Our passage is called a “floating pericope” by New Testament scholars. A pericope is a self-contained passage of Scripture. This familiar story of a woman caught in adultery is not found in most ancient manuscripts. In other manuscripts it’s located in John 7:53-8:11, at the end of John’s Gospel, or in Luke 21. Some scholars maintain this story was a creation of the early church and never happened. Others argue that the passage reflects a genuine memory from the ministry of Jesus, but the early church, scandalized by Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman, could not bring itself to report such prodigal grace.
In this article, I want to focus on the woman in the passage. We are told that she was caught in the very act of adultery. Adultery requires the participation of two people. Where was the man? Apparently, he got off scot-free. The double standard regarding men and women in sexual matters was as prevalent (or more prevalent) in the first century than it is today. The woman in our passage was condemned to be stoned to death. Her accomplice was excused even though the law technically required both the man and woman committing adultery to be executed.
All of Jesus’ teachings on divorce and adultery reflect a critical judgment on the patriarchal prejudice which influenced social and judicial attitudes. All through their lives, women were at the mercy of their fathers, husbands, male kinsmen, or court-appointed “protectors” who took advantage of their vulnerability. Widows were especially subject to exploitation. Women who were divorced were often assumed to be guilty to adultery. They, along with widows who had no kinsmen to care for them, sometimes had to resort to begging or prostitution to survive. Their precarious position in a sexist society was one reason Jesus seemed to be sensitive to their vulnerability and included them in his Kin-dom movement.
The woman is brought before Jesus by religious authorities quoting biblical passages which required the stoning to death of women and men guilty of adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22;22). These religious authorities were not seeking Jesus’ wisdom. They were setting a trap for him. If he said the woman should not be stoned, he was going against the sacred Torah. If he condoned her stoning, he was acting contrary to the compassion and mercy he was known to practice. What we need to realize is that the only person concerned for this woman was Jesus. For the others in this story, she was simply a pawn in their strategy to secure his condemnation.
We are told that Jesus bent down and wrote in the sand with his finger. What did he write? Here are some suggestions:
- The sins of her accusers
- The names of other men who had been with this woman, perhaps the names of men in the crowd who now condemned her—Some ancient manuscripts state this as the reason for Jesus’ writing in the sand.
- Jesus was reflecting the Roman practice of writing a judgment before reading it aloud
- Some Old Testament passage warning against being malicious witnesses
- Doodling in the semitic manner when one was distraught, disgusted, or in deep thought—perhaps his way of “counting to ten”
- Averting his and other eyes from the shamed and possibly naked woman
- An indication of his refusal to become engaged in the legal arguments of the religious authorities
Jesus then stood and said, “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone at her.” He then sat again and continued his writing in the sand. With these words, Jesus revealed what the religious leaders had in common with the woman they wanted to execute: they were all sinners. One by one, the men left until Jesus and the woman were left alone. Jesus looked up and said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” This was the first time in this scene the woman was spoken to and recognized as a person. To Jesus, she was a subject, not an object to be argued over. She replied, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and do not sin again.”
The religious authorities saw the woman as a tool they could use to bring charges against Jesus. Jesus saw the woman as a child of God who had made a mistake and needed a fresh start in life. We often read Jesus’ charge, “Go, and do not sin again” as his way of saying, “What you did was wrong. You must stop doing that.” In other words, “I will let you off this time, but do not expect such grace again.” I have actually heard such an interpretation in sermons (by men, of course).
I would suggest another way of looking at Jesus’ words to this woman. Perhaps he was saying, “You are a child of God, made in God’s very own image and after God’s very own likeness. You are better than you have been. You are more than that. Don’t let your past, the judgments of society, the prejudices of men, or the hypocritical mores of your culture dictate your identity. You deserve a new start in life as a free child of God. Go, now, and claim your heritage!” Perhaps I’m misinterpreting Jesus’ intention. Perhaps I’m putting words in his mouth. But I think I’m right on target. Jesus never condemned the “sinners” of this world. He reserved his judgment for the self-righteous who were so sure of their standing before God and their dismissal of those they thought were beneath their dignity. After all, it was Jesus who said, “Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of you (the religiously self-righteous).” (Matthew 21:31)
The gospel is all about a new beginning. Jesus believed that new beginnings were the birthright of all made in God’s image. How can anyone be left out of the potential of that original blessing? And even if there is one beyond the possibility of such grace, who among us has the goodness and wisdom to make such a judgment? I would suggest that we all stand in need of scandalous grace. The transformation of such grace begins with the embracing of our original identities as children of God made in the divine image who can become better than even we ourselves suspect. Jesus says to all of us, “Go and begin life afresh.” His focus is on our future, not the mistakes of our past.
John 7:53-8:11 (NRSV)
[[53 Then each of them went home, 8 1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.r 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.”s And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”]] t