Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery (Guercino, 1621, Dulwich Picture Gallery)
53 Καὶ ἐπορεύθησανἕκαστος εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ, 1 Ἰησοῦς δὲ ἐπορεύθη εἰς τὸ Ὄρος τῶν Ἐλαιῶν. 2 Ὄρθρου δὲ πάλιν παρεγένετο εἰς τὸ ἱερόν, καὶ πᾶς ὁλαὸς ἤρχετο πρὸς αὐτόν, καὶ καθίσας ἐδίδασκεν αὐτούς. 3 ἄγουσιν δὲ οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοιγυναῖκα ἐπὶ μοιχείᾳ κατειλημμένην, καὶ στήσαντες αὐτὴν ἐν μέσῳ 4 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Διδάσκαλε, αὕτη ἡγυνὴ κατείληπται ἐπ' αὐτοφώρῳ μοιχευομένη: 5 ἐν δὲ τῷ νόμῳ ἡμῖν Μωϋσῆς ἐνετείλατο τὰς τοιαύταςλιθάζειν: σὺ οὖν τί λέγεις; 6 τοῦτο δὲ ἔλεγον πειράζοντες αὐτόν, ἵνα ἔχωσιν κατηγορεῖν αὐτοῦ.
ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς κάτω κύψας τῷ δακτύλῳ κατέγραφεν εἰς τὴν γῆν. 7 ὡς δὲ ἐπέμενον ἐρωτῶντες αὐτόν, ἀνέκυψενκαὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ὁ ἀναμάρτητος ὑμῶν πρῶτος ἐπ' αὐτὴν βαλέτω λίθον: 8 καὶ πάλιν κατακύψας ἔγραφενεἰς τὴν γῆν. 9 οἱ δὲ ἀκούσαντες ἐξήρχοντο εἷς καθ' εἷς ἀρξάμενοι ἀπὸ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων, καὶ κατελείφθημόνος, καὶ ἡ γυνὴ ἐν μέσῳ οὖσα. 10 ἀνακύψας δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Γύναι, ποῦ εἰσιν; οὐδείς σεκατέκρινεν; 11 ἡ δὲ εἶπεν, Οὐδείς, κύριε. εἶπεν δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Οὐδὲ ἐγώ σε κατακρίνω: πορεύου, [καὶ] ἀπὸ τοῦνῦν μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε.
53 Then each of them went home,
1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, 11 ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’
The earliest manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not include John 7: 53 to John 8: 11 in the Fourth Gospel. Many early manuscripts omit this story, and there is some confusion about where it belongs.
This periscope is not found in its canonical place in any of the earliest surviving Greek Gospel manuscripts. It is not found in the two third century papyrus witnesses to John, P66 and P75. Nor is it found in the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus or the Codex Vaticanus. However, all four manuscripts appear to acknowledge the existence of the passage through the use diacritical marks at the spot.
From an early date it was customary throughout the Greek Church to read John 7: 37-8: 12 on the Day of Pentecost, but omitting 7: 53-8: 11, and concluding with John 8: 12. Two early church Fathers, Saint John Chrysostom (345-407) and Saint Cyril of Alexandria (376-444), in commenting on Saint John’s Gospel, pass straight from John 7: 52 to John 8: 12.
However, the pericope adulterae was probably present in this place Saint John’s Gospel in many Greek manuscripts in Alexandria and other places from the fourth Century onwards. The first surviving Greek manuscript to contain the pericope is the Codex Bezae, in Latin Greek, dating from the late fourth or early fifth century.
Jerome reports that the pericope adulterae was to be found in this place in “many Greek and Latin manuscripts” in Rome and in the Latin West in the late fourth century. This is confirmed by the consensus of Latin Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, including Ambrose and Augustine.
Augustine said these verses were excised by some in order to avoid the impression that Christ had sanctioned adultery. Nikon, a tenth century Greek writer, accused the Armenians of removing the account because “it was harmful for most persons to listen to such things.” However, no Greek Father refers to the pericope until the first part of the 12th century. Nine manuscripts of the ninth century contain these verses and there may be one manuscript including it from the eighth century, but no Father commented upon this passage from the 9th until the 12th century.
In the 16th Century, Western European scholars – both Catholic and Protestant –noticed that a number of early manuscripts of Saint John’s Gospel lacked this passage and that some manuscripts containing the passage marked these verses with critical signs. They also noted that, in the lectionary of the Greek Church, the set gospel reading for Pentecost runs from John 7: 37 to 8: 12, but skips over these 12 verses.
Many scholars continue to defend the Johannine authorship of these verses. However, while almost all modern translations now include the Pericope de Adultera at John 7: 53-8: 11, some place it in brackets, and some add a note about the oldest and most reliable witnesses.
Yet, the pericope de adultera was chosen as the lesson to be read publicly in the Orthodox Church each year on Saint Pelagia’s day, 8 October. And this story contains two of the best known sayings of Jesus: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (AV, verse 7b) and “Go and sin no more” (AV, verse 11). In the NRSV and NIV there are less memorable versions: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (NRSV) or “Let anyone of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and “Go now and leave your life of sin” (NIV).
The literary influences of this passage reflect how well-loved and well-known it is.
Where would we be if we without being able to draw a line in the sand? Who would I accuse if I had permission to throw the first stone? How reckless might each of us be without the admonition to sin no more? Or how guilty might we feel, constantly, without the assurance that we are no longer condemned?
The disciples had gone up on their own for the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) in Jerusalem, where they were joined unexpectedly by Jesus half-way through the Feast. Now they have gone home without him, leaving Jesus alone, and on his own he goes to the Mount of Olives.
Once again, he returns to Jerusalem, and begins teaching in the Temple courts once again. There a trap is set for him by an unholy alliance of Scribes and Pharisees in the form of an apparently honest request for help in pursuing justice. However, we can see in verse 6 that the Scribes and the Pharisees are not interested in justice – they are only interested in trapping Jesus.
Adultery was regarded as a capital crime (see Leviticus 20: 10). This may seem horrifying to our modern minds, but remember how the Mosaic Law was tough on crimes against people, relationships, and the family unit, while other contemporary law codes were tough instead on crime against on property. This difference in emphasis (people or things) indicates different value systems.
Now Jesus is caught in a dilemma: if he agrees with the Mosaic Law and calls for the execution of this woman, he could be accused of sedition, for the Romans had taken away the Jews’ right of capital punishment.
On the other hand, if he says she should not be stoned, he faces accusations of false teaching and could be discredited among the people, who would also prefer harsh punishment for proven criminals.
When Jesus bends down and starts to write in the sand, he might be seen as stalling for time. Yet, he has not been caught off guard in the past.
However, Jewish civil law had very strict conditions under which adultery was punishable by execution. It required that those accused of adultery should be caught in the act (Numbers 5: 13). Rabbi Samuel says: “In the case of adulterers, they [the witnesses] must have seen them in the posture of adulterers.” Another Talmudic scholar says: “[It is not just an issue] of their having seen the couple in a ‘compromising situation,’ for example, coming from a room in which they were alone, or even lying together on the same bed. The actual physical movements of the couple must have been capable of no other explanation, and the witnesses must have seen exactly the same acts at exactly the same time, in the presence of each other, so that their depositions would be identical in every respect.”
But the law also demanded that both parties should be brought forward and prosecuted (Deuteronomy 22: 22). Well, it does take two to commit adultery.
If the woman has been caught in adultery, then where is the man? The whole story could have been fabricated. Perhaps the woman has been up so she can be used to discredit Jesus. Did one of them solicit her, and then others burst in on a pre-arranged signal, let the man go and drag the unfortunate woman before Jesus?
If so, then they too are accessories to the crime and guilty of adultery themselves.
What did Jesus write in the sand? According to several later manuscripts, verse 8 includes the words: “he wrote the sins of each of them” (see Jeremiah 17: 13). But most readings leave us not knowing. Yet, whatever he wrote did not set them back in their intentions, for they kept on questioning him.
So, despite the popular dramatised portrayal of this story, what Jesus said to them is more important than what he wrote on the ground (see verse 7b): Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.
As the men slowly slip away, the woman is left looking at Jesus, and the crowd is still looking on. She has been publicly humiliated, she has been in danger of losing her life, and now her accusers have faded away while she is left embarrassingly in front of Jesus and in front of everyone else.
The response of Jesus to her is very different to the response she must have expected. She does not deny her sinfulness. She simply admits there is no-on there to condemn her. And neither does Jesus condemn her.
He does not say she has not sinned. He accepts her. He loves her. He simply requests that she should sin no more. She makes no apology, and he expects none. This is not about apologies. This is about divine forgiveness, and she receives it and receives the gift of life.
In a real sense, this woman is each and every one of us. We too receive the unrestrained mercy of Christ.
The woman has sinned, she makes no effort to deny or conceal this, and she stands humbly before Christ. Subsequently he extends to her the divine forgiveness that we are all in need of in our lives.
When we read Gospel stories, we often like to think we would behave like Jesus. We ask the WWJD question: “What Would Jesus Do?” But when I read this story, I often fnd myself identifying both with the woman and with the people. So often I can feel I am being unfairly accused and unfairly judged by others ... but if they really knew what was in my heart at times, what would they think of me? And so often I can rush to judgment about others without realising and accepting my own weaknesses, my innate faults, my own sinfulness.
It is right that we are not too quick to judge and it is certainly right that we do not put God to the test as the Pharisees tried to do to Jesus. But neither is it a matter of condoning wrongful behaviour, or turning a blind eye to sin – especially in our own lives. It is a matter of recognising our sinfulness and placing our humble trust in Christ before whom we must all be judged.
This woman places hersself fully and completely at the mercy of God. The NRSV translation “Sir” in verse 11 may appear like a polie Americanism. But it misses the potential that is in the original Greek of seeing her making a confession in Jesus as “Lord” when she says: “Οὐδείς, κύριε.”
Let us then hide nothing from him but turn towards him with all our hearts for forgiveness and by our example encourage others to do the same.
Some questions for discussion:
How do we decide on which passages or books are part of the Bible?
Could you use this passage in teaching and preaching?
Could you use passages from the Apocryphal books?
Who do you identify with in this story?
When others have offended you, can you draw a line in the sand and put their offences behind you?
How do you respond when other people come to you with gossip and stories about the sins or lifestyle of others?
Are there some people who find forgiveness difficult to receive in the Church?
In many moderrn translations, this passage appears to say nothing about the woman’s faith. Do you think there is a necessary connection between faith and the assurance of God’s forgiveness?
What does this passage say about women’s rights?
What does this passage say to you about our role in advocacy?
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with B.Th. and M.Th. students on 24 March 2010.
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