Most Christians, and many non-Christians, are familiar with this story from the Gospel of John (7:53-8:11). A group of “scribes and Pharisees” bring a woman before Jesus while he is in Jerusalem. They disclose that they have caught her in the act of adultery. In addition, they cite the Torah rule (Lev 20:10) that says she must be stoned, i.e., executed, for the offense. Cleverly, to get out of a seeming trap, Jesus responds that the Torah should indeed be upheld but then demonstrates that they are not fit to carry out the sentence since they are sinners, too. One-by-one the accusers leave and Jesus forgives the woman for her sin (in other words, God, whom Jesus is or represents, will not condemn her either). It is a great story featuring a perfect example of Jesus’s cleverness and mercy. But does this story capture an actual episode in the life of the historical Jesus? Maybe, but many clues would indicate otherwise.
The story, despite its current location in the Gospel of John, was not written by the author of the gospel. This is uncontested in biblical scholarship. Your bible has probably placed the story in brackets to indicate that it really doesn’t belong there. That is because the story is not found in the earliest manuscripts of John. Not only that, the story can otherwise be found in some manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke! (The story’s grammar and syntax fit better with Luke’s style of writing.) But that is not necessarily a clue to the story’s inauthenticity – many non-canonical stories about Jesus, as well as sayings attributed to him, continued to circulate orally, by word-of-mouth. Some eventually came to be written down in various places and some may even be historically accurate. But the author of this story and the date of its composition are not the only questionable elements.
For the story to be historically probable, the contents must fit a first-century Jewish context. As we saw, the story takes place in Jerusalem. Scribes (experts on the Torah) and Pharisees are mentioned. And the Torah is cited to show what punishment is due to adulterers. Nevertheless, there are reasons for doubting that the story was composed by a Jewish author. A Jewish writer would presumably know not only the law but the Jewish legal system as well. This author seems to come up short concerning the latter. First, mobs did not enforce the Torah in Jewish society; councils did. Second, trials were afforded the accused and witnesses were compelled to testify. Where is the trial in this story? Who were the witnesses? Third, a careful reading of Leviticus reveals that both the woman and the man involved in the adulterous affair are both to be condemned to death.
“If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.” (Lev 20:10)
Where is the male partner in this adulterous episode?
It is far more likely, therefore, that the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery was composed by a Gentile, probably one who found the Torah rule oppressive and didn’t want to follow it (Roman law did not permit execution for adultery). Perhaps he wanted to create a story that depicted Jesus reacting to a charge of adultery in a way that forestalled capital punishment while not, on the other hand, showing Jesus simply annulling the Torah.
But let’s give the benefit of the doubt and credit this story to the life of the historical Jesus. There are less tendentious ways to read the text. Despite the traditional conception of the story as one in which nasty Jews bring a helpless woman to the noble Jesus who must intervene to save her, perhaps the arresting party had no intention of executing the woman; they may have only wanted to “test [Jesus], so that they might have some charge to bring against him” (8:6). The charge they were seeking would be the violation of the Torah by Jesus if he let the woman go free. The “scribes and Pharisees,” the seeming villains of the piece, would know the law better than most. They would have known exactly how such procedures worked and would hardly have been prepared to execute the woman then and there merely on the grounds that Jesus said they should.
It is also important to remember that scribes and Pharisees are the stereotypical villains in the New Testament gospels. It is very likely that this animosity reflects more the situation after 70 CE, the year when the city of Jerusalem was sacked and the temple destroyed, than it does the time of Jesus. Certain clues within the New Testament alternatively demonstrate that the Pharisees were often on the side of Jesus or vice versa: some warned Jesus of efforts to arrest him (Luke 13:31), one or two saw to Jesus’s honorable burial (John 3:1; cf. Mark 15:43, John19:38), others joined the Jesus movement (Acts 15:5), one important Pharisee stood up to stop the persecution of the apostles (Acts 5:34), and one very important Christ-believing missionary was trained as a Pharisee (Paul, cf. Phil. 3:5). And don’t forget Jesus’s words in Matthew: “Pay attention to what they tell you and do it” (23:3).
But after 70, Jews were struggling to reformulate the practice of their religion in a post-temple world. The Sadducees and Essenes were no more. The priesthood was rendered irrelevant. Pharisees and Christ-believing Jews competed with one another to direct the course of Jewish belief and practice. And unlike what the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery might suggest, Pharisees had a reputation for being less harsh regarding punishments for Torah violators, not more so. They were particularly squeamish about exacting the death penalty. But as might be expected, these views never come out in the gospels. Only Jesus champions mercy.
Could the scribes and Pharisees in this story have been looking for a way to avoid punishing the woman? Some scholars suggest that these legal experts may have wanted to spare the woman and needed an interpretation of Torah that supported their reluctance. Perhaps, they surmised, a clever country rabbi, in town for the festival, might be of assistance.
On the other hand, perhaps the situation was a trap of a different kind. Maybe the woman was divorced and remarried. She may have been dragged away from her current husband to make a point. Remember that Jesus, and not the Pharisees, taught against divorce; Jesus maintained that “everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt 5:32). Could the scribes and Pharisees have been calling out Jesus to see if he would really approve capital punishment for a remarried divorced woman?
Finally, what is with the strange behavior of Jesus who bent down and twice wrote something on the ground in the middle of the altercation (John 8:6, 8)? Of course, no one knows what he wrote though there is no end to speculation. Perhaps the author wanted to demonstrate that Jesus was no backwoods rube – he could read and write! Or maybe the issue is not what was written but Jesus’s abrupt disengagement from the situation which serves to direct attention away from the woman and onto himself. We will never know.
All in all, there are many oddities, historical implausibilities, and baked-in biases to come to a firm conclusion as to what this fascinating story was all about. It deserves multiple readings with an open mind.