The Curious Incident of the Woman Taken in Adultery

I’ve recently seen some very superficial interpretations of the text I discuss here, and thought it was time I put these thoughts out.  In the original essay of some 12+ pages I discussed a couple of other issues and left one of them a bit unfinished – I’ll probably come back to those later in the year….

John 8; 1-1

Early in the morning Jesus went (2) back to the Temple and as all the people came to Him, He sat down and taught them. 

(3)The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in the act of adultery and, placing her in the centre, (4) they said to Him – they were talking to test Him so that they might trump up a charge against Him – “ Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery.  (5) Now Moses ordered in the Law to stone such as she, so what do you say?” 

(6) But Jesus stooped down and wrote with his finger on the ground, (7) and as they kept on questioning Him, He raised Himself and told them, “Let the sinless one among you throw the first stone at her!” (8) Stooping down again, He wrote with His finger on the ground.  (9) But they on hearing it went away conscience-stricken, one after the other, beginning from the oldest to the last, until Jesus was left alone with the woman as she stood there. 

(10) Jesus raised Himself and asked her, “Woman, where are your accusers?  Has no one condemned you?”

She said (11) “No one, Lord!”  So Jesus told her, “Then I do not condemn you either.  Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

It’s certainly a striking story, and the broad outline of the meaning is clear.  But do we perhaps see it a bit superficially – even take it a bit for granted?  Let’s go through it looking a bit deeper ….

The first thing we may miss is that this is effectively a court scene.  We tend to think of rabbis as the equivalent of Christian ministers, conducting services, preaching, running the synagogue, and so on.  Today this is largely true, but even now there is some residue of a rabbinic function that was more important in New Testament times.  The rabbi was a judge with legal authority in the Jewish community.  We see a hint of this in an episode when a man came to Jesus with the request “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me!”  On that occasion Jesus refused jurisdiction, and made the incident the occasion for words about avoiding greed.  But in fact he really could have acted as a judge as requested; and in this case of adultery, a life-and-death case not serving personal greed, he takes a different attitude.

The point is that when the scribes and Pharisees put this woman in front of Jesus they weren’t just asking for an opinion; they really were in effect putting her in the dock.  Therefore when Jesus eventually said, “… I do not condemn you …” he was not expressing a mere personal opinion;  had he condemned the woman it would have been the equivalent of a judge passing sentence – and the unfortunate woman would have been stoned to death by her accusers.

The Motives of the Accusers

The woman’s accusers had, I think, two motives; one more-or-less good, the other very bad indeed.  The sort-of-good motive is simple – the woman had sinned, she had been caught in the act, they had a straightforward concern that justice be done according to divine law.  We’ll come back to that one in more detail later.  But somewhere along the way the accusers slipped into a far worse motivation – they realised Jesus was nearby, and that they could use the case to make trouble for him.  After that they may still have professed a concern for justice, but the reality was that they were using the woman for other ends altogether, which was an unjust and unfair thing to do.

How would this make trouble for Jesus?  I think they saw a neat ‘catch-22’ in the situation, whereby whatever Jesus did he would lose.  If he said the woman should be stoned, then stoned she would be; and Jesus, as the rabbi who gave that judgement, would be in trouble with the Romans who reserved death sentences to themselves.  (Remember we know that from Jesus’ own trials and death, when the Jewish leaders handed him over to the Romans).  A Jesus executed by the Romans over an illegal death sentence would – so they thought – be discredited as Messiah. As a bonus, if Jesus chose that way, he would appear harsh and unforgiving to the ‘tax collectors and other sinners’ who followed him.  I don’t think they particularly wanted that outcome, however; the other option probably looked both better and more likely.

In this second option, they thought that a Jesus who associated with ‘tax collectors and other sinners’ would let the woman off – and thus would discredit himself by flouting the law and denying justice to the aggrieved husband.  A Jesus who rejected God’s law would be as useless a Messiah as a Jesus executed for breaking Roman law ….  Note that if this was their preferred option, the scribes and Pharisees had little respect for the law themselves – they didn’t care that the guilty woman was likely to escape justice, so long as they hurt Jesus as a result.

They must have thought the scheme foolproof.  Jesus couldn’t wriggle out of this one – support divine law, he was in trouble with the Romans, and probably with the ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ among his supporters; reject divine law, or refuse to pass judgement on so clear a case, and he would lose all Jewish support.  Let’s see how Jesus deals with it ….

He writes on the ground!  All sorts of suggestions have been made about what he wrote – but we don’t know.   One plausible suggestion is that the word used here is not the simple Greek word for ‘write’, but a more specific word which could mean ‘set down a record against’, and that Jesus was writing down the sins of the accusers, or at least key words that would bring their sins to mind.  Whether or not that is true, in the short term, he seemed almost to be ignoring the situation, and we can see some of the effect of that on the accusers.  They press Jesus harder, and in the process commit themselves more deeply to their demand for an answer – whatever other purpose the writing on the ground has, it forces the accusers towards seriousness.

Then he stands up to deliver his verdict.  And it isn’t quite as usually represented; by implication, he agrees with the woman’s accusers, and with the law – she is guilty, she is to be stoned.  But he doesn’t say it that way; instead he takes the guilty verdict for granted and goes straight to an instruction which challenges the accusers’ own righteousness – “Let the sinless one among you throw the first stone at her!”   I’m not sure if, having been effectively appointed judge, Jesus had a positive authority to give orders about how the execution was carried out.  It would I think be appropriate;  a stoning was meant to be solemn and orderly, not just a vicious mob throwing stones any old how;  for example, Deuteronomy 13; 9ff gives the duty to the prosecution witnesses to cast the first stone in cases where someone tempted people to idolatry in ancient Israel.

But in any case, this instruction really put them on the spot.  Having pressed Jesus so insistently for his judgement, they can’t now ignore it – that would be to defy the law they had themselves invoked, the rabbinic judgement on which they had been so insistent.  And he has given them no way of making trouble for him, as they intended, but has put them in a catch-22 of their own!  Whoever picks up that first stone to execute the judgement is claiming to be ‘without sin’.

Now with our stereotypical ideas of ‘scribes and Pharisees’ we might think that they would find it easy to claim to be without sin.  Surely they were the very people who thought themselves above ordinary ‘sinners’?  Well they were, but by that very fact they were unusually sensitive about sin.  On an everyday basis, they might be snooty about their goodness compared to others – but internally they were picky about their own standing as well, constantly watching themselves.  They would be punctilious in making sacrifices for their sins, and so would be well aware of their sinfulness.  Even the modern equivalent of Pharisees will rarely claim actual sinlessness – unless they’re insane….

Furthermore, these were ‘scribes and Pharisees’ – the experts on the scriptures.  They would have known what Paul knew, that ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God’.  And like the former Pharisee Paul, they could have quoted the scriptures that prove it, texts like …

They have corrupted their behaviour and made it abominable.  There is none who does right. 

The Lord looked down from heaven upon the descendants of man to see if any were acting wisely, seeking after God. 

All have turned aside; together they have become corrupt. 

There is none who does good, not even one.

(Psalm 14, repeated almost exactly in Psalm 53)

If the scripture says all are sinners, then to claim to be sinless would put them in defiance of God and his word – just like the charge they had hoped to bring against Jesus by their trap!  They could not dare make that claim.

As we saw earlier, possibly Jesus’ writing in the dust may have been a further reminder of their sins.  Whatever, they were conscience-stricken and one after another they backed off.  The text tells us the oldest backed off first.  They of course had longer experience and basically more sin.  Younger members of the group might have been more hot-headed, but they couldn’t act ahead of their elders in such a matter.  Again, the legalism of the Pharisees trapped them.  And seeing those elders conscience-stricken would have forced the younger ones to think hard – if these revered experts could not claim to be sinless, who could?

And of course, having backed off, they weren’t in any position to make trouble for Jesus – they had received their chosen rabbi’s judgement and failed to carry it out!  But what of Jesus who gave the judgement?

The Injustice of Jesus’ Forgiveness?

When they’ve all gone Jesus looks up again; he is alone with the woman.  “Where are they?  Is nobody accusing you?”  She responds, “No one, Sir”.  And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and do not sin again.”

And here is actually a problem; he clearly knows she has sinned, he is the rabbi called upon to judge the matter, he has actually just given a guilty verdict and authorised a stoning – how can he now ‘not condemn’?  True, on a technicality there are now no accusers – but there is something profoundly unsatisfactory in the idea of Jesus, the arch-anti-legalist, opposer of mere verbal technicalities, and the exponent instead of serious morality, deciding such a matter on what looks very like a technicality.  Has he no respect for God’s law either?  At the time the woman is probably too grateful to even really think about that side of it – but when she reflects later, with the heightened sense of her sinfulness which this encounter must have brought, surely it’s going to occur to her that she didn’t deserve to be forgiven, and how can any rabbi legitimately do what Jesus did?  Consider this also, though of course it would not have been obvious to the people at the time – there was one person present who was not hindered by Jesus’ judgement that a person without sin should cast the first stone – Jesus himself.  He could himself have carried out the verdict that the sinless one present should throw the first stone.

We should perhaps look at her sin.  Adultery is no longer a crime in our society and is often even portrayed favourably in films and books.  Many in our culture tend to regard it as a minor infraction.  Even in Christian circles we have I think lost some understanding of how bad it can be, because it can seem to be only about a brief pleasure with no longer-term consequences.  Of course we see the element of deceit and betrayal, but also, thanks to Jesus’ generous attitude to ‘tax collectors and other sinners’ we at least understand that sexual sins are not as terrible as the spiritual pride of the Pharisees.

In biblical times it was serious at a practical level too, because there wasn’t the kind of efficient contraception now available.  The adulterer was all too likely to father a child.  Think about that – in addition to the deceiving of the husband this is also fraud, it is theft.  The adulterer who gets away with it gets his child raised at another man’s expense.  In many cases, the betrayed husband’s family inheritance could go to the adulterer’s child, and not to the husband’s true children or other blood relatives – again effectively a theft.  And the adulterous woman is an accomplice to that theft and fraud, that possible hijacking of her husband’s family property for her lover’s child.  This isn’t only about a brief pleasure or the devilish deceit; it’s also potentially a serious criminal infringement of the rights of the husband and his family.  How can Jesus let her off on a technicality?  He has escaped the trouble his enemies had planned for him – but has he done so at the expense of righteousness and justice?

In fact this raises a question other opponents of Jesus had raised; look at Mark 2, the story of the paralysed man whose friends dropped him through the roof to Jesus …

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak thus?  It is blasphemy!  Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

And that is the point – Jesus is God and can forgive sins; he doesn’t just let the adulteress off on a technicality, he forgives.  Only God can forgive sins against himself, and only God can possibly forgive us when someone else we’ve offended can’t or won’t (in this case the husband), because only God is so far above us yet also so intimately involved in his world and responsible for it that He can do that justly.

So I think, as what scientists call a ‘thought-experiment’, we can rightly imagine the following;

At some time down the line this woman would hear that the strange rabbi who saved her from stoning had been crucified.  At first this may have worried her – did this mean that he’d been sinful and that now God’s judgement had shown Jesus’ judgement to be invalid?  But then she would have heard of the resurrection which vindicated him, showed him to have been right; and she would have heard that his death was a sacrifice through which sins were forgiven, and she would have realised that on that basis her sins had been paid for, and that was the basis on which Jesus had been able to speak those words of acquittal.  She hadn’t been let off on a questionable technicality; she had received, directly from God, a truly loving and costly, but also just, forgiveness ….

Jesus’ forgiveness is not a mere ‘letting-off’ which is indifferent to the harm resulting from sin.  It is a costly forgiveness.  Consider for the moment an example of how forgiveness works among men.  If somebody throws a brick through your window, they owe you a window; if you fully forgive them, they won’t pay for the replacement window – you will bear that cost.  God’s forgiveness of us is similarly costly – the price was the death of Christ on the cross.  God became ‘incarnate’ as a man in order to accomplish that forgiveness; though the Bible also makes clear that the price was more than just the crucifixion of one man for a few hours.  A passage in Hebrews, for example, implies that the earthly crucifixion was merely the visible ‘tip of the iceberg’ of a virtually infinite sacrifice made in a ‘heavenly Temple’ of which the earthly building in Jerusalem was but a shadow or analogy

[*  For fluency here I had relegated some aspects of the ‘Atonement’ to a ‘Part Two’ not posted here but hopefully coming later]

When Jesus said “I do not condemn you” to the woman, he basically meant “Although you won’t understand it straight away, I will pay the price of your sins.  I will suffer the equivalent of your deserved stoning, so that you can not only go free in this world but also be reconciled to God now and forever”.  And he also makes that offer to us today, calling us to repent of our own sins and trust in his sacrifice for forgiveness and reconciliation to God.  Further he calls on us, having been reconciled to God ourselves, to take that message of forgiveness to others.

But as we know, all too often that message has been preached in a way more reminiscent of those Pharisees – or of the Harry Potter character Argus-“I-want-to-see-some-punishment”-Filch.  Christians have preached about sin harshly and self-righteously, giving an impression of thinking themselves wonderful good guys condemning terrible sinners. How do we preach about sin and not be like the Pharisees?  Again, that’s in the rest of the essay, hopefully ‘coming soon….’