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The online journal of Luke Dockery

Pardon, Not Acquittal: Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery

Introduction

One of my favorite stories in Scripture is found in our modern Bibles in John 8, and is generally referred to as something like “Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery.” I love this story because it is a good example of how Jesus was so different from what people expected, and how He always did the right thing in any given situation.

Maybe you are like me: there are so many times in life when I find myself in a situation where I simply do not know what to do. Maybe I don’t know how to answer a certain question, or respond to a problem that someone is having, or face a crisis in my own life. I want to do the right thing, I want to do the thing that honors God, but sometimes, in the moment, it can be hard to have the wisdom to know what that thing is.

But not with Jesus. He often had people intentionally trying to put Him in impossible situations, but He would always know the right thing to do or say.

And that is certainly the case in this story.

Does This Story Belong In the Bible?

Before we launch into examining the story itself, we first need to answer the question, “Does this belong in the Bible?” And that might seem like a crazy question at first, because, after all, it is in our Bibles, so surely it belongs there…right?

We don’t have the original editions of the Bible. Instead, what we have are thousands and thousands of handwritten copies called manuscripts. We have fragments that date back to the early second century, but the best comprehensive manuscripts we have that contain most or all of the New Testament date back to the fourth and fifth centuries.

Compared to other ancient works, this is incredible. There are some ancient works of famous philosophers or poets of which we may only have a handful of copies, but there are thousands and thousands of biblical manuscripts. There are a lot of differences between the different manuscripts because they were copied down by hand, but since there are so many copies, we can compare them and with a very high degree of accuracy, determine what the original text said.

The study of these manuscripts is called textual criticism, and the earlier manuscripts are better, because they are closer to the original copies of the books of the New Testament, and thus give us a more accurate picture of what the original documents said.

The vast majority of differences between manuscripts are differences in things like spelling (basically the modern equivalent of a typo) where it is still very obvious what is supposed to be said. There are only a handful of places in the New Testament where there is a whole verse or verses that we are not sure about, and even in those, there is no point of doctrine that is compromised either way. So the biblical text that we have is very reliable.

But the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery, found in John 7.53-8.11, is one of those instances where different manuscripts disagree with one another. In most modern Bibles, John 7.53-8.11 will be included in brackets with a note next to it that says something like, “the earliest manuscripts do not include John 7.53-8.11.” What’s going on here?

The problem is that the earliest and best manuscripts we have do not put this story after John 7.52. Some do not contain the story at all, other manuscripts place it after John 21.25, one manuscript puts it after John 7.36, and some actually put it in the Gospel of Luke, after 21.38 (keep that in mind). So in this case, textual criticism tells us that this story about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery was almost certainly not originally at the end of John 7 and beginning of John 8.

But just because we don’t think this story is in the right place doesn’t mean that it isn’t a true story. It seems authentic; it certainly seems in keeping with the character of Jesus as we read in other places. It is referred to in other writings outside of the New Testament, so we know that it was a very early story, known in the second century.[1]

Some have suggested that this was preserved as a true story about Jesus, but wasn’t attached to a specific gospel, so different scribes who copied the manuscripts by hand added it at different places.

I think there is pretty good evidence that it was originally written by Luke. If you remember, earlier I mentioned that this story is included in some manuscripts of Luke, after Luke 21.38 (and if you look, it actually fits quite well there). But also, the theme, vocabulary, and style of writing in this story are more common to the books of Luke-Acts than they are the rest of John.[2] Luke’s gospel reflects a special interest on women, as this story obviously does, and there are various words and expressions used in this story that don’t appear elsewhere in John, but appear multiple times in Luke-Acts.[3]

But if Luke wrote this, why is it not in the earliest and most comprehensive manuscripts?

Well, Luke tells us at the beginning of his gospel (Luke 1.1-3) that he compiled his account of the life of Jesus based on the testimony of eyewitness accounts and that he took what he had collected and wrote it down. Luke would have compiled notes that he later collected and collated into a full text, sort of like if you can imagine having a folder with all of these stories of miracles and teachings of Jesus that you take and then compile together on one scroll.

This particular story fits in very well after Luke 21.38 (where it is in some manuscripts) but this point in Luke’s Gospel is also right before his telling of the betrayal, death, and resurrection of Jesus—the central elements of the Jesus story.

Luke’s Gospel in its current form is just about the right size for a typical ancient scroll, so it’s possible that Luke removed this story from his Gospel simply for the practical reason that he saw that he was running out of writing room, and he wanted to make sure that he covered the most important stuff.[4]

The story of Jesus and the Woman caught in adultery was still preserved as important and authentic, and was apparently widespread, which is how it got added to so many manuscripts in different places. None of this should make us uncomfortable or worried about the accuracy of our Bibles, but it should remind us that while the Bible is inspired by God, it is also a human product that God uses to reveal Himself to us.

The True Colors of the Pharisees

So while this story doesn’t really fit in the Gospel of John, I feel very confident that it is authentic, and that it fits in our Bibles. Let’s examine it more closely:

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”

This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.

Here the Pharisees, the supposed keepers of the Law, slip up and show themselves to be less concerned with the integrity of the Law than they are in trapping Jesus in a difficult situation. You see, the Law of Moses did require that a woman caught in adultery be put to death, but it also required the same punishment for the man (Leviticus 20.10; Deuteronomy 22.22). Since the woman was “caught in the act of adultery,” the Pharisees clearly knew who the other guilty party was, and by not bringing him forward for punishment, showed that they weren’t too concerned with what the Law said.

Furthermore, despite what the Law said, “there is little evidence that it was carried out very often in first-century Palestine, especially in urban areas.”[5] Part of the reason for this is that the Jews were under Roman authority, and didn’t have the legally authority to execute people on their own (we see this again in the execution of Jesus).

So the Pharisees likely had no intention of executing the woman and weren’t really concerned about the Law of Moses. Instead, they were trying to trap Jesus between a rock and a hard place, forcing Him to either disregard the Law of Moses, or be the one who pronounced the woman’s death sentence (and thus, likely cause problems for him with the Roman authorities).

Jesus has been placed in a hard situation; out of nowhere, He is surrounded by an angry mob, asking Him to perform some on-the-spot biblical interpretation with massive implications. What is the right thing to do? How will He respond?

Writing on the Ground

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.

Twice in this passage, it specifically mentions Jesus stooping down to write with His finger on the ground. It’s an interesting detail that is included, and helps the scene come to life for the reader. It is also one of the little characteristics of this story that make it seem genuine. Seeing that Jesus wrote on the ground but not necessarily knowing what it is that He wrote—this is the sort of detail that an eyewitness would remember and share.

Scholars and commentators have pounced on this little detail over the years and offered various interpretations of it:

  • Some have suggested that Jesus was writing out the 10 Commandments.
  • Some have argued that this was a direct reference to Jeremiah 17.13, where those who forsake God are “written in the dust”, and that Jesus is making a specific judgment against the Pharisees.
  • Some have proposed that the words Jesus writes are actually the specific sins of the scribes and Pharisees who have brought the adulterous woman before Him.

All of these suggestions (and others have been made as well) are interesting and, I guess, possible, but ultimately, we aren’t told what it is that Jesus writes on the ground. Personally, I’ve always been inclined to think that perhaps Jesus didn’t write anything of consequence on the ground at all, but just the act itself and the pause it produced helped to diffuse the energy and volatility of the situation and made the Pharisees more prepared to hear and respond to what Jesus says.

Sometimes when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, or perhaps when someone says something to us that just sets us off and makes our blood boil, the most important thing that we can do is to do nothing right then. Instead, the wise course of action is to take a deep breath and slow our heart rate before we respond (if we respond at all!).

Jesus says that He who is without sin is to cast the first stone. This is a reference to Deuteronomy 13.9 and 17.7—it is the witnesses of the crime who must be the first to throw the stones, and they cannot have been participants in the crime itself.[6]

So Jesus puts it back on those who were trying to trap Him: which of the woman’s accusers felt confident enough in their own sinlessness that they would take up the stone and begin the execution?

Pardon vs. Acquittal

But none of them do.

But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

She said, “No one, Lord.”And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

The story of Jesus and the Woman caught in Adultery ends on a high note, as Jesus’ response to the Pharisees leaves them speechless. Seemingly, He awakens their consciences, and in shame, the slink away, realizing that they are in no place to pronounce judgment upon the woman.

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, Lord.”

“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Of course, Jesus is the One who is without sin, and is the One who actually has the right and authority to pronounce judgment. But He doesn’t condemn her. In fact, this is in keeping with the reason Jesus came into the world:

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

(John 3.17)

Jesus came on a rescue mission to seek and save those who were lost.

And what Jesus says here is incredibly important—Jesus pardons the woman, but He doesn’t say that her sin doesn’t matter or that it isn’t a big deal. Instead, He specifically addresses the sin—by telling her to “sin no more,” He indicates that He knew that she was indeed guilty of adultery and that she needed to change her life.

Which leads to an important idea that is central to the Gospel—Jesus offers us pardon, not acquittal:

  • If someone is acquitted of a crime, then they are declared to be “not guilty.” No punishment is due that person, because no sentence of guilt was passed.
  • If someone is pardoned of a crime, then they have been found guilty, but the punishment for the crime is taken away.

This is a central element to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus doesn’t come to us and say, “Your sin is not a big deal; no crime has been committed, you are innocent.” Instead, He says, “Your sin is significant; it must be paid for, but you don’t have to pay the price.

Our sin is such a big deal that Jesus paid the price for it on the cross; because of that sacrifice, pardon can be offered to the adulterous woman, and to the rest of us as well. And when we receive that pardon for our sins and appreciate it, we should be motivated, as Jesus told the woman, to go and sin no more.

Conclusion

The story of the woman caught in adultery is an interesting one. It presents textual problems, and we may be unsure exactly where it fits in Scripture. But what a powerful story it is, and what important lessons it teaches us.

It teaches us about the nature of Jesus’ enemies. They were less interested in keeping God’s word than they were in trying to entrap Him. And in a similar way, we may find ourselves at times in difficult situations not because other people are trying to do the right thing, but because they are actively trying to cause problems for us.

This passage also teaches us something about how to respond to difficult situations. Jesus, the wisest of all men, doesn’t explode or react impulsively. Instead, He takes His time and calmly responds, diffusing the situation while applying biblical truth with clarity and grace.

And perhaps most of all, it shows us something about the kind of judge that Jesus, the Judge of all the World, is: He is looking to save, not to condemn. I think many people have an idea of God where He is distant and removed, watching us closely and just waiting for us to mess up so He can zap us. But this is not the picture of God that the Bible repeatedly offers. God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. God does not wink at sin or pretend that it doesn’t matter, but He is eager to pardon it, and He paid the price for it, Himself.

Each of us stands guilty in the sense that we have been convicted of sin in our lives. That is unquestionable. So the only real question is, have we received the pardon that God offers?


[1]Frank Pack, The Gospel According to John, Part I, The Living Word Commentary (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing, 1975), 136.

[2]Ibid., 136; D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 334; http://www.tektonics.org/af/adulterypericope.php

[3]“Mount of Olives”, “scribes and Pharisees,” “eldest,” “accusers,” “early,” “all of the people”

[4] http://www.tektonics.org/af/adulterypericope.php

[5] Carson, 335.

[6] Ibid., 336.

2 Comments

  1. Jonathan Towell

    August 23, 2018 at 9:20 AM

    This is very good.

    I wonder if “go and sin no more” is more than just a command or suggestion, but closer along the lines of a miracle, like “little girl, I tell you to get up”? Maybe Jesus’ pardon of grace compels one, in a supernatural/miraculous way to “sin no more”? That is one message of the cross; we are given sacrificial atonement so that we can be filled with the supernatural Holy Spirit and sin no more.

    • Luke

      August 23, 2018 at 10:36 AM

      I like your comment as it touches on one of the (many) interesting tensions of Scripture, which is that it simultaneously upholds that none of us are without sin, and that yet, sinlessness is the goal and that the Spirit works within us to transform us into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

      Perhaps the supernatural/miraculous element here is one of trajectory: a radical re-orientation of life that seeks the things of God rather than our own selfish desires.

      Thanks for the comment!

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