If Jesus had consented that the woman should be stoned to death, it would have conflicted with his teaching on love, mercy, and forgiveness, and he would have lost his reputation as a friend of sinners.
Last week’s post explored how Jesus avoided conflict regarding paying the temple tax. Today’s post considers Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery. As Jesus was teaching in the temple, the scribes and the Pharisees brought before him an adulterous woman to test him so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus’ response by writing on the ground accompanied by a comment made them withdraw from him and the woman (John 8:2-11).
Although the story is famous for the forgiveness granted to the woman, it also demonstrates how Jesus avoided confrontation with the Jewish authorities and prevented a violent intervention by the Romans.
The story appears only in the gospel of John. In ancient Jewish tradition, adultery was a sin against the sixth commandment of God, which says: “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex 20:14). It was also a sin against the community, and the law of Moses empowered the community to execute an offender. According to the Mosaic law, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev 20:10). Rabbinical courts were established to judge cases and mete out this punishment to offenders (Deut 16:18).
Why did they approach Jesus?
The scribes and the Pharisees knew that Jesus preached love instead of hatred (Matt 5:43-44), forgiveness instead of retributive justice (Matt 18:21-21), and mercy instead of condemnation (John 3:17). They heard Jesus preaching that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets rather, to fulfil them (Matt 5:17). They also knew that although Jesus was called rabbi, he was not an official member of the rabbinical institution. Therefore, they approached Jesus to lure him to either contradict himself, to oppose the Mosaic law or to usurp the authority of the rabbis. They intended to find something with which to charge him for wrongdoing.
How they posed the question to Jesus confirmed these ulterior motives. They asked: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery”. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now, what do you say?” This question was shaped to ensure that if Jesus fails the test, he cannot successfully claim to misunderstand the question. First, by underlining that the woman was caught in the very act, they eliminated the possible claim of false accusation. Second, they referred to the Mosaic law so that Jesus could not feign ignorance of the punishment for adultery. Third, they demanded an immediate answer, eliminating the option of no response.
The Response of Jesus
The response of Jesus was twofold: the writing on the ground and his spoken words. As the evangelist did not indicate what Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger, the content of that text remains elusive and subject to many conjectures. Perhaps he wrote down the sins of the accusers. Maybe, as the scribes and the Pharisees only quoted the part of the law that the adulteress must be killed, Jesus wrote down the other part, which stated that the adulterer must also be killed.
Nevertheless, by deciding to write on the ground instead of giving an immediate response, Jesus gave the scribes and the Pharisees some time to think about the injustice in their judgement and to remember that he lacked the competence to judge civil cases. When they insisted on an answer (John 8:7), Jesus asked anyone without sin to throw the stone first. He bent down and continued writing on the ground. Consequently, they began departing one after the other, beginning with the elders.
A direct response to the question would have had grave implications. First, as Jesus lacked judicial competence for civil cases, he would have usurped civil authority if he had judged the case.
As the Jews under Roman rule had no authority to carry out the death sentence, he would have also offended the Romans. Contravening the Roman law would have attracted the Roman authorities, and the events that might have followed would have altered his ministry and, ultimately, the divine plan. If Jesus had judged the case to avoid Roman intervention but opposed lapidation, he would have contradicted his teachings on mercy and forgiveness.
Third, if Jesus had opposed the execution of the woman, he would have been accused of teaching against the law of Moses, condoning sin and even encouraging adultery.
Lessons from Jesus
(a)Justice is always supreme:
Biased implementation or interpretation of the law is one of the causes of conflict. In such cases, the victim of impartiality is indignant and often seeks to fight back. The law of Moses on adultery was explicit that both the adulterer and the adulteress should be killed, but the scribes and the Pharisees cherry-picked the part that favoured them. Perhaps, like the case of Susanna, they might have argued that the man escaped (Daniel 13:36-41). Their action was contrary to Moses’ unequivocal criteria for judgement that judges must not distort justice, show partiality, or accept bribes (Deut 16:19-20).
(b)Do not usurp another’s authority:
Usurpation is always a source of conflict because it threatens the authority of another person. As the scribes and the Pharisees hoped that Jesus would usurp the authority of the rabbinical courts, Jesus responded in a way that avoided making a sentence in favour or against the woman.
(c)Keep to the rules of your vocation:
This is closely linked to the previous lesson. Jesus never wavered in his resolve to separate his spiritual mission from civil affairs. The scribes and the Pharisees brought the woman for Jesus to pronounce the civil punishment of stoning adulterers to death. However, in his judgement, Jesus acted as God and decided to pardon the woman instead of condemning her. In doing so, Jesus was consistent in his teachings on love, mercy, and forgiveness and kept to the rules that guided his mission.
(d)Be cautious of flattery:
There is no doubt that the Jewish leaders opposed Jesus because he constituted a threat to their authority and influence. Although the Pharisees had sometimes called Jesus ‘teacher’, using this exalted term in the story had ulterior motives.
(e)Know the law:
Jesus’ knowledge of the law largely influenced his response to the scribes and Pharisees. When they quoted the law for him, he knew they had cherry-picked a part to favour their judgement. Knowing that they judged impartially and the scribes and Pharisees were all men, Jesus tactfully reminded them of the missing part. In doing so, Jesus avoided a confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees.
(f)Avoid rash judgements:
Rash judgement is one of the causes of conflict. In this age of fake news, initiating a conflict over something that never happened is easy. Before the conflicting parties often realise the falsity of some claims, the conflict may have escalated and transcended beyond those initial false claims. Conflict resolution sometimes becomes intractable at this stage because of ego and third-party interests. By writing on the ground, Jesus demonstrated the need to avoid making rash judgements. He taught the need for a profound examination of cases to prevent partial judgements and conflict.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾
I am a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Okigwe, Nigeria, and an advocate of the indispensable role of religion in contemporary society. My academic background includes degrees in philosophy, theology, education, peace and conflict resolution, religion, and canon law. These studies give me a broad perspective that helps in an existential analysis of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.