Misusing the Bible: The Adulterous Woman

“He who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

This has been used to shut down virtually any moral criticism over time. It is a very popular misreading of the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman. Those who use it this way imply that Jesus violated the Law or simply waved it away, and then use that as a justification for violating any other inconvenient moral principle.

But the substance of the story tells a very different tale.

[Jhn 8:2-5] 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”

Obviously, this was a trap. But what was the trap? The law referenced by this is as follows:

[Lev 20:10] 10 “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”

If you’re following along, you should see who’s missing in what the scribes and Pharisees did. They said they caught the woman in the act. Where is the man?

If Jesus tells them not to stone her, they will say Jesus is against the Law and therefore trying to lead people to apostasy. If Jesus tells them to stone her, they will say Jesus told them to enforce the law incompletely or ignorantly. Of course the Pharisees and scribes know the Law must be applied completely; they know exactly what they’re doing. Usually the abuse of authority is not total corruption, but tweaks that create selective enforcement.

[Jhn 8:6-11] 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Lots of speculation has occurred with regard to what Jesus wrote here. Whatever it was, Jesus had yet again bested the Pharisees and scribes by demonstrating his perfect knowledge and application of the Law.

Jesus fully endorsed the authority of the Pharisees and scribes, as they “sit in Moses’ seat” (Mat 23:2). The Pharisees refused to execute their office justly; they had abdicated in this case, and Jesus used the instance to offer the woman forgiveness. Had the Pharisees brought both the man and the woman caught in adultery, it should not shock the reader to know that Jesus would have assented to their punishment.

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