The story in the Gospel of John 8 is presented to Chinese students as one where the Savior waits for the Pharisees to leave, then stones the adulterer himself.
Earlier this year, we learned of the Chinese Communist Party’s intention to undertake its own, state-approved “translation” of the Bible. Evidently, the Christian Scriptures are not as amenable to CCP orthodoxy as the Politburo would like.
According to the state-run “Xinhua News Agency”, the Party assembled a group of obedient and pliable “scholars” late last year and charged them with “making accurate and authoritative interpretations of classical doctrines to keep pace with the times.” In other words, the CCP plans to turn the Scriptures into another piece of “regime propaganda” by rewriting them beyond all recognition.
We don’t yet have access to the full “Chairman Xi Version” of the Bible, but the first fruits of this sordid endeavor were made public when a government-run press published a “textbook” for high-school students. The textbook, which is used to teach “professional ethics and law,” includes a passage from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John.
The passage recounts the famous story of the woman caught in “adultery” by Jesus’ enemies and brought before him for judgment. This story is used by the “scholars” of the textbook as a Party-approved moral example of how obedience to the law at all costs is absolutely necessary — an important principle to instill in schoolchildren for a government that brooks no disobedience to its own laws.
Those familiar with the passage in question will know how ill-suited it is to the purpose of instructing students in the art of unflinching submission to the letter of the law. The CCP is evidently aware of this, because it has made significant changes to the text. For those who haven’t read the story before, here is the original as it appears in the Gospel of John 8:3–11:
“Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.
So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”
She said, “No one, Lord.”
And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
It is a powerful story about “mercy and forgiveness.” Jesus does not condone the sin, but forgives the sinner with his divine authority. Mercy and forgiveness, however, are unknown to the CCP. Perhaps in anticipation of the future promised “sinicization” of the sacred scriptures of all religions, a textbook published by the University of Electronic Science and Technology Press for teaching “professional ethics and law” in secondary vocational schools tells a different version of the story.
The CCP “translation” reproduces the story more or less word for word up until the point at which Jesus is left alone with the woman whom the Pharisees had dragged before him. Events then take an altogether bizarre and diabolical turn:
“When the crowd disappeared, Jesus stoned the sinner to death saying, I too am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead.”
You read that right: In this telling, “Jesus gets rid of the crowd so he can have the pleasure of bashing the woman’s skull in himself.”
Needless to say, this alteration is “blasphemous and offensive” to Christians, but we would do well to understand why the CCP has decided to make it so. The story of Jesus and the adulteress is clearly impermissible to the Party in its original form. Though everything up until Jesus is left alone with the woman can be assimilated, their final exchange is disqualified, replaced by something not just tolerable but useful to the CCP. Such points of divergence between the CCP Bible and its source material tell us a lot about what the Politburo sees as the irreconcilable differences between Western and Chinese civilization.
The first “problem” with John’s account from the CCP’s perspective lies with the rather lordly license Jesus takes with the Mosaic code. He rejects the idea that strict adherence to the letter of the law suffices to accomplish the will of God. This skeptical attitude toward the efficacy of legal requirements was built in to Christian theology from the start. The theologian Philip Sherrard notes that Christianity is alone among the Abrahamic religions in lacking a divinely ordained political constitution or legislative agenda. Both the Torah and the Koran present a god who commands his people to form themselves into a specific political structure supplied and required by the deity himself. Christianity, on the other hand, transposes the divine drama from a legal key into an existential one.
The political “implications” of this are obvious. If the state can no longer claim to embody God’s purposes on Earth, which are accomplished in the realm of conscience, then government is limited by the rights of conscience, upon which it cannot infringe. The early Christian Church father Origen of Alexandria expressed this conviction when he wrote that “we know of the existence in each city of another sort of country, created by the Word of God.” Jesus’s treatment of the adulteress separates legislation from morality for perhaps the first time in history. Read alongside several of his other statements in the New Testament (Matthew 22:21) being the most obvious, it amounts to the world’s first theory of limited government.
Needless to say, Communists are unlikely to greet this theory with unabated enthusiasm. In the eyes of the Chinese government, the actions of “Communist Christ” are a necessary corrective to the actual Son of God’s regrettable, irresponsible affection for freedom. The CCP’s scriptural redactors have “Commie Christ” inform the unfortunate woman whom he is about to kill that “if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead.” The idea of the law being dead is presented as the one unbearable scenario in the Chinese account. This is because no higher authority than the laws of the state can be acknowledged to exist if the CCP’s regime is to endure.
The same dynamic explains the other affirmation that springs from the mouth of “Commie Christ” in the revised text: He informs the woman that “I, too am a sinner.” Those who believe in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth tend to set Him above all earthly authorities. This is what got the early Christians into so much trouble in the first place. Religious pluralism was permitted in classical Rome so long as the emperor was acknowledged by all to be above and beyond the claims of any particular deity. From the premise that “Jesus is Lord,” the first Christians drew the dangerous but ineluctable corollary that “Caesar isn’t.”
Chairman Xi will undoubtedly want to prevent this syllogism from presenting itself to the minds of Chinese Christians. Affirmation of Jesus’s divinity would provide Chinese Christians with a transcendent and pre-political standard by which to judge the actions of their own government. Such standards, if held to by a large enough segment of the population, inevitably foster contractarian notions of government.
One doesn’t need to reach for “Locke’s Second Treatise” to see how these notions arise. Everywhere Christianity takes root, the authority of the state is soon thought by the governed to be conditional. For example, the following passage is taken from a letter written by Manegold of Lautenbach to Emperor Henry IV in the eleventh century. The author was not, needless to say, an apostle of Locke or Hobbes:
“For the people do not exalt him above themselves so as to concede to him an unlimited power of tyrannizing over them, but to defend themselves against the tyranny and wickedness of others. However, when he who is chosen to repress evil-doers and defend the just begins to cherish evil in himself, to oppress good men, to exercise over his subjects the cruel tyranny that he ought to ward off from them, is it not clear that he deservedly falls from the dignity conceded to him and that the people are free from his lordship and from subjection to him since it is evident that he first broke the compact by virtue of which he was appointed?”
Historically, the absolute claims of religion have also made absolute claims on the state. Christianity has not been immune to this tendency, but it has been alone in rejecting the idea that the state can or should embody God’s plan for the salvation of mankind. The CCP cannot allow the desacralizing of the state and the concomitant rise of conditional government circumscribed by the social compact to gain momentum in China. So China’s “Commie Christ” has been invented as a necessary corrective to these dangerous notions.
There is much more that could be said about this project, but the most important point for Americans to grasp is that the CCP has learned from the mistakes of the Soviet Union where religion is concerned. Beijing’s co-opting, repackaging, and careful control of Christianity within China’s borders is in stark contrast with the Soviets’ outright, implacable hostility to organized religion.
It’s similar in many ways to the Chinese Politburo’s preference for state capitalism over the Marxism–Leninism of old Eastern bloc. The CCP has learned that the long-term survival of a Communist super-state is better served by managing domestic elements hostile to Communist ideology rather than attempting to abolish them outright.
Wild horses might drag the people of China away from their tyrannical government, but rather than shoot the horses in true Soviet style, the CCP has decided to break and bridle them instead. The new Chinese Communism is one of social control, not social revolution. And so its architects allow for just enough capitalism to keep themselves in power, and for just enough Jesus to keep out Christ.
Christians in China are protesting against a textbook making Jesus a “sinner and a killer.” Actually, however, the incident is subtler than that. It is not, or not mostly, about painting a negative image of Jesus. It is about the CCP itself. Many CCP bureaucrats, judges, and police officers are notoriously “corrupted.” Yet, the story teaches that they should be obeyed. If “sinners” would be prevented from “executing the law,” including administering the capital punishment with or without due process, “the law would be dead.”
As told to Chinese students, the story teaches that the law and the Party are good and pure, and transcend the impure human beings who happen to represent them.
Even if the officers are corrupted, their decision should be accepted—because, “honest or corrupted”, they represent the Party, and the Party’s law should never be questioned.
This is standard CCP theory, but totally distorts the meaning of Jesus’ teaching in John 8. Mobilizing Jesus for the CCP propaganda is blasphemous and offensive to Christians.
Yet, we can expect more such “distortions” as religious scriptures are gradually “sinicized.”