In the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus does not question the law nor the verdict (John 8:1-11). He tells those present they may stone the woman, so long as they are without sin and therefore eligible to impose the death penalty. He frees this woman on a brilliant technicality: no one is qualified to carry out the sentence (John 8:7).
In Jesus’ time it was illegal for Pharisees to administer the death penalty, which was only to be applied under Roman authority.
The law demanded the execution of this woman, but Rome had removed capital jurisdiction from Jewish courts, except for temple violations.
IVP Bible Background Commentary
They could do nothing despite their bravado, and after all, where was the man? If the woman was caught ‘in the act’ (John 8:5) where was her partner? When has adultery ever been committed alone?
Rather than scold, Jesus gives the Saducee and Pharisee Judaic priests and scholars one of the greatest gifts of wisdom ever recorded: the highest standard of enlightened forbearance in human history.
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
When these words are understood terrorism, retribution, violence, murder, oppression and cruelty end. They are sacrosanct and cross all lines of religion, politics and nationality. They are the first and most important lesson every parent can teach their child no matter their creed or color. In this, we are all Christians.
Some scholars have questioned the authenticity of this passage. The sentiment is so very noble that religious scholars struggle to understand it let alone find any precedence of it in the Bible or elsewhere. But it is replete in Jesus’ sermon on the mount.
Scholars argue that traditional Judaic law does not require that the first to throw stones be free of sin. Those who are to cast the first stones are the witnesses, and then everyone else is to join in (Deuteronomy 17:7 ), sinful or not. The Pharisees could have pointed out that in reference to the law, Jesus was in error.
Jews didn’t claim to be without sin, nor did they propose to be deities at the level of the Father.
It was a commonplace of Jewish teaching that even the most pious had committed sins.
IVP Bible Background Commentary
But more recent scholars have uncovered laws extant at Jesus’ time that mirror exactly what Jesus said: Christ was well aware that the Saducees had indeed laws prohibiting any witnesses who had sinned:
No one who has knowingly violated a single word of the commandment will be considered a reliable witness against his fellow until he is considered fit to return to full fellowship.
The Dead Sea Scrolls – A New Translation, p. 67 (Wise, Abeg, Cook translation, 1996)
Jesus knew very well the laws of His time. He used what the mob claimed their justification to disqualify them and free the woman.
They were tangled up in their own legal underwear, and stood momentarily dumbfounded, check-mated before the Master Attorney.
After the Pharisees leave, Jesus addresses the adulteress.
He does not ask the woman to repent, to admit her sin publicly, to believe in His divinity, nor to demonstrate any sign of remorse or servility. He isn’t seeking converts. He isn’t demanding a pledge of allegiance.
- He merely tells her to give up sin.
- Christ does not ask her to make a public commitment to do so.
- Jesus does not demand her testimony nor exploit her situation to promote His ministry. She has been paraded about enough.
- He does nothing to further embarrass or debase her.
- He does not question that she is guilty, but He refuses to take the role of her judge. He appeals to her as a peer. That is why He came down here.
- Nor does Jesus condemn the Pharisees.
Jesus first pulls the Pharisees down to the level of the adulteress then makes Himself their equal: He tells her that since the men have not condemned her neither will He (John 8:9-11).
Rather than take authority, he dispenses with it.
Jesus is as constant in His universal application of compassion and tolerance as a law of nature. He uses mercy to create both equality and intimacy.
In modern religion mercy is used as a divider, an exclusive benefit of club membership. That is an artificial construction. In this story of the woman to be stoned, Jesus demonstrates that the Lord does not discriminate. He is Father to the woman and the Pharisees, and in service to all. God’s mercy is unlimited, if we can learn to see it.
He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
He made himself known to me,
Without grudging in his generosity:
For in his kindness,
He set aside his majesty.
He became like me,
In order that I might accept him.
In appearance, he seemed like me,
That I might be clothed in him.
And I did not tremble when I saw him,
Because he had compassion for me.
He became like my nature,
That I might come to know him;
And like my form,
That I might not turn away from him…
From Ode 7 of the ancient Odes of Solomon