"…The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him..." (John 7:53-8:11).
The story of the woman caught in adultery and taken before Christ is often said to be of doubtful authenticity, but there is good evidence to show it belongs in our Bibles (see our article on this on our sister site, here). Although it is a story we may know well, it is one that deserves a closer look.
The story makes it clear that this event was orchestrated by the religious authorities in an attempt to trap Jesus. If he condemned the woman – who was clearly guilty – to stoning (the biblical punishment for adultery – Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:24), the Jewish authorities would doubtless accuse him of sedition because the occupying Romans had forbidden the Jews to enact capital punishment (John 18:31). But if Jesus said the woman should not be stoned, they could then accuse him of rejection of the Law of Moses and of being guilty of religious heresy. From the perspective of the Jews, it was a watertight trap that they did not expect Jesus to escape. Even if Jesus declined to pronounce the woman guilty or innocent and refused to answer their question, his authority with the people would have been greatly undermined, and the exchange would be seen as a victory of the authorities over Jesus and his teaching.
But this situation was not the only trap the religious authorities appear to have set. The account clearly shows that only the woman was brought before Jesus and charged with adultery. But the Pharisees and teachers of the law said that the woman had been “caught in the act” of adultery – so where was the man who was involved, and why was only the woman being charged? The Law of Moses specifically commanded that “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife … both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22-24).
It seems more than likely that the man was hired by the Jews to entice the woman so that the Pharisees could then catch them “in the act,” as this was necessary for the death penalty to be administered (Numbers 5:13). In this case, of course, the man would have been promised immunity and not arrested, as arranged. That an individual could be hired to do such a thing and that the Jewish authorities of the time would organize it is made clear by the “witnesses” hired to falsely accuse both Christ (Matthew 26:59) and Stephen (Acts 6:13).
We are told that Jesus responded to the trap set for him by stooping down and beginning to write on the ground. What he wrote has been a source of centuries of speculation. Commentators have suggested everything ranging from writing out the charge as for a Roman trial to one or more of the Ten Commandments or even the personal sins of the accusing Jews. But we should notice that after he wrote for a while the accusers still did not go away – it was only after Jesus stood up and said “let him who is without sin cast the first stone at her” (vs. 7) and then proceeded to write again that the Pharisees and those with them left.
Yet there need be no mystery in why what Jesus wrote is not recorded. C. S. Lewis believed that the narrative of Jesus writing in the dust has the ring of an eyewitness account and it may well be that the eyewitness saw Jesus writing but was not close enough to see what it was that he wrote.
That it was what Jesus said, not what he wrote, that dismissed the accusers is seen in the account itself: “… those who heard began to go away one at a time …” (vs. 9, emphasis added). When Jesus said that the one “without sin” should cast the first stone, the Greek expression occurs nowhere else in the New Testament and may mean “without the possibility of sin” or “without actual sin,” though in either case its point was clear and obviously effective.
When the throng of accusing Jews left, one by one, Jesus and the woman were left alone – except of course, for the group of bystanders that had gathered there (vs. 1). That group was probably standing at a short distance and included the eyewitness through whom we have the details of the story.
So the story of the woman caught in adultery is a fascinating one which becomes more intriguing the more we look at it. But there are clear and important conclusions we can draw from the account.
Christ’s words “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (vs. 7) and “… neither do I condemn you …” (vs. 11) have sometimes been misused to suggest that we should never judge even proven wrongdoing or that it should be excused. But Jesus was not rejecting punishment being administered to the guilty – as we see in his teaching in many other scriptures – but extending grace to a woman who had been entrapped. He was doubtless aware of the woman’s attitude and if it was a repentant one, but while he did not condemn the woman, he certainly condemned the sin by saying “Go now and leave your life of sin” (vs. 11 and compare John 5:14).
At one level, we can see ourselves in this story. From this perspective the entrapped woman represents every human. The apostle James tells us that we are “enticed” to sin by our own human nature (James 1:14), but the word translated “enticed” that he uses is from a root meaning to “trap” and is rendered this way in a number of Bible translations. Like the woman, we have been trapped by sin and are worthy of the penalty of death. The symbolic role of the Pharisees who arranged the trap in this story is just as clearly that of the enemy who tempts us (2 Timothy 2:26), and Christ is the one who frees us from the trap and who calls us, like the woman, to leave our lives of sin. Perhaps above all, Christ’s words remind us that we do not change in order to be freed and accepted; we must change because we have been freed and accepted.