There is a controversy concerning this story—whether it was part of the Gospel of John from the beginning. Most scholars agree that the story is not Johannine in its origins and that it was added later.
The question, then, is whether we should regard this story as canonical. Some scholars say that, because it was inserted into the Johannine text after the fact, we should regard it as non-canonical. I was disturbed to find that some otherwise helpful commentaries skip this story completely—moving from the end of chapter 7 to 8:12 without bothering even to explain why they skip 8:1-11. That seems unnecessarily abrupt—a bit of scholarly conceit.
There is much to commend the story:
• It is entirely in keeping with Jesus’ relationship to sinners. He called Matthew, the tax collector to be his disciple (Matthew 10:3; see also Luke 5). He was accepting of the sinful woman who anointed him at a Pharisee’s house (Luke 7). He made a Samaritan the hero of one of his parables (Luke 10) and a tax collector the hero of another (Luke 18). He went to dinner with Zacchaeus, a tax collector (Luke 19). He dealt with the woman at the well in a straightforward but respectful manner (John 4).
• It is also entirely in keeping with the character of the scribes and Pharisees. Their attempt at testing Jesus in an attempt to discredit him (8:6) is similar to their attempts elsewhere in the Gospels (Matthew 16:1; 19:3; 22:35; Mark 8:11; 10:2; 12:15; Luke 10:25; 11:16).
• The story blends a lovely note of grace (“Neither do I condemn you”) with a challenge to high standards (“Go your way. From now on, sin no more”).
• The story has served a redemptive purpose in the church’s teaching and preaching for many centuries.
JOHN 7-8. THE CONTEXT
The setting is the Jerusalem temple during the Feast of Tabernacles, also known as the Feast of Ingathering or the Feast of Booths (7:2, 37; 8:2)—a late Fall (mid-October) harvest festival during which people live in makeshift dwellings made of tree branches to commemorate God’s care for them in the wilderness and in the harvest—a joyful festival in which music and dance play a significant part. It is in this celebratory context that the scribes and Pharisees create an ugly scene, bringing a woman caught in adultery to Jesus and demanding that he determine what should be done with her—whether they should stone her in accordance with Mosaic law.
But their actions should not surprise us. We have already been told that the Jewish leaders want to kill Jesus (7:1) and sent officers to arrest him (7:32)—a task that the officers refused to carry out because “No man ever spoke like this man!” (7:46).
JOHN 7:53b – 8:2. ALL THE PEOPLE CAME TO HIM
7:53bEveryone (the Pharisees) went to his own house, 1but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2Now very early in the morning, he came again into the temple, and all the people came to him. He sat down, and taught them.
“Everyone went to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives” (vv. 7:53b – 8:1). The last part of chapter 7 has the Pharisees trying unsuccessfully to figure out how to deal with Jesus. The temple police, whom the Pharisees sent to arrest Jesus, failed to do so, because “No man ever spoke like this man” (7:46). Nicodemus, who was introduced to us earlier as a Pharisee (3:1), tried to defend Jesus, asking, “Does our law judge a man, unless it first hears from him personally and knows what he does?” (7:51), but the rest of the Pharisees replied, “Are you also from Galilee? Search, and see that no prophet has arisen out of Galilee” (7:52).
Then the Pharisees went to their homes, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. We are not told why Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, but he went there with his disciples on several occasions (Matthew 21:1; 24:3). The Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus will soon go for prayer (Matthew 26:30), is located on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. It is quite possible on this occasion that Jesus went to Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives for prayer, and thenceforth to Bethany, where he would be welcome overnight at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
“Now very early in the morning, he came again into the temple, and all the people came to him. He sat down, and taught them” (v. 2). Jesus has been teaching in the temple (7:14), and now resumes doing that. “All the people” come to him. His popularity with the common people is one of the reasons that the religious leaders fear him (12:19).
JOHN 8:3-6. THEY BROUGHT A WOMAN TAKEN IN ADULTERY
3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery. Having set her in the midst, 4they told him, “Teacher, we found this woman in adultery (Greek: moicheia), in the very act. 5Now in our law, Moses commanded us to stone such. What then do you say about her?” 6They said this testing (Greek: peirazontes—from peirazo) him, that they might have something to accuse him of. But Jesus stooped down, and wrote on the ground with his finger.
“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery” (moicheia) (v. 3a). The scribes and Pharisees are paired as Jesus’ opponents frequently in the Synoptic Gospels, but this is the only instance where they are paired in this Gospel. The scribes are expert interpreters of the Torah law, and the Pharisees are well-known for their careful observance of the law.
The question is whether this woman was guilty of adultery (meaning that she was betrothed or married) or fornication (Greek: porneia – meaning that she was single). The Greek word used here, moicheia, means adultery, which suggests that she was betrothed or married.
However, as we will see in verse 5, the scribes and Pharisees say that the Mosaic Law prescribes that she be stoned. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 prescribes stoning for “a young lady who is a virgin pledged to be married,” who engages in sex with a man other than her betrothed.
Leviticus 20:10 prescribes death as the penalty for adultery, but does not prescribe the method. The Mishnah (Jewish teachings regarding the law—handed down orally until 200 A.D. when it was codified) prescribes strangulation for adultery. However, Ezekiel 23:43-47 suggests that stoning was also used for adultery.
During this period, only the Roman government had the legal authority to exercise capital punishment, but there is some evidence that Jewish authorities, in violation of Roman law, executed women for adultery (Keener, 736).
We should also note that the law that requires the execution of the woman also requires the execution of the man who was her partner in sin. This story makes no mention of the man. In that patriarchal society, people were more likely to excuse a man than a woman for sexual sin. Also, these scribes and Pharisees need only this woman for their nefarious purposes. It is really Jesus who is on trial here. The scribes and Pharisees have seen him deal mercifully with sinners, and hope to show that he has strayed beyond the bounds of the law to do so.
“Having set her in the midst” (v. 3b). It isn’t hard to imagine the shame and fear that this woman experiences in this situation. Apparently she and her partner were discovered and interrupted while having intercourse, a traumatic event in itself. Now she is thrust into a public forum where her sin is publicly announced. The charges against her call for the death penalty, and it seems quite possible that she will be brutally executed within the next few hours—and very likely denied a proper burial. It is difficult to imagine how any person could be more miserable than this woman is at this moment.
All of this means nothing to her accusers, however. The scribes and Pharisees see her, not as a human being, but as a tool that they can use to entrap Jesus. They care nothing about her as a person.
“Teacher, we found this woman in adultery, in the very act” (v. 4). “Teacher” would ordinarily be a respectful form of address, but in this case it is part of their scheme to entrap Jesus. First, they acknowledge Jesus as an authority. Then they will present him with a problem that they believe will impale him on the horns of a dilemma.
“Now in our law, Moses commanded us to stone such. What then do you say about her?” (v. 5). They first state the obvious—the penalty associated with adultery in the Mosaic Law. Then they ask Jesus for his opinion. If Jesus says that the woman should not be stoned, they can bring charges against him for subverting Mosaic Law. But if he says that she should be stoned, his decision will cost him the support of the common people who would be offended by the strict adherence to this Mosaic Law—a law that we have reason to believe was honored mainly in the breach at this point in time. A decision to stone the woman might also bring Jesus into conflict with Roman authorities, because Rome alone has the authority to impose capital punishment.
“They said testing (peirazontes—from peirazo) him, so that they might have something to accuse him of” (v. 6a). Just in case we might miss the point, the narrator makes it clear that these are Jesus’ enemies and their motive is to entrap him.
This word, peirazo, is the word used to describe the temptation that Jesus experienced in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1). There, like here, an opponent tried to cause Jesus to fail.
However, we would be remiss if we failed to acknowledge that scribes and Pharisees enforce Mosaic Law as a way of expressing their devotion to God. That happens not to be their primary motivation in this instance, but we would gut this story if we failed to acknowledge their legitimate concern for law-keeping—if we painted them as wholly evil. These aren’t the bad guys, but the good guys. The story of Jesus’ opponents is not the story of thoroughgoing badness, but is instead the story of goodness gone awry.
“But Jesus stooped down, and wrote on the ground with his finger” (v. 6b). What did Jesus write? Scholars have suggested any number of possibilities. Perhaps he was just doodling—stalling for time to enhance the drama of the moment. Perhaps he was writing a verse of scripture. Perhaps he was writing the names of the scribes and Pharisees and listing their sins by their names. The fact is that we do not know what Jesus was writing. If it were important for us to know, surely God would have inspired the author of this story to tell us.
JOHN 8:7-8. HE WHO IS WITHOUT SIN, LET HIM THROW THE FIRST STONE
7But when they continued asking him, he looked up and said to them, “He who is without sin (Greek: anamartetos) among you, let him throw the first stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground.
“When they continued asking him” (v. 7a). Whatever Jesus wrote, it failed to intimidate his opponents. This suggests that he was not writing their names and their sins.
“he looked up and said to them” (v. 7b). He had bent down to write on the ground, but now he stands up straight to face his opponents.
“He who is without sin (anamartetos) among you, let him throw the first stone at her” (v. 7c). The law specifies, “The hand of the witnesses shall be first on him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people” (Deuteronomy 17:7).
We do not know whether the scribes and Pharisees witnessed the adultery. If so, they would have to be among the first to stone the woman. However, it is likely that other people (at least two people in accordance with the requirements of Deuteronomy 17:6) witnessed the offense and brought the woman to the attention of the scribes and Pharisees.
But Jesus goes beyond the requirement of the law. He does not tell the scribes and Pharisees that, acting as witnesses, they must throw the first stone. Instead, he invites any of them who are without sin to cast the first stone.
Some scholars say that Jesus is not suggesting that the first stone-thrower must be free of all sin, but that he must be free of sexual sin (Morris, 336, see also Moloney, 261)—but anamartetos means “without sin” or “not sinful” rather than “not guilty of sexual sin.” However, in that world of a double standard with regard to sexual sin, it is quite possible that these scribes and Pharisees are all guilty of sexual sin—and that Jesus’ challenge brings them face to face with their own sexual guilt.
“Again he stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground” (v. 8). Once again, we are not told what Jesus writes—and it is not especially profitable to speculate.
JOHN 8:9. THEY WENT AWAY, BEGINNING WITH THE ELDERS
9They, when they heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning from the oldest (Greek: presbyteros), even to the last. Jesus was left alone with the woman where she was, in the middle.
“They, when they heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning from the oldest (presbyteros—a word that is often translated “elder”), even to the last” (v. 9a). Jesus’ challenge hit the mark. The presbyteros—the more experienced among the scribes and Pharisees—see quickly that they are outflanked and deem it better to retreat rather than to stand and argue with someone who so easily turned their most potent challenge to his own advantage. Their quiet retreat acknowledges their guilt.
“Jesus was left alone with the woman where she was, in the middle” (v. 9b). This does not address what happened to “all the people” (v. 2) who had been listening to Jesus before the scribes and Pharisees appeared on the scene with the fallen woman. Did they, too, leave? Probably not! They are only bystanders rather than participants in this drama. The only full participants left onstage are Jesus and the woman.
JOHN 8:10-11. FROM NOW ON, SIN NO MORE
10Jesus, standing up, saw her and said, “Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?” 11She said, “No one, Lord.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin (Greek: hamartane) no more.”
“Jesus, standing up, saw her and said, ‘Woman, where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?'” (v. 10). Once again, Jesus arises from the bent posture that he assumed so that he could write on the ground. This time, though, he does so, not to face his opponents, but to face this woman. His opponents, having quit the field, are nowhere to be found.
Jesus doesn’t ask the woman whether she is guilty, but only whether anyone condemns her. He assumes her guilt—a fact made clear in the next verse when he tells her to go and sin no more. But his question “serves only to bring home to the woman the full reality of the fact that she no longer (has) to fear anything from those who had threatened her life” (Ridderbos, 290).
“She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin (hamartane) no more'” (v. 11). While it is clear that the woman is guilty, Jesus neither condemns nor excuses her. His statement acknowledges her guilt, but simply challenges her to abstain from sin in the future—offers her a chance for a new life.
Is Jesus telling this woman to abstain from sexual sin in the future—or all sin? Is he suggesting that she has been forgiven for past sins but that she will be held accountable for future sins? What about us? If we have received forgiveness for past sins, can we hope that we might also receive forgiveness when we fail again?
The word for sin in this verse, hamartane, is not a word for a particular kind of sin, but rather for any kind of sin. It would seem, then, that Jesus is not only telling the woman not to commit adultery in the future. His imperative seems to include all sins. She is to go her way without sinning again.
We must be careful to interpret this in the light of sin and forgiveness as they are portrayed in the rest of the New Testament. To say that the woman has been forgiven for past sins but cannot be forgiven for future sins is to condemn her to a life without hope, because it is doubtful that she will live a sinless life for the rest of her days. The same would be true if someone were to tell us that we can be forgiven for past but not future sins.
Even the Apostle Paul struggled with his inability to live a sinless life. He said:
“For I don’t know what I am doing.
For I don’t practice what I desire to do;
but what I hate, that I do.
But if what I don’t desire, that I do,
I consent to the law that it is good.
So now it is no more I that do it,
but sin which dwells in me.
For I know that in me, that is,
in my flesh, dwells no good thing.
For desire is present with me,
but I don’t find it doing that which is good.
For the good which I desire, I don’t do;
but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice.
But if what I don’t desire, that I do,
it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.”
But Paul did not live in fear of condemnation, even though he found himself unable to go and sin no more. He concluded this statement by saying:
“What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord! So then with the mind, I myself serve God’s law, but with the flesh, the sin’s law.
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 7:24 – 8:1).
So let us be careful about giving people the impression that they have been forgiven for past sins but will be held to a perfect standard in the future. That isn’t Good News—it isn’t faithful to the New Testament—and it isn’t true.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, “The Gospel of John,” Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1955)
Borchet, Gerald L., New American Commentary: John 1-11, Vol, 25A (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1996)
Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966)
Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary: John, Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953)
Maloney, Francis J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1998)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John, Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995)
Ridderbos, Herman (translated by John Vriend), The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Williamson, Lamar, Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)
Copyright 2007, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan