Or at least I did, until too recently… I’m referring today to the idea that when Jesus questions the Samaritan woman at the well about her husband in John 4—and exposes the fact that she’s been married five times and is currently living with a man outside of marriage—he isn’t speaking literally; and the woman herself understands this. Or if he is speaking literally at one level, he isn’t judging the woman for her sexual sin; rather, he’s using her sexual history to make a point about Samaritan idolatry: her five husbands represent the five deities worshiped by the nations that settled Samaria after the Assyrian conquest. Again, this very perceptive woman understands what Jesus is up to.
Of course, since “John” (whoever he is) often doesn’t bother to narrate historical events, the Samaritan woman is probably only a literary character anyway.
Sandra Schneiders teaches this in her commentary on John. Gail O’Day does the same in hers. My professor at the time made the same point.
In fact, these and other scholars say, the “Johannine Jesus” never cares about any sin other than failing to believe in him. This is why he doesn’t tell the woman to repent. Instead he commends her for her honest answer in v. 18. (It’s easy to see how comfortably this viewpoint fits in with today’s cultural preoccupations.)
I’m not making this up. Think for a moment about the doctrine of scripture implied by this understanding of John’s Gospel. Ugh! And you wonder why United Methodist preachers don’t preach the Bible anymore! We’re being brainwashed in seminary! Only Christians with more spiritual maturity than I possessed at the time can escape unharmed. (Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!)
Be that as it may, in his commentary on John, D.A. Carson attacks this allegorical reading head on:
The most common allegorical interpretation of John 4 holds that the five husbands represent five pagan deities introduced to the residents of Samaria by the settlers who were transported there (cf. notes on 4:4) from five cities in Mesopotamia and Syria (2 Ki. 17:24); the Samaritan woman represents the mixed and religiously tainted Samaritan race; and the sixth man, to whom the woman was not legally married, represents either another false god or, more commonly, the true God to whom the Samaritans are connected only by an illicit union. In fact, the details do not work out. The transported settlers originally worshipped seven pagan deities, not five… and these gods were all worshipped at the same time, not serially. Moreover, although it is true that John frequently uses institutions and details in symbolic ways…, his symbolism in such cases is not only commonly predicated upon larger typologies connecting Jesus with the Old Testament, but in any case the symbolic value is tied to broader and demonstrable themes in the Fourth Gospel. The proposed symbolism in this instance fails both tests.
1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 232-3.