Gendering Pre-Creation: Mixter Tehom and Supernatural

As it will from time to time, an interesting coincidence has just popped up between my scholarly hobbies and my “I seriously can’t think anymore, I just want to watch TV” ones. The coincidence has to do with the cultural concept of gender, and how we read that into the Genesis account, and how popular literature reflects cultural constructs.

Recently I’ve been working on a review of Teresa J. Hornsby and Deryn Guest’s Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation for Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Hornsby and Guest present a “trans hermeneutic,” by which they pay attention to transgender issues and, more broadly, how gender is constructed in the Bible. The book is quite good — I would have even appreciated a longer volume that gave them more time to flesh out some of their ideas.

Guest contributes an essay on Genesis, “Troubling the Waters: תְּהוֹם, Transgender, and Reading Genesis Backward.” Here she lingers in the opening verses of Gen 1:1-2 to explore the potential theophany in the abyss, in the darkness. She argues that tehom, the abyss, has signs that it could be taken as a proper, personal noun: it lacks an article (it is not “the abyss,” but rather “darkness was on the face of tehom“), tehom is given anthropomorphic verbs (it crouches [Gen 49:25; Deut 33:13] and speaks [Hab 3:10]), and it takes on a role in the Genesis myth that is elsewhere played by a personification of chaos conquered by the creator god(s).

If we want to view tehom as personal, there are difficulties with assigning gender: “But תְּהוֹם is a queer noun: masculine in form, yet usually appearing as a female noun, but occasionally given a masculine suffix (e.g., “his voice” in Hab 3:10). It is, intriguingly, a gender-shifting word” (p. 25). For this reason, Guest labels the personified abyss “Mixter Tehom,” a title taken from trans communities (in place of Mr., Ms., etc.) to highlight its gender fluidity. Such fluidity is appropriate to the abyss, and to the time in which Mx. Tehom exists, prior to the gender boundaries erected later in the story. Guest’s essay then concentrates on how we can understand a God who chose to exist in communion with Mx. Tehom prior to creation — and it is really worth a read.

Other terms contribute to the fluidity and lack of precise orientation in the opening verses of Genesis. This space was “formless and void” (i.e. it required transition, transformation in order to achieve its present self), and again, “darkness” was on Mx. Tehom’s face.

This brings me to Supernatural, a goofy show about two brothers who hunt monsters, but which takes much of its mythos from the Bible. The show will feature heavily in a chapter I am writing about the use of fake biblical texts in horror, which will appear in the book, Monstrous Manuscripts. In a later season (like 37? 38? There are so many seasons of this show…), the main antagonist is the Darkness, which is released when the mark of Cain is removed from one of the brothers, who only had it so he could wield the first blade to kill Abaddon… it’s a whole thing.

The Darkness, or Amara, is God’s sister whom he (definitely male) had to sacrifice by locking her up in order to create the universe. In other words, Supernatural embraces the chaos myth while recasting it as a family drama (and introducing a dualistic, gnostic theology). The use of sibling rivalry is not surprising. In earlier seasons, Lucifer’s rebellion was written as a squabble between he and his brothers (the other archangels), brought on because God is more or less a deadbeat dad on Supernatural, and again, this whole mess began because one of the brothers had the mark of Cain (given to Cain by Lucifer, who received it from Amara… and we’re back).

What was notable to me was the genderification of the Light and the Darkness. Although God has (surreptitiously) appeared in the form of a man already, and he is referred to as Father by the angels, there is no reason to pin him down to a specific gender. Once he reduced to male (much of theology, including Psalm 22, be damned), with regard to the Darkness, the Hebrew word, חֹ֫שֶׁך, is also masculine, and one would expect a show so obsessed with brotherly conflict to embrace the possibility of writing it into the fabric of their universe. Maybe they just wanted something different. Instead the siblings, for the first time in like 83 seasons, are brother and sister.

I imagine this has something to do with presenting God (or “Chuck” – spoilers!) and Amara as opposites:

  • God is the Light, Amara is the Darkness.
  • God embraces freedom and distance, Amara wants subjugation and union.
  • God is absent and unfindable, Amara is present and easily approachable.
  • God is male, Amara is female.

There are of course differences that the writers do not impose on them. Both are straight (one downside of ret-conning Chuck as God is that God has now had sex with and then been dumped by other characters on the show), both are American, white, good-looking, able-bodied, of average height, both have typical emotionality, and both spend an inordinate amount of time in places like Nebraska. In other words, both are normal as the writers see it, so their opposition has to happen within that normality. Men and women are, to them, opposites situated within normality. So one is a man, the other a woman.

One reading of Gen 1:1-2 is considered and thought out, and the other mines the verses for another monster for its brothers to fight. I doubt Supernatural is consciously making a philosophical statement. But within this absence of thought, the show helps to reinforce not only a binary gender dynamic, but specifically binary gender opposition. Many more people will watch Supernatural season 113 on Netflix than Guest’s essay, and for them one more block will be added to an ideological wall between male and female.


The Originality of the Story of Jesus and the Adulteress (John 7:53-8:11), Part III: Internal Evidence against the PA

Math trigger warning: For the Americans — there are numbers in this post, but you don’t have to calculate any yourselves.


So far we have shown that paying attention to the proportion of unique words in a short passage like the PA shows that it is not significantly different from other undisputed Johannine passages of similar length. Stories about unique topics tend toward unique vocabulary. However, the same metric is also incapable of showing that several passages from the Synoptic gospels were not from John. It appears that unique words are not a sensitive enough, or informative enough, metric to do what we want it to. Granted neither author in the dispute appeals to unique words alone, but in concert with other observations. What we might say is that the PA continues to pass Heil’s test, unlike, say, the longer ending of Mark or a passage from Josephus. It is just that passing this test is a fairly low bar.

One problem is that it considers only unique words, and then not with any sense of proportion. For example, παραγίνομαι appears in John 8:2. It also appears one other time in John 3:23, so it is not unique to the PA, but it is hardly Johannine either. However, it appears 12 times in the Synoptic gospels. We would expect it to appear only about three times as often in the Synoptics if the proportions were equal. Indeed Luke uses the particular form, παρεγένετο, three times on its own (8:19; 11:6; 19:16). So this term would seem to be substantially more in line with Synoptic usage than Johannine.

Therefore I set out to get a sense of how the weight of each word shifted the balance of the passage. John has roughly 15,471 words, while the Synoptics have a combined 49,024. I say “roughly” because I did not do a very thorough job of vetting the count (e.g. taking into account textual variants): I copied and pasted NA28 into Word and did a word count. Still, John has about 24.1% of the words in the gospels. If its usage of a particular word is proportional, then it should appear in John about 24.1% of the time. Significantly more, and we can say that it is statistically Johannine. Significantly less, and it is statistically Synoptic. An example of a significantly Johannine word is ἐρωτῶντες in 8:7. John uses ἐρωτάω 27 times outside of this passage (55.1%), the Synoptics only 22 (44.9%). A 95% confidence interval around the sample proportion of 55.1% does not go low enough to include the population proportion of 24.1%, so John uses the verb significantly more often than the Synoptics.

I went through the words of John 7:53-8:11 and did word counts on the ones that do not appear more than 500 times in the gospels – no methodological decision, just laziness on my part. Obviously if one were to apply a method like this with more rigor, a count of every word should be done. At any rate, this turned up 76 words, with the following results:


Significantly Synoptic Words 29 38.2%
No Significant Difference 38 50.0%
Significantly Johannine Words 9 11.8%

While half the words do not swing significantly one way or the other, more than three times as many words are significantly Synoptic than are Johannine. The character of the vocabulary is more in line with the Synoptics than with typical Johannine usage. Many of the Johannine words are not terribly interesting: “again” (πάλιν), “how” (ποῦ), “no one” (οὐδείς), and “now” (νῦν). But the argument regarding these words could go either way: on the one hand, they are not typical Johannine words, but on the other hand, they are not likely to be conscious markers of style or interest. In other words, they may be terms that an author is more likely to use as a tic, and so could still be stylistically useful.

By comparison, I did the same analysis with John 2:1-12, with the following results:


Significantly Synoptic Words 24 30.4%
No Significant Difference 30 38.0%
Significantly Johannine Words 25 31.6%

Here there is one more significantly Johannine word, with the results less skewed toward the middle. The Johannine words are also more substantial: disciple, Jews, water, know (οἶδα), keep, manifest, glory, and believe are among them. “Cana” is recalled in another passage (John 4:46), indicating that where the end of John 4 goes, 2:1-12 goes with it. It also appears in 21:2, and while some would argue that John 21 is not absolutely original to John (although never absent in the manuscripts), that it connects Nathanael (1:43-51) to Cana (2:1-12) suggests that the story in question was already in the manuscript even if John 21 were added after the fact. So despite some words that are odd for John but integral to the story (wedding, mother, call, and wine among them), the Johannine words still take the lead in a substantial way.

Another way to look at these words is to actually weigh them. For example, John uses the word “house” 4 times outside of PA, while the Synoptics use it 56 times. But the Synoptics have more than three times as many words as John, so of course it might appear there more often! However, if we scale the Synoptic number back proportionally to John, then 56 would scale down to 17.67, still more than four times more often than in John. Put another way, the difference is 13.67 in favor of the Synoptics. Paying attention to absolute numbers (although scaled) gives a sense of relative weight. If John uses “Cana” twice outside of John 2:1-12 while the Synoptics never use it, and John uses οἶδα 82 times to the Synoptics’ 71 times (22.4 scaled), they are both significantly Johannine, but οἶδα is more heavily Johannine. It carries more weight.

Applying this to the vocabulary of both stories draws the following results, with a negative result leaning toward the Synoptics and a positive result toward John:


PA John 2:1-12
Total -149.7 319.4
Average -1.97 4.04
Standardized -1.63 1.94
p-value 5.37% 2.8%

The score for John 2:1-12 leans quite a bit more heavily toward John than does the PA toward the Synoptics, but the PA still leans toward the Synoptics. While the wedding at Cana has a significant result (p = 2.8%), PA is not quite significant at α = 5%. Then again, this was rather sloppily done. With more attention to detail, PA’s p-value could feasibly slip below 5%. A more refined study would be necessary before drawing any hard conclusions, but it would appear that, when taking more information about the vocabulary of each passage into account, the PA is less like John than unique words alone would suggest.


I don’t think the PA is original to John. The external evidence alone convinces me of that. If the language were more characteristically Johannine, I might agree that it was written by John’s group as part of a later addition, or at least in imitation of John in order to be fit into John. But some manuscripts of John lacking the thing would need to have gone out. Since the story floats around so much, it is more likely that it was a bit of free-floating tradition that ended up in various places in John more often than in Luke or attached to the end of the gospels.

People really love this story. It is an example of Jesus showing love and compassion to a lone woman about to have her bones literally crushed in by rocks, ganged up on by a team of people just trying to make a point. Bracketing it and putting it to the side makes them uncomfortable, and I appreciate that.

That it is not original to John is perhaps not the lesson we should take away from it. Say John was completed in the 90s, without this story. It may have survived for centuries before finding various places to be fit into John (and outside of it).

That means that the story survived for that long without the authority of being incorporated into a gospel. There were probably one-sheet versions of it floating around, but people probably just liked the story and told it to each other. They liked a story where the pronouncement was, “The one without sin should cast the first stone” — and nobody does. They liked the story despite its lack of authority, and they worked against the manuscript tradition in order to preserve the story and to give it authority.

That story does not make me uncomfortable.

The Originality of the Story of Jesus and the Adulteress (John 7:53-8:11), Part II: Testing the Metric

So in the last post we examined whether the story of Jesus and the adulteress (or PA for pericope adulterae, because we really can’t help ourselves) had significantly more words that appear nowhere else in John, relative to its length, than passages of similar length in John 2:1-12; 5:1-11; and 6:1-15. It turns out it didn’t. But I also ended that post with a question: how sensitive is this metric? Is it actually capable of differentiating between Johannine and non-Johannine passages? In other words, does it do what we want it to do?

If I were doing this more formally, I would establish methodological principles of comparison, and then apply them to find passages outside of John to test. But we can do this roughly here with a few passages from the Synoptics, and one text more or less contemporary to John and regarding Pharisees, but non-biblical: Josephus’s Jewish War.

Mark 3:20-30

This passage from Mark shows Jesus meeting a challenge from the scribes, as he does in the PA. It contains 169 words, 14 of which do not appear in John.

Matt 19:1-12

Here is another controversy story about an issue that otherwise does not come up in John: divorce. It also has the advantage of involving the Pharisees testing Jesus, as they do in the PA. It contains 213 words, 18 of which do not appear in John.

Luke 7:36-50

Here Jesus comes to the defense of another accused woman against a Pharisee in a dispute over her sexual sins. It contains 273 words, 26 of which do not appear in John.

Mark 16:9-20

In looking up the vocabulary in the PA, I noticed that some of its unique words also appear in the longer ending to Mark. This passage was probably also a later addition to a completed gospel, but relying on earlier traditions. It contains 169 words, 25 of which do not appear in John.

Josephus, Jewish War 2.3

Here is a passage from outside the New Testament, but also addressing a controversy involving the Pharisees. In this case, it regards the ongoing sacrifices in the temple during the Jewish revolt against Rome. It contains 169 words, 52 of which do not appear in John.


I ran χ2 analyses on each of these passages against the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-12), the healing of the sick man (5:1-11), the multiplication of loaves (6:1-15), and the PA, and got the following p-values:


Mark 3:20-30 Matt 19:1-12 Luke 7:36-50 Mark 16:9-20 Jos., JW 2.3
John 2:1-12 83.3% 77.5% 55.8% 2.8% < 0.001%
John 5:1-11 36.9% 32.0% 19.9% 0.7% < 0.001%
John 6:1-15 35.8% 30.0% 16.6% 0.3% < 0.001%
John 7:53-8:11 73.8% 76.9% 97.6% 9.9% < 0.001%


Bolded p-values are significant (α = 5%).

On the one hand, the metric was unable to differentiate between Johannine material and passages in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. No significant p-values appear. There is no doubt these passages are not Johannine, yet looking at otherwise unique words cannot detect it. It is worth noting that the PA finds its closest comparison with Luke, since that is the other gospel in which it appears, but for all we know this is a fluke.

On the other hand, the longer ending of Mark was found consistently distinct from undisputed Johannine passages, but not from the PA. Furthermore, the metric found highly significant differences with Josephus across the board. So the metric is not completely useless, but it is not sensitive enough to separate Synoptic material from Johannine. That is, it is incapable of doing the job it’s been put to: one scholar thinks the passage sounds Johannine enough, and another thinks it sounds too Synoptic. The metric of unique words is apparently incapable of telling the difference, so a more sensitive one is needed. This is why conjectures like the one that played out in Heil’s and Wallace’s articles — that the number of unique words in such a short passage is at least partially indicative of narrative fit — need to be tested against controls.

That might not be possible with such a short passage, but in the next post we can look at some more nuanced measures that might help.

The Originality of the Story of Jesus and the Adulteress (John 7:53-8:11), Part I: Sticking My Nose into Someone Else’s Argument

Warning: As this post analyzes a text-critical question through statistics, it is uber-geeky. I know numbers give some people the hives, so watch out.


Recently I’ve been reviewing John Paul Heil’s new commentary on John (James Clarke & Co., 2016) for Reviews in Religion and Theology. In the commentary, Heil accepts the Pericope Adulterae (or PA), the story of Jesus and the adulteress usually found in John 7:53-8:11. It is a famous story: the Pharisees pretend to stone a woman caught in adultery; Jesus steps in and demands that the one without sin cast the first stone; everyone leaves and Jesus refuses to condemn the woman as well. Thirty Helens agree it’s a great story, but the passage is not in many of the early manuscripts of John (at least not where it should be), and internally it sounds much more like a Synoptic story – with its scribes and elders, testing Jesus – than it does a Johannine story. It also forces the end of the Tabernacles debate to happen after Tabernacles has ended (cp. John 7:37), disturbing the flow of John 7-8.

Heil does not agree. It is not that he chooses to read the PA with the rest of the gospel as a longstanding part of John; he presents it as an original part of the Fourth Gospel. As is typical of the commentary, Heil provides almost no argument for this controversial position, instead giving only the following comment in a footnote (p. 61 n. 31; compare the nearly identical footnote on p. 3 n. 4 – copying and pasting is a serious problem in this book):

Although it was omitted early on in the manuscript tradition, there is strong internal evidence for considering the story in 7:53-8:11 original to the Fourth Gospel, as it fits quite well into its narrative context.

He then cites two of his own past articles on the topic. The footnote is horribly misleading about the textual history of this story, as I will note in my review. The story is not simply missing in some manuscripts: it is moved after John 7:36, or 7:44, or to the end of John, or to another gospel (Luke)!

But I wanted to check out Heil’s internal arguments (which might only explain why a copyist chose to put a free, non-Johannine story there). In his first article, Heil makes narrative arguments (how the passage adds to the story in chapters 7-8) as well as linguistic ones. In part, Heil wants to refute the idea that there are too many strange words, words that do not appear anywhere else in John, for it to be original:

To argue, as is commonly done, that our story is non-Johannine because it contains words or stylistic features not found elsewhere in John is extremely precarious for such a brief passage of only twelve verses. The use of unusual vocabulary may simply be due to the uniqueness of the story. There are other short Johannine passages, such as the healing of the man at the pool in Jerusalem (5,1-11) and the miraculous feeding (6,1-15), which also contain a number of words not found elsewhere in the gospel, yet their Johannine character is unquestioned (“The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress (John 7,53-8,11) Reconsidered,” Biblica 72/2 [1991]: 182-91, here 183, emphasis added).

Although Heil hints at a relative measure (that there are [so many?] unique words in “such a brief passage”), note the binary quality of Heil’s claim: John 7:53-8:11 contains unique words at all, but so do other passages. Therefore their argument is invalid. The quantitative element is minimized in favor of a qualitative argument about the absolute presence or absence of unique words.

In his response to Heil, Daniel Wallace (“Reconsidering ‘The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress Reconsidered’,” NTS 39/2 [1993]: 290-96) defends the popular view that the PA is not original to John. Wallace likewise flirts with quantitative analysis, first by addressing Heil’s use of other stories in John:

[T]he fact remains that, proportionately, neither John 5.1-11 nor John 6.1-15 compares favourably to John 7.53-8.11 in unique vocabulary: six words… in 5.1-11 (fifteen lines in the Nestle-Aland26 text), eleven words… in 6.1-15 (thirty lines in NA26), fourteen words in 7.53-8.11 (twenty-one lines in NA26). The pericope adulterae contains sixty-five per cent more Johannine hapax legomena, proportionately speaking, than either of the other two pericopae (p. 292).

Wallace is to be commended for looking at the proportionate number of words, but why choose words : lines in a critical edition as your metric? Why not use unique words : total words? Additionally, when lines of text are used, and there are so few, is 65% more unique words a significant increase? It could be within the margins of error, and this hasn’t been tested.

Wallace makes another important point on the next page while discussing the phrase, “sin no more,” which is only found in John 8:11 and 5:14 and nowhere else precisely:

Yet a phrase which occurs once in John can hardly be considered a Johannine feature.

Wallace has a point. If, for example, Jesus dropped an “Amen, amen I say to you” in the PA – even when the PA was moved outside of John – we might consider it much more indicative that John wrote it since the double amen never appears outside of John, and it appears 25 times in John. However, a verb that appears 25 times in John but also appears 60 times in the Synoptic Gospels wouldn’t make the same impression. So we might want a way of assessing such relative frequencies as well.

Evidently Wallace’s counter-argument was not persuasive since, 20-odd years later, Heil continues to advocate for the PA’s originality. This is probably because he finds his own arguments, qualitative and quantitative, more persuasive.

Testing the Quantitative Claims

What if instead we tested the quantitative claims quantitatively? Originally, Heil hinted at a relative measure, i.e. roughly the same number of words unique to that passage appear in John 5:1-11 and 6:1-15, yet these are considered undisputedly Johannine. Let’s formalize this a bit:


5:1-11 6:1-15 7:53-8:11 Total
Unique words 9 14 19 42
Non-unique words 148 222 186 556
Total 157 236 205 598


Running a χ2 analysis on this contingency table gives a p-value of 29.9%, an insignificant result. The p-value here: under the assumption that all of the proportions are equal, if we kept taking random samples the same size as ours, how often would we get groups with as much difference as we find here? Apparently, nearly one in three attempts would yield as much difference as we get in these three passages. None of the passages is significantly different from the others. Running them in pairs gives the following p-values:

John 5 & 6: 93.4%

John 5 & PA: 21.2%

John 6 & PA: 18.4%

While the healing of the sick man and the multiplication of loaves are remarkably more similar to each other (more than 90% of samples would have as much difference as they have even if the proportions were equal), none of the differences are close to significant. In other words, the results seem to confirm Heil’s feeling that the number is not so great as to rule out PA as Johannine.

In truth, since the PA is unique, we should probably compare it with other unique stories. The wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12) has 208 words, 16 of which are unique in John. Comparing this story with PA gives a p-value of 56.5%, again, far from significant.

So by this measure (words unique to the story compared to words used elsewhere in the same text), the PA cannot be ruled out as Johannine. Heil’s point stands. Still, is this the best metric? Certain questions can be raised, such as:

  • What kind of difference can we actually expect? None of the Johannine passages gave a significant difference, but do any? If we used a passage we know came from Mark, Matthew, or Luke – or Acts or Revelation – would any of them give a significant difference? Would a short story from Plato or Sophocles? In other words, we would have to test how sensitive the metric is. But these are critical questions that only arise once we’ve bothered to develop a metric and apply it. I will try to address these questions in the next post.
  • A metric may be more sensitive the more information it takes account of. Unique words are not the only ones that mark the PA as odd for John. For example, the word “people” (laos) appears two other times in John, so is not unique. But it appears 52 times in the Synoptic Gospels. Is there a way to take account of that? I think there is, and we will return to this question as well.