own offspring, and to have desisted from sacrificing his son Isaac” (Alison, FBR, 62). Abraham also offered hospitality to the divine visitors who appeared to him at Mamre (Gen 18) and made no attempt to kill his divine guests.
Instead, Alison explains, the Jews are acting like spiritual heirs of another father: “You are indeed doing what your father does” (8:41).
The Jews then subtly accuse him of being an illegitimate child, saying “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself” (8:42).
The Jews persist in their accusation, employing ad hominem attacks against Jesus and his mother! They seem to be implying here that Jesus’ mother was a loose woman and that Jesus himself was a bastard.
NT Wright reminds us, “This is no gentle, devotional discussion of deep personal religious truth set within a framework of civility and mutual respect: this is a man facing a crowd set upon lynching him, and bravely speaking up against their hypocrisy.” (Wright, John for Everyone, 127).
[Wright also adds, “It should hardly need saying that the ‘Judeans’ here are not intended to represent ‘Jews’ in general, then or now. Jesus and his followers were after all Jewish as well, and so were people like Nicodemus who had already begun to follow him (7:50). The ‘Judaeans’ are the first-century Jerusalemites, to whom Jesus came as ‘his own,’ and who did not receive him (1:11) (Wright, 127).]
After this harsh insult, it might look like Jesus decides to finally pull out the big guns, but Alison invites us to see Jesus as still not responding “tit for tat.”
Instead Jesus is explaining to them whose side they are on when they are hell-bent on false accusation. They are on the side of the Satan. They are children and spiritual heirs of the devil, whose entire modus operandi is falsely accusing victims and then murdering them: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (8:44).
After being told that they are on the side of the Satan, they respond by accusing Jesus even more, saying that he is a Samaritan and that he has a demon (8:48).
I think it is important to take note here of the concept of Satan demonizing others.
I grew up in a tradition that took the power of Satan seriously. I learned to fear Satan and his potential control over my thoughts, feelings and actions. This fear of Satan became a very powerful and harmful force in my life. Like Daniel Johnston, I found this fear of Satan becoming most potent when I experienced altered states of consciousness (mostly through recreational drugs).
I no longer believe (if I ever believed) that there is a man in red with horns and a pitchfork. I think the devil is a creative and poetic way of describing the power of the accusing lynch mob. I also think the devil can get in my head insofar as I give credence to false accusations against others and against myself. When I hear a voice in my head saying, “Daniel, you are a piece of shit. You are no good. You’ll never amount to anything and you should just give up on everything.” That voice, which I admit can sometimes be very loud, is satanic.
Furthermore, I think the accusatory voice in my head that strongly suggests that I am in danger of being possessed by a demon is also satanic. The only time I can fall under the power of the devil is when I allow that accusatory voice to take control of my life, accusing myself or accusing others.
The devil also manifests as envy, as the green-eyed monster we discussed in chapter 3. The devil plants the seeds of envy, mostly through deception, and then envy leads to anger, rage, and murder. Or, in Girard’s terms, mimetic desire leads to mimetic rivalry, which leads to mimetic violence, which leads to accusing and scapegoating.
The devil is the interrelated phenomenon of envy, rivalry, accusing and lynching.
Alison points out how “Jesus uses the word ‘devil’ about his interlocutors’ paternity and his interlocutors use ‘demon’ to get back at Jesus…the word diabolos in John always refers to the founding principle of fratricidal order [scapegoating], and is a revelation of a principle that is to be overcome, not an accusation of ‘bad people.’ The word ‘demon’ – daimonion – is the accusatory word from within the fratricidally structured cultural order, the way one indicates someone as not ‘one of us.’ Jesus’ word diabolos reveals the murderous structure of human desire; the interlocutors’ word daimonion is a function of that desire” (Alison, FBR, 68).
For me, this understanding frees me from any irrational fear of the devil. Although I seek to resist the often-subtle devil of envy, rivalry, accusing and lynching, I can have sympathy for the devil at the same time. The devil for whom I have sympathy is the innocent victim who is demonized: Jesus, Luther, Galileo and all those other prophets and mystics whom the world (or the Satan) has accused and scapegoated as demonic. This also includes all the Jews throughout church history who have been scapegoated as demonic. In fact, Christians have used John 8:44 to justify the demonization of the Jews, essentially saying, “Well, Jesus said they are children of the devil so we should get rid of them” (see this steaming pile of horse shit: https://www.stormfront.org/jewish/antisemite.html). But what they are failing to see is that by saying that the Jews are children of the devil, they are placing themselves on the side of the Satan, the accusing lynch mob. These satanic “Christians” have been (and still are) demonizing the innocent Jews in the same way that the satanic Judeans demonized the innocent Christ.
In Violence Unveiled, Gil Bailie connects the Logos of violence (as articulated by pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus) and the Logos of Christ with the “father” in John 8:44 and the “Father” of John 8:42. He says, “The term ‘father’ as the evangelist uses it here refers to a social law of gravity that predetermines the pattern (the logos) of social developments in the ordinary course of cultural history. No doubt first-century Judaism was a patriarchal society, but the term ‘father’ in these verses refers to the organizing principle of conventional culture regardless of its religious concepts or its peculiar form of social organization” (Bailie, Violence Unveiled, 221-222).
This Logos of violence was a murderer from the beginning, but there was another Logos at the beginning: the Logos of Christ, the Logos Outcast. Just as Satan expels Satan by demonizing Christ so does the Logos of Violence cast out the Logos of Christ.
The Logos of Christ, however, was with God. And this Logos of Christ has been speaking up for the outcasts from the beginning, even before Abraham: “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” (8:58).
So they picked up stones to throw at him…
 Gil Bailie says, “The story of Susanna is most profitably read in the light of the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery.” I would agree, but say that the Gospel story is most profitably read in light of the story of Susanna. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, 196.