Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8)

Last night in our Bible study we had a wonderful discussion of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). To begin, there is the necessary discussion of whether the story actually belongs in the gospel of John. To be scientifically precise, I am not convinced it does. The oldest manuscript that contains the account dates to the fifth century (i.e. 400 years after Jesus lived), and subsequent manuscripts date much, much later. The story interrupts the flow from 7:52 to 8:12, but that in-and-of-itself does not mean much – the gospel writers are more than willing to demonstrate that there really was not a “normal” day of teaching for Jesus. But all of the technical “stuff” aside, the story of the woman caught in adultery has a power that makes it virtually impossible for modern translations to ignore – despite the evidence to the contrary. I know of no modern translation that removes the pericope from the text and either puts it in a footnote or eliminates it altogether. Sometimes tradition is just too powerful for even the hardiest of “change agents.”

In my mind the story generates more questions than it answers: if the woman was “caught” in adultery (as the text states), where is the guilty man? As our teacher pointed out, last time he checked, adultery required two participants. And, everyone’s favorite question, what did Jesus write in the dirt? There are as many answers to that question as there are people who make guesses, but my favorite response is connected to that very first question. Obviously no one knows what Jesus wrote, but my guess is that he pointed out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees with a simple question, “Where is the man?” I also personally wonder how it came to  be the the woman was “caught” in the act. Was she set up? Was she followed? Was she known to be an adulteress, and so catching her was not that difficult?

Our teacher asked another question last night that I had never stopped to consider: why did the scribes and Pharisees bring the woman to Jesus in the first place? He had no legal authority, and his opinion would have been utterly meaningless to any tribunal that might have been convened to hear the woman’s case. In that respect, the question before Jesus was a blatant attempt to discredit him, and even worse, to provide a pretext to get him in trouble with the Sanhedrin. Questions, questions, questions.

I have two observations regarding the text, at least in connection to our study last night. The first is kind of technical. In our English translations (especially the ESV), Jesus’s response to the Pharisees appears to be one of qualified, and in the mind of most readers, unattainable, permission to stone the woman. Reading the text in the Greek I was struck by a different tone – Jesus is commanding the stoning to begin (the Greek verb is in the imperative mood), but the sentence must begin with the person(s) who were without sin from among the accusers. Those two emphases are often overlooked. One, Jesus agrees with the interpretation from the Law of Moses – such adulterers must be executed. There appears to be no question of guilt here. But – and this is a huge but – the sentence must be carried out by those who have no complicity in the situation. Here is a point that I think most interpreters either overlook, or willfully ignore. The entire scenario just reeks of injustice. The equally guilty male is nowhere to be seen. This is no trial, it equates to a lynching. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is not just apparent, it is blatant.

I disagree with the interpretation that Jesus is requiring that in order for the sentence to be executed those who accused the woman must be sinless in every respect. That would be an impossible requirement. It is a common view, I grant, but one that is totally outside of any biblical justification. Those who were commanded to execute guilty criminals under the Law of Moses were not required to be perfectly sinless in every respect. However, they could not be complicit in the crime, and could certainly not be guilty of false accusations and of conducting a sham trial. In my understanding, Jesus is looking the scribes and Pharisees squarely in the eye and saying, “I see what is going on here, and you all are just as guilty as this woman – if not more so. So, go ahead, stone her – but let the innocent cast the first stone, if there is anyone here who is innocent in this matter.”

Second, what I see about this story is the incredible power of Jesus to completely change the dynamics of a situation, and to free a tortured person from their prison. As I mentioned above, there appears to be no question of guilt here. The woman was caught, apparently in the act of sexual adultery. Her sin was obvious. According to the strict interpretation of the law, she had no defense and her life was forfeit. Yet, in spite of that, Jesus completely re-wrote the script and condemned her accusers and set her free. He forgave her, with the emphatic caveat that she not continue in her life of sexual impurity. This is why, I think, that despite the textual evidence to the contrary, this story remains in our English translations. As one of my professors summarized, it may not be genuine John, but the story is clearly genuine Jesus.

This story convicts us on many different levels. How many times do we fall in with the Pharisees? We know the rules. We love the rules. We hate those who violate the rules, and we especially hate those who excuse those who violate the rules. We demand justice be done to those who violate the rules. We are good, Bible believing, rule following Christians. And then we read this story and all of our legalisms are blown up. Jesus sides with the accused, and we end up dropping our rocks and walking away chastised and embarrassed.

On the other hand, I think we all hope, to some degree or another, that Jesus will treat us like he treated the woman. We know we are guilty, we know we have no defense. We have been caught “red handed.” All we can do is hope that this teacher blesses us with those words, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”

What a story! And what better way to illustrate that we all ascend higher if we climb lower.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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