Hero photograph
"The Woman Caught in Adultery"
Photo by copyright by Chris Higham www.builtonrock.co.uk

Jesus, the Woman and the Pharisees — John 8:1-11

Kathleen Rushton —

Although the story of Jesus, the woman and her accusers is thought to go back to the life of Jesus, it was not until the third century that it was included in the canonical tradition. Even then, this incident took a long time to settle into John’s gospel where we find it today, in John 8:1-11. Some ancient manuscripts place it in two other places, others in Luke’s gospel, and some omit it altogether.

The story was opposed and suppressed because Jesus’ forgiving words were at odds with the ancient Church’s penitential discipline. Augustine, for example, wrote that men feared this story would “make their women immune to punishment for their sins.”

Scripture scholar, Raymond Brown, described the essence of the story as a “succinct expression of the mercy of Jesus.” Augustine had also commented on the woman and Jesus — “only two remain, the wretched one and the incarnation of mercy.” The delicate balance between Jesus’ justice in not condoning the sin and his mercy towards the woman, invites us to ponder our practice in this Year of Mercy.

Scene one: “To stone such women”

It is early morning. “All the people” come to Jesus, who begins teaching in the Temple (Jn 8:1–2). Three scenes follow about both the Scribes and Pharisees, and the woman (Jn 8:3–6a; Jn 8:6b–7; Jn 8:8–11). In the first scene, the Scribes and Pharisees led to Jesus a woman caught in adultery, to ask him to join in condemning her because the Torah said: “Moses commanded us to stone such women.”

In her recent novel about the morally complex King David, The Secret Chord, Geraldine Brooks describes stoning in the voice of Batsheva, David’s eighth wife. Batsheva was Uriah’s wife when David watched her bathing during her ritual purification and desired her. David sent for her and raped her in the palace. Batsheva asks: “Have you ever seen a woman stoned to death, Natan? I have. My father made me watch when I was a girl so I would know what became of faithless wives. And when my monthly signs did not come, I thought of that woman, the sounds of her moans, her mashed flesh, her shattered bone . . . At the end she had no face . . .”

It is important not to pit Jesus against Judaism, by seeing the stoning of women as unique to the Jewish Torah. According to the New Testament scholar Luise Schottroff, “every legal system of antiquity threatens women, whose sexuality is the possession of a man (father or husband), with severe punishment or death in the case of adultery or pre-marital intercourse.”

Stoning is an execution performed by a group, or community, that is threatened by a particular deed. Men throw stones at the victim in a specific order related to the rank of those who were injured, or claim to be so.

An account of the stoning of an allegedly adulterous Iranian woman in 1990, records that her father threw the first stone, followed by her husband, the Imam and then her sons. Each man was plaintiff, judge, and executioner. A crowd participated in the collective rage. The woman was buried in a hole up to her shoulders. The mayor drew a chalk circle around her. She was in the middle.

“In the middle”

Jesus faces a real event not a theoretical debate. The stoning is imminent. The woman is placed literally “in the middle” (Jn 8:3) – other translations have “in full view of everyone” or “before them all”. She is facing death. The Scribes and Pharisees expected Jesus, a Jewish male, to be responsible and to condemn and to participate.

However, not all Scribes and Pharisees (or Imams and their communities) behave in this way. The ones in the Johannine text are zealots, indignantly enforcing the Torah. They are intent on finding fault with Jesus by opposing him to the Torah. They have no interest in the woman, her allegedly wronged husband, or the other man. If they had, both the man and woman caught in adultery should die (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22).

Scene two: Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees

The collective nature of the way the woman was seized and condemned calls on Jesus to take his place in the male hierarchy. They expect him to collude with the male collective as judge and executioner. But he does not answer.

Jesus bends and writes on the ground with his finger. His action disrupts their expectations. They continue to press for an answer so Jesus stands and addresses them directly: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7).

Scene Three: Jesus and the Woman

Then Jesus again bends, writing on the ground. The crowd of accusers leave one-by-one, according to rank. Then Jesus speaks to the woman for the first time: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

He addresses the woman as “you” (Jn 8:10). She is no longer an object. Through unconditional forgiveness, she is able to enter into a relationship with Jesus. On the basis of this relationship, Jesus can challenge her to sin no more. “From this moment on” (literally “from this now on”), the moment of her encounter with Jesus, she is offered the possibility of new life: physical life and a life of right relationship with God.

Civic Moral Courage

Jesus, as an independent interpreter of the Torah, places the offence of adultery, which in patriarchal society made women vulnerable to unjust allegations and treatment, on a level with offences such as theft and defamation. He disputes the status of adultery (shared with idolatry) as a crime requiring death. Scripture scholar, Luise Schottroff, calls his action, civic moral courage.

This story shows gender social constructions. The paper, Women as Actors in Addressing Climate Change, from the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, 2015, defines it as: “the array of ‘socially constructed’ roles, behaviours, attributes, aptitudes, and relative powers linked with being a woman or a man in a society at any given time. The term ‘socially constructed’ means that they are not ‘innate’ or ‘natural’ characteristics but constructions and products of a society and, as such, can be modified and transformed.”

Jesus acted with courage. Benedictine Sister, Maria Boulding noted: “The Pharisees are tense, but [Jesus] is calm and relaxed throughout; he accepts the woman openly and lovingly, as an adult and as a person. He has a sureness of touch; he can handle the situation with her because he has nothing to be afraid of in himself . . . He must have completely accepted and integrated his own sexuality. Only a man who has, or at least begun to do so, can relate properly to women.”

This year of Mercy is our opportunity to practise courage too.

Published in Tui Motu InterIslands Issue 202 March 2016.