Studies in John’s Gospel—Lesson 21
by Reta Halteman Finger
Picture this scene. A woman stands in abject misery before a crowd on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Abducted and dragged from the “crime scene” into the glare of public space, she clutches her torn and disheveled clothes. A group of indignant male lawyers have brought her to a judge for immediate conviction. She has, they assert, been caught in the very act of adultery. “Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. But what do you say?” (John 8:5). The curious onlookers stare at the unfolding drama, waiting for the verdict.
If we are familiar with this story, we know that the main focus is on the rabbi who is called to make a public judgment. We’ll get there. But let’s first focus on the other actors. The woman is terrified. In her culture, honor is highly valued, and illicit sexual behavior—or even the appearance of immodesty—is the most shameful act a female can ever commit. She is as good as dead, even though the evidence is unclear. Neither husband nor male partner has appeared. She seems to have committed some sex act all by herself. The male accusers’ charge is telling: “Moses commanded us to stone such women,” as if only women can be adulterers.
It is hard not to make contemporary comparisons—rapes or attempted rapes of one in four female college students and military servicewomen, the repeated mantra she-asked-for-it, cover-ups of sexual misbehavior in the Catholic hierarchy (as well as in other religious groups), or the lucrative industry of sex trafficking. It’s not that women are always innocent, but unless we correctly interpret the power dynamics involved, women often receive most of the blame.
But the real focus of John 7:53-8:11 is on the teacher who is asked to be the judge. It’s a trap, and the woman serves only as bait in the trap. The prosecutors know the law. Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:21, and Ezekiel 16:38-40 show that stoning was the normal form of the death penalty for all forms of adultery. (Execution by stoning was often prescribed so that the community as a whole, and no one individual, was liable for murder.)
“But you, Teacher, what do you have to say about it?”
Jesus says nothing. He just bends down and doodles in the dirt. Time passes and the suspense builds. “Answer us, Teacher! Do you support our sacred law or not?”
Finally, he straightens up, scans the circle of hostile faces, and says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7, NRSV). Then he turns back to his doodles, ignoring both prosecutors and onlookers.
I used to think that Jesus was referring to any sin that the scribes and Pharisees may have committed. But the real force of the story implies that each pompous law-observer himself had committed adultery privately. So they leave one by one, the elders first so as to experience less public humiliation. (Still, give them credit for their honesty; can you imagine our current crop of self-righteous public figures slinking away in shame?)
Finally, as the silence grows and lengthens, Jesus again straightens up, looks around, and asks the woman, “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?” (8:10).
“No one, sir.”
“Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on, do not sin again.”
Again, I presume Jesus is referring to sexual sin of some kind. He does not assume this woman was totally innocent. But while he upholds the law by calling adultery sin, he also exposes the hypocrisy and sexism involved when it is unjustly applied. A clever judge indeed!
This incident compares with several others (such as Matthew 22:15-22) where religious leaders attempt to trap Jesus so they can dishonor him. Such stories highlight Jesus’ clever wit and ability to think on his feet, while in this case shaming powerful men for their own adulterous behavior.
There is one major problem with this story: it was not part of our earliest manuscripts of John’s Gospel. Although Raymond Brown’s Anchor Bible commentary traces its tangled textual history, a succinct NRSV footnote states that “other authorities add the passage here or after John 7:36 or 21:25 or after Luke 21:38.” The language is not Johannine, and the content sounds more like Luke’s Gospel. For example, the term “scribes and Pharisees” never occurs elsewhere in John.
Perhaps this delectable story was passed on orally, independent of the four Gospels, but was too juicy not to eventually insert into a canonical document. In any case, it is consistent with Jesus’ other evasion of verbal traps and his respect for women and their equal rights with men. But because it interrupts Jesus’ lengthy discourse and debate in chapters 7 and 8, I have moved this lesson to the end of that episode.
Questions for discussion and reflection:
1. Compare Jesus’ actions here with your perception of his character throughout the Gospel of John.
2. How comfortable are you with this passage as not having been originally part of a canonical Gospel?
3. If you are a woman, have you had experiences being sexually abused or shamed by men? What men in your church or community have been hurtful or supportive?