26 July 2014

John 7:53 – 8.11

“Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.’” (vv. 10–11)


Biblical scholars have long debated whether the story of the woman caught in adultery is an insertion into the Gospel. Most ancient manuscripts do not have this passage at all and a number of other manuscripts have the story at a different point in the Gospel. But some ancient manuscripts of course do have this passage in its present location. Many modern translations put this story in square brackets to indicate that we are doubtful about the passage.

Personally, I think it is a great story and I am glad that it is included. It follows nicely on from the claims at the end of chapter 7 that none of the authorities or Pharisees believe in Jesus. The story of the woman caught in adultery is clearly a plot dreamed up by the intelligentsia and fronted by the scribes and Pharisees (ie the authority figures).

The story is well known, as are its challenges. Only the woman is brought to Jesus, not the man. And all of her accusers appear to be male. She is neither identified nor named and is silent for most of the narrative until she speaks in response to a direct question from Jesus.

The scribes and Pharisees play a high stakes game with the woman's life in an attempt to discredit Jesus, with no concern for her well-being. (Jesus could be accused of doing the same thing in calling their bluff.) If Jesus applied the letter of the law (which few would have attempted to do in first-century Jerusalem), he could be discredited as a hardliner who stoned women. However, if Jesus did not condemn her they could discredit him as one who did not keep the law of Moses, and hence could not be the Messiah.

Commentators are divided about what Jesus was writing on the ground. Some think he was writing out portions of Torah (the Jewish Law). Some say he was doodling. Still others argue that what Jesus was writing was not important, it was a device to create thinking time, not just for himself but also for the woman's accusers.

Whatever he wrote, it is what Jesus says that is striking. He does not condemn or exonerate the woman at this point. He merely suggests that anyone who was without sin should cast the first stone (verse 7). He then returns to writing on the ground as the woman's accusers slink away, having had time to think.

After some time Jesus appears to be surprised that all the woman's accusers had left. The only one who was indeed without sin had remained and he was not interested in casting stones, but rather in offering a new start. The past is not airbrushed away. She is to go and sin no more.

To Ponder

  • How much of a risk did Jesus take in this story? What if one of the men had lied or been mistaken about his own sinfulness and cast the first stone?
  • How do you create opportunities to offer a new beginning to those who have been caught up in destructive habits?
  • The story does not tell us whether the woman acted upon Jesus' admonition to go and sin no more, only that it was offered. Is it enough to admonish? Is it also important to hold accountable?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Calvin T Samuel

The Revd Dr Calvin T Samuel is a Methodist minister, currently stationed as Director of Wesley Study Centre, Durham - a Methodist theological institution which is part of St John's College within the University of Durham. Prior to this he was New Testament Tutor at Spurgeon's College in London and Chaplain to Farringtons School in Kent