The Adulterous Woman
By Dr. Arnold Frutchenbaum
John 8:1-11 records the incident of the adulterous woman, which occurred during the Feast of Tabernacles. The background to this particular story is the major area of conflict between Yeshua (Jesus) and the Pharisees over the authority of the “traditions of the elders,” which had been developed for about four centuries. By this time, the Pharisees felt that the traditions of the elders were as sacrosanct as the Law of Moses itself; they felt one had to keep the Law of Moses, but one also had to keep these traditions of the elders.
But Yeshua repudiated the traditions of the elders and would not go along with that teaching. He clearly affirmed that He intended to fulfill the Law of Moses perfectly and all that the Prophets wrote. Indeed, He was the only Jew who ever lived that kept the Mosaic Law perfectly. Up to this point, the Pharisees never had a single opportunity to accuse Jesus of breaking the Mosaic Law. Insofar as the Law of Moses was concerned, He kept it perfectly, down to every jot and tittle. The only basis they had of accusing Him was violating mishnaic law, but that never made much of an impression, because Jesus readily admitted breaking mishnaic law. In fact, sometimes He went out of His way to break it.
The incident of the woman taken in adultery was the first attempt – the one and only real attempt – to get Yeshua to say something that would contradict the Mosaic Law. If they could get Him to do that, it would render His own claim to keep the Mosaic Law perfectly null and void.
In verse 2, they chose to bring up the situation while He was teaching publicly, because they wanted to discredit Him publicly, especially over an issue for which the punishment was not debatable, the issue of adultery. The Talmud (Sotah 47:1) describes this period as a time when murder and adultery had increased in the population: “From the time the murderers have multiplied among us the beheading of the heifer has ceased. Since the increase of adulteries, the bitter waters have been put out of use.” The “bitter waters” was the test of a woman accused of adultery by her husband when there were no eyewitnesses. By this time, they had discontinued the test of the bitter waters for those accused of adultery, but the Law still had to be carried out for eyewitness accounts. This is presumed to be the case in verses 3-4. To let Him know that there was no doubt about her guilt, they said she was caught in the very act of adultery, implying that eyewitnesses were involved.
The issue was not the tradition of the elders, as it had been heretofore; the issue was the Law of Moses. In v. 5 they ask emphatically, “Now Moses said to stone such, but you, what do you say we should do?” It is an obvious attempt to make Him say something that would contradict the Law of Moses. John points out that this was an obvious attempt to entrap Him, because they claimed that she was caught in the very act. However, it is impossible to be accused of adultery singularly; to be caught in the very act of adultery requires two people. So where was the male counterpart to this relationship?
Initially, Yeshua simply refused to answer, but performed a specific act in verse 6b:
But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground.
It is amazing how many commentaries on the Gospel of John try to determine what Jesus wrote on the ground, as if after two thousand years there would still be something left in the dust to decipher. However, in the Greek text, the emphasis is not on the writing, but on the finger, “With the finger on the ground he wrote.” In the Greek language, the same thing can be said in different ways, but the point the author wants to emphasize is usually placed in the front of the sentence. In Greek grammar, this is called the “emphatic position,” or the “emphatic state.” So the emphatic position is not the writing, but the finger. Why would the emphasis be on the finger? Of the 613 commandments God gave to Moses, 603 of them were written on parchment with the pen of a man. The other ten were inscribed on tablets of stone, and one of the ten was the law against adultery. Furthermore, the ten inscribed on stone were not chiseled out with the chisel of a man, but four times it is stated that they were inscribed with the very finger of God (Ex. 31:18; 32:15-16; Deut. 4:13; 9:10). Again, the emphasis is on the finger, pointing out that He happened to be the author of this commandment. He knew exactly what the commandment said, and He knew everything the Law of Moses had to say about this sin and its punishment. When they pressed Him for an answer, He finally gave them one in verse 7:
He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
This is often pulled out of context to make it mean that one should not judge others. However, the Bible requires believers to pass judgment at times. Confronting a brother who has sinned is a matter of judgment. Church discipline leading to excommunication is a matter of judgment. Furthermore, if He were saying, “Only if you are sinlessly perfect yourself should you cast the first stone,” then He would be contradicting the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law did not require the sinless perfection of the witness before the accused could be executed as a criminal. Under those conditions no one could be executed under the Law, and yet the Law required execution for certain sins, one of which was the sin of adultery. Therefore, if He said they should cast the first stone only if they were sinlessly perfect, He would have been breaking the Mosaic Law, and they would have a basis for accusing Him of contradicting the Law of Moses. Jesus’ response must be interpreted in the context of the Mosaic Law, because that is the issue involved in this context.
The point He was making is that, if they judged this woman on the basis of the Mosaic Law, they would have to judge her on all that Moses said about this sin and its punishment. Of course, Moses said anyone guilty of adultery must be stoned to death, but that was not all. He also said that no one could be stoned to death for any reason except at the testimony of two or three witnesses. This much they had, since they claimed she was caught in the very act. However, Moses also said that the two or three witnesses whose testimony condemned her to death must be the ones to cast the first stone. Moses had even more to say in two key passages in the Mosaic Law where he dealt with the faithful and true witnesses (Deut. 13:9; 17:2-7). One more important point is that the two or three witnesses whose testimony condemned her to death and who were responsible for casting the first stone must not be guilty of the same sin of which they accused her. Therefore, in the context of the Mosaic Law, if the two or three witnesses were not guilty of that same sin, they should proceed to cast the first stone, just as Moses had commanded. However, one by one they walked away, implying that, at least among the accusers, not one person was innocent of this sin.
The response was that one by one the accusers walked off, starting with the older ones and then the younger ones. The clear implication is that none of these accusers was innocent of that same sin. Furthermore, it might very well have been that standing among the accusers was the one with whom she was caught in the very act.
When the woman was finally left alone, Yeshua spoke to her. The issue here was a legal condemnation based on the Law of Moses. Because two or three witnesses were not willing to cast the first stone in verse 10, there was no legal ground to condemn her on the basis of the Mosaic Law. When Jesus said: Neither do I condemn you, He was not excusing her sin, for He added in verse 11b: go your way; from henceforth sin no more.
Again, this was the Pharisees’ first attempt to get Yeshua to contradict a point of the Mosaic Law, and it failed miserably. They never tried this ploy again but went back to continually accusing Jesus of violating the mishnaic-pharisaic law.
In conclusion, it should be pointed out that when Jesus was obeying the Mosaic Law, He was obeying it because He was a Jew. The Law was not given to Gentiles. But having perfectly obeyed the Law, He obeyed the Law also as our substitute, especially for those who are Jewish believers. When Yeshua died, He died bearing upon Himself the penalty of the Law. Obviously, He was not guilty of violating the Law, so the penalty of the Law under which He died was not for His own sin, but as a substitution for others. Jesus died a penal, substitutionary death. He was able to be our final blood sacrifice, our substitute, because He and He alone kept the Mosaic Law perfectly.