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
Response by John Painter
Paper by Jeffrey Staley
SBL 1999 Sessions and Papers
Pre-Note 1: This is a revised paper with revised title.
Pre-Note 2: Greek characters below are in MS Office "Symbol" font.
Copyright © 1999-2000 by Jeffrey L. Staley. Please do not reproduce or distribute without explicit permission of the author.
Jeffrey L. Staley
While working on my dissertation, I thought I had detected a certain argumentative pattern in Johannine dialogical style, one that consistently moved from what I termed a "less personal" to a "more personal" tone and content. This movement could be seen in the specific metaphors that the narrator used to describe Jesus, in terms of Jesus' own argumentative strategies, and In the broad, overall outline of the book's plot. For example with regard to the narrator's language, many scholars have noted how the Johannine prologue moved the Logos from God, to the world, and back to God again. But what had not been observed were the changes in metaphors that went along with this progression. Curiously, in the chiastic structure of the prologue, the abstract language of logos, light, and God (Jn 1:1-4) moves to the more personal language of kinship (only child, bosom, father) in Jn 1:17-18. Moreover, in the narrative's second monologue (Jn 5:19-47), the same progression can be found. There, Jesus begins by speaking vaguely about "the father," "the son," and "everyone" (5:19-29). But then in the second half (Jn 5:30-47), his language becomes more direct and personal with "I" ('egw), "my," "you" ('umeiV), and "my father" becoming more prevalent. Finally, this same movement can be traced in the general plot of the book as a whole. For example, in the second half of the Gospel (Jn 11-21) Jesus speaks for the first time of his love for friends and followers, the narrator describes Jesus' love for individuals, and Jesus gives a lengthy farewell speech to his disciples. These elements all point to a more personal turn in the narrative. Thus, in my early reading of the Fourth Gospel, a remarkable argumentative unity permeated the book's narrative design.
I turn my wooden chair to face a window in the cramped
Holden Village Library, hoping to catch a glimpse of the late afternoon
sun as it filters through dusky green cedars. A sharp blast from an air
horn stirs me out of my imaginary hike to Copper Basin, and I stare outside
as a group of staff members chase a stubborn yearling brown bear down the
village main street.
A Rhetorical Analysis of the Text
I began my 1986 SBL paper by arguing that despite the seemingly confused, disjunctive dialogue of John 7-8, there was a clear chiastic structure to the narrative unit and an overarching progression in its argument. Thus, despite any proposed source-critical or displacement theories, the final form of John 7-8 was coherent and unified on at least two rhetorical levels: symmetry (stylistics) and argumentation. An underlying subtext in the paper made the additional point that if one really wanted to enjoy Johannine rhetoric, one needed to move beyond the mere analysis of narrative symmetry. The critic should also explore the narrative's argumentative structure-which might or might not follow its symmetric, chiastic divisions.
Now what I didn't say in the title of that 1986 paper (or explain anywhere in the body of the paper) was why I excluded John 7:53-8:11 from my rhetorical analysis of John 7:1-8:59. The answer to that implicit question was all too obvious. John 7:53-8:11 just didn't belong in John. It was a late addition to the text, as proven by manuscript study and vocabulary analysis. But still, why leave John 7:53-8:11 out of my analysis? Especially since I was struck at the time (though I didn't voice the opinion out loud), with the fact that "this woman's" story was actually positioned near the center of my chiastic structure and fit into it rather nicely. But of course I was writing nearly ten years before the moiceia of Bill and Mo[n]iceia (8:3); long before President Clinton dropped his citwn for "that woman" in the hallowed halls of the White House. It is perhaps not coincidental that "this woman" has enjoyed a fairly wide appeal of late in Johannine studies. Perhaps "that woman" might even be the underlying cultural pretext for why I eventually put "this woman" back into the Johannine narrative of John 7-8.
But with or without "this woman," my 1986 analysis of Johannine narrative structure argued that John 7-10 stood together as a narrative unit whose primary focus was on two central Jewish institutions: synagogue and temple. Surrounding the two dialogical temple scenes with its "police" (7:14-8:59; 10:22-39) was the story of the man born blind and Jesus' monologue about the good shepherd, both of which seemed to focus on the synagogue and the Pharisees.
Here, then, is my 1986 analysis of John 7:14-8:59-now filtered through the bifocals I was finally forced to purchase a few months ago. My first look at the text focused on stylistic analysis-that is to say, on the text's chiastic structure and the repetition of ideas or vocabulary within that structure. I hoped that by highlighting the repetition of certain words and ideas I would convince the uninitiated reader of a symmetrical structure which might otherwise appear highly imaginative or grossly idiosyncratic. My second look at the Johannine text focused on its argumentative structure, borrowing heavily from Chaim Perelman's analysis of rhetoric in his The New Rhetoric.
Now as anyone working with chiasms knows, their beginnings and endings are often the easiest parts to delineate. That is because those segments usually deal with important plot developments. In John 7-8, for example, the rhetorical unit 7:14-8:59 is clearly marked off by Jesus' entrance into and exit from the temple. But as I mentioned earlier, I did not include the textually suspect John 7:53-8:11 in my analysis, even though it lay near the center of the exposed chiasm and made reference to another exit and re-entrance to the temple (7:53-8:2).
The second movement of the chiasm was not as easy for me to delineate. But after many hours of slow, tortuous reading, I was able to isolate the next inward chiastic step. This segment focused on the crowds' ('ocloi) arguments with Jesus over the authority of his teaching (Jn 7:15-24). I believed its seven argumentative points were paralleled in chapter 8, but with important new elaborations and developments in plot. There, "the Judeans" ('Ioudaioi) argue with Jesus over the implications of his teaching (Jn 8:31-58). I tried not to worry about the fact that the segment in John 8 was nearly twenty verses longer than its parallel segment in John 7. Furthermore, the only way that I could come up with a convincing delineation of these two parallel segments was by not requiring that their seven argumentative points be repeated slavishly in consecutive order.
Up to this point, the argumentative points I highlighted in Jn 7:14-8:59 were these:
A - Jesus goes up secretly to Jerusalem, enters the temple, and begins to teach 7:10-14A' - Jesus hides himself and leaves the temple 8:59B - The crowds argue with Jesus over the authority of his teaching 7:15-24i) "if any one wants to do his will he shall know about the teaching . . ." (7:17)ii) "the one who speaks from himself seeks his own glory . . ." (7:18)iii) Moses gave you law, but none keep (poiei) the law (7:19)iv) "Why are you seeking to kill me?" (7:19)v) "You have a demon!" (7:20)vi) "I performed one work" (7:21)vii) an analogy: circumcision on Sabbath (7:22-23)(an allusion to Abraham ["the fathers," Gen 17:9-14])B' - The Judeans argue with Jesus regarding the implications of his teaching 8:31-58i) "if you remain in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth ." (8:31-32)("if anyone keeps my word he will never taste death" (8:51))ii) "I do not seek my own glory" (8:50)iii) "if you were sons of Abraham, you would do (epoieite) the works of Abraham" (8:39)iv) "you are seeking to kill me" (8:40)v) "Aren't we right in saying . . . you have a demon?" (8:48)vi) "You do the works of your father" (8:41)vii) an analogy: a slave in a household (8:34-38)(an allusion to the Abraham story [Genesis 21:8-15; cf. Gal 4:21-31])
C - Arguments with Jesus regarding his possible identity 7:25-36(the first subdivision emphasizes who Jesus might be [the Messiah], the one who sent him, the Jerusalemites, and Jesus as one doing signs 7:25-31)i) "you know me and you know where I am from" (7:28)ii) they were seeking to arrest him, but no one laid a hand upon him (7:30)iii) his hour had not yet come (7:30)iv) many in the crowd believed in him (7:31)(the second subdivision emphasizes where Jesus might be going and the Pharisees 7:32-36)v) "you will search for me and you will not find me" (7:34)vi) "will he go to the Dispersion . . .?" (indirect question) (7:35)vii) "where I am you cannot come" (7:36)C' - Arguments with Jesus regarding his true identity 8:13-30(the first subdivision asks where Jesus' Father is, emphasizes the Pharisees, and Jesus as witness 8:13-20)i) "you do not know where I have come from" (8:14)ii) no one arrested him (8:20)iii) his hour had not yet come (8:20)(the second subdivision asks who Jesus is, emphasizes the Judeans, and Jesus as one doing what is pleasing to his Father, 8:21-30)iv) many [Judeans] believe in him (8:30)v) "you will search for me but you will die in your sin" (8:21)vi) "is he going to kill himself . . .?" (indirect question) (8:22)vii) "where I am going you are not able to come" (8:21-22)
C - The Jerusalemites wonder whether Jesus might be the Messiah, and Jesus responds by talking about the one who sent him 7:25-31i) "you know me and you know where I am from" (7:28)ii) they were seeking to arrest him, but no one laid a hand upon him (7:30)iii) his hour had not yet come (7:30)iv) many in the crowd believed in him (7:31)D - The Pharisees and Judeans wonder whether Jesus might be going to the Dispersion when he talks about where he is going and about the one who sent him 7:32-36i) "you will search for me and you will not find me" (7:34)ii) "will he go to the Dispersion . . .?" (indirect question) (7:35)iii) "where I am you cannot come" (7:36)C' - The Pharisees challenge Jesus' testimony and ask where his father is 8:13-20i) "you do not know where I have come from" (8:14)ii) no one arrested him (8:20)iii) his hour had not yet come (8:20)D' - The Judeans wonder whether Jesus is going to kill himself when he talks about where he is going and about the one who sent him 8:21-30iv) many [Judeans] believe in him (8:30)v) "you will search for me but you will die in your sin" (8:21)vi) "is he going to kill himself . . .?" (indirect question) (8:22)vii) "where I am going you are cannot come" (8:21-22)
D - Jesus' metaphorical proclamation regarding his true identity 7:37-39(the one who believes in me . . . shall flow rivers of living water)D' - Jesus' metaphorical proclamation regarding his true identity 8:12(the one who follows me . . . shall have the light of life)E - Arguments among the crowd regarding Jesus' identity 7:40-43(the Christ is not to come from Galilee)(Jesus is not on the scene)E' - Arguments among the authorities regarding Jesus' identity 7:45-52(no prophet is to arise from Galilee)(Jesus is not on the scene)F - The second attempt to arrest Jesus ends in failure 7:44
A - Jesus goes up secretly to Jerusalem, enters the temple, and begins to teach 7:10-14B - The crowds argue with Jesus over the authority of his teaching 7:15-24C - Arguments with Jesus regarding his possible identity 7:25-36D - Jesus' metaphorical proclamation regarding his true identity 7:37-39E - Arguments among the crowd regarding Jesus' identity 7:40-43F - A second attempt to arrest Jesus ends in failure 7:44E' - Arguments among the authorities regarding Jesus' identity 7:45-52D' - Jesus' metaphorical proclamation regarding his true identity 8:12C' - Arguments with Jesus regarding his true identity 8:13-30B' - The Judeans argue with Jesus regarding the implications of his teaching 8:31-58A' - Jesus hides himself and leaves the temple 8:59
We have clearly established that the narrative unit delineated by Jesus' entrance and exit from the temple has a chiastic structure, determined by the clustering of certain themes and motifs (a kind of "surface structure"). However, we want to show that there is also a rhetorical cohesiveness from an argumentative perspective. Here we will be looking not so much at the repetition of similar motifs, as at the differences and development of thought in John 7-8.
John 7-8 is framed by the inclusio of Jesus' entrance and exit from the temple, and within this inclusio the plot to arrest Jesus and put him to death is highlighted. These repetitions, along with others, help to separate the text into a chiastic superstructure. But this seemingly static superstructure undergirds a deliberative argument that is only revealed by subtle changes in the language between John 7 and 8. These changes are similar to other argumentative developments in the Fourth Gospel, and thus they are not isolated argumentative devices. What once were thought to be aporiae and editorial glosses in John 7-8 are, in reality, evidence of a remarkable narrative unity.
"Is it supposed to be better than Dumb and Dumber?" I start at a point below which I will not go."Oh yeah, way better." He replies much too quickly, and there is a tenor of conviction in his pubescent voice that I find somewhat unsettling."Better than Ace Ventura, Pet Detective?" I'm holding out for something more intellectually challenging-maybe a film like The Cable Guy or Mask."No contest, dad. My friends say this is his best movie yet.""What friends?"
"Jeez, dad, come on! Just look at his initials! J. C. Don't you get it dad? J. C.? Carrey's got the same initials as Jesus does, and you're always talking about Jesus. So maybe you need to see this movie too! Come on! Please? Maybe this is one you'll be able to use in one of your classes."
"Oh, I'm sure. Well, do your chores first and then we'll see."
"W-O-R-K. Today we are going to share what our parents do for work."Suddenly we are in the light, in an elementary school classroom.A little girl pipes up, "My mommy is a doctor."A boy chimes in, "My dad is a truck driver."Then a third child adds, "My mom is a teacher."
"And your dad?" the teacher asks the same child.
"Mmm, my dad? He's a liar."
"A liar?? Oh, I'm sure you don't mean a liar!"
"Well, he wears a suit and goes to court and talks to the judge."
"Oooh, I see, you mean he's a lawyer!" The teacher says with a relieved smile.
But the boy just shrugs bewilderedly.
Liar Liar seems to evoke explicit christological metaphors from the Gospel of John. John is well known for its seven "I Am" metaphors, and the film quotes what is perhaps the best known secular "I Am" saying in contemporary American culture-the one from Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham. When Fletcher finally discovers the wish his son made on the night of his fifth birthday, he shrieks "Oh my God!" and drives off to Max's school to try and get him to reverse the wish. Fletcher bursts into his son's classroom in the middle of storytime, just as the teacher is reading the famous lines, "I do not like them Sam I am, I do not like green eggs and ham. . . ."
But I hesitate to put this "finding" in my essay. Surely I have watched the film too many times by now. I am giving the producer far too much intellectual credit. This connection is too bizarre to be "real." But then I remember that someone once published a book arguing that the Gospel of John was a midrash on the book of Esther. Can my intertextual reading be any stranger than that? At least there was an actual quotation from John in Liar Liar which got me started on this adventure. So far as I know, no one has ever found an explicit quotation from Esther in the Gospel of John.
Now I am on a roll. I notice other Johannine motifs in the film. For example, "the hour" is a significant plot device in both the film and the Fourth Gospel. However, unlike Jesus or his Father, Fletcher is never able to keep his promises about the "appointed hour." The father/son relationship (Fletcher/Max) is also central to the film, as is the son's leaving (on a jet plane to Boston). All three are interconnected, foundational metaphors in the film and the Gospel of John.
Water also plays a significant symbolic role in John and the film. In the movie, a revelatory moment occurs when Fletcher sees a pitcher of water sitting in front of him in the courtroom, during Samantha's divorce hearing. Fletcher pours himself one glassful after another until he drinks the entire pitcher empty. He then takes a break and goes to the bathroom. Fletcher's ensuing prolonged absence from the courtroom represents his desperate attempt to postpone the trial for a few hours. The ruse works, and Fletcher is granted a reprieve. As a result, he is able to "save" Samantha and himself the next day. Thus in both the film and the Gospel, water is linked to salvation.
The film is beginning to look like a piece of art to me, a grand theological expression, the work of a mastermind. I begin to worry about myself. Do I see John everywhere, anywhere I look? I know the answer to that is no. I am not insane. But I am beginning to think I need to go for a walk to clear my head. I need an interruption-my son, to sneak up behind me and wrestle me to the ground. But my son is across the street babysitting, and my mind continues to work, long after I've asked it to shut down.
Then suddenly I realize I've missed the film's most obvious connection to John 7-8: Samantha Cole, the woman Fletcher is asked to represent in court. Because I had excluded John 7:53-8:11 from my original rhetorical analysis of John 7-8, I had overlooked what was the clearest narrative connection between the Gospel of John and the film.
As with Fletcher, Samantha Cole's entire life is held together by lies. She lied about her age in order to get married at the age of seventeen, without parental consent; she lied about her weight and hair color on her driver's license; and she is in court now because her voice was caught on a tape recorder, as she was in the very act of committing adultery. She is the adulterous woman of John 7:53-8:11, and is so carefully set into the plot of the film that her story is easily overlooked-until J.C. shouts out "The truth shall set you free!"
No one in the film picks up stones to throw at Samantha because of her sin-or at Fletcher either, for that matter (Jn 8:5, 7, 59; cf. 10:31). However, throwing is an important motif in the film. Fletcher gives his son Max a baseball and glove for his birthday, and although father and son never actually play catch, they make plans to. The only person who throws anything in the film is Fletcher himself, who throws his shoes at a jet plane as it taxis down the runway, with his ex-wife and son on board. After the shoes bounce off the plane's windshield, the pilot stops taxiing, and Fletcher saves his son and ex-wife from leaving him. In the film, then, the act of throwing is a motif that reflects familial love and brings about ultimate redemption. The motif is not connected with violence and hatred as it is in John 8 and 10.
Postmodern Intertextuality and Canonical Authority
A postmodern sense of text and intertextuality does not require that the writers or director of Liar Liar have John 7-8 in mind when making the film. Rather, it argues that all texts, simply by being texts, are intertwined with other texts. They feed on each other and nourish each other. So by explicitly quoting John 8:32, Liar Liar invites biblically attuned viewers to look for other Johannine allusions in it. And surprisingly, there are fragmentary connections. For some people, how they assess the significance of the allusions will be a matter of political and/or religious importance. Minimally, one can argue that viewing the film against the backdrop of John 7-8 gives the viewer an appreciation for a Jim Carrey movie that otherwise might appear to have no redeeming qualities. But a postmodern sense of intertextuality moves in more than one direction.
Unlike the "adulterous woman" of John 7:53-8:11, Samantha Cole is not an arbitrary addition to the plot of Liar Liar. However, she is a flat character with no positive character traits. She is a "bad" woman who only cares about herself, and Fletcher feeds upon her selfishness. Yet without her, Fletcher himself would not be redeemed. Samantha's one true insight-that her husband, who has just divorced her, is a good father-is the catalyst that causes Fletcher to see himself in a new light and sends him running after his former wife and son. By way of contrast, the adulterous woman in John 8 has been viewed as an unnecessary intrusion into Jesus' controversy with the Judeans, with no particular plot function. But can the film Liar Liar lead one to reassess "this woman's" connection to John 7-8? Can the she somehow redeem the biting challenges and ripostes of Jesus and the Judeans?
As a Johannine scholar and first time viewer of Liar Liar, Fletcher's grand exclamation, "The truth shall set you free," was my entrance to another intertextual level of the film. Until that moment, nothing in the film would have made me think about the Gospel of John. It was pure entertainment. Funny, but not worth watching more than once. The divorce proceedings with Samantha Cole were easily forgotten, since they seemed like an unnecessary subplot to the "lying" conceit that drove the film. That is to say, any type of legal proceeding, any cast of characters could have been used to make fun of Fletcher, the stereotypical lying lawyer. However, once the choice was made for an adulterous woman to be the catalyst for Fletcher's turnabout, she became a necessary character in the movie's plot.
When the Johannine intertext is evoked (8:32), "this woman's" voice, Samantha's voice-caught on tape in the very act of adultery-becomes another important Johannine connection. But in John 7-8 "this woman" intrudes, interrupts, and arrests the fierce diatribe in the temple. In contrast to Samantha Cole, she has no name. And she has no voice, except when she says "No one, sir" (8:11). In the Johannine text she is a narrative interlude, a glaring, in-your-face, disconnected question mark that turns the virulent voices of John 7-8 into an intensely personal confrontation. She literally brings the rhetorical situation of John 7-8 down to stony earth. She is the canonical counterpoint to Fletcher's intrusive, jarring quote of John 8:32; that intertextual connection that raised the movie to another level.
I have come a long way from the reading of John 7-8
I did in 1986, where the boundaries of "text," "rhetoric," and "reader"
were clear and distinct; where I was careful to keep my personal experience
out of my scholarly discourse on the biblical text. Today I am more apt
to find John anywhere, and apt to consider all sightings seriously. Some
people may challenge what seems to be an idiosyncratic reading, wondering
at the end whether I am even reading John at all. What is at stake in a
postmodern sense of rhetoric and intertextuality? If Liar Liar gains
some credulity from its intertextual repertoire, is it not conceivable
that John 7-8 could also gain something from its connection to Liar
Liar? Need it lose in the exchange? If Jesus can stoop so low as to
write in the gritty dirt of ordinary human experience, then perhaps we
should feel empowered to lift up popular culture's allusions to the Christian
canon into serious dialogue with postmodern rhetoric and textuality.
So I shall go back and read John 7:53-8:11 once again. Perhaps this time,
in the midst of a complex Johannine chiasm, I will find Jim Carrey poised,
contorted in silence, ready to cast the first shoe. And perhaps I will
find this woman, now named, shouting with a voice that moves her beyond
the confines of patriarchal stereotypes; with a voice strong enough to
redress the judicial subtleties that have thrust her and her rescuer so
dangerously into the spotlight of imperial power.
Click here for the Response by John Painter
Click here for other SBL 1999 Sessions and Papers
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