Who was the Samaritan woman in John 4? More to the point what was her social status? Commentators have routinely viewed her as morally suspect. D. A. Carson calls her a “moral outcast”. (216) Andreas Kostenberger goes so far as to call her a “serial fornicator.” (153) But Lynn Cohick has challenged this perspective in her book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians. Cohick lists three main points that have been raised to justify the moral suspect case:
1) The time of the woman’s visit: noon.
2) The circumstances of her visit: alone.
3) Her martial history and current living arrangement.
The first two are quickly dismissed as having no basis in any evidence whatsoever. There is no indication in any of the literature that degenerate women went at certain times to draw water. That she went alone because others would not associate with her is more an assumption than a proof of the thesis. The real meat of the case is Jesus’ statement that she has had five husbands and the one she is with now is not her husband. Cohick examines both.
What about the five marriages? Cohick admits there is no record of someone having been married or widowed five times (though there are records of three marriages). But she says this point “should not necessarily strike the reader as indicating promiscuity—perhaps she was just very unlucky. Other biblical characters had suffered similar loss, such as Naomi.” (123) Perhaps her situation arose due to a combination of deaths and divorces. She says it is “highly unlikely” that she was divorced five times but that it is “entirely credible that she was a widow several times, given the high death rate in that era.” (125) The mere mention of five husbands does not in and of itself imply promiscuity. Unusual yes, promiscuous no.
What about her current living arrangement? She is living with a man who is not her husband. Surely this is sinful and Jesus is confronting her. Even here Cohick cautions us not to move too fast. Clearly Jesus is indicating that her current condition is “in some way different from her previous arrangements.” (125) Cohick suggests a couple of possible different scenarios. Perhaps the woman was a concubine. Cohick appeals to a second century marriage document which relates how a couple was cohabitating before marriage. Greco-Roman marriages were not certified by the state. A formal document was usually only required when a dowry was involved. A marriage contract “basically certified a dowry and detailed how that money would be used or, in the case of divorce, returned.” (126) If a dowry was not present then the couple simply “set up a home together, and they were therefore seen as married by families and neighbors.” (126) Cohick asks if this may not be a similar situation with the Samaritan woman. “Are the woman and her partner waiting for a gift or dowry before writing a contract? If this was the case, Jesus’s comments reveal that he expected a formal arrangement irrespective of a dowry contract.” (126) But she also suggests one other possibility: she may have been a second wife in a polygynous relationship. In this case she says that while the community saw the woman as married in “Jesus’s eyes, her marriage is null and void because he rejected bigamy.” (127)
She also points to the fact that the villagers “accepted her testimony that a prophet is among them—hardly a reaction one would imagine if she was without any moral scruples.” (128) And finally, she notes that as “the narrative unfolds in John, Jesus does not explicitly condemn her situation.” Cohick makes it clear that she’s not suggesting that Jesus is entirely accepting of her situation but that “the narrative does not implicitly or explicitly condemn her.” (128n73)
Cohick concludes: “The Samaritan woman is a woman of her times, living with fairly simple marriage traditions, relatively easy divorce laws, and haunted by the threat that death might at any time steal away a husband or child.” (128)
But does raising “possible scenarios” really qualify as evidence against the moral suspect view? At the end of the day the moral suspect view has to show that it is more probable than Cohick’s suggested alternatives and I’m not sure, given the evidence, that such a verdict can be reached. The strength of Cohick’s alternatives is in some places not much better than the moral suspect view. But I do think her alternatives are not unreasonable and they certainly comport with the culture of the times.