A man and a woman in Mali were stoned to death for adultery a few weeks ago. I don’t know their names, only their ‘crime’ and the hideous manner of their deaths. One woman in the gospels might have suffered a similar fate but didn’t. She is a woman remembered not by her name, where she came from or who she was related to, but only by her sin. How demeaning to be remembered only for her adultery with an unnamed man. Her story, which is only told in John 7:53 – 8:11, is usually called ‘the woman taken in adultery’.
Most Biblical scholars think this story wasn’t in John’s original gospel. It isn’t John’s style. The earliest Greek manuscripts don’t have it in any of the gospels. No early church commentators discussed it. In modern Bible translations the text is either given in brackets or as an extended footnote. I’m including it in my series on ‘women of the gospels’ because there is nothing in the story that contradicts other teaching about Jesus and much that fits the whole message of Scripture.
According to John 7: 53 – 8:11 the woman was brought before Jesus while he was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. She was made to stand before all the people there in a very public place and used as a pawn in the legal test case by which the religious leaders hoped to trap Jesus. Terrifying and humiliating for her, this was a dangerous challenge for Jesus. The Scribes and Pharisees told him,
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
They hoped Jesus’ response would incriminate him. He didn’t rush to answer. He bent down and wrote something on the ground. I’d love to know what. Jesus was caught in a Catch-22. The woman before him was vulnerable. The accusers were also vulnerable. They were about to be exposed for hypocrisy. The law of Moses to which they appealed required (Deuteronomy 22: 22-24) that both the man and the woman who committed adultery should be brought to a public place and stoned to death. The accusers claimed the woman was ‘caught in the act’. Where was her lover? If her accusers apprehended only her, were they protecting him?
Would Jesus defend the woman from the potential lynch mob and so condone adultery and act against Mosaic law? Would he say ‘go ahead and stone her’ in which case he would become a criminal according to Roman law. Under Roman occupation by about AD 30 the Jews were not allowed to administer the death penalty. In any case, stoning people for adultery had probably ceased to be common practice a long time before Jesus came on the scene.
If it came to stoning, the witnesses had to cast the first stones (Deuteronomy 17:6-7) and must not be guilty of the same sin themselves. When Jesus finally stood up from his silent writing on the ground he told the accusers to follow their own conscience:
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”.
The response to Jesus’ words was dramatic. The accusers melted away one by one. Their test case trap had failed. They left Jesus alone with the woman and no witnesses to her sin left. Without witnesses prepared to follow through, she could not be condemned. Jesus did not condemn her either. He didn’t say adultery doesn’t matter, but he did tell her to go free and not sin again. The religious leaders had wanted to condemn and destroy, not just the woman but Jesus too. Jesus wanted to forgive and restore. And he does.
Is this unnamed woman’s story a real event in Jesus’ life? I don’t know, but it is true to the Jesus I know.
For further Study
Read or listen to John Piper’s sermon ‘Neither do I condemn you’.
For an interesting Catholic discussion of the historicity of this passage see this article by Dr Ian Elmer.
Questions for Reflection or Discussion
- Can you think of contemporary examples of people being used as pawns in legal test cases?
- Does the fact that this is a disputed gospel story mean it is any less true?
- No-one is perfect or ‘without sin’. Does that mean no-one should make moral judgements?
- What’s your take on this story?