53Then each of them went home, 1while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They 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. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone amount you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone as her.” 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.10Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
John 7:53-8:11 NRSV
The Gospel of John is unique within the genre of the canonized gospels due to its advanced theological interpretations of Jesus as the Son of God, and well-developed literary devices such as poetry, symbolism, and irony. Scholars agree that a lot of ambiguity and conjectures about the certainty of this gospel’s authorship, date of writing, and sources continue to this day. Despite the unknown specifics about the production of this gospel, the passage about “The Woman Caught in Adultery” is agreed by religious scholars to not be initially included in the Gospel of John (Burge, 1996; Keener, 2014; Kieffer, 2007; Rensberger, 2006; Scott, 2003; Shepherd, 1971). However, according to the redactors, this passage appropriately belongs in the Gospel of John because it reflects the author’s belief in Jesus’ authority from God, and his compassionate promise to “judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgement is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me,” (Jn 8:15b-16).
The Gospel of John is included in the Christian canon, but it is not included as a synoptic gospel because is contains unique characters and events not mentioned in the other three canonized gospels, and lacks stories that are included in them (Rensberger, 2006). Unfortunately, the differences between this gospel and the others have caused speculation about the reliability of this account of Jesus (Kieffer, 2007), but scholars like Burge and Shepherd argue the authenticity and historicity of this book being corroborated by subsequent historical and archaeological discoveries, like the documents found near Qumran, that support the author’s claims.
There are a number of theories about the identity of this “beloved disciple” who wrote the fourth gospel. Some scholars recognize the author as an entire Johannine school, formed by multiple disciples of John, the son of Zebedee, which represents an “idealized literary figure,” as an author through a process of redaction and revision (Burge, 1996; Keener, 2014; Kiefer, 2007). This theory has substantial evidence in the cultural context of conflict between the early Jewish Christians and authorities of the Jewish synagogues (Keener, 2014; Rensberger, 2006). However, another widely accepted belief with strong evidence is that the author is John, son of Zebedee, and apostle of Jesus (Burge, 1996; Keener, 2014; Rensberger, 2006; Shepherd, 1971). Scholars have access to ancient accounts of Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, and other historical figures who claim to have been instructed by John, and that he “lived to a great age,” (Burge, 1996). Burge cites historical documents that claim John, the apostle of Jesus, lived until the reign of Trajan, who ruled between 98 and 117 C.E.; another account states that John lived to the 68th year after the death of Jesus, which would be around 98 C.E. Either way, the gospel’s claim to come from an eye witness is significant (Keener, 2014), and the gospel has been revised, most likely by John’s disciples (Kieffer, 2007) which is evidenced by the original absence of the 7:53-8:11 passage in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John.
Although the authorship of the gospel is contested by scholars, it is generally agreed that the gospel was primarily composed in Ephesus around the 90s of the first century; that time period cannot be debated because it has been confirmed by a manuscript fragment of the gospel dating to the early 2nd century (Keener, 2014). The date is significant because it shapes the literary devices and tone of John’s gospel. After the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., Pharisees gained religious authority and power, which is present in John’s gospel, and conflict arose between the religious authorities (Pharisees) and Jewish Christian believers as early as the 70s and most definitely by the 90s (Keener, 2014). Rensberger suggests a later time period of authorship, which ranges from 90 – 120 C.E., but other scholars generally agree that it was composed before the turn of the first century (Burge, 1996; Keener, 2014; Kieffer, 2007; Shepherd, 1971). Ignatius, the martyr-Bishop of Antioch was using phrases and alluding to the gospel of John in 115 C.E., which means the gospel message had been transcribed and was circulating by then (Shepherd, 1971). The gospel, a “hostile picture of relations between Jesus and the Jews,” (Rensberger, 2006) was directed toward a wide audience, but primarily existing Jewish Christians, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name,” (Jn 20:31 NRSV).
The estimated time scholars believe the Gospel of John had been written indicates that the author would have had all other canonized gospels available as sources, but this gospel is truly unique in having so few passages parallel to those of the synoptics (Rensberger, 2006). The fourth gospel clearly has its own agenda in confirming Jesus as the son of God, but Kieffer conjectures that it was inspired by Mark, and possibly Luke or perhaps a mutual source of Luke and John. This might be the reason that the 7:53-8:11 passage was originally inserted in the Gospel of Luke. This passage of the adulterous woman is included in John because of “its affinity to other Johannine stories in which Jesus and women engage sympathetically with one another,” but it is clearly the ending of a different passage because it has no relation to verse 7:52 (Scott, 2003). But this passage of the adulterous woman does start with a typical action of going to the temple in the morning to teach, as seen in Luke 21:37 (Kieffer, 2007; Rensberger, 2006). Verse 3 in the NRSV, NIV, ESV, and KJV translations identifies the scribes and pharisees as the people who brought the woman to Jesus, among others, which is significant because “scribes” are not mentioned by name in any other passage of John’s gospel (Keener, 2014; Rensberger, 2006). This makes the style to be very unlike John (Burge, 1996), which further supports the theory that this passage was later added during a redaction. Regardless of original authorship, this passage appears to be authentic and accurate; it is likely that the scribes were present with the Pharisees during that historical time period and in that location because they were active in the temple and responsible for administration and diplomacy (Browning, 1996). Together, the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman in front of Jesus and accused her of adultery. They claimed “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery,” (v. 5), but many scholars question the truth of their assertion.
Scott provides four reasons to believe that the scribes and Pharisees presented this woman to Jesus as a set-up: First, they are religious authorities, and there is no reason to try the case in public or consult Jesus if they actually had evidence or eye-witness accounts of her committing adultery. Secondly, only the woman is brought before Jesus. Deuteronomy 22:22 states that “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel,” (NRSV). Therefore, if the woman had really been caught in the act, then the scribes and Pharisees would be obligated to also accuse and punish the male offender as well. Since the man was not brought forward, readers can either assume the Pharisees knowingly let him go unpunished or are falsely accusing the woman, which are both morally wrong (Burge, 1996). Thirdly, given the political climate, bringing this charge to be decided by Jesus puts him in an impossible position. “Rome had re-moved capital jurisdiction from Jewish courts, except for temple violations. Thus the Jewish leaders test whether Jesus will reject the law, compromising his patriotic Jewish following, or reject Roman rule, which will allow them to accuse him to the Romans,” (Keener, 2014). Fourthly, the narrator of the story indicates the purpose of the Pharisees and scribes is to entrap Jesus, which corroborates a set-up, of which Jesus is very likely to be aware.
Next in the passage, Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger (v. 6b). Readers and scholars alike debate what Jesus was writing. At that time, Roman judges wrote the offenders’ sentences before executing a punishment, so it is speculated that Jesus was writing an acquittal (Keener, 2014). Scripture also depicts God as writing the commandments with His finger (Keener, 2014), so it is also possible that Jesus is writing a commandment, like Deuteronomy 19:18-19, which says, “and the judges shall make a thorough inquiry. If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst,” (NRSV). If this is what Jesus wrote, it would accuse the Pharisees and scribes for bearing false witness, which would result in an equal punishment of being stoned. There is no conclusive way to know what Jesus wrote on the ground, but the latter conclusion would better support the author’s belief in Jesus having equal authority to God by being equally able to write the commandments and be able to “judge.”
Finally, in verse 7, he stands up from writing and says “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” This statement is possibly based on the Law found in Deuteronomy 17:7 (Rensberger, 2006): “The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (NRSV). At this time, the Pharisees and scribes could probably see what was written on the ground. “[A]s the elders in the Sanhedrin have not been mentioned before, presbytery designates probably the oldest men,” among the supposed witnesses are to begin throwing the first stones (Kieffer, 2007). But instead of throwing stones, according to verse 9, “When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders.” Somehow, the accusers became convicted of their own sin, most likely of being a false witness, and walked away without throwing a stone.
Once they left, Jesus was left alone with the woman. “With much skill the author has delayed the dialogue with the accused woman to the end of the story,” (Kieffer, 2007). According to the narrator, Jesus asks the woman if anyone remains. When she answers answers in the negative, he replies, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Throughout the various translations, this line of dialogue is most likely to be significantly altered than any other line in the passage. The NIV translation says “Then neither do I condemn you…,” which the operative word being “then,” which indicates a dependence on the lack of condemnation by the Pharisees and scribes. Most other translations do not include that condition, which better conforms to the authority attributed to Jesus in this gospel; his judgement is not dependent on the judgement of others. Although it is likely that the Pharisees and scribes falsely accused the woman, Jesus’ command to her to “not sin again,” implies that she had sinned, which would be justly punishable by law. The final words of Jesus echo the admonition he gave after healing a man in Jn 5:14 (Scott, 2003), which reflect Jesus’ choice to heal the woman of her past transgressions, but without condoning her sin or condemning her.
This passage shows two sides of Jesus; his righteous judgement and compassionate mercy, which he gives equally to the adulterous woman and the false accusers. The Jewish Testament portrays God’s righteousness, judgement, and just punishment, but this gospel message asserts that Jesus has the same authority of God, and shows mercy and love instead. Jesus, in the passage, presents a new image of God to the readers of the Johannine gospel. The redactors seem to have inserted this passage, which is consistent with other actions of Jesus, historical locations, and events, into the Gospel of John in order to prelude Jesus’ powerful assertion about his authority and right to judge (Jn 8:16). This pronouncement story of the woman who committed adultery reflects the author’s belief in Jesus’ authority to judge, but within the context of his compassion and mercy.
Browning, W. (1996). A Dictionary of the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press.
Burge, G. (1996). John. In W. Elwell (Ed.), Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (pp. 840-858). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.
Goodrick, E., & Kohlenberger, J. (1981). The NIV Complete Concordance: The Complete English Concordance to the New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Keener, C. (2014). John. In The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (2nd ed., pp. 245-272). Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Kieffer, R. (2007). John. In J. Barton & J. Muddiman (Eds.), The Oxford Bible Commentary (pp. 960-1000). New York: Oxford University Press.
Rensberger, D. (2006). The Gospel According to John. In W. Meeks (Ed.), The Harper Collins Study Bible (Student Edition ed., pp. 1814-1831). New York: HarperCollins Publisher.
Scott, M. (2003). Book of John. In J. Dunn & J. Rogerson (Eds.), Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (pp. 1161-1182). Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans.
Shepherd, Jr., M. (1971). The Gospel According to John. In C. Laymon (Ed.), The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible (pp. 707-718). Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press.