by John Zokovitch
Pax Christi USA Director of Communications
Most, maybe all, biblical scholars agree that John 8:1-11 is not original to John’s gospel, and that it actually reflects Lucan artistry and themes much more. For this reason, some commentaries neglect to reflect on the passage at all. It is a problematic passage for our study because we’ve stressed the importance of studying passages in their narrative context, especially paying attention to what comes just before and immediately after the passage as we unpack everything going on within it. So if John 8:1-11 isn’t original to the gospel, its importance within the overall narrative is compromised, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take it for what it is in itself.
The passage opens within a highly public setting—the place being the “temple area” and “all the people” coming to Jesus (v. 2). The scribes and Pharisees, traditional opponents of Jesus, enter in v. 3, dragging along a woman that they presumably have caught committing adultery. Immediately we should be aware that it takes at least 2 to commit adultery, and while the Pharisees and scribes have no problem apprehending the woman, her presumed partner, a man, seems to have given them the slip. The whole scene strains credulity. On their way to the temple area, the scribes and Pharisees just happen to come across (where, in the middle of the road?) at that very moment a woman in the act of adultery? How convenient! More likely is that this is a set-up, from beginning to end. Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees “entrap” this woman, for the purpose of challenging and embarrassing Jesus. Perhaps the woman’s adultery was a widely known “secret”, the subject of Jerusalem gossip, but only now do the scribes and Pharisees act, using her as a prop in their confrontation with Jesus. Regardless of the exact circumstances, it smells of a set-up, and the woman is nothing more than a tool, a prop, used in the scheme.
The “question” posed to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees is whether Jesus agrees with the law of Moses that the woman should be stoned for her transgression. Interestingly enough, the law they refer to (whether in Deuteronomy 22 or Leviticus 20) emphasizes that both parties—man and woman—should suffer the punishment; here, of course, this group of men concern themselves only with the woman and with what should happen to her.
So the narrator tells us in v. 6 that the scribes and Pharisees pose this question to test Jesus—but what sort of a test is it? As one of the folks in our study pointed out, it’s a no-win situation for Jesus because in the minds of his questioners, either answer he gives will damn him. Think of it like the conundrum that Jesus faced when asked whether to pay taxes to Caesar. A simple yes or a simple no will indict him either way, giving his opponents a victory and weakening his own standing with those who are listening in. A couple possibilities exist here for being “between a rock and a hard place.” One possibility is that if Jesus were to agree to the stoning of the woman, he would in fact be going against Roman law in the region, which forbid Jews from carrying out the death penalty, a sentence handed down only by the Roman authorities (think of the high priests petitioning Pilate to have Jesus executed rather than doing it themselves). If he answers no, he is tacitly recognizing the priority of Roman authority over Moses’ authority. Either way, he loses face and can be cast by his opponents as either a dangerous anti-Roman zealot inciting insurrection or as someone who has no respect for Moses and the torah. Additionally, to choose in favor of her stoning is to bolster the position of the scribes and Pharisees themselves, since such a stance would seem to be in agreement with their own.
I’d suggest another possibility too (which fits especially well if we acknowledge this passage to be part of Luke’s tradition where women are featured quite prominently, rather than John’s tradition). The Jesus movement seemed to do quite well with women of the time, including a strong suspicion that Jesus and his male disciples were “bankrolled” by women of means (receiving provisions and hospitality, etc.). Allowing for how Jesus’ message stoked within women a sense of empowerment and equality, this scene—with a woman brutalized (the scribes and Pharisees certainly did not bringing her to Jesus gently and it must have been terrifying for her) and objectified and used by men to further their own schemes—could have also functioned, intentionally or not, to drive a wedge between Jesus and his women disciples/supporters. Going along with the “law of Moses” would surely alienate those women who had found so much hope in what Jesus had said and done. But to go against the law could also weaken Jesus’ standing as a man of the times, especially in the eyes of other men, traditional men, concerned that their religious “authorities” not be seen as permissive on matters of societal importance, including the roles of women and men, the tradition of family, and so on.
Jesus doesn’t immediately respond to his questioners, instead writing in the dirt, as they continue to press him on the subject. His response of course is that the one without sin should throw the first stone. Rev. Joe Nangle writes that with his response, Jesus invites all those gathered (as well as us today) to “view the sin of those accused through our own sinfulness,” a stunning challenge when we think about it because typically we view the sins of other’s through our own comparative righteousness instead! Yes, we may be sinners too, but that person’s sin is so much worse than ours! Such thinking would have been typical of Jesus’ audience as well, including the Pharisees and scribes. It is doubtful that anyone present for this scene would have answered the question “Are you sinless?” in the positive. But what is operating here, and what Jesus undermines with his answer, is his opponents’ belief in a hierarchy of sin, where certain sins are more horrific and therefore more deserving of punishment or greater punishment than others. It isn’t that the woman is a sinner—it is that these MEN find her sin to be more repugnant, more repulsive, more everything than their own. Adultery—particularly a woman’s adultery—trumps hypocrisy or pride or sloth. Her adultery trumps every transgression, every sin that any of them has committed. But Jesus says NO to their—and our—desire to create a hierarchy of sin where some sins are worse than others (and maybe Jesus specifically says no to the hierarchy of sins created by men to obscure their own misconduct while shining a light on the misconduct of women). Jesus says sin is sin is sin—and we are all guilty.
The passage ends, of course, with all those who were present (remember that a great crowd was there, not just the scribes and Pharisees) leaving the scene, until Jesus is alone with the woman. And here Jesus again shows the difference between himself and religious authority gone astray: Jesus speaks to the woman, the first time the woman is treated as a subject, with inherent worth and dignity—not an object, not something to be used, a tool, a prop, a means to some other end—but as a person, created in the image and likeness of God. And despite whatever sinfulness she had participated in, he withholds his condemnation.
As we finished the passage, we talked about the various ways it speaks to us today. One person referenced the passage in scripture where Jesus says (paraphrased) “You have it heard it said ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I say to you anyone who looks at a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery…” She said that we always hear this passage as Jesus condemning us for impure thoughts, but in light of today’s passage, couldn’t we look at it as Jesus resisting our own attempts again to draw lines, placing some of us in the circle—“the adulterers”—and others of us outside the circle—the “good” people, who while sinful, are at least not as bad as those in the circle, those adulterers! Such circles exist to make us feel better about ourselves while we point our fingers at those bad people who are so much worse than we are. Just as Jesus undermines any pretensions we have to create hierarchies of sin, so too does Jesus erase those lines we create to separate ourselves into less sinful (or righteous) and more sinful (or just plain sinful). She pointed out Jesus surely knew all of us have had impure thoughts, and by equating that with adultery, he blows up the circle and gets us all inside it. Sin is sin is sin. And when we hear about certain sins as worse than others, or see those held up as “the worst of sinners,” we should recognize not how much better we are in comparison, but remember our own sin too. Jesus invites us to see “the accused through our own sinfulness,” not our comparative righteousness. And to take up our place in the circle with them.