Not everyone agrees that the famous (infamous?) story of the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John actually belongs in the best manuscripts of the Bible. Regardless of the scholarly debate as to the authenticity and placement of John 7:53-8:11, the narrative stands as a powerful story of grace and redemption. This paper examines the narrative in light of cultural context, literary context, specific content, and linguistics. Finally, this paper attempts to see this particular pericope in light of its “big picture,” i.e. how the narrative in its entirety speaks to readers. It is this author’s belief that such an examination reveals a dual nature to the theme of the narrative: 1) even though a person may be trapped and caught by sin, there is forgiveness in Jesus and 2) a person should not be quick to judge because there is none righteous.
Context – Historical-Cultural
There are actually two elements involved in examining the historical-cultural context of this passage: 1) the context of Jesus’ world and 2) the context of John’s world. Though not so far removed from each other as they are removed from the modern era, there are several distinct issues that necessitate observation for each context. For Jesus’ context, it is helpful to know that, by the time of Jesus, a debate developed among Jewish leadership about how the death penalty should be executed. Stoning and strangling both had proponents. While Leviticus 20:10 requires that the community execute both partners caught in adultery, the law does not stipulate how to carry out said punishment.
By the writing of Deuteronomy, stoning had become a commonly proscribed punishment for capital offenses. Thus the Pharisees are not being entirely honest when they speak of Moses commanding adulterous persons to be stoned. Regardless of the method of execution, the Sanhedrin did not have permission to carry out capital punishment cases! Rome wanted sole authority for determining the life or death of prisoners. There was an exception made for temple violations requiring capital punishment, but for the most part, the Sanhedrin played no role in capital cases.
The second aspect of historical-cultural context is that of John’s world. The most significant question in this regard is the question of the omission of the narrative in question from so many early manuscripts. Burge notes that Jesus’ behavior towards the woman caught in blatant sexual sin “would have stood at odds with the mainstream of Church teaching. How could even a lengthy penance be reconciled to such an immediate act of forgiveness?” Burge speculates that later Christian leaders, after Christianity had taken a hard-nosed stand against the sexual sin and immorality that permeated the Roman Empire, intentionally omitted a passage in which Jesus seems to be overly lenient., While such theories are speculative, they do satisfactorily explain why the story, recognized by most scholars as authentic to the life of Jesus, would have been removed from the Gospel.
Context – Literary
Scholars who point out that the language of 7:53-8:11 is consistently inconsistent with Johannine language strive to show the disconnect between the pericope in question and the surrounding material. Such arguments are disingenuous, since the story seems to blend well within the context of Chapters Seven and Eight. Chapter Seven sets up the dispute and tension between Jesus and the Pharisees to the point that the Pharisees want Jesus arrested and brought in. The guards, either awed by Jesus’ speaking ability or awed by Jesus’ content, seem unable to arrest him. Thus, the stage is set for the Pharisees’ attempt to try to catch Jesus on their own. As the old saying goes, “If you want something done right….”
In this light, the events of Chapter Eight come as no surprise to the reader. The Pharisees simply attempt to carry out their own desire. Likewise, when the story of the woman caught in adultery ends, chapter eight picks up with the Pharisees challenging Jesus based on a lack of witness and testimony. The theme of witness, testimony, and judgment seem to connect intricately 8:2-11 and 8:12-18. Burge believes that the pericope in question leaves Jesus alone while the following pericope has Jesus speaking to people again. This is not entirely accurate on two points: 1) when the text says that the accusers left until only Jesus was left, the text seems to be referring to the Pharisees who stood in witness against the woman, not to any onlookers that may be present. 2) When v.12 picks up the narrative, there are no indicators, for or against, about a passage of time. Jesus could have been left alone in 8:9 and resumed his teaching in v.12 the following day. The text simply doesn’t say.
Also, regarding literary context, Hodges makes an observation, more devotional than scholarly, that the woman caught in adultery would have left the temple grounds at the east entrance, in the direction of the sun. “Out of the shadows of darkness she had been roughly dragged to stand in shame before Jesus and before others. But with His words of compassion and direction still ringing in her ears, a new ‘day’ had truly begun for her and she walked out into it!” Thus, when Jesus proclaims in the following verse, “I am the light of the world,” the reader would associate the woman’s exit with the Savior’s proclamation. It may preach well and make one misty-eyed, but there is nothing textual to support that position.
Finally, a remark does need to be made regarding the textual issues of John 7:53-8:11 The exclusion of the passage from the majority of manuscripts is tremendous. P66, א, B, and 0141 are just some of the minuscules and uncials that lack the pericope in question. Additionally, many of the oldest versions lack the passage, and no Greek church father comments on the passage prior to the 12th century. Though explanations abound as to why some manuscripts omit and some include the passage, at the very least the reader should understand that there is some controversy regarding the authenticity and placement of the pericope.
Content – Verse Analysis
7:53-8:2 – The verses opening this pericope immediately set Jesus apart from the religious leaders that end the previous pericope and appear later. While the Pharisees each go home, Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives and then appears at the temple at dawn. The preceding narrative ends with the Pharisees proclaiming that “the prophet does not come out of Galilee,” yet here Jesus’ behavior exemplifies a spirituality that is above and beyond that of the religious leaders of the Jews. Note that Jesus’ posture of teaching from a seated position is the standard posture for rabbis.
8:3 – Upset with their guards for not arresting Jesus, the Pharisees take matters into their own hands and approach Jesus, bringing with them a woman caught in adultery. They force the woman to stand front and center before them and before Jesus (and before all of the other onlookers). The location of the woman’s male partner in crime is unknown. The woman is nameless and has no voice. She is merely a pawn, an object in the Pharisees’ game. The sin of which the woman is accused is moiceia, adultery, and is technically defined as “every extra-marital sexual relationship by a married woman.” The prohibition was against the wife because she was the real guarantor of the family and clan. A compromised woman meant a compromised family and bloodline. Mosaic law punished such an offense by death, but the death of both offenders, not just the woman.
8:4 – The Pharisees do not mock Jesus by calling him teacher. Rather, they are acknowledging his posture and role and are setting his answer up to be an official position statement by which they may accuse him. If they acknowledge that Jesus is a teacher and show his teachings to be false, then they prove that Jesus is false and discredit his whole movement. There is a complete lack of sincerity in their advance, and the fact that the Pharisees and scribes approach without the offending man increases the reader’s understanding that some form of deceit is in play, since Pharisees were sticklers for the details of the Law.
8:5 – The simple fact is that Moses never commanded stoning of adulterous persons. The penalty is death, but stoning is never mentioned in the Law. Additionally, Rome had removed capital punishment authority from Jewish courts except for temple violations. In asking the opinion of Jesus the Pharisees are hoping to set Jesus against Moses, which would discredit him before the people, or to set Jesus against Rome, which could incur the wrath of the Empire. Like the question of paying taxes to Caesar, the query is designed to be a lose-lose for Jesus.
8:6 – The Pharisees’ concern is with trapping Jesus, not with the law or even the woman. She is simply an object to be exploited for their real purposes. John writes that the question was peirazonteV, a test or challenge. In classical Greek, the word has a wide range of meanings, from trial and experiment to lead into temptation (i.e. unchastity) or to venture an attack on someone. In the LXX, the term takes on an understanding of covenant loyalty. In the wilderness, Israel murmurs against God and puts him to the test. In the same way, Yahweh may put his people to the test. Ultimately, the Pharisees actions are seen (at least by John) as a covenant loyalty test. Will Jesus be faithful to God or to Rome?
They hope Jesus fails the loyalty test so that they can kathgorein, accuse him. The word means to speak against someone. In the Bible, Satan fills a special role of accuser of the faithful. Aside from the special designation for Satan, the word may also carry legal sensibility of accusation and has can also mean betray or assert. Regardless of the legal sense of the word, in this pericope the Pharisees seem to fill the role of Satan the accuser. The test, combined with the deceit, hints of Satan’s behavior in Genesis, Job, and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. There is no doubt in the reader’s mind that the Pharisees and Scribes are put forth not as religious leaders, but as frauds, enemies of the true faith.
And so, just as Jesus refuses to play Satan’s game in the wilderness, he refuses to play the Pharisees’ games now. So he ignores them and starts writing in the dirt. Hodges notes that “had the content of Jesus’ writing been a crucial element in this narrative, John would naturally have specified what it was.
8:7 – When Jesus finally stands, he addresses the Pharisees’ persistent questioning. According to OT Law, witnesses of capital offenses were to be the first to cast stones. Jesus’ answer actually holds with Mosaic punishment. But Jesus also brings up another Mosaic stipulation, that witnesses be valid and not malicious. False and malicious witnesses were to be subjected to the same punishment they sought to give those against whom they testified. In this case, the equal punishment for the Pharisees as malicious witnesses would be death by stoning.,  Thus Jesus calls their testimony into question and calls for a greater righteousness than they are living. He calls for the witnesses to be without sin. While originally meaning “to miss the mark” in classical Greek, hamartia evolved by the LXX to represent many Hebrew words for guilt and sin. It carries with it an understanding of falling away from faithfulness towards God and the covenant. By the writing of the NT, the word came to represent everything opposed to God. No person or group opposes God and His plan more in the NT than the Pharisees that denounce what God is doing in Christ.
8:8-9 – Jesus again returns to writing in the dirt, possibly to give his audience a chance to let his words sink in. Regardless of what Jesus writes, it is clear that his words accuse the accusers. That they recognize the validity of the accusation is seen in their dispersal, and one by one they leave Jesus and the woman alone. The text never says that Jesus and the woman are the only two people in the scene, for the scene began with Jesus teaching to a crowd. The text simply says that, of the players in this controversy dialogue, only Jesus and the woman remain. The crowd would still be looking on.
8:10-11 – Jesus now addresses the woman directly for the first time, and asks if anyone has katekrinen, condemned the woman. While the word has a general understanding of “condemn” or “judge,” in the LXX it takes on a wider range of meanings including quarrel, litigate, or punish. In the NT, the word also expresses damnation. The woman replies that no one has condemned or judged her. Jesus replies that he does not condemn her either. For centuries, scholars have praised Jesus’ grace or disapproved of his leniency. Jesus is not necessarily being lenient and condoning adultery. Since Mosaic law requires two witnesses to condemn a person, Jesus has no authority under Mosaic law to condemn the woman. This especially makes sense if the entire passage is seen as an exercise in Mosaic law. Rather than condemn, Jesus calls for a life change and sends the woman on her way.
Big Picture Wrap-Up
Ultimately, this passage is about covenant loyalty. The Pharisees test to see if Jesus will be true to Mosaic law. Jesus shows that he does indeed know and practice the law. Accordingly, he is beyond reproach and shows himself to be the teacher and prophet the Pharisees fear he is. From the woman’s perspective, one cannot miss the themes of grace and forgiveness as demonstrated by Jesus. As O’Day puts it, “The encounter with Jesus narrated in John 7:53-8:11 has the seeds of new life for the scribes and Pharisees and the woman.”
For any reader, this text speaks on two levels. What level one sees depends upon the character with which the reader identifies. If the reader identifies with the woman, this pericope speaks volumes about love, grace, forgiveness, and redemption. If one identifies with the self-righteous Pharisees and Scribes, the pericope speaks about refusing to judge others because on one is righteous before the Lord. Perhaps every reader can identify with both characters at different times. As such, this pericope calls the reader to be slow to judge, quick to extend grace, and thank God that we are recipients of grace and mercy when we deserve death for our sin.
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