A Stoning        John 8:-11

John's Gospel Commentary by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) 2000

This section actually begins from 7:53, and it is one of the most disputed texts in the New Testament.  Since the time of the Revised Version (1881-85) it has been put in brackets in most modern translations.  Textual critics point out that it is not found in some of the earliest Greek manuscripts, and it is located in other places by others.

There are various possibilities
a.  It was written, as is, in the original version of John's Gospel.
b.  In that case it was cut out by later copyists as too soft on the sin of adultery.
c.  It was originally written by Luke at the end of his chapter 8  (at Luke 21:38).
d.  John included it in a second or later edition of his Gospel.
e.  It was a later invention and inserted in our later Greek manuscripts.

It is very hard to imagine this event was invented (e) and put in to show Jesus' compassion.  No writer with an axe to grind could have imagined such a gracious way of dealing with a crowd of bigots.  It rings totally true to the life and teaching of the Messiah.   The account of the events (8:3- 11) is so vivid that it reads like that of an  eye-witness.  It was certainly accepted as apostolic, and included in John's Gospel when the Canon of the New Testament was completed (by say 382 AD).  It was God who in due course arranged for the final form of the New Testament books to be accepted by all the main groupings of Christian churches.   That is sufficient reason to view this section as a God-given account of what happened, and preachers can preach from it as an essential part of John's Gospel.

"You shall not commit adultery" is the seventh of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17).  As pointed out in Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage, the commandments have next to no content.  But they function as categories of moral judgment.  Their application differs in every culture of the world, and their meaning changes subtly from generation to generation.  However among all nations and all religions the perennial questions of right and wrong (ethics) are discussed under these ten headings.  The adulteration of a marriage is universally viewed as wrong, but there are huge differences in how adultery is defined.  In many cultures it is understood that men are allowed to have other women on the side (additional wives, concubines, mistresses,  prostitutes),  and as in this story it is the woman who must be condemned.

Some of these ten categories of moral judgment are made into rules for judges to assign criminal penalties.  Murder is severely punished among all nations, and in some cases it results in capital punishment.   Stealing is also punished in various ways.   In Arabia a man who goes into the wife of another Arab man is executed immediately.  Adultery is still  a criminal offence in some countries, but it most western nations it is disapproved of as immoral but the offence is not punishable in a court of law.

One of the principles in the New Testament is that in matters of criminal justice we under "the powers that be" in the country where we are currently residing (Romans 13:1-5).  Whatever reason  Moses had for making adultery punishable by stoning, we are not bound to enact a similar rule among our own people.

Nor do we have to continue the patriarchal practice of making rules for women which do not apply to men.  For example in the section in Deuteronomy that requires stoning for adultery a young woman is to be stoned if she is not a virgin at the time of her marriage (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), but men are free to have as many women as they choose both before and after the wedding ceremony.  For men what is punishable by death is being "caught lying with the wife of another man" (Deuteronomy 22:22).

8:1   The verse belongs to the ending of the previous chapter.  We know that Jesus went out to the home of Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus every evening during holy week (Mark 11:11, Luke 10:38, John 12:1-2).

8:2   The temple was a vast area and people knew that Jesus would begin teaching early in the morning (5:14, see Mark 13:35, Luke 21:37-38) probably in Solomon's portico (10:23-24).

8:3   John  often describes Jesus opponents as  "The Jews" (see comment on 5:10, 16), but here they  are specified as scribes (theologians) and Pharisees (Pharisees are mentioned in 1:24, 7:32, 45, 47- 48).

Evidently the religious authorities went on purpose to get this woman "caught in adultery" so they could use her to charge Jesus with denying the law of Moses (see 8:6).  Adultery of course involves a man as well as a woman, but the man is never mentioned.  Only the woman is produced, and she is  humiliated by being forced to stand among Jesus' hearers.

8:4-5   The Old Testament text  that demands stoning for adultery is quite clear that "you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death"  (Deuteronomy 22:24).

The words "What do you say?" are similar to the trap set by the Pharisees and Herodians concerning the payment of taxes, "Tell us, then, what you think?" (Matthew 22:17).  In both situations  Jesus' opponents thought they had him pinned whatever answer he gave.  In this case if Jesus recommended capital punishment, he would go against the Roman governor who alone had the authority to allow this (see 18:31).  He would also lose any credibility among ordinary people.  He had kept teaching them God's love and compassion.  How could he require the stoning of this woman when the man was not even included in the charge of adultery?   And if Jesus said she should go free, he could be accused of denying the Pharisee interpretation of the law that required stoning for adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22-24).

8:6   Many have tried to guess what Jesus was writing on the floor of the temple court.  Others have connected his writing  with the finger of God writing the tables of the Law on Mount Sinai (Exodus 31:18, Deuteronomy 9:10).   Jesus also used the term metaphorically: "If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you," (Luke 11:20).    But perhaps he was just looking down with horror and embarrassment at the hardness of heart of the religious leaders.  The words "he straightened up" (8:7, 10) suggest that John viewed the looking down, not the writing on the ground as significant.

8:7-8 The religious leaders were pressing him very hard and again and again.  We can imagine the devastating force of the counterattack   "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."   They would all agree that they had been imperfect in their obedience to the 248 positive and 355 negative rules the scribes had derived from the Law of Moses.  But one wonders  if Jesus had not discerned that every one of them had been guilty of sexual immorality.

8:9   The first to slink away were the senior members of the kangaroo court (illegal, because only the Roman authorities were allowed to assign the death penalty, 18:31).

8:10   Again John records that Jesus "straightened up."  Instead of looking down with embarrassment  at what these men were doing to humiliate her, he can now look her in the eye and ask what has happened to her accusers.  In the story of the woman of Samaria John has already illustrated Jesus' quite new attitude to women (John 4:5-15).  And he will record how it was Mary Magdalene, not one of the male disciples, who was the first to come to the tomb on Easter morning (20:1).   This story, as it has been read and told throughout the world, has had a profound effect in changing our attitudes.

8:11   Jesus words "Neither do I condemn you" may refer back to the fact that "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (3:17).  But there is a difference between condemning someone in the sense of writing them off, and the ordinary assigning of consequences for certain categories of crime. As Messiah he certainly assigns wrath consequences for bad behavior among nations (see the wrath consequences for the cities which rejected his teaching (Matthew 11:21, Luke 10:13).

We too have to assign the legal consequences for drinking and driving and other crimes in our society.  If a person has wronged us (as for example by not keeping a contract) we may have to take them to court.   But however bad a person's behavior, we never condemn them in the sense of writing them off from the human race.  Most of us appreciate the need for our legal system, but we all hate judgmental people.

What did Jesus have in mind when he said "Go your way, and from now on do not sin again" ?  He certainly was not expecting sinless perfection.  But he knew that adultery was destructive of family life, and almost invariably has traumatic consequences for the woman involved.    Jesus does not condemn her, but lovingly encourages her in a new direction.

8:12-59  God as Father