Jesus and the Adulteress

Remember the Woman at the Well story in John 8? The Pharisees bring a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus. They tell Jesus that the Law says that she should be stoned to death, and they ask how he would handle it. Jesus says “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Then one by one, the Pharisees leave and Jesus says to the adulteress: “Then neither do I condemn you,…Go now and leave your life of sin.”

The adulteress was guilty; she was caught in the act and no one denies that she is guilty. When Jesus tells her not to do it any more, he implies that he knows she’s guilty. According to the Law, she should be stoned to death.

Note that Jesus never says that she should not be stoned because he forgave her of her sin. In fact he never said that she shouldn’t be stoned. Quite the opposite: he tacitly agrees that she should indeed be stone, but he stipulates that the first stone should be thrown by one without sin. The original Law never stipulates that the adulterer should be stoned only by those without sin – that is Jesus’ modification to the Law (or perhaps it is his supreme understanding of the law). But let’s accept that Jesus, being the Son of God and all, has the right to modify the Law (or is better qualified to interpret it than anyone else). Then according to the law as Jesus redefined it or reinterprets it, the adulteress should be stoned, but one without sin could cast the first stone.

Wasn’t Jesus without sin? Then by Jesus’ own words, he should have thrown the first stone. In fact, didn’t Jesus have an obligation to throw the first stone so that his Law would be upheld? By failing to throw the stone, Jesus violates a Law that he agrees should be upheld – which is a sin.

Here is the full dialog (NIV version):

Joh 8:3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group
Joh 8:4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.
Joh 8:5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
Joh 8:6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.
Joh 8:7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Joh 8:8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
Joh 8:9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
Joh 8:10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
Joh 8:11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”


19 Responses to Jesus and the Adulteress

  1. The Reverend says:

    It is my understanding that this particular story is not in the original text.

    However, the author could be implying that this would be a ‘Catch-22’ situation for the messiah. If he upholds the law, he would not be seen as merciful. If he disregards the law, he is seen as a troublemaker.

    His handling of the situation, tells me, that unless you are sinless yourself, you do not have the right to judge the sins of others. It is a nice sentiment, though.

  2. The Atheist says:

    Quite right – the passage was not in our earliest copies of John and was almost certainly not in the autograph of the gospel.

    I think you’re right about the catch-22 too. Jesus’ response to the trap is reminiscent of cynic rhetoric (cynic as in Greek thought: see, and see especially The cynics were famous for their ability to confound their challengers by turning the challenge on its head and making the challenger look foolish in the process. The writer of the gospel makes Jesus a cynic sage par excellence.

    And of course you are right that the intent of the passage is a statement about who has the right to judge another.

  3. The Reverend says:

    The cynicism would tie in with the Gnostic school of thought as both were in existence during the same time period and both would, quite probably, have been familiar to the writers of the New Testament. Especially Paul of Tarsus as he was a traveller and purportedly a Roman citizen.

    The claim by some that Jesus was a gnostic jew reflects the cynic attitude and would influence the bases of his teachings, including the sermon on the mount.

  4. The Atheist says:

    Interesting connection, between the cynics and gnostics. I never thought about that. I’m going to reread the sermon on the mount with that in mind.

  5. The Reverend says:

    I make the connection between cynicism and gnosticism in that they both eschew the trappings of a materialistic life, i.e. wealth, power, fame, for a more humanist approach.
    The major difference being that gnosticism is theistic in nature while cynicism could be non-theistic.
    In my opinion, many atheists are ‘true gnostics’. We search for the truth concerning ‘life, the universe and everything.’ Whether that ‘everything’ includes some sort of god or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, I will promote logic, reason, science and humanity.

    Blessed are the cheesemakers.

  6. The Atheist says:

    Good thoughts about atheism and true gnosis. Maybe atheists (really freethinkers in general) are also true cynics in the sense that atheists tend to pursue a more real purpose by rejecting convention in favor of reason, and they tend to pursue meaning and virtue in the natural here-and-now. To generalize further, maybe populist forms of Christianity and other religions are a watered-down version of the philosophies that seek after deeper understanding – maybe populist religion is sort of a “Meaning for Dummies”.

    It becomes even more evident when we look at extremes, like the fundamentalist movements that arises from various religions traditions. Fundamentalism affords one the comfort of being told by authority what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial, what is right and wrong. It shields you from having to wrestle with the difficult issues yourself – which is particularly attractive if you don’t feel competent to think for yourself, or if the freedom to choose for yourself is simply too terrifying.

    I made the distinction between atheist and freethinkers because I know people who are Christians, and followers of other religions as well, that even though they have faith, they still consider themselves to be seekers, and I think they really are. Even though they believe in God, they admit that maybe they only believe because they need to believe – and they openly wrestle with their doubts and the cognitive dissonance between their notions about God and the realities of the world. In my view, the final decision of belief or doubt is not as important as the process of honest freethought.

    Blessed are the cheesemakers.

    “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy” :))

  7. The Reverend says:

    I find it ironic that the altruistic core of the sermon on the mount seems contrary to the ultimate self-serving goal of a place in heaven. If you are ‘being good’ with the end result in mind, couldn’t that be construed as selfish and deceitful?
    This would mean the Innuits of Greenland, for example, would be more worthy of a place in heaven than the followers of Jesus. But, because the Innuits aren’t aware of the christian savior concept, they cannot gain access to paradise even though they are more ‘pure of heart.’

    As to ‘the process of honest freethought’, I agree. To me, it is the journey that holds more meaning than the final destination.

  8. The Atheist says:

    I don’t know anything about the culture of Greenland, but I have argued often that atheist ethics are superior than the ethics of adherents to any religion that promises a reward for good behavior, and for the reason you state. I’ve often heard asked, virtually always from fundamentalist Christians, that if they didn’t have religion as a moral guide, what would stop them from stealing and killing? At best, the question is disingenuous, and at worst it’s a indictment of the fundamentalists’ character (that they would steal or kill if there were no after-life consequences)! I find it equally absurd that Islamic martyrs receive 72 virgins (or is it 72 grapes?! see as a reward for leading a pure life on earth. I wonder what kind of unpardonable sins the 72 virgins committed to be sentenced to such a fate.

  9. The Reverend says:

    I’m afraid I should have been more informational as to my obscure reference to the Innuits of Greenland.

    “They hold it atrocious to kill a fellow creature; therefore, war is in their eyes incomprehensible and repulsive, a thing for which their language has no word.”-
    description of the Innuit people of Greenland by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen in 1888

    Still workin’ the writin’ skills.

  10. doug says:

    Oh Really?

    Dear The Atheist aka Samson,

    You told Damion that you would not trade the AT&Thesist site.


    You have not posted since May 22. That is 10 days.

    You have a favorite physicist, Brian Green. Check out my favorite physicist.

    If you would not “trade” the AT&Theist site why have you not posted?

    Obviously you are a liar or are intimidated.

    You are in my prayers as are The Reverend [groan] and J.D.

    Best wishes & God bless you,

    P.S.: “Come out, come out wherever you are.” ;)

  11. J.D. says:

    This is the first night/morning in a while that I have read through some of the other posts. I was enjoying quite an intellectual reading until I noticed Doug’s little purple avatar.

    Reverend and Atheist,
    I am very interested in learning more about the Cynics, referring to my offer in my earlier post, lets get in touch.

    Dougy, Dougy, Dougy,(shaking head in disapproval)

    I do not know the surrounding events of your little party crashing, but you seem to be quit condemning for a “Christian” wouldn’t you think. Then there the pious stank about you last comment

    “Obviously you are a liar or are intimidated.

    You are in my prayers………………………”

    If you cannot add something useful and or relevant to a post in one direction or the either, then please refrain from wasting valuable scrolling space.

  12. The Atheist says:

    I’ll let The Reverend field that one – I knew of the cynics but I never thought their views on materialism being akin to Gnostic’s. Very insightful! It made me realize that antimaterialism was somewhat of a wider-spread theme that surrounded (and possibly inspired) the dawn of Christianity.

  13. The Reverend says:

    Hey J.D., welcome back! I will be in touch.

    Just a few brief comments for now. Another houseful of wanna-be-naked-rock-stars (including groupies) to contend with.

    My reasons for connecting cynicism with gnosticism: The cynic school of philosophy originated about the 4th century BCE. This was also the period of the Hellenistic expansion of Alexander the Great, colonizing portions of Asia and northern Africa, including Alexandria, Egypt.
    The origin of gnosticism is still vague but is held to predate christianity. There is a reference by Justin Martyr to the Hellenians, a pre-christian Jewish sect that was part of the Greek colonization and thought to be an early gnostic group.
    Both cynics and gnostics rejected materialism and regarded virtue as the greatest achievement. However, the cynics also had a disregard for religion, among other things, while the gnostic sects were theistic in nature.
    At this point it is my contention that religious gnosticism was influenced by cynical philosophy.
    And, to further irritate the christians, the gospels of Thomas, Mary and Judas all seem to be grounded in gnosticism, the belief that the creator god of the material world we live in was a lesser god and not the true god.
    Just a thought.

  14. Anonymous says:

    It actually has nothing to do with him trying to outwit the accusers. He was simply notifying them of the truth. His purpose wasn’t to condemn anyone while there,but to offer redemption in his sacrifice. Jesus was never meant to enforce the law,but to complete it. And once he had completed the law and perfected the law, it now gave him complete authority over not just the living but the dead, bringing him into the glory he was predestined to hold.

  15. The Atheist says:

    What do you mean by “completing the Law”? In what way was the Law affected by Jesus’ “completion” of it?

    Note that in Mat 5:17 (KJV), Jesus sets the destruction of the law in direct opposition to fulfilling the law:

    Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

    Then he goes on to clarify in Mat 5:18 (KJV):

    For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

    At the time Jesus spoke this passage, the Law was in full force (not one jot or tittle had changed) because all had not yet been fulfilled since Jesus speaks of fulfillment in the future. All had not yet been fulfilled at the time Jesus spoke to the woman at the well.

    The Law says of itself in Deu 4:40 (KJV):

    Thou shalt keep therefore his statutes, and his commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, for ever.

    And here again in Deu 11:1 (KJV):

    Therefore thou shalt love the LORD thy God, and keep his charge, and his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments, alway.

  16. Anonymous says:

    This story should be easy to understand. The original poster’s question is “Why didn’t Jesus throw the first stone if he was without sin?” A good question since the Bible tells us Jesus is God, the creator of the law. This happened before he was nailed to the cross. Jesus loved the adulteress so much that he took her punishment of death. He did not like what she did, that is why he told her to leave her life of sin. He told her to repent. Vengeance belongs to God, all who have sinned deserve his punishment. If you repent, and believe in Him, he will take your punishment for you. There is an old song that says, “When He was on the cross, I was on his mind” The first time we die we leave this world, then we are judged by God. Those who repent and trust in Jesus will not be condemned, others die the second death, the death of the soul.

  17. Dr Mickey Nadesan says:

    Hello …..a judge never participates in the punishment of an accused. To participate in punishment will place you with the scenario of vested interest either for or against the decision. The Hangman can never be the Judge.

  18. Tails Prower says:

    I think you misinterpreted the text. Jesus does say that the stone is to be thrown only by the one who is without sin, but he never says that that person is required to throw it. So once the pharisees leave, since he is the only man who is allowed to do it, and since he wishes to show mercy and love that God is willing to show, he refuses to punish and forgives her, and for her sake tells her to never do it again. God Bless.

    A proud Roman Catholic
    A proud Christian Furry

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