A woman caught in the act of adultery

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.  In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”  They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

Yesterday’s gospel reading is often used nowadays to argue that laws punishing adulterers are somehow unchristian.  This is obviously wrong, because Christians themselves continued to punish adultery for many centuries thereafter, with no one seeing anything contrary to the faith about it until very recently.  Indeed, penalties for adultery became much harsher when the Roman Empire was Christianized.  Adultery is intrinsically evil, and it is a menace to the common good, so punishing it is an appropriate state act.  Another unfortunate message readers sometimes take away is that wanting to see such laws enforced marks one out as self-righteous and hypocritical.  When an appropriate authority enforces the law, this is certainly no mark against that magistrate’s character, but this is not the situation that confronted Jesus.

Let us ask why it says the Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus with this question.  After all, they just gave him the right answer, right?  If Jesus would have just agreed with them, of what could He be accused?  Well, as the Pharisees later admit to Pilate, they don’t have the authority to carry out executions. (“We have no law to put any man to death.”)  So we are not here dealing with a proper exercise of authority.  What we are dealing with is something more like a mob.  Jesus is being tested in the same way He was when asked whether it is right to pay taxes.  When taking a position on how to deal with the occupation, it’s hard not to come off as either suicidal or cowardly.  Christ must either defy the occupational arrangement or seem indifferent to the enforcement of the Mosaic Law.

Jesus resolves the problem by emphasizing the crowd’s lack of authority.  He questions neither the Law nor the woman’s guilt.  He does not even take any initiative to rescue the man caught in adultery, who is likewise liable to stoning.  He only asks what right the crowd has to take upon itself the enforcement of the law.  It could only be based on their supposedly greater righteousness and purity.  Christ points out that if that is your claim to power, you had best take a more honest look inside yourself and realize that you are as much a sinner as anyone else.  Human authority cannot base itself on the virtue of those who rule, for all are sinners.  Rather, it comes from being one of God’s official ministers, of whom it is said that they do not wear the sword in vain.

8 thoughts on “A woman caught in the act of adultery

  1. The typical approach today is to argue that Christianity demands that the husband forgive an adulterous wife – or indeed, a wife who commits any other kind of sin – no matter what.

    Whatever one may say about this as a matter of theory, “unconditional forgiveness” is an untenable approach in practice.

  2. Yup, another of the “Top Ten Most Misunderstood (or Misapplied) Bible Passages”. The most offensively abused segment is this line:

    “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

    – too often used today to insinuate that anyone who has ever sinned, in any way, has no right to condemn another for anything at all, ever. In fact, note that, although this is not commonly known today (especially amongst people who want to condemn the OT as overly harsh), Jewish law required the testimony of multiple witnesses in order to make a conviction of adultery. Read in cultural context, it appears that the Pharisees in this passage were likely breaking the law themselves by accusing the woman on the basis of insufficient evidence. There is a very good case to be made that Jesus is saying, “Whichever one of you is without sin in this matter be the first to cast a stone” – which, if true, says nothing about what sorts of things we should and should not create laws about.

    This is obviously wrong, because Christians themselves continued to punish adultery for many centuries thereafter, with no one seeing anything contrary to the faith about it until very recently. Indeed, penalties for adultery became much harsher when the Roman Empire was Christianized. Adultery is intrinsically evil, and it is a menace to the common good, so punishing it is an appropriate state act.

    Quite, Mr. B.

  3. I’m sympathetic to the (non-canonical) interpretation that says that Jesus was writing in the sand the Biblical passage that condemned the sin he read in the hearts of the leaders of the mob (the elders who left first). Let’s say one of the elders had lain with a man. Jesus looks right at him, writes down the appropriate reference to Leviticus, and the elder, drawn as if against his will, reads there his own deepest most shameful and (he thought) secret sin. He gasps, and shamed (and fearing exposure) staggers away. Similarly for the next leader or two: Jesus reads their darkest secret sin, writes the passage in the sand, the leader reads it, and flees. I’m sympathetic to this interpretation because an appeal to the conscience of a mob doesn’t usually work. Jesus spoke to them in precisely the language they were using to condemn the women, and they fled, not just out of shame, but fear.

  4. Jewish law required that the witnesses throw the first stones, so Jesus is trapping them in their own trap. If they throw the stones, the Romans will put them to death. He does do something like expose sins when he tells her “Neither do I condemm you”, although he could.

  5. I need some advice. My best friend is a Christian – she is a good person who is making some wrong decisions. She is dating a married man with 3 children – he says his marriage is over and he has known this for a long time – that meeting her has given him the realization that he can love again.

    My friend has been divorced for 5 years and has called herself a “lapsed Christian” – she tends to live her life as she see’s fit and then, when things start going wrong, she starts reading her bible and going back to church – things sort themselves out and then she “lapses” again.

    We’ve grown up together – I’ve known her for over 20 years, so I’ve seen her go through these phases many, many times. Right now, she is in love, so all is right with her world. I just want to help her realize that what she is doing is wrong and she needs to stop seeing this man. And, I think what put me over the edge this time, is that she tells people what a good Christian she is, all the while she is committing adultery.

    I’ve tried telling her to seek counsel from her pastor, I’ve tried talking to her myself, but she truly believes that God brought this man into her life, so she is able to see him.

    Please help me to help her

    • Hello Ms. Geller,

      I’m sorry to hear that your friend has taken this attitude. I don’t know of anything that can snap a person out of these sorts of rationalizations. Not when the ambient culture supports them, anyway. Ideally, people should respond to a summons to fulfil their duties, but in this case Wm. Lewis is probably right that the only way for her to call things off would be to diminish the adulterer in her mind–getting her to see him as unreliable, weak, and unmasculine. However, if you try to do this, she’ll probably just turn against you.

      This fellow she’s found does sound like a real piece of work, though. “His marriage is over”, meaning the fact that he’s violating his vows somehow cause them to cease to exist. He can “love again”, but apparently not his own children enough to leave them an intact family. The more I think about divorce and adultery, the more grateful I am to Jesus for talking straight about them.

  6. That’s a difficult situation.

    If your friend really believes what the Bible says, you might be able to use some Bible verses to sway her. Let her know that sexual relations, of any kind, outside of marriage are sinful (that’s in the Ten Commandments). Use Paul’s exhortations against sexual sin.

    I have the feeling that Scripture won’t help, though. Talk to her about what kind of a man would break his wedding vows, and how untrustworthy he is. Many married men who claim an “unhappy marriage” are no more than cads—men who take advantage of gullible women. He almost certainly has no intention of leaving his wife for her. Convince her that even if he does leave his wife for her, and marries her, she will have just married a man who cheats on his wife.

    I wish you luck in getting your friend to see the error of her ways.

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