“And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”
The familiar story above is known to us principally from John’s gospel, where it appears in the King James Bible and others. It does not appear in the Greek text of Vatican manuscript 1209, which is perhaps the most referred-to, but does appear in other Greek texts in that position. Some translations omit it entirely, others place the passage after John 7:36, others after John 21:24, others still insert it after Luke 21:38. It can be argued that it does not sit easily in these narratives anywhere, and is a record of an isolated incident.
Some gain-sayers who hold the whole of John’s gospel to be a hoax, written by Judaic detractors to counter the other gospels, and to discredit Christ (an astonishing claim in the first place!), cite the story as showing, simultaneously, his indecision and his collusion with the woman taken in adultery. These arguments come amid a jumble of dark non-sequiturs to numerous to mention; and present to us a John we do not recognise, and a Jesus we do not recognise from reading John!
Firstly, if the passage is rightly placed in Luke’s gospel, then the arguments against it as a piece of John’s writing must fall straight away. Again, if its non-appearance in the most referred-to early text is taken to mean it did not appear in scripture at all, then similarly it cannot be used to discredit John’s gospel as a whole. And even if it did, new scholarship has suggested that John’s gospel was written much earlier than at first supposed, which would throw doubt on the “intention” to counter the three synoptic gospels.
Let us take it on trust that the passage belongs where it is commonly found, and that John’s gospel occupies the accepted chronological place. We need have no fear of either assumption!
The Scribes and Pharisees are seen throughout the gospels trying to trap Jesus into saying something that they can use to condemn him, in breach of Mosaic law. In this incident he confounds them again – he traps them, not vice-versa – which hardly lends weight to the charge that this is a work designed to discredit him! They bring to him a woman who has been apprehended in the very act of committing adultery, and demand to know from him what should be done with her. What does Christ do in the face of this demand?
He acts as if he does not hear them, but bends down and writes on the ground! “As if he does not hear them” is only inferred in the text, the words having been added by translators to give clarity, but the inference is surely clear. This is the point at which gain-sayers say he is indecisive, playing for time whilst thinking of something to say. But we know Jesus to be the Christ, the One anointed with the Holy Spirit, and no word nor silence of his, no action or stillness, is without precise purpose. Each small thing is prophetic. By ignoring them, he is not playing for time; rather he is forcing them to wait upon him.
By writing on the ground, he is saying, “You are in the letter, but not in the Spirit!”
By writing on the ground, he is saying, “You are in Adam – Atham, the red earth – and in his fall.”
And when he has picked his moment he faces them and, without contradicting the law of Moses, simply says, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”, and then goes back to his writing upon the ground, as if they can have no more to say or do which would interest him on this occasion. He has put the matter squarely back on their shoulders, given the responsibility back to them. But in doing so, he has gone to the heart of each man’s being, his words have struck deep, illuminated the sin in the heart of each man there and forced each man to face it. One by one, starting with the most senior – who may have been supposed to have been the most respectable of them – they do nothing more than leave!
Jesus is left alone with the woman. He asks where are the men who condemned her? They are gone, and he says, “Neither do I condemn thee.” What? Is he letting her off? Does he feel that her sin was so trivial it can be ignored? Well, the gain-sayers may think that, but look what he says next:
“Go, and sin no more.”
He clearly acknowledges that she has sinned. His words state that she should do so no more.
It is certain that the woman had been aware – or at least by then made aware – that she had committed a sin. It is written in Exodus 20:14 and in Deuteronomy 5:18, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” That hadn’t stopped her before! Only Christ – Χριστος, the Messiah, the One anointed by God’s Holy Spirit, the Power of God by which God brought to pass all that was ever brought to pass – had not only the knowledge of her sin, but also the right to judge her and to mete out punishment or mercy as he willed, and the authority both to command and to enable her to “sin no more”
How far all this is from a crude attempt to blacken the name of Jesus! How true the reverse is, that this simple narrative shows his authority, power, gentleness, and wisdom. This we know, because we feel, working within and among us, the same authority, power, gentleness, and wisdom as are witnessed by Scripture.
(from The Call, 2005, issue 1)