The Bible narrates an episode about Jesus and an accused adulteress (John 8:1-11). In this narrative, Jesus is in an assembly with his disciples. A mob brings a woman to the assembly, accuses her of having committed adultery, and prepares to stone her to death in accordance with the biblical law (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22). In our own time, Pope Francis claims that the mob had even bound her hands although the Bible doesn’t mention that. Perhaps, god revealed this additional information to the pope in a private missive.
I will first provide the Christian version and interpretation of the rest of the story. The mob asks Jesus whether she should be stoned to death. The question is intended as a trap. If Jesus affirmed the punishment, the mob would unleash a propaganda accusing him of not defending the woman. Had he asked the mob to forgive her, he would have been accused of violating the biblical law. After all, Jesus had vowed to fulfill such cruel, misogynistic laws in letter and in spirit (Matthew 5:17).
First, the reasonable critic is struck by the fact that Jesus took no initiative to intervene when the mob prepared to stone the woman to death. The sight of a helpless woman with her hands bound (if what Pope Francis claims is true) and terrorized by a mob baying for her blood would move any empathetic person.
So, Jesus is in a quandary. He remains silent and keeps doodling on the ground but the mob insists that he reply. Finally, Jesus replies by urging one of the mobsters who is sinless to cast the first stone at the woman. Every one of the mobsters, evidently recognizing that nobody is sinless, disperses. Jesus then admonishes the woman against sinning and asks her to leave.
Pope Francis argues that this incident illustrates the merciful nature of Jesus. He insists that by not denying the charge leveled against her, the woman implicitly admitted her adulterous conduct. She deserved to be stoned to death in accordance with the biblical law. Jesus himself could have hurled the first stone as he was sinless. However, Jesus, in an act of mercy, goes beyond the law and shows her mercy.
Christians often invoke this narrative to portray Jesus as the poster boy of mercy and compassion and to argue that he stood up for the disenfranchised despite the legal odds stacked up against him. Is it true? Was Jesus really merciful and compassionate? Or was he cruel and lacking in empathy? Was he entirely without a moral compass? Let us now examine the same episode as well as a related biblical episode through the prism of reason to answer these questions.
First, the reasonable critic is struck by the fact that Jesus took no initiative to intervene when the mob prepared to stone the woman to death. The sight of a helpless woman with her hands bound (if what Pope Francis claims is true) and terrorized by a mob baying for her blood would move any empathetic person. The mob must have thought of Jesus as a person of some standing to elicit his opinion about the impending brutal punishment. Such a person may even be able to influence the outcome. Yet, Jesus showed complete apathy toward the plight of the woman. He never thought of coming to her rescue. Even when prodded by the mob, he initially remained indifferent and silent. It was only upon repeated questioning that he responded.
Could an empathetic and compassionate person have behaved the way Jesus did? This question can be easily answered by placing yourself in a hypothetical scenario. You are chatting with 12 of your friends in a park. A gang of men attempt to forcibly disrobe a woman in front of your eyes. You pretend as if nothing is happening and continue chatting with your friends. Would the world hail you as merciful and compassionate? No, it would revile you as cowardly. You, along with your 12 friends, could have easily attempted to rescue the woman. However, you opted to remain a silent witness. Now, remember that Jesus had at least 12 disciples with him when the mob brought the womanfor stoning her to death. Jesus and his disciples could have easily attempted to rescue her. However, Jesus pretended as if nothing was happening. How does that make him merciful, empathetic, and compassionate – and not cowardly?
Second, the reasonable critic is struck by the fact that Jesus rhetorically provoked a self-styled sinless person to cast the first stone at the woman. One of them could have cleverly retorted, “Jesus, aren’t you sinless? Why don’t you cast the first stone?” Jesus, who had vowed to defend barbaric biblical laws – see Matthew 5:17, would have had no option other than lead the stoning. What kind of justice is it that entrusts mobsters with self-introspection on morality?
Mobsters that participate in stoning are surely not empathetic and some of them may even be psychopathic without a moral compass. What if one such person had considered himself to be sinless and initiated the stoning? The hapless woman would have died. Jesus had done everything to endanger the life of the woman by entrusting it to the self-judgment of the mobsters. The only reason she survived was those mobsters, on that day, happened to be exceptional; they seem to have introspected, found themselves to be sinful, and dispersed. If someone deserves admiration here, it is the mobsters – for dispersing without stoning.
Is Jesus then guilty of instigating, aiding, and abetting a murderous crime? This question can be easily answered by returning to the hypothetical scenario where you are in a park when gangsters attempt to forcibly disrobe a woman. The gangsters come to you and ask whether they should rape the woman or let her go. You stonewall their question. However, upon repeated prodding, you answer, “Let the courageous one among you rape her first.” Your prompting the courageous one among the gangsters to initiate the rape would be considered as an act of criminal instigation because very few rapists would think of themselves as cowards. In a civilized judicial system, you and your friends would be treated as instigators and accomplices in an attempted rape. You would be awarded considerable prison time.
Moral policemen and religious fanatics think of themselves as moralistic; that is precisely why they take it upon themselves to punish a woman accused of adultery. It is very likely that those mobsters could have thought of themselves as sinless and one of them could have initiated the stoning. It is only an exceptional coincidence that they thought otherwise. Now, apply the same yardstick from the previous paragraph and decide whether Jesus instigated, aided, and abetted a murderous crime.
Third, the reasonable critic is struck by the fact that Jesus refused to repudiate the barbaric laws that mandate stoning an adulteress to death; instead, he vowed to fulfill those (Matthew 5:17).Only the whims of the mobsters or a messiah could spare the life of an adulteress.Here, Jesus displayed servility toward biblical laws even though they are barbaric.
In this regard, the misogynistic apostle Paul comes across as a refreshing contrast to Jesus. Even though biblical laws mandate circumcision, Paul took a stance against such laws (Galatians 6:11-18). Needless to say, Paul was not moved by the brutality of genital mutilation and child abuse. His intent was less than honorable.He was trying to convert the pagans, who resisted circumcision, by hook or by crook. So, Paul was willing to repudiate biblical laws to harvest gullible souls.
Moral policemen and religious fanatics think of themselves as moralistic; that is precisely why they take it upon themselves to punish a woman accused of adultery.
However, these episodes allow us to contrast Jesus with Paul: while Paul displayed a willingness to challenge biblical laws, albeit with a dishonorable motive and as expediency, Jesus displayed servility toward biblical laws even when they were barbaric. One does not admire the brainwashed jihadists of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or the ISIS when they endorse the barbaric sharia laws that mandate stoning an adulteress to death. How can one admire Jesus whose servility toward religious laws mirrors that of these jihadists?
Fourth, the reasonable critic is struck by the fact that Jesus proclaimed the woman sinner without basis and admonished her not to commit adultery again. Pope Francis shockingly affirms that she must have been guilty of adultery because she neither proclaimed her innocence nor denied the charge of adultery in the kangaroo court.
This is an illogical way to draw an inference. In John 18:28-40, Jews accuse Jesus of having committed some unspecified crime serious enough to warrant death penalty. Jesus neither denies the charge nor proclaims his innocence when Pontius Pilate interrogates him. Therefore, by the absurd logic that Pope Francis employs, Jesus must have been guilty of some unspecified heinous crime – perhaps it was the crime of instigating a murderous mob to stone an innocent woman to death!
A woman accused of adultery and being prepared for stoning would be in a state of shock. Who could she have appealed to and proclaimed her innocence? Is it to the murderous mob or to the messiah who instigated the mobsters?
Jesus was the one who was asked to adjudicate. He was the one who should have conducted animpartial inquiry to ascertain the charges. However, he failed miserably in discharging his responsibility first by displaying cowardice and then by criminally instigating the mob. What else could that defenseless woman in a state of shock have done other than remain silent? Who but a heartless person would pronounce her guilty based on that silence? Tragically, the Christian sense of justice that Pope Francis displays is no different from the Islamic sense of justice that the jihadists of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the ISIS display.
A reasonable analysis of the episode informs us that Jesus was cowardly and lacking in empathy. He defended misogynistic and barbaric laws. He was not merciful or compassionate as Christian propagandists claim. The inference that Jesus was a cruel misogynist who was without a moral compass is reinforced by another biblical verse.
In Hinduism,the sin of adultery is removed not by punishment but rather by truthfulness. The woman who on her own volition regrets her adulterous conduct is not punished but considered purified as a result of the sacrificial rite. There is no advocacy of hubris and shunning of her.
Jesus taught that whoever married a divorced woman commits adultery (Luke 16:18). Biblical law took a dim view of divorce but allowed a man to divorce his wife (Deuteronomy 24:1). However, a woman could not divorce her husband. Such misogynistic laws were motivated by the urge to keep the woman on a tight leash and to treat her as a property of the men folk.
A man who divorced his wife had to give her a get(bill of divorce), so she could remarry. She would be technically committing adultery, a crime punishable by death, if she remarried without receiving the get. This made the woman dependent on her husband even after he had divorced her. Such a woman was called an agunot(chained wife), until she received the get. She could be denied a remarriage if a vengeful ex-husband refused to give her the get. All of these testify to the precarious status of women in biblical society. Jesus refused to empathize or sympathize with the marginalized divorcee. He made her plight worse by his repulsive advocacy of hubris and shunning of her. His condemnation of the defenseless and pitiable agunot undoubtedly prolonged her agony. A reasonable person can no longer deny that Jesus was a cruel misogynist.
A critic may argue that all ancient societies were misogynistic and that Jesus was merely a product of his times. If so, why worship him or hail him as exceptional? However, this objection can be easily answered by analyzing the traditional Hindu attitude toward adultery.
Varuṇa-praghāsa is a traditional Vedic Hindu seasonal rite performed during chatur-māsya. During this rite, the householder and his wife offer a barley meal to the deity Varuṇa as an act of expiation for sins committed knowingly or unknowingly. During the rite, one of the priests asks the wife, “How many lovers do you have?” She utters their names or holds up the number of fingers or blades of grass that tally her amours – in case she had committed adultery. The priest then chants a mantra that Varuṇa may free the woman from sins. The householder then unties his wife’s ornamental waist chain and they together take a sacrificial bath after reciting the verses from the Taittirīya Saṁhita 1.8.3 and 1.1.10.
As David Knipe aptly points out (Vedic Voices – Intimate Narratives of a Living Andhra Tradition, p. 208), in Hinduism,the sin of adultery is removed not by punishment but rather by truthfulness. The woman who on her own volition regrets her adulterous conduct is not punished but considered purified as a result of the sacrificial rite. There is no advocacy of hubris and shunning of her.There is no question of kangaroo courts leveling such accusations against her.
Hinduism takes an enlightened view of a woman and sees her as a sacred person.It values chastity for men and women. However, it also takes an empathetic approach to human conduct. In the event a woman commits adultery, it is willing to consider the situational factors that led to her conduct. Most importantly, even after a trespass, a woman could regain her sacred status by truthfulness alone. Her spouse and family would accept her as before.
The enlightened Hindu approach stands in direct contrast to the misogynistic approach of Jesus and refutes the argument that all ancient societies were misogynistic. It confirms that Christianity ushered in dark ages by sanctifying misogyny much to the detriment and disenfranchisement of women.
A critic may object that the Hindu worldview was not always enlightened or egalitarian when it comes to adultery because even in the Varuṇa-praghāsa rite it is only the woman who confesses. It is important to have a sense of proportion while drawing such inferences. Nowhere does Hinduism prescribe death sentence to an adulteress whereas Christianity does. Nowhere does Hinduism entrust the fate of an adulteress in the hands of mobsters and kangaroo courts whereas Jesus did. Hinduism doesn’t condemn an adulteress whereas Christianity does without even considering the mitigating factors. Hinduism recognizes the innate sanctity of a woman and enables a woman to regain it even after she committed adultery whereas Christianity treats a woman as a mere commodity that can be disposed of as misogynistic men wish.
Therefore, in every sense, Hinduism treats an adulteress much better than Jesus did. If one were to give Hinduism a generous score of 5 on the misogyny index (on a scale of 1 to 100 with 100 being the embodiment of misogyny) then one would give Jesus a solid 100.
More importantly, Hindu traditions are not ossified unlike Christian beliefs. Hindu traditions continually evolve; that is why one dharmaśāstra text supplants another over time. It is because of this reason that Hinduism evolved the notion of kaṛpu (Sanskrit kalpita) or chastity for men as well as women. The Hindu sage Tiruvaḻḻuvar makes it an ideal for men as much as for women: a real man is one who never casts a covetous eye on another man’s wife (The Tirukkuṛaḻ 148).
This plasticity allows Hinduism to continually improve and become egalitarian. In contrast, Christianity treats the Bible as a revelation from god and hence immutable. As a result, a Christian, be it Jesus or the pope, is incapable of challenging and amending the misogynistic biblical teachings; doing so would be blasphemous. Therefore, Christianscannot challenge biblical teachings and injunctions any more than Jesus could. So, Christianity cannot improve.A society that values women must reject the misogynistic Jesus and Christianity.
Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based writer, an atheist, a practicing orthodox Hindu, and author of the book “What Every Hindu should know about Christianity.”