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What the Woman Caught in Adultery Shouldn’t Teach Us: Law, Grace & Bad Hermeneutics

?????????????????????????????John 8:7 is especially popular with non-Christians who resent any suggestion within Christianity that they are sinners in need of salvation. It is usually paraphrased, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.”[1]

Sounds good doesn’t it?— Don’t judge me! John 8:7 is a “Get-out-of-Jail-free card” for the immoral. Here we envision Jesus taking a stand against the barbaric practices of wicked, mean LAW in favor of forgiveness & mercy. We can almost hear the angels sing at LAW’S demise.

There is only one problem. This is not only an abuse of Jesus’ statement, but also a complete misunderstanding of it.[2]

What we are witnessing in John 8:1-11 is the use of a legal conundrum to trap Jesus between Torah, Rome, and violent public opinion over Halakah (Jewish legal application of Torah) (John 8:6)—Jesus satisfies all three. These impromptu trials were not uncommon in certain circles, since Rome denied Jewish courts right of execution, and would not normally execute for adultery themselves.

Point #1: This is a court & it follows the rules of court for Israel during the 1st century. Jesus is made judge by officiating elders of Israel. Read John 8:1-11 as court. Law is not condemned in Jesus’ John 8:7 verdict… the trial and its witnesses are.

Point #2:  There is little doubt; she’s guilty. The witnesses (at least 2, unrelated souls, other than her husband) caught her in the act… or they wouldn’t be here. (Deuteronomy 17:6) Suspicion without such witness would’ve led elsewhere. (Numbers 5:11-31) The husband could divorce his wife for a compromising situation or bad reputation alone. (Deuteronomy 24:1) Execution required extreme & uncorrupted witness. It was customary to separate witnesses and to grill them in all points of detail. It was a risky proposition to be caught lying. (Deuteronomy 19:16-21) One had to virtually lie in wait to bear such testimony in an adultery case. Nudity and proximity were not sufficient. They had to witness actual sex without any other explanation for observed movements.[3]

Point #3: Torah demands that both the man and the woman be stoned. (Leviticus 20:10 & Deuteronomy 22:22) Thus, her lover’s absence is blaring. He might have had a separate trial, but more likely he was 1. A plant, 2. Purchased his way out, or 3. Escaped unidentified. Even so, these witnesses, and the woman’s husband, go forward with the charges, rejecting divorce options & seeking her execution. This raises suspicions of motives for all involved & motives mattered for a legitimate judge. (Leviticus 19:17-18)

  1. The husband is willing to sacrifice her to advance the cause of those plotting against Jesus. (Pius pressure.)
  2. There were financial benefits for a husband in the death of the wife.  (Personal Greed)
  3. Pure spite, preferring her death to any other option. (Revenge)

This all Causes Doubt for the Judge

  • The circumstances of the act are in doubt (A set-up)
  • The husband is in doubt (Vicious motives)
  • The witnesses are in doubt (Participate in a set-up with a vicious husband)
  • The trial is in doubt (Set as a trap for the Judge himself)

There were many laws establishing legitimate and illegitimate proceedings. Judges & witnesses had to be vetted. (Leviticus 5:1; Leviticus 19:15-18; Exodus 23:1-9)  Courts were cautious in legal matters leading to death, particularly for women, who traditionally were not as well versed with written & oral law. Every opportunity for deliverance from death was afforded them in Halakah (Jewish legal application of Torah). From the codes of Ox and Donkey (Exodus 23:4-5) they devised systems of “proof of warning” in the face of suspicion.[4] Those who lay in wait to catch a person in their sin, were illegitimate witnesses. Those joining with them were also in sin. (Exodus 23:1-2)

An interesting element in this event concerns the 2x times Jesus writes in the dirt. (John 8:6-8)  Many have speculated about it:

  1. He doodled? “A guy needs time to think.”
  2. He draws refusing to play? “Maybe if I ignore them they’ll go away.”
  3. He’s working out his thoughts “on paper”? “Okay, so… the husband is over here, but the wife is….”
  4. Temple dust at his feet symbolized the jealousy ordeal? (This is a fascinating suggestion.)
  5. Wrote the sins of those present? (The most popular suggestion.)

As a 1st century Judicial act, the likelihood is, however, that Jesus wrote at least two texts of Scripture. A real judge didn’t defend his verdict. They would, however, write the legal basis for their decision. [5] Derrett proposes, & I agree with him, that Jesus’ defense of his judgment is best found in those texts that illegitimize the actions of the witnesses against the woman. Lying in wait, joining hands with the wicked, following the crowd, malicious intent, etc…

Jesus’ Judgment is clear. He stands to render it. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) He pronounces her guilty before Torah, “Deserving of death,” but eliminates the legal basis for execution by condemning the wicked witnesses. (John 8:9) The witnesses’ hands were to be the first against the accused. (Deuteronomy 17:7)

Derrett writes, “’Let him among you who is without sin cast first upon her a stone’ does not deny that she may be stoned, but insists upon the innocency and therefore the competence of whoever stands forth against her as accuser and witness. Even in a lynching matter the biblical requirements must be met.”[6]

Jesus makes his final pronouncement as judge; No accusers no judgment.  “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.” (John 8:10-11)

Then Jesus gives the legal warning and prevention that caused the witnesses to stumble. “Go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:11)

Jesus does not stand against Torah. He does not give a “get-out-of-Jail-free” card to sinners hardened in their sin. He defends Torah and demonstrates the true spirit of Torah in action.


[1] While some significant evidence suggests that this story is misplaced, evidence also suggests that it is piece of legitimate testimony, circulating independently through the early years of canonical collection, eventually finding its home in John 8. The tradition is legitimate even if its connection to John is questionable.

[2]Speaking of John 8:1-11, Derett writes, “A reader… today would have little difficulty in understanding what it was all about, provided that he had a general knowledge of Jewish law, and a common acquaintance with the Pentateuch and with contemporary notions on the subjects which were necessarily in question.” J. Duncan M. Derrett Law in the New Testament,1974. This post will unpack his case step by step, as I understand it.

[3] This is based on the Story of Suzanna (KJVA Daniel 13:1-64) King James Version with Apocrypha. Daniel 13-14 are apocryphal extensions to the book.

[4] If one is to return his enemy’s ox when it has wandered from its path, how much more should he seek the restoration of his enemy when he has wandered away from the path of truth? If one is to lift up his enemy’s donkey when it is trapped beneath a load, how much more should he seek to lift up his enemy when he is trapped beneath a load of sin too heavy to bear?

[5] To recite a passage betrayed one’s pronunciation (Hebrew was written without most vowels). This began a debate on interpretation. Only a few scribblings of consonants, however, began a web of texts & issues in the minds of those present. Derrett 176

[6] Derrett 182.

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