Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

110. The Woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11) *

Next day, after his great appeal in the temple court, Jesus was early in the temple again, resuming the role he had adopted since his arrival in Jerusalem in the middle of the week. He sat as an instructing rabbi and taught all who cared to come and listen.

Whilst this work was in progress there came an interruption. Scribes and Pharisees from the Sanhedrin came pushing through the crowd, challenging Jesus to give judgement on a point of law. They thrust a young woman in front of him.

"Teacher", they said with an irony which gave them no little pleasure, "this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?"

It was a crude nasty-minded thing to do. Why did they not take her before the court which normally dealt with such problems? And what about the man involved in this sin? Why did they not bring him also? Was not he equally guilty?

Or, if really eager for help in the handling of a tricky point of law, they could have approached Jesus quietly, instead of salaciously parading the woman's shame before the throng. But they were not seeking advice. Their words showed that their own minds were made up on the matter. They knew well enough the precept of the Law of Moses about such cases. Their real intention was to face Jesus with an embarrassing problem. And their stones were poised, not only to throw at the woman but also at him!

An Evil Dilemma

What, precisely, was the dilemma by which they hoped to score over him in this issue? Clearly, if he said: "No, do not stone her", then it would be easy to rouse the rabble with the cry: "This man speaks against Moses."

But if he said: "Yes, do exactly as Moses commanded', how could they take advantage of such an answer? The explanation comes from the Scripture they had alluded to: "If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die" (Dt. 22 :23,24). There were other cases of sexual promiscuity for which the Law pronounced sentence of death, but this was the only one for which stoning was the penalty. According to the writings of the rabbis, in other instances death was by strangulation, using a cord twisted round the throat. So the accusers were making reference very precisely to this passage-about the sin of a woman betrothed to a husband. Then, had Jesus replied, "Yes, stone her", they would have triumphantly jibed at him: "Then shall we do just that to your mother?”


It was a devilish attack, and devilishly clever in the way it was framed. That this was the point of it is evident from the context. In the ensuing discussion, one expression after another takes on a fuller meaning in the light of it:

"As for this fellow, we know not from whence he is" (9 :29). "We be not born of fornication" they threw at him with malicious relish (v.41). And again, deliberately choosing to misunderstand him, they asked: "Where is thy father?" (v. 19).

It is very evident that they had made careful investigation regarding the origins of Jesus, and had come up against a problem. But by providing their own nasty answer to it they felt that they could make capital out of the situation. The sneer in their voices can almost be heard: "Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan?" (v.48)-that is, of mixed Jewish and Gentile origin. To this day the Talmud preserves the Jewish slander that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier called Pandira.

The replies given by Jesus in the same discussion were clearly framed with reference to this foul attack: "Ye judge after the flesh ... I know whence I came, and whither I go; but ye cannot tell whence I come, and whither I go... I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me ... if ye had known me, ye would have known my Father also ... which of you convicteth me of sin ... he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone" (v.14,15,16,19,29). In the next study it will be shown that one section of this discourse of Jesus was a Biblical answer to this attack now being made on him.

What did Jesus write?

But when the problem of the woman's sin was put to him he did not make reply at first. Instead he stooped down and with his finger began to write in the dust of the temple court which was as yet unpaved. What he wrote has been a subject for the speculations of all gospel readers.

Was it the relevant passage from Deuteronomy 22, reminding them that the Law commanded judgment on both the offenders? Why had they not brought the man also? Or was it the grim prophecy which was written with "the fingers of a man's hand" on the wall of a palace in Babylon: "Weighed in the balances, and found wanting?"

There is a suggestion, first made centuries ago, which seems to carry a marvellous appropriateness in many of its details—that Jesus wrote the relevent passages out of Jeremiah 17: "O Lord, the hope of Israel, oil that forsake thee shall be ashamed (the scribes skulking away from Christ's writing), and they that depart from me (note the change of pronoun) shall be written in the earth (instead of in the book of life), because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters (recall the water-pouring ceremony at that feast) . . . Behold, they say unto me, Where is the word of the Lord? let it come now? (the challenge made by the Lord's enemies) ... Let them be confounded that persecute me, but let not me be confounded ... bring upon them the day of evil, and destroy them with the double destruction,. . The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give to every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings" (Jer. 17 :9-18). The same Scripture begins with these words: "The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven upon the table of their heart, and upon the horns of your altars"-and the next verse makes allusion to the fornication which Israel practised, calling it religion.

Careful attention to the details of John 8 reveals that Jesus wrote twice (as his Father also did with the Ten Commandments). Then, at the second writing, did Jesus write in the earth the names (Jer. 17 :13) of his present adversaries and those with whom they had been associated in evil? And if he knew their names, then what else did he know about them?!

Bitter waters

It is not inappropriate here to draw attention to the Mosaic "trial of jealousy (Num. 5:llff|, A man suspecting his wife of unfaithfulness was to bring her and a sin-offering to the priest. The Law's curses were written in a book and then anointed out by means of and into the "pure living water" (LXX) which had been mixed wild dust from the floor of the sanctuary. These "bitter waters" were drunk by the woman, and the curse operated, in very fearful fashion, only if she were guilty. J. W. Burgon drew attentionto the points of contact between the present episode and the trial of jealousy: sexual unfaithfulness, the dust of the temple, the living water (Jn. 7:37,38), and "waters of conviction" (Num. 5:24 LXX; cp. "they. . . convicted by their own conscience").

Reference of these details to the woman before Jesus is utterly inappropriate, for they concerned an occasion of unproven suspicion (Num. 5:13,14) whereas she was "taken in the very act".

But reference to the elders making the charge before Jesus is very likely. It finds support from a remarkable passage in Isaiah 43:24,28 LXX: "Thou dids't stand before me in thy sins... I, even, I am he that blots out thy transgressions... But do thou remember. . . do thou first confess thy transgressions, that thou mayest be justified. Tour fathers first and your princes have transgressed against me" (and 44:2,3,5).

"Without Sin"

When the adversaries of Jesus pressed him for an expression of judgement on this ease-thinking, no doubt that he was embarrassed and therefore evasive—he broke off to look at them all, saying: "He that is without sin among you (less than two weeks after the Day of Atonement!) let him first cast a stone at her."

The words could not be construed as a blunt disowning of Moses. But what did they mean? The completely and utterly sinless man? In that case, Jesus himself was the only one qualified to carry out the sentence: "Which of you convicteth me of sin?"-and he refused to carry it out: "Neither do I condemn thee."

Some have guessed that Jesus meant: He that is without this sin of adultery with which the woman is charged. But it is surely unlikely that the entire group of scribes and elders before him were men of that character.

The use of the same Greek word in its only occurrence in the LXX version (Dt. 29 :19) might suggest the idea: He that is without an ulterior motive in putting this problem before me.

But the absence of the other party to the offence points to a different meaning. The law in Deuteronomy 22 required that both the woman and the man be stoned. Why then was only the woman brought to judgement? Could it be that he was a friend or colleague of those now badgering Jesus about this problem, and that he had been quietly let go scot-free? Yet Deuteronomy commanded that even though an offence be committed by "thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul. . . thine eye shall not pity him. . . thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones that he die" (13:6-10). Thus Jesus exposed once again their inability to “judge righteous judgement".

The outcome

As he resumed his writing on the ground, the force of his rebuke went name, the more so because now the point of it was appreciated by all the crowd ringing them round in tense alert silence. The elders in the Sanhedrin deputation saw that instead of Jesus it was themselves who had lost standing (Ps. 9 :15), and they quietly made off through the crowd, as though their enquiry were concluded. And the rest of their group soon followed them. Perhaps their retreat, one by one, took place as Jesus wrote in succession the names of each one of them in the earth (Jer. 17:13).

The phrase: "being convicted by their own conscience, "unwarrantably omitted in some translations, is vindicated by the link with Num. 5: 17 LXX: "waters of conviction", and by Jeremiah: "they that forsake me shall be ashamed" (17:13).

The situation is reminiscent of the occasion when the prophet Samuel came to the home of Jesse, and the seven sons of the family were paraded before him. "Surely the Lord's anointed is before him." But, no! "Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart." Then came David, the Beloved, the keeper of the sheep. "This is he ... and the Spirit of the Lord came upon him." The others, for all their impressiveness to human eyes, came and went unhonoured by God (1 Sam. 16:7).

Yet another marvellously apposite Scripture is that which Jesus himself alluded to in his preaching earlier that week: "The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple... he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver ... a swift witness against the adulterers, and against false swearers . . . But who may abide the day of his coming" (Mal. 3:1-5).

Such resemblances served then to emphasize the Lord's divine authority. Today they also serve to establish the unity and divine authority of the record.


The tenseness was gone now from the situation. Jesus straightened himself from writing on the ground. There was only the foolish sinful girl in tears, and all round a dense throng in silence, listening hard for the Lord's next word. No accusers? No condemnation? "No man, Lord." She called Jesus "Lord". Her experience proved the truth of a matchless scripture: "There is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared" (Ps. 130:4).

"Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more."

There is a certain amount of evidence that because of the seeming lenity of this pronouncement, this section of the gospel had a certain unpopularity in the early church, for it was interpreted by some as an encouragement to moral looseness. And who shall say there is no such suspicion in modern times?

Yet Jesus did not attempt any cover up of the blunt facts of the case. What the woman had done was a sin, and was plainly labelled as such.

Her own attitude has been variously represented. Hoskyns is surely in error in his comment: "The woman expresses neither faith nor repentance." Cannot both be inferred from the fact, first, that she stayed there with Jesus. A wayward strumpet would have cheerfully taken herself off as soon as her accusers disappeared. But she stayed with him-andslie addressed him as "Lord", Does not that one word speak volumes about change of heart?

There is a parable here of more than ordinary importance. Jesus in the temple in the company of three kinds of sinners: the woman, knowing herself to be a breaker of God's law and known as such by everybody there: she stays with Jests and finds no condemnation; the crowd, themselves sinners, all of them, witnessing die graciousness of Christ and staying to hear him say: "I am the Light of the World: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life;" and the elders, hypocritical, yet convicted of sin, and going away from Jesus (and from the temple) unforgiven, unforgiveable.

Notes: Jn. 8:1 -11

The verses 7:53-8 :2 are very like Lk. 21 :37,38. But the details would be equally true for any occasion when Jesus was teaching in the temple.
In the very act. The Greek root means 'theft'.
Such. The Greek word is feminine. There is pointed ignoring of the man involved.
This they said. Explanatory insertions are characteristic of John's gospel: 6:6,71; 7:39; 11 :13,51;21:19,

Wrote. Continuous tense: he kept on writing.
Continued. The word means either that they kept at it (as in Acts 12 :10), or that they stayed on (contrast v.9),

Without sin. Dt.29 :18-20 has other significant allusions to the trial of bitter waters: "turneth away... galled wormwood (bitter waters?)... curse. ..his jealousy. ..all the curses written in this book.. .blot out his name."
Eldest...last The word is literally elders and last may perhaps mean least important; cp. 1 Cor.4:9, 15:8.

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