SESSION THIRTEEN: THE WOMAN CAUGHT IN ADULTERY (JOHN 8:1-11)
INTRO: Describe a time in your childhood when someone tattled on you.
- How is this situation a trap for Jesus? What would the Pharisees accuse Jesus of if he told them to let her go? If he told them to stone her? How does he spring the trap (v. 7)?
- How would the woman just in adultery have felt? What was the significance of Jesus' question in verse 10?
- How does Jesus' response to the woman exemplify "grace and truth" (1:17)?
- How does the way Jesus treated this woman help you face your sins?
- Jesus accepts you "as is." Does that free you to change, or does it support your bad behavior? How so?
- What can you learn from Jesus about helping a friend who has fallen?
TAKEAWAY: What is your greatest takeaway from this story? What specific life changes do you need to make? How will you hold yourself accountable?
COMMENTARY: THE WOMAN CAUGHT IN ADULTERY (JOHN 8)
In John 8, Jesus is still in Jerusalem. This particular story is unique to John. No other gospel writer mentioned it. It’s also unique because John 7:53-8:11 does not appear in the earliest manuscripts. The older the manuscript, the more valuable they are for reliability. Remember, manuscripts were copied by hand and the nearer they are to the original writings the more likely they are to be correct. If a story doesn't appear in the earlier (or oldest) manuscripts, it means it was added later.
The earliest manuscripts are called the "Uncial manuscripts" because they're penned in all caps, dating from the 4th to 6th centuries. Among the earliest manuscripts, this story still appears in one. Six of the Uncial manuscripts omit it completely, and two leave a blank where this story should be. It's not until later Greek and medieval manuscripts that we start to see this story. This story also doesn't appear in the earliest Syriac, Coptic or Egyptian versions either. Another problem is early church father testimony. Several never mention the story in their commentaries, including Origin, Chrysostom and Syril of Alexandria. The first Greek commentary on this story didn't appear until AD 1118 when Euthymius Zigaenus mentioned it (with the comment it does not appear in the best of manuscripts).
So where did this story come from? First of all, it wasn't an unknown story in Christian circles. Jerome knew about it and included the story in his Latin translation of the New Testament (Vulgate). Both Augustine and Ambrose comment on the story. The story also appeared in various locations. In some versions it appeared at the END of John’s gospel rather than here in chapter 8. One manuscript inserted it after Luke 21:38. The story can also be traced in various early writings. It appeared in the third century work "The Apostolic Constitutions." The historian Eusebius wrote that Papias told a story "of a woman who was accused of many sins before the Lord." Papias lived in the early second century.
So when you consider all the evidence--both it's lack of appearance as well as its long-held tradition within Christianity--there's few who doubt the story is legitimate. The fact that some early church fathers didn't comment isn't unusual. Augustine might give us the best clue into why it doesn't appear in early manuscripts. He claimed this story was removed. It was edited out because "some were of slight faith" and "to avoid scandal." Could it be that many early Christians believed this story was a dangerous story? Or that it justified adulterous relationships? Would that be reason enough to scrub the story? William Barclay writes:
After all, the Christian Church was a little island in a sea of paganism. Its members were so apt to relapse into a way of life where chastity was unknown; and were forever open to pagan infection. But as time when on the danger grew less, or was less feared, and the story, which had alway circulated by word of mouth and which one manuscript retained, came back.
This would explain why some manuscripts place this story at the end of John. It's connected, by reputation, to this gospel writer but decades and centuries of tradition prohibiting its inclusion, created doubt on where it should be properly placed. Barclay argues that John 8:15's statement by Jesus that he "judges no man" is why it was eventually inserted into chapter 8. It could also be placed here based upon Jesus' legal debates with the religious leaders in chapter 7. It does set up this story well.
THE CRIME (John 8:1-6a)
This is a textbook example for first-century criminal proceedings. It was not unusual for rabbis to be interrupted in their teaching to deal with someone who had violated the legal code. But this is no petty crime and the Pharisees and lawyers weren't just any low-level jurisdiction. They wanted to trap Jesus. They were looking to arrest him. It’s possible they even baited this woman to create the crime in question. After all, we have a woman literally "caught in the act." This is not innuendo nor rumor. She was sexually involved with a man outside of marriage.
Jewish adultery law was a serious crime. Rabbinical codes made it (and murder and idolatry) the only three crimes that deserved the death penalty. The Law of Moses was clear on the matter.
- Leviticus 20:10: If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, but the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.
- Deuteronomy 22:13-24 cites the penalty: death by stoning for both parties, outside the city gates.
These religious leaders knew the Law well. It’s why they asked Jesus to comment: “Now what do you say?” It's how they intend to test him. Does Jesus truly follow the Mosaic Law? He hadn't done so with the Sabbath. What would he do with a clear death penalty case?
It's at this point many women counter with the protest: “Where’s the man?” “It takes two people to commit adultery.” However, in the case of adultery, the woman was always tried first, then the man. This was an ancient tradition, going as far back as the Garden of Eden. Just like Eve sinned before Adam, so a woman was tried first before a man.
The penalty for adultery was death. For a woman it was death by stoning. This was a gruesome way to die, whether you were male or female. Essentially the convicted was put in a pit as the executioners formed a circle around him or her. Then they simultaneously threw heavy (20-30 lb) rocks at the person. Crushing bones. Smashing the skull. Breaking the back. It was a gruesome, but a certain, quick death. In Jesus' day, the penalty for adultery for the adulterous man was slower and messier. Mishnah (Jewish law) called for strangulation: “The man is to be enclosed in dung up to his knees, and a soft towel set within a rough towel is to placed around his neck (in order that no mark may be made, for the punishment is God’s punishment). Then one man draws in one direction and another in the other direction, until he is dead.”
But here's the bigger problem. Technically, the Jews had no legal way to actually execute (without Rome’s approval). And in Roman eyes, adultery was hardly on the same level as murder or insurrection. Consequently, a lot of adultery by Jesus' time was winked at. It's why this whole episode was likely for show. The Pharisees wanted the people, the ones he’s teaching, to see weakness. They were looking for any statement or deed to incriminate him. Jesus knew that too. How he responded might keep him off an early cross himself.
THE TRIAL (John 8:6b-9)
The woman was “caught in adultery”: literally in the act. This means she was probably dragged before Jesus completely nude or with very little dress. It was still morning. It takes little imagination to believe she was publicly embarrassed and socially shamed. It's also plausible to believe she was afraid. Jesus was new in town. Most rabbis had their reputation. Some for harshness or others for leniency. Jesus was a wild card. Which way would he lean.
Jesus started the trial by writing in the dirt. Why? Perhaps he wanted to gain some time and not be rushed. Maybe for time to pray. Some manuscripts add the phrase: “As though he did not hear them.” Perhaps Jesus wanted the scribes and Pharisees to repeat the charges to show their cruelty. One early theologian argued that “Jesus was seized with an intolerable sense of shame.” A naked woman was in full view. Consequently, in his embarrassment and perhaps to avoid his own temptations toward lust, Jesus stooped to the ground and doodled.
But what did Jesus write? Some scholars think Jesus wrote the sins of the accusers. This view has some weight from the Greek. The normal Greek word for “to write” is graphein but here the Greek is katagraphein which meant “to write down a record against someone.” A better and more obvious possibility is Jesus wrote one of the ten commandments (“thou shall not commit adultery”) or the legal code for adultery. Often a rabbi wrote the charge down so everyone knew what crime was committed. Whatever he wrote momentarily satisfied the accusers. Nevertheless, they continued to pepper him with questions, most likely theological or legal ones. Jesus said nothing. He just let them talk.
Then Jesus stood up and approved of the execution with one caveat: only those who are “without sin” can participate in her execution. But there’s a kicker in the Greek. The clause “without sin” (anamartetos) means a whole lot more than just “without sin.” It goes farther to mean even “without a sinful desire.” Go ahead and cast the stone...if you’ve never lusted after a woman. This created a problem for these religious elites who prided themselves on perfectionism. This wasn't new in Jesus’ teaching. In Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
So go ahead and throw the stone...if you’re THAT perfect.
At this point, Jesus stooped back down to doodle more in the dirt. He said NOTHING, but whatever he wrote at this point caused a quiet panic, a clear stir and a certain judgment about WHO was truly committed adultery on that day. Whatever he wrote caused these religious elites to leave one person at a time, the oldest to the youngest.
WHAT DID JESUS WRITE THE SECOND TIME? Whatever it was proved very personal. Most scholars agree Jesus likely wrote out some “personal” sins at this point. But let's not divorce the previous statement from his doodling: Whoever is without even a single lustful desire—who has never committed adultery even in your heart—is free to cast the first stone. It’s clear from the text that just saying those words didn’t cause the accusers to leave, but rather whatever Jesus wrote after he said it. And whatever he wrote caused them to drop their rocks, one by one, oldest (most revered, mature, wise) to youngest.
Jesus got very personal. He looked each one in the eye just before he fingered what he wrote. You know what I think Jesus scrawled in the dirt that day? I think he named names. I think he put names to each man’s private sexual fantasy life. Jesus knew their thoughts. He knew their lust life. And so all he had to do was look at Phineas the Pharisee and scratch in the dirt: “Sharon.” Old Phineas dropped his rock and was gone. Then he moved to Levi the Lawyer. Looked him square in the eye and wrote the name: Lydia. And old Levi dropped his rock and took off. One by one, Jesus wrote a simple name (of a woman) and nailed another Pharisee or lawyer to a cross of hypocrisy. Each one, dropping their rock and leaving.
THE VERDICT (John 11:9b - 11)
In the end only Jesus and this disgraced woman stood there. And that’s when the most radical, crazy, unbelievable, unreasonable, amazing thing happened. Jesus looked into this woman’s eyes and asked her where her accusers were? Where are the ones condemning her to death The irony? Jesus was the ONLY ONE present that day who could’ve have executed the judgment. He was sinless. He had never looked at a woman lustfully. He could’ve have condemned her...but did not.
Perhaps this is WHY this story isn’t in the earliest manuscripts. It’s too radical. It’s too bold. It’s too FREE. Jesus let a clear sinner walk away with no judgment. And even in the earliest days of the church, when these manuscripts were being copied over and over again, THAT MESSAGE and THAT IDEA of GRACE was too much. Too radical. Too freeing.
It's a liberating moment of grace, but don't miss what Jesus told her. In reality, Jesus didn’t let her skate. He left he with a command. GO NOW AND LEAVE YOUR LIFE OF SIN (John 8:11). And like the Samaritan woman in chapter 4, this woman also goes away. What happened to her, no one knows. It's possible she became a disciple of Jesus, joining the other women who followed him. It's possible she also returned to her life of sin. We can only hope this moment of shame and salvation woke her up.
If we could correct one detail two thousand years after the fact, it might be her reputation. Yes, she was a woman caught in adultery. But was she a "loose" or promiscuous woman as I have heard many preachers and Bible teachers portray her? The text offers no insight nor help on this allegation. It's possible she was an adulterous woman, but such a woman would've already face plenty of public shame (like the Samaritan woman in John 4 who had multiple husbands). There is another possibility that doesn't exonerate this adulterous couple, but perhaps humanizes the story for some sympathy.
What if this man and this woman had never committed adultery until that moment? What if this was their first "act of adultery?" What if both suffered under years of bad marriages? What if they had been friends since childhood? What if their parents arranged their marriages with others, betraying their own early love? It's very speculative, but not without possibility. And then, what if, in a moment of mutual affection and weakness, they gave into their love for one another? Had they not been caught in the act, perhaps the guilt alone would've drove them to despair, shame and self-hate. What I'm saying is we don't know this woman or this man. We don't know the circumstances that led them into that adulterous moment. It doesn't make their act right nor am I suggesting in any way they should be excused. But there's no indication that she's a serial adulterer or a whore, as she's often portrayed.
Regardless, Jesus was right when he told her (and him, by default): You are free. Go and sin no more.
It's a good lesson for all of us to remember. Whether our sin is a one-time affair or lifestyle of continual violation against God's moral standards. We need to go and sin no more. We are not "who we used to be." We can live better, because we've been freed.
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