Caught In The Act Of Adultery

Lent 5C

John 8: 1 11


By the time the early Church (Around A.D. 382) proclaimed the Canon of the N.T, this story had become associated with St John's Gospel.

Scholars consider it undeniably the work of another writer — similar in style to St Luke but most likely recorded in the 3rd century as part of another work, probably in Syria.

That certainly is consistent with the great emphasis, which is displayed in the writings from amazingly active Church in Syria and Persia.

Every scholar offering a formal commentary on this Gospel explains his/her position as to the origin and authenticity of the insert. Theories abound. We offer a note from Dr George Reich (AD 1889).

"The generally received opinion about this passage may be summed up in a sentence: That it is an authentic incident from the Lord, but that it does not belong to the Gospel of John. It was not received as part of the book till at least the fourth century; and all the oldest manuscripts, with one exception, are without it. Further, the style and language are evidently different from of the Gospel into which it has found its way. But the representation made in it of Jesus, when placed by His enemies in the embarrassing situation, is such as could hardly have been imagined, and yet is in true consistency with the Gospel record.

Thankfully all Christians seem agreed that tradition has accepted the account as authentic and inspired Scripture. We know of no exceptions to this.

Notes On Our Text


The authorities had been arguing in council about how best to get rid of Jesus. Having sent their own police to arrest him they had to face why the officers came back empty-handed: "No man ever spoke like this man!" In the Revised Standard Version, the first 7 words on our reading are actually the end of this incident in chapter 7.

Verse 1

"They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives". Unlike the others, our Lord does not go home but rather to one of his favourite places to be quiet, generally alone, and able to pray.

Verse 2

Early in the morning he went to the Temple where a large crowd had expected to find him. He sat down, in formal teaching tradition, and began to impart his instruction to those who cared to listen.

Verse 3

Having no respect for this young rabbi, nor, for his attentive listeners, some scribes and Pharisees interrupted him and brought in a woman caught in adultery. We must be fair to the Pharisees, many of whom were great examples of Biblical teaching in ethics and compassion. The Greek text refers only to some and not all of those in authority. (Incidentally, St John, writer of the fourth Gospel, never speaks of scribes — the teachers of the Law. This is one of the signs of an insertion — by no means the first: probably the third or fourth, so far.)

The group of scribes make the woman stand in the middle of our Lord's gathering so that she becomes the centre of attention. They could have dealt with the case elsewhere. The signal is clear to Jesus: this is a put-up job!

Verses 4 and 5

The spokesman affords Jesus the correct respect and addresses him, "Teacher", which is doubtless the equivalent of Rabbi. He then states the offence: "This woman was caught in the act of adultery". It is perfectly clear that this is factual and no one wastes time disputing it. What follows is the typical, selective quoting of Sacred Scripture by those who want to use the weight of its authority to manipulate others and puff themselves up as paragons of virtue, performing what it commands.

"In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. Now what do you say?" Notice, the woman was caught "in the act" of adultery. This is a technical, legal term, indicating at least two witnesses being present. The evidence is irrefutable and Jesus cannot evade the situation by saying that the matter is unproven.

Those making the charge are quoting Levit. 20: 10 and Deut.22: 22. If absolute compliance to the letter of the Law is so important, where is the man also "caught in the act"?

Verse 6

Our Lord is shrewd enough to hold back his reply and even to give no reaction whatsoever. He knows that their intention is to trap him in public.

Our Lord's detractors think they have him cornered. If he pardons the woman, he would break the Divine Law. If he proclaims she should be stoned, it would contravene the over-riding Roman Law which removes this right from Jews. Even worse, if he agrees with the woman's captors, he would undo everything he has taught about the lovingkindness and mercy of God.

All eyes are on Jesus. To their surprise He does not reply. Instead he bends over and writes in the dust on the floor with his finger. He appears to "decline jurisdiction" — i.e. to refuse to judge the case, or give any comment.

Verse 7

His detractors see this as lack of confidence and decisiveness, which they cannot resist. They hound him with questions thinking victory is near.

When Jesus is ready and not before, he stops writing in the dust and sits up. They demand an answer, and so he gives it to them — rather more than they bargained for.

"If any one of you is without (the) sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

In other words:

Yes , the woman has committed adultery!

Yes she has been correctly found guilty!

Yes, as the Torah (Law) teaches, she must be executed!

So, let's get on with it!

Let's begin stoning her and who better to start than (as the Law actually requires), one who has never sinned against chastity!

With calm and quiet dignity, Jesus correctly invoked the Law also, as in Deut. 13: 9; 17: 7 (see Lev. 24: 14). The witnesses of the crime must be the first to throw the stones, and they must not have been participants in that category of crime.

By way of comment, we draw on Ryle's analysis of the situation.

"This solemn and weighty sentence is a striking example of our Lord's perfect wisdom. He referred His questioners to Scripture. Deut 17: 7, "The hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death." — It sent their minds home to their own private lives. "Whatever the woman may deserve, are you the people to find fault with her?" — It neither condemned nor justified the adulteress, and yet showed our Lord's reverence for the law of Moses. "I decline to pronounce sentence on this woman, because I am not the judge. You know yourselves what the law is in such cases as well as I do."

"You have no right to assume that I do not reverence the Law as much as yourselves. But since you profess to honour the Law of Moses so much, I remind you that this same Law requires the witnesses to be the executioners. Now are you the persons who ought to punish this woman, however guilty she may be? Do you yourselves come before Me with clear consciences about the seventh commandment?"

"Many think that when our Lord said, "He that is without sin." He meant the expression to be taken in a general sense. I cannot hold this view. It would involve the awkward conclusion that no one could be a judge at all or punish a criminal, because no one is altogether and absolutely "without sin." I am decidedly of opinion that our Lord referred to sin against the seventh commandment."

It should also be noted that, strictly the Law required the eyewitnesses to be the first to cast stones at the offender. Our Lord in his famous reply, makes his point all the stronger: "Let any (one) of you who has never offended chastity have the privilege of commencing the execution". No wonder there is stunned silence!

Verse 8

With absolute dignity, calmness and self confidence, having said all he needed to, our Lord bends over again and carries on writing in the dust on the floor. This action adds greatly to the weighty solemnity of the sentence, which he has just declared. It is as much as to say "I have given you my opinion; now what are you going to do? I await your reply".

Verse 9

Immediately the woman's accusers begin to disappear, one at a time, the older ones first. Eventually there were no accusers left — only the woman still standing there, and Jesus still writing on the floor. There may have been onlookers nearby, but we are given the impression that all is now very still and quiet.

Verse 10

Again, when he is ready, Jesus sits up straight, and says: "Well ma'am, where are they now? Hasn't anyone condemned you?"

Verse 11

"No one. Sir," she replies. "Then nor will I," adds Jesus. There is nothing to stop you also leaving now; but leave behind your life of sin!"

We note that even when Jesus deals out mercy there is no conflict with the Holy Law as recorded in the Torah (first five books of the Bible). Very clearly, the witnesses have quickly slid out of sight, and therefore, legally, Jesus is in no position to pass judgement.

George Reith (AD 1899) sums up for us.

"Was the Lord too lenient? A woman of ordinary feeling in such a position would hardly be in need of much rebuke.

Jesus could safely leave that to her own conscience. If the recollection of His gracious way with her did not avail to keep her in the path of virtue thenceforth, nothing in this world would. And the fact that she remained standing in His presence, when all her accusers were gone, and nothing hindered her also from stealing away to hide her shame, seems to prove that her conscience was at work, and repentance truly began. We cannot doubt it resulted in faith and purity."


There are Christians who continually emphasise the hypocrisy of the Pharisees but who seem blind to the fact that often they themselves far surpass them. Religious arrogance, misuse of Scripture, and selective ethics are alive and well among those who call themselves Christians. However, on this occasion, these forms of corruption are not the main focus of the incident in our reading.

Let us recall that in this deeply moving account, Jesus does not:

— Pronounce the sentence since the witnesses had left hurriedly.

— Acquit the woman of guilt.

— Speak a word of pardon.

Instead, by his words and actions he:

— Warned her firmly and solemnly,

— Gave her time to turn her life around,

— Encouraged her to persevere.

Thus Jesus yet again demonstrated the mercy and lovingkindness of God. Everyone knew he was a compassionate person; that is why the Scribes tried to set him up. Jesus created an opportunity for her to reflect, come to repentance, and seek forgiveness. That is what mercy is all about.

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