The so-called pericope adulterae of John 7:53-8:11 has frequently been used to suggest that Jesus did not approve either of the application of the Mosaic Law or of the death penalty (or both). Christopher Marshall for example claims that “there is only one passage in the New Testament that refers directly to the legitimacy of the death penalty (John 7:53-8:11).”1 Marshall concludes that what we have in this crucial passage is an example of “restorative justice overthrowing retributive justice in the Christian age.”2 Thus, here Jesus overthrows the justice of the Old Testament in favour of a more gracious approach to social ethics. Arguing from a clearly different theological/ethical framework, Kaiser too appeals to this passage, viewing it as important evidence that “the morality of the law abides while the sanctions may change.”3
The Text Critical Question
The first and perhaps most important thing to note about this pericope is that as far as we know it is probably not genuine. The current edition of the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament (4th revised edition) gives an A rating for its omission from John’s Gospel. This list of sources that do not include it is impressive: P66, 75, Codex Sinaiticus, Avid, B, Cvid, L, N, T W, D, Q, Y, as well as a considerable list of other manuscripts and Patristic sources. In some manuscripts the pericope is found in different places; after Luke 21:38, after Luke 24:43, after John 7:36 or after John 21:25, and there is a number of variants within the pericope itself (seven significant variants in twelve verses).4 The Old Syriac and Coptic versions reveal no knowledge of the passage, and it is absent in the best manuscripts of the Peshitta.5 The only manuscript prior to the eighth century to contain the passage is Codex Bezae,6 a manuscript notorious for its interpolations. Metzger elucidates: “No known manuscript has so many and such remarkable variations from what is usually taken to be the normal New Testament text. Codex Bezae’s special characteristic is the free addition (and occasional omission) of words, sentences and even events.”7 With regard to the Patristic evidence, “In the east, no Greek father mentions the passage for one thousand years.”8 Euthymius Zigabenus (twelfth century) was the first to mention it, although he claims that it is an insertion, and that accurate versions omit the passage or mark it out as suspicious.9
Against such impressive evidence however, there are advocates for the authenticity of this pericope. Charles Baylis reasons that “Its omission from early Greek manuscripts may have been based on the impression that Christ was too easy on adultery.”10 Similarly, some have argued that the Church Fathers did not cite the passage out of fear that it might encourage the sin.11 The former argument does not seem to carry much weight, since all we know about textual transmission suggests that scribes had a greater tendency to conflate than to omit. “Therefore, if all else is equal the shorter text has greater likelihood of being correct.”12 Can we reasonably imagine the deliberate omission of such a large passage for the sake of prudence? The latter suggestion might be more plausible were it not for the fact that some of the Fathers who did not cite it had such good cause to do so. We can accept that certain Fathers might not have drawn unnecessary attention to the passage by choosing it for direct comment in order to launch into a teaching on adultery, but Origen, in his commentary on John, moves directly from 7:52 to 8:12. Perhaps more noteworthy is Tertullian (De Pudicitia, c. 220) and the 55th Epistle of Cyprian of Carthage, where specific directions are given in cases of adultery, yet this passage is not mentioned.13
There are, nonetheless, some later Western patristic citations of this text, dating as early as Ambrosiaster (who died around 350), and including Ambrose and Augustine. Yet it was not until Jerome and the translation of the Vulgate that this pericope found its way into the mainstream Western tradition.14 Also worthy of note is that in both Eusebius and the Didascalia Apostolorum an oral tradition is referred to that sounds similar to the pericope under consideration here (although most of the details of the pericope from John 8 are missing).15 For reasons such as this, Metzger suggests that what we have before us is “a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places.”16 Other commentators similarly suggest that while this is not a part of John’s Gospel, it may still be a true story – or at least similar to an event that did happen. Leon Morris tells us that “Throughout the history of the church it has been held that, whoever wrote it, this little story is authentic,”17 and thus Derret’s treatment of the passage begins with the statement that the pericope “is a piece of authentic tradition going back to the beginnings of the church, though it is extra-canonical and its text evidently suffered from its independent wanderings before it found its way into the canonical Gospels.”18 Nonetheless, with regard to its Johannine authenticity, Metzger’s summary of the evidence seems fair:
When one adds to this impressive and diversified list of external evidence the consideration that the style and vocabulary of the pericope differ noticeably from the rest of the fourth Gospel (see any critical commentary), and that it interrupts the sequence of 7:52 and 8:12 ff., the case against its being of Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive.19
I am not suggesting that if this pericope were authentic, it would indeed mean what its defenders might say it means about the law or the death penalty (in fact there are good arguments to the contrary). The advice of Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, however, is surely wise. “Perhaps the most important hermeneutical principle to learn from textual criticism is that one must not derive theological or ethical principles solely from passages that are textually uncertain.”20
The Question of Interpretation
Having suggested that this passage should not be given significant weight on text critical grounds, I now ask what it means. Let us set the scene. A group of scribes and Pharisees has brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus. That they urge her stoning has caused many to speculate as to the age of the woman, as well as her marital status. The Law prescribed stoning as the punishment for betrothed women and their lovers (Dt. 22:23-27), but no specific method of punishment is set down for married women who are unfaithful (Dt. 22:22). However, the Mishnah specifies that married woman and their lovers are to be strangled, while betrothed virgins and their lovers are to be stoned (Sanhedrin 7:4).21 This might suggest that the woman (girl) brought before Jesus is betrothed, and therefore probably quite young (12 years of age!). But this evidence certainly cannot be determinant, because we do not know that this distinction existed in Jesus’ day (the Mishnah did not yet exist). Moreover, it has been argued that μοιχεύω (here translated “adultery”) and its derivatives “in the LXX and related Greek writings were used exclusively of adulterous actions of married persons.”22 Whatever the case, the malpractice of the scribes and Pharisees cannot be missed. The Law requires the punishment of both parties. “Both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman” (Dt 22:22, cf. 22:24). It is clearly impossible that this woman could have been caught “in the act” (v. 4) without the male offender being witnessed as well. Carson suggests only two possibilities to explain this: either the man was a faster runner, or the accusers were chauvinistic enough to focus solely on the sin of the woman.23 But surely there is at least one other possibility, as suggested by Derrett (and which surely seems obvious even to the casual reader of this text if one bears in mind the requirements of the Law). The Law of Moses to which the scribes and Pharisees appealed requires at least two witnesses to the crime before the death sentence can be handed down (Dt. 19:15-21). Since the accusers were so certain that the death penalty should be handed down in this case, we may assume that there had in fact been (at least) two witnesses. Since a man could not be a witness against his wife, these two or more witnesses were “in addition to, or exclusive of, the husband.”24 The testimonies would need to be clearly grounded and in perfect agreement. They must both have actually seen the couple in the compromising position, and the witnesses must have seen them at the same time, and in the presence of one another.25 Any Sanhedrin judge would have asked them (separately of course) to describe the scene, the colour of the cloth covering the couple, or the sheet upon which the woman lay, or a description of the ruined building if that is where they were caught.26 Derrett puts these facts together:
How were two or three persons in such a position? Hardly by chance, one would suppose. People in love are notoriously careless, though in a crowded city filled with people who believed that adultery deserved death one would expect precautions against discovery. The situation at once raises a doubt whether the whole thing was not planned beforehand. It seems that the husband had suspected his wife, had had his suspicions confirmed, and had called some ‘respectable’ citizens to hide and to watch. The woman was caught, it seems almost certain, in a trap. People are hardly ever caught in adultery, but to require that they be seen in coitu by two or three people is to make convictions for adultery rare indeed.27
“Thus,” Derrett concludes, the situation spells doubt:
doubt whether the husband has not deliberately engineered a situation, which implies failure to prevent the crime from being committed; doubt whether the husband and/or the witnesses have not corruptly allowed the adulterer to escape; and lastly the virtual certainty that the witnesses “stood by” and allowed the crime to be commenced, and proceeded with. Res ipsa loquitur.28
The woman is brought to Jesus not to see that justice is done, nor to genuinely seek His advice, but “to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him.” If Jesus sanctioned her execution, He would violate Rome’s rule, which reserved for itself the right of execution. If, in deference to Rome, Jesus did not allow her execution, He would be in violation of the Law of Moses.29 Christopher Marshall does not accept this depiction of the dilemma (although he considers it “possible”). After all, he argues, it is unlikely that Jesus could have been successfully condemned in the eyes of Rome for something so trivial as the lynching of a Jewish adulteress. Such concerns certainly never prevented the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7:58. Instead, what we have here is the dilemma of having Jesus either condone her death and thus violate His own principles (and not the Roman prohibition of Jewish execution), or repudiate her death and prove Himself to be in opposition to Moses (which is, in reality, precisely what He was, says Marshall).30 This, of course, is to assume that Jesus’ own principles would force Him to set aside the application of the Mosaic Law, an assumption that has some weighty difficulties. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law of Moses (Matt 5:17-19), and in fact where the Pharisees themselves set aside the sanction of death for at least one other offence, Jesus accuses them of nullifying the word of God (Mk 7:11). Additionally, it would not be the only time the Jewish leaders had attempted to pit Jesus against Rome to His detriment. We might think of the question about paying taxes to Caesar (Mt. 22:15-22, cf. Lk. 23:2) or the cry before Pilate that Jesus was usurping Caesar’s authority (Jn 19:12-16).
Now which way would Jesus turn? Would he violate Rome or Moses? His answer is often quoted, but perhaps much less often understood. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” At least three possibilities spring to mind as to what could be meant.
- Only those who are absolutely without sin are permitted to pass criminal sentence on this woman.
- If you are not doing anything sinful in this prosecution, then you may punish this woman.
- If you are not just as guilty as this woman, then you may punish this woman.
Of these three possibilities, 1.) seems improbable beyond any reasonable doubt. 2.) and 3.) are certainly possible, and neither interpretation would mean that we must take Jesus’ words to be an abrogation of Mosaic law. Whatever Jesus meant, it must be seen as something that the Pharisees and scribes themselves would see as grounds not to proceed to an execution, since upon hearing it, they (gradually) left the scene. In itself this seems to rule out any suggestion that Jesus was arguing that absolute sinlessness was required before a woman could be executed for adultery. Surely if the woman’s accusers accepted this claim then the question would never have been put to Jesus in the first place! The “sin” must have been such that one who claimed fidelity to Moses would recognise that prosecution could not continue without impugning the accuser. An observation of the scene as we have outlined it here certainly provides examples of such sins. They were malevolent witnesses, and in all likelihood had been party to the offence itself (if Derrett’s analysis is fair). What must not be missed however, is that Jesus’ reply is actually an imperative. “Reviewing the case, Jesus brought forth the judgment, ‘Stone her.’ Unfortunately for the Pharisees, He had required, as the Law had stated, that the witnesses be qualified.”31 Derrett makes the same observation, noting that Jesus’ saying “does not deny that she may be stoned, but insists on the innocency and therefore the competence of whoever stands forth against her as an accuser and witness.”32 The imperative could thus be framed as a question: “Who is to be the executioner in this case?”33 The reaction of the accusers shows that on reflection, they themselves were unwilling to put themselves in such a position of responsibility – and danger! A witness who was found to be malicious would suffer the same fate as he had sought for the accused, death in this case (Dt. 19:16-21).
Greg Bahnsen has gone further than saying that the accusers were guilty of malpractice for the reasons outlined above.
However, the scribes were the ones who ended up being caught by their own woeful ignorance of God’s law. They came to test Jesus, but as elsewhere, they failed to know the law. God requires, in conviction for capital crimes, that the witnesses who bring the accusation against a person be innocent of that very same crime (Deut. 19:15); furthermore, the law specified that in the event of capital punishment the accusers had to cast the first stones (Deut. 17:7)… The woman’s accusers, then, either were not witnesses or were not free of adultery; hence Christ dismisses her with the admonition to sin no more.34
While Bahnsen does not commit himself to any one explanation (he accepts that the accusers might not have been witnesses), his suggestion that the “sin” referred to here is adultery is less than persuasive. His Old Testament basis (Dt. 19:15) does not obviously lend itself to the interpretation he suggests:
One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
It seems that the point being made regards the number (rather than the quality) of witnesses. It may be however that Bahnsen sees another meaning in the more literal wording of the authorised version. A more literal translation still would be:
One witness shall not rise against a man for any transgression and for any sin, in any sin in which he sins. At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses shall a matter be decided.
Perhaps Bahnsen meant to suggest that the phrase “in which he sins” does not refer to the accused but to the one who rises in accusation (i.e. “in which he himself sins”). If this is the case, he stands alone among commentators on Deuteronomy. His suggestion (if this is what he is suggesting) may be grammatically possible, but it is unlikely, since it sits between the emphatic לֹא־יָקוּם עֵד אֶחָד בְּאִישׁ (One witness shall not rise against a man) and the prescription that at least two witnesses are required. I suggest that Bahnsen’s proposed options for understanding Jesus’ response are too few, and that he could have considered that the accusers were engaging the matter sinfully, although not necessarily themselves guilty of the specific crime of which the woman was accused.
Marshall, in arguing that Jesus referred to perfect sinlessness, notes that “Jesus alone was ‘without sin’… and therefore qualified to throw the first stone. But he refused to do so despite her legal guilt.”35 That Jesus did not do so, Marshall seems to adduce, suggests that the penalty of the Law no longer applied. But Marshall has jumped far too quickly to the conclusion that Jesus was qualified to execute. On what grounds was he qualified to do so? He was not a witness or a judge, and thus regardless of the quality of the witnesses, he had no legal right to carry out any sentence. What is more, if the case was cobbled together as poorly and unjustly as I suggest here, then nobody, no matter what his legal standing was, would have been qualified to execute. It is not the case that Jesus “refused” to throw the first stone any more than that Jesus “refused” to raise or lower the taxes in Judea. He was in no place to do so in the first place.
Moreover, we must express alarm at the conclusion Marshall draws from this passage. He claims that Jesus refuses to allow the execution to go ahead because “his own presence on earth announces divine forgiveness for sins committed.”36 Given the context of a criminal offence, we are left to assume that what Marshall means is that all people are forgiven of their sins, and this entails that all people ought to be forgiven on a civil and criminal level. While elsewhere he advocates the Old Testament notion of restitutional justice, the principle espoused here cannot but lead to the forgiveness of debt to other people, and effectively the denial of any right to restitution. How may we claim restitution for an offence that God has forgiven on a civil and criminal level? Moreover, what then should a Christian’s response be to charges brought against herself? Can she bring to her defence the fact that she is forgiven by Christ, and therefore need not pay the speeding ticket? Facetious though the suggestion might seem, it is difficult to see how Marshall’s use of this passage could avoid such problems.
In light of the above, I do not consider John 7:53-8:11 to be evidence either that Jesus wanted to overturn the moral standards of the Old Testament Law or that the New Testament condemns the death penalty. Firstly, it is certainly not part of John’s Gospel and its historical reliability is in doubt. Secondly, it does not lend itself to the suggestion of Christopher Marshall that it depicts an overthrow of a retributive idea of justice as presented in the Old Testament in favour of a more gracious outlook. In fact, Jesus’ response, as best I can tell accords well with the stipulations of the Law. Now, Marshall is unwilling to consider such a suggestion plausible, because it “casts Jesus in a rather unflattering light as a sharp legal attorney who secures the release of the guilty party by discrediting the witnesses for the prosecution and uses legal technicalities to subvert the just penalty of the law.”37 Technicalities! It is not difficult to observe the rather circular nature of the argument. Against the claim that Jesus adhered to the Law in this incident, Marshall argues that this could not be the case, as it would portray Jesus as one who adhered to the technicalities of the law! Marshall has made the mistake of assuming that if the death penalty is just, and if this woman is guilty, then it makes no difference how fair or unfair her trial is. One gets the impression that a low view of the law itself has given rise to a somewhat careless view of how it should be applied (if it were to be applied). Likewise we cannot accept Kaiser’s view that this passage demonstrates that the moral standards of the law have not changed, but the sanctions for disobedience have. I reject this suggestion for the same reason that I reject Marshall’s claim – Jesus seems to adhere to the Law of Moses here.
In short, those who have claimed that this passage teaches the abrogation of the Law or of the death penalty have passed overt he text critical question too quickly, they have misinterpreted what is said because an understanding of the Law has not adequately contributed to the interpretation of this passage, and they have not come to terms with the main point. Gerard Sloyan’s observation warrants attention: “Perversely, over the centuries, Jesus’ denunciatory, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her’ (v. 7b) has become a watchword of exculpation for the solidly guilty. The actual issue in the story is the far greater guilt of the accusers than the woman.”38 Rather than setting aside the Law, if we may make any inference from this story “it is that Jesus required the whole Law to be applied.”39
1 Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 214. We think it is manifestly false that there are no other texts speaking to the legitimacy of the death penalty. We might list John 19:10, Hebrews 2:2-3 and Acts 25:10-11. We would further suggest that it is problematic to demand that the New Testament advocate the death penalty before we accept its validity. Why should we assume by default that the Old Testament ethics must be disregarded?
2 Ibid., 234. What may we conclude form this other than that Marshall sees the justice expressed in the Old Testament prior to the “Christian age” as something that is not to be interpreted, revered or applied to day, but instead to be overthrown?
3 Kaiser, “Response to Greg L. Bahnsen” in Wayne G. Strickland (ed.), Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 156.
4 Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini and Bruce M. Metzger (eds), The Greek New Testament: Fourth Revised Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993, 4th ed.).
5 J. H. Berhard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St John vol. 2, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburg: T and T Clark, 1928), 715. Like some other commentators (e.g. C. K. Barrett), Bernard does not include his comments on this passage after John 7:52, but adds it as an appendix to his commentary.
6 Gary M. Burge, “A Specific Problem in the New Testament Text and Canon: The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11),” JETS 27:2 (1984), 142.
7 Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, 3rd ed.), 50.
9 E. C. Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel, ed. F. N. Davey (London: Faber & Faber, 1947), 563, cited in Burge, “A Specific Problem in the New Testament Text and Canon,” 142.
10 Charles P. Baylis, “The Woman Caught in Adultery: The Test of Jesus as the Greater Prophet,” Bibliotheca Sacra 146:582 (1989), 171.
11 S. T. Bloomfield, The Greek Testament (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1839), vol. 1, 440, cited in Baylis, “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” 171.
12 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1991), 45.
13 Burge, “A Specific Problem in the New Testament Text and Canon,” 142-143.
14 Ibid., 143.
16 Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), 220-221.
17 Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 884. This view is echoed by numerous commentators, e.g. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 333, George R. Beasley-Murray, John, WBC (Waco: Word Books, 1987), 143, and while C. K. Barrett cannot bring himself to declare that it is in fact a true account, he suggests that at least “it represents the character and method of Jesus as they are revealed elsewhere,” Barrett, The Gospel According to St John (London: SPCK, 1978, 2nd ed.), 590.
18 J. Duncan M. Derrett, “Law in the New Testament: The Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery,” New Testament Studies 10:1 (1963), 1.
19 Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 220.
20 William Klein, Craig Blomberg and Robert Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word, 1993), 73-74.
21 Carson, The Gospel According to John, 335.
22 Beasley-Murray, John, 145. Beasley Murray is citing the work of J. Blinzler, “Die Strafe für Ehebruch in Bibel und Halacha. Zur Auslegung von John viii 5,” New Testament Studies 4 (1957-58), 32-47.
23 Carson, The Gospel According to John, 334.
24 Derrett, “Law in the New Testament,” 4.
25 Ibid., 5. Derrett draws on the requirements of witnesses in Jewish Law from Z. Frankel, Der gerichtliche Beweis nach mosaisch-talmudishem Rechte. Ein Beitrag zur Kenntniss des mosaisch-talmudischen Criminal- und Civil-rechts (Berlin, 1846), 121, 285.
26 Derret, 5, citing the Mishna, Sanhedrin v. 2 and Maimonides, M.T. 15 (Book of Judges), 2:2.
27 Derret, 5.
28 Ibid., 7-8.
29 Barrett, The Gospel According to St John, 591-592.
30 Marshall, Beyond Retribution, 231-232.
31 Baylis, “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” 184.
32 Derrett, “Law in the New Testament,” 22.
33 Bernard, The Gospel According to St John, 720.
34Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nacogdoches: Covenant Media Press, 2002, 3rd ed.), 229.
35 Marshall, Beyond Retribution, 233
37 Ibid., 231.
38 Gerard S. Sloyan, John, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 97.
39 Derrett, “Law in the New Testament,” 25.