Caught In The Act Of Adultery
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).
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.
"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.
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.
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"?
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.
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.
In other words:
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.
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!
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".
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.
Again, when he is ready, Jesus sits up straight, and says: "Well ma'am, where are they now? Hasn't anyone condemned you?"
"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.
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:
Instead, by his words and actions he:
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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