SBL 1999
Papers Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature
Boston, MA - November 20-23, 1999

S116: "Johannine Literature Section"
and "Literary Aspects of the Gospels and Acts Group"
Saturday, November 20, 1999,  1:00 pm - 3:30 pm

Liar Liar: Jesus, "This Woman" and the Law in John 7-8
Jeffrey L. Staley, Pacific Lutheran University

A Response to 'Liar Liar': Jeffrey Staley on John 7-8
John Painter, Charles Sturt University
Click here for the
Paper by Jeffrey Staley
See below for the
Response by John Painter
Click here for other 
SBL 1999 Sessions and Papers

Pre-Note 1:  This is Painter's original response from Nov. 1999;  Staley's paper has been slightly revised since then.
Pre-Note 2:  Greek characters below are in MS Office "Symbol" font.

A Response to 'Liar, Liar': Jeffrey Staley on John 7-8

John Painter
Charles Sturt University

1. Evoking my response
Responding to this paper by Jeffrey Staley is no easy task.  For a start, his reflection set my mind racing back almost 35 years to the time I began research on the Johannine writings in Durham in the north of England.  Like Jeffrey's 1986 paper, my PhD thesis remains unpublished, sitting on some dark shelf in the theology Department of the University of Durham.  Nevertheless, that time of research has shaped my thinking and life ever since.  My research and writing have been concentrated on the Gospel and Letters of John though there have been times when my attention has been turned elsewhere, a book on Bultmann in 1987, and my two most recent books have been a concise commentary on Mark and a book on James the brother of Jesus.  Jeffrey's paper affected me in what you might think to be a strange way.  He argued that "The obvious connection between John 7-8 [and 'Liar Liar'] is Samantha Cole . She is the adulterous woman of John 7:53-8:11" (p.22).[1]   The connection made me think of my flirtations with areas beyond the Johannine literature.  For that reason I was glad to remember that Jesus' word to the woman indicated that he did not condemn her (8:11).  I breathe a sigh of relief, but I cannot help remembering that Jesus said more than this, 'Go and do not sin again'.

Well, that may be OK, because my two projects for next year are the Sacra Pagina commentary on the Johannine epistles and commentary on the Gospel.  At the same time the unease, or is it disease, whatever, it returns as I think of partly finished manuscripts in my filing cabinet and on my computer back in Canberra- a manuscript on Paul and another on Matthew.  To tell you the truth, there are moments when I feel that I would rather be working away at them than concentrating attention on 'my first love'.  But I also know that when I am working on them I have this guilty feeling that the Johannine writings are where I ought to be.  Perhaps this explains to you why Jeffrey's reflection on the 'adulterous woman' focused my mind on the concluding words not mentioned in his paper.  But relief at release from condemnation is soon overtaken by the awareness that I am not ready to hear 'Go and do not sin again'.  If these words sound playful, I remind you that they are seriously playful in the spirit of the discussion in this session.

2. The loop, or hermeneutical circle
Jeffrey has reminded us that the three areas of concentration in his paper - text; reader; and intertext - can only be separated in a somewhat artificial way because they are not discrete.  A text is nothing without a reader and a reader does not come to a text with a blank mind, a tabula rasa.  We all bring our preunderstanding to the reading of a text and that preunderstanding is informed by other texts.  Here, in line with Jeffrey's approach, I am using text in a broad sense which certainly includes 'Liar Liar' and anything else that might influence our understanding of the text in hand.  It also seems to me that the process involved in the hermeneutical circle as understood by Bultmann is much closer to the approach Jeffrey has demonstrated than most of us suppose.  The image of the circle highlights a number of issues, the first being that there is no set place to get into the hermeneutical process.  The line of the circle has no beginning.  We each enter the process as we are able from where we are.  We each enter the process with an existing understanding which is the basis for understanding the text we seek to read / understand / interpret.  Bultmann referred to the existing understanding as preunderstanding to show its provisional nature.  It is provisional because it needs to allow the new reading of the text to modify understanding.  Every understanding is provisional, the preunderstanding of the next reading.  No reading is ever final.  That is the second point made by the image of the circle.  The reader goes round and round but each time around is new.

It is true Bultmann gave historical methods (he spoke of the historical method, but in no narrow sense) an emphasis with which Jeffrey may be uncomfortable.  That is because Bultmann recognised that the interpreter today is worlds apart from the texts of the New Testament.  At the same time I note Jeffrey's reference to the study of the Greek text, the very reading of which presupposes careful historical linguistic work.  And although Bultmann sought to control idiosyncratic reading he presupposed that genuine understanding involved an existential relationship with the text.  Like Jeffrey, for whom reading is 'a subtle, looping task' in which 'the reader is lead back to "in the beginning" [b]ut the second "in the beginning" is never precisely the same as the original point of departure' (p.7), Bultmann argued 'The understanding of the text is never a definitive one, but rather remains open because the meaning . discloses itself anew in every future.' (Existence and Faith [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1961], p.295).  There is also the interaction between the parts and the whole in the circle of interpretation that links Bultmann to modern literary study, indeed, this and much more.

3. The place of the text
Although Jeffrey produced the chiastic analysis of John 7-8 for a paper in 1986 (pp. 2,4,7) building on his 1985 thesis, the present paper is now the reading filtered through the bifocals purchased just a few months ago (p.9).  Obviously the present paper represents the more or less most recent 'loop' (p.7) in the interpretative process, though my copy of the paper is a little over three weeks old!  Thus, concentration on text, reader and intertext, which represent phases of concentration in his reading, now persistently interact with each other (p.3).  Nevertheless, the central section (pp. 7-17) is an analysis of the rhetorical structure of the text of John 7-8 which argues that this section is coherent and unified from the perspective of its clear chiastic structure and its rhetorical argument (p.7).

While the analysis depends on the recognition of the formal structure of the text, that recognition arises from a preunderstanding which encounters the text and leads to a rhetorical analysis in terms of a chiasm.  While the chiasm is imperfect, as set out in the paper it is impressive.  The question then is, what are the implications for the meaning of 7:53-8:11 and its place in John 7-8?  That is unclear from my reading of Jeffrey's paper.

4. Point of view
4.1. Using 'Liar Liar' to illuminate the 'adulterous woman' in John
Is the pericope placed arbitrarily in John? as Jeffrey suggests (p.23).  At the same time he notes that the pericope is placed about centre in the chiastic structure and that it 'fits into it rather nicely' (p.8).  I take it that means it has a coherent place at this point.  That suggests something other than an arbitrary placement!  But it need mean no more than that an intelligent copyist is responsible for the placement.  The case would be different if it could be shown that the pericope were necessary at this point for the chiastic structure.  Even then it would be important to make sense of the overwhelming evidence against the authenticity of this pericope at this point in John.  But Jeffrey does not argue that the pericope is necessary to his structure at this point or that it is an original part of the Gospel and I am unsure how he incorporates it into his chiastic analysis.

4.2. Justifying the chiasm
I am often uneasy about the large scale chiastic structures.  Of course it is different if the text explicitly draws attention to the structure.  Then there is the question of meaning enhancement derived by the recognition of the chiasm.  Normally the point of emphasis is the centre.  That would mean that our pericope is the key to John 7-8.  But Jeffrey noted that there are imperfections in the chiastic structure which are not overcome by the insertion of 7:53-8:11, nor is this pericope included in his analysis.  And certainly, John 7-8  might have been analysed otherwise.  The themes that occur here in more or less chiastic order appear elsewhere as well.  But attention to this question demands a much closer textual study than I am able to provide in my brief response.

4.3. The rhetorical argument
Jeffrey has noted the way the Johannine discourse material moves from impersonal to personal language, indeed, from third person to first person.  In one way or another this phenomenon has puzzled commentators.  Obviously some resolve it, unsatisfactorily, in my view, by means of source criticism.  Rather it seems to be related to the use of particular motifs (see The Quest for the  Messiah [1993], pp. 216-235)  In the first half of the Gospel, narrative develops into dialogue and dialogue into monologue where Jesus characteristically uses first person language of himself but this is not absent from the dialogues (see especially pp.228-235).  Indeed, some of the more impressive 'I' sayings occur in the dialogues.  The move from narrative to dialogue to monologue is well illustrated in John 5.  There one of the more spectacular first person sayings is introduced in the polemical dialogue between Jesus and the Jews (John 5:16-18) where Jesus responds to the charge of sabbath breaking with the startling claim, 'my father is working and I am working.' (5:17)  Interestingly, this incident is fundamental to the conflict depicted in John 7-8 and is referred to specifically in 7:23 (cf. 5:9,11,14,15).  The theme of 5:16-18 recurs in 10:30-33.  Thus John 5 is a key for the interpretation of John 5-10.  Jeffrey (p.8) argued that John 7-10 form a narrative unit.  From a narrative perspective I consider John 5-10 to form that unit.

4.4 Reading 'Liar Liar' in the light of John
Having watched 'Liar Liar' twice after reading Jeffrey's paper, I agree there is some selfconscious drawing on the Bible.  But, if Fletcher Reede quotes John 8:32, 'the truth will make you free',[2]  he also quotes "I am reaping what I sow' (Galatians 6:7).  Jeffrey suggests that water symbolism is connected with salvation in 'Liar Liar'.  But drinking the water does not enable Fletcher Reede to succeed, because he cannot lie, and when asked if he can continue, he admits that he can.  All the water does is cause a delay and Fletcher has to continue still unable to lie:-no change.

Then, it is true, the first reference to God, 'Oh my God', is followed by Fletcher Reede overhearing the words,
         'I do not like them Sam I am, I do not like green eggs and ham'.
Is this a covert reference to the divine name?  I am no expert on Dr Seuss, but if these are famous lines, as Jeffrey says, isn't the film more likely to evoke Dr Seuss than John?  I imagine that the 'I am' is there to rhyme with 'ham' in the next line and identifies Sam, not God.  That 'Sam I am' might be understood as a reference to the divine name seems as likely as the egw eimi of the man who had been blind in identifying himself in the debate as to whether he is that person or only someone like him (John 9:9).  He simply replies 'I am'.[3]

But if intertextual perceptions are not dependent on selfconscious dependence on sources (p.23), what would such a connection mean for the reading of 'Liar Liar'.  According to Jeffrey, Samantha Cole is the adulterous woman of John 7:53-8:11 (p.23).  If John 7:53-8:11 is the story of the adulterous woman, it may be more misleading than helpful.  'Liar Liar' is the story of Fletcher Reede for whom the case of the adulterous woman constitutes only one particular case where it seems that he must lie to win.  As the story goes it seems that Fletcher Reede allowed his professional lying as a lawyer to flow into his private life.  One possible reading of the film is that the resolution was to regain separation of honesty and integrity in his relationship with his wife and son.  More than likely the film implies a new commitment to telling the truth.  But then, the film is about lying, not about the adulterous woman.

4.5. Reading John in the light of 'Liar Liar'.
Even if Tom Shadyak understood the adulterous woman in a Johannine context, as Jeffrey does, that would not be surprising given that the story has appeared there in common English translations.  Of course the story of the adulterous woman (John 7:53-8:11) can be read in the context of John so that the story is understood in the overall context and the Gospel is understood in the light of the story.  Interpretation within the hermeneutical circle can cope with this.  Although the story is more of the character of a Markan conflict story (see 2:1-12; 9:33-37), it is not incompatible with John.  But as the commentators note, language and style, in addition to textual evidence, set it apart from John.

Jeffrey did not consider the place of the story in his 1986 analysis of John 7-8 (p.8) and continues to consider John 7:53-8:11 an arbitrary addition to the text of John (p.23).  Because intertextuality does not depend on self conscious dependence, the question can still be asked, 'What happens when I go back and read John 7:53-8:11' in the context of both John and 'Liar Liar'?

First, 'Liar Liar' is certainly not the story of the adulterous woman.  The case of Samantha Cole is incidental to the main theme.  Any 'guilty' person would do, as long as the case involved lying to get the guilty 'off'.  Thus her case constitutes a test for Fletcher Reede.  Perhaps that is the clue also to the story of John 7:53-8:11.  Would the story of any sinful person do?  The woman plays a minor role, speaking only two words, 'Noone Lord' (OudeiV, kurie).  The story is obviously a testing conflict story between Jesus and the Jewish authorities (Scribes and Pharisees) such as is common in Mark (12:13-17 concerning paying tribute to Caesar).  All of this suggests that we have a conflict story and, given that such stories in the Synoptics are regularly pronouncement stories, this is one in which, as Gail O'Day has shown,[4]  the manner and content of Jesus' final saying should not be ignored.  While Jesus cleverly repulses those who sought to entrap him, he did so without compromising his own revolutionary teaching.  'Neither do I condemn you'.  This is radical forgiveness.  Of course, as I remember, he also adds 'Go and do not sin again'.

This form of conflict story (pronouncement story) draws our attention to the importance of the pronouncement at the end.  The story provides evidence of conflict but exists to convey the significant pronouncement of Jesus.  In this radical forgiveness is combined with a call to turn away from sin.  But the pronouncement of forgiveness is stated first and is not made conditional on the turn from sin.  Rather, the turning from sin seems to flow from the experience of forgiveness.[5]

[1] Page numbers of Jeffrey's article as given accord with the text of the paper provided for my comment three weeks prior to the Boston SBL Meeting for the 20th November 1999.  [return to text]
[2] We need to recognise that the quotation draws no more than the words from John as there is no sense that Fletcher Reede intends to abide in the word of Jesus or that he or the woman he represents have any commitment to the truth. [return to text]
[3] I find the other connections between John and 'Liar Liar' no more convincing.  There is no meaningful connection between the theme of 'work' in John and W O R K at the beginning of 'Liar Liar'.  The class room scene with a teacher has little to do with the theme of teaching in John 7:14-17.  If Fletcher Reede is a lawyer that has little to do with law in John 7:19-24.  And the Father son relationship of the film, where the father is an habitual liar, hardly has anything to do with the Father Son relationship of John.  Of course, the Jesus of John says of the Jews that the devil is their father (8:44) and he is the father of liars. [return to text]
[4] 'John 7.53-8.11: A Study of Misreading', JBL 111 (1992) 631-640. [return to text]
[5] The story of the two debtors in Luke 7:41-43, set in the context of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), suggests that the transformation of the woman's life was a result of forgiveness even though the pronouncement of forgiveness comes at the end of the story (7:48-50). [end of text] John Painter

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