The woman taken in adultery
Main themes in the story
The story falls into two sections:
1 The scene is set, with time and place
2 The dilemma, and Jesus' response
The story of the adulterous woman is quite different to the rest of the material in John's gospel, and more like the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).
The Synoptic gospels tell relatively straightforward stories to illustrate Jesus' teaching. They are full of episodes, stories and teachings - one can imagine them being dramatically acted out and told as stories.
John uses a different writing technique. He wants to show that in Jesus, God is united with humanity, and his gospel is full of discourses, ideas, and profound theology.
Because the story of the adulterous woman is so visual and immediate, many biblical scholars believe that it was a later insertion and did not form part of John's original gospel. They suggest that it was a particularly popular story about Jesus that for some reasons had not been included in the first three gospels, but was placed in the fourth gospel some time after John had completed writing it, virtually by popular demand.
We are in Jerusalem, and it is not long before Jesus' own death. This is an introspective Jesus that we see, not the vigorous man who roamed the countryside of Galilee teaching anyone who would listen. This man knows he is in danger, and knows he is surrounded by enemies.
But instead of doing what the rest of us would do and heading back to Galilee and safety, he has come right into the hornet's nest and faced the danger head-on, in the Temple. His presence here is a tacit statement that he will not back down from what he believes.
The incident may have happened in the week before Jesus’ death, when he spent his days in Jerusalem and his nights in the house at Bethany, traversing the valley and hill road between these two places every day.
It is early morning, and the place is only beginning to stir. There are not many people around, not the crowds that will gather later in the day. In this muted atmosphere, in the great open courtyard of the Temple, he is approached by a group of people.
They are the scribes and Pharisees, the educated people of their day, cautious, law-abiding, and economically prosperous, most of them lawyers and civil servants of one kind or another. They have worked hard to get where they are, and they take their responsibilities seriously.
One of these responsibilities is maintaining stability in a society that is more than a little prone to instability. It is not easy to do. There have been frequent rebellions against the Romans, who take a savage stance if there is any trouble: the Roman practice is to first kill anyone who looks rebellious, then ask questions later. The scribes and Pharisees, much denigrated in Christian literature, are in fact trying to maintain the status quo as the Romans breathe down their necks.
They see Jesus as a threat to stability. He constantly challenges the traditional authorities and appears to have a gang of followers who accompany him everywhere. He disregards the normal Jewish ritual laws about eating by sitting down to meals with known law-breakers.
Passover now approaching and the crowds flocking to Jerusalem, he must
be kept in check. Any hint of rebellion at this time will bring down the
wrath of the Romans on a lot of innocent heads.
They hit on a problem they themselves are wrestling with: what to do when the Law of Moses and the edicts of the Romans challenge each other. Such a situation arises whenever they are commanded by the Law of Moses to impose the death penalty for a particular offense, such as adultery.
The Romans have authorized their appointee, the Governor, to impose the death sentence. No other person may do so. What, the scribes wonder, is the right thing to do in this situation? Follow the Law of Moses which as Jews they are required to do, and risk the consequences? Or sensibly do what the Romans command?
Some-one among them hits on the idea of posing this question to Jesus. They have been arguing about what to do with a particular case, the case of a woman who has been charged with adultery, and would like to hear what he says. It can do no harm to try.
But there is also the possibility he will slip up when he responds, and if this happens they can organize some sort of accusation that will remove him from the public sphere, at least for the time being, at least until Passover is over.
They take the woman from her prison cell to the Temple precincts where Jesus is teaching, presumably in the outer courtyards of the Temple - the Court of the Gentiles or the Court of Women would be the only areas she could be taken, since a woman could not go any further into the holy area.
Much has been made of the fact that they take the woman but not the man with whom she has committed adultery, suggesting that the man has not been charged.
This is not correct. By law, both parties to the adultery were charged and punished. There was no leniency shown to the man, and in fact Rabbinic law held that he was more responsible for what happened than the woman.
As for the woman herself, it is generally acknowledged that she is a young married woman. Nothing is known of her appearance, her financial status, or her family background. All we can surmise is that she was terrified, disheveled, and hopeless, since she had disgraced herself and her family, and now faced the horrific death sentence.
Stoning was a particularly brutal form of execution, but a strangely logical one in the context of the times. The first stones had to be thrown by the witnesses to the adultery, and then after that each member of the community in which the two adulterers lived had to come forward and throw a stone.
The thinking behind this was that, since every person in the community threw stone, no one person could be held responsible for the death of the pair. This was important in a society that practised vendetta, and where pay-back would happen if a killing occurred.
Dilemma, and Jesus' Response to it
The point is that he uses the time it took to write, and the act of writing, to unnerve his adversaries - and possibly to give himself time to think of a response, or calm his anger. Remember that he was man as well as God, with all a normal human being's doubts and uncertainties. Many people doodle when they are upset or deep in thought - perhaps he was one of them.
He may also have been trying to avoid confrontation by pretending to ignore it, another common human ploy.
But the questioners are not to be put off. They keep on demanding an answer, until Jesus straightens up and faces them. Then he says the direct, devastating words that have shaped so much of Christian thinking: 'Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.'
Then he bends down again and resumes tracing with his finger on the ground.
The authority of his words and presence obviously affects them. They are silenced at last. One by one, beginning with the most respected man among them, they melt away into the gathering crowd. Eventually, Jesus is left alone with the woman still standing in front of him. He straightens up again, and speaks to her. 'Where are your accusers?' he asks. 'Has no-one seen fit to condemn you?' She simply answers 'No-one, sir.'
'Then I do not condemn you either'
says Jesus. 'Go on your way, and do not
Some Extra Reading: an extract from 'Unapologetic: why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.' by Francis Spufford
'He arrives in a town just as a public execution is about to take place. The criminal is a woman 'taken in adultery, which could mean that she's been caught having literal sex with someone other than her husband. But it could also mean that she smiles at soldiers when she serves wine to them, or that she's been seen chatting at the well with a boy who is neither her brother nor her cousin; or it could mean that she works in the brothel the town is ashamed it possesses, and has been servicing five burghers a night for a decade. One way or another she has concentrated in herself the town's fear and alarm about desire. And the good people have gathered to punish her. They already have in their hands the rocks the law stipulates, neither too small nor too big, which will crack her bones and mash out of her flesh the disturbance of her desirability. Yeshua intervenes, which is not necessarily a very sensible thing to do, when virtue is breathing fast and looking forward to this kind of treat. He asks what she's done. They tell him. Oh, he says. Well then, the one of you who's never wanted anything bad had better throw the first stone. And he raises his eyebrows and waits, and something in the gaze of his ordinary eyes makes the good people shuffle where they stand. There's a pause. Perhaps it helps that his friends have walked into town with him, equally dusty from the road, and that among the rag-tag of his followers, male and female, who're hanging back to see what he does, there are some quite large and burly men. But anyway there's the hollow klok and klok and klok of stones dropping onto the ground, and the executioners slink away, and in a moment or two only the executee is left there with Yeshua and his friends. She is weeping. He helps her to stand up.' (pages 120-121)
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|Bible Study Resource: The Woman Taken in Adultery - Women of the New Testament|