A big problem among Christians today is the distortion of Jesus' message. Christian teachers and preachers spread a lot of misinformation (pastorisms, if you want to use a mild word). The average Christian doesn't know enough about their own king to correct the falsehoods being spread. We are trying, through this site, to encourage you to represent him accurately. The more you understand Jesus' own value system, the better your decision-making will be, and the better you will be as a Kingdom ambassador and an example.
Have you ever hear any of the following phrases:
"Jesus says 'Judge not...'"
"Who am I to judge?"
"Who are you to judge?"
"Are you the sinless one who will cast the first stone?" (referring to the passage in John 8 about the adulterous woman)
Now most of the time when you hear these phrases, it wasn't because you were literally stooping to pick up a stone. Usually, the people who make these statements are trying to silence an uncomfortable truth. They have ears, but they don't want to hear. "Stoning" is their preferred metaphor for speaking "judgmental words." Well, since none of us are "sinless," I guess that means that Jesus wants us to say nothing, right?
Let's examine this claim.
A gentle response to self-contradiction
Here's a quick, two step response. First, ask:
Question 1: "So, it's wrong to tell people that they are sinning?"
At this point, the quick-witted, self-reflective people will see their error and immediately back away from their "judge not" assertions, and you can continue the discussion productively. But if they persist with a response like "yes," you then ask:
Question 2: Are you saying that I'm sinning by telling people that they are sinning?
With just two questions you can wake up most people to their own inconsistency. However, if they are oppositional past this point, then you can be pretty certain that it isn't an error in reasoning. It is probably fear and guilt about the persistent sin of someone close to them (which requires a completely different type of discussion).
Was Jesus contradicting himself?
When Jesus said "... throw the first stone" in John 8:7, he was referring to literal stones, not words. If you don't understand the specific Biblical law he is quoting (Deut. 17:7), then you don't understand what he is communicating.
Jesus did say "Judge not, lest you be judged..." in Matt. 7:1. Of course, Jesus also commanded, "judge just judgment...." (John 7:24), which is a direct quote from Deuteronomy 16:18 (a section of the law describing the duties of civil judges). So what was Jesus trying to teach? Are you willing to consider that Jesus wasn't actually contradicting himself?
If you can be patient, we're going to "deep dive" into the context of John 8 so that you will understand what is actually happening when the Pharisees throw the adulterous woman at Jesus' feet. This passage is probably one of the top five "most misunderstood" passages of scripture. When we're finished, you will probably experience two things:
- discomfort — if we understand Jesus properly, we ought to feel discomfort more often than comfort. Unless we're sinless. Discomfort is the first mental step; comfort comes after repentance (1 John 1:9).
- satisfaction — you will probably understand this passage better than most pastors out there. Which is also not a comforting thought.
Does the "adulterous woman" passage even belong in scripture?
Let's deal quickly, though, with a common claim about the "adulterous woman" passage in John 8 (Bible scholars call this section the Pericope adulterae, by the way). Many people say that this passage is questionable, for what they call "text critical" reasons. In other words, many (even otherwise conservative) Christian teachers will claim that we don't need to teach, interpret, or put any trust in this story, because it probably doesn't belong in the Bible to begin with.
I've studied that claim (more than the average person, let's just say), and I'm not convinced. But even if you believe that it isn't a legitimate part of scripture, you still might benefit from reading this essay. Even if the passage was added later by someone other than John, it is still a very early Christian story (even quoted in the 3rd century document Didaskalia Apostolorum). Therefore, it probably reports a teaching about Jesus which is substantially true, even if not scripture.
I am convinced this passage belongs in scripture. Sure, it shows up in some weird places in certain manuscripts, and it doesn't show up in some older Greek manuscripts. But there are good scholarly arguments for it being original to the gospel of John (look up the scholar Maurice Robinson, if you want to know more).
Here's a key fact that (almost) no one disagrees with: this story pre-dates all of the Greek gospel manuscripts where it might have been included, but wasn't (such as the Alexandrian-type papyri P66 and P75). As far I can tell, this fact means that the Greek manuscript evidence should be considered inconclusive.
Based on the internal evidence, it is difficult to believe that anyone would have made up this story about Jesus. If you continue reading this essay, you will probably see why. To me, this scripture passage self-authenticates as being "God-breathed." Therefore, I am conscience-bound to treat it as genuine scripture.
Context, context, context
Context is absolutely critical to understanding this passage. There are three major things which Bible teachers often leave out, when they are discussing it:
- What Jesus said about the law in Matt. 5:17-19
- Biblical "judicial procedure" (i.e. how God told His judges to conduct trials)
- The actual meaning of the Greek word ἀναμάρτητος (anamartetos) from John 8:7 (which is normally translated "sinless" or "without sin")
Now without reading any further, you can verify what I am saying from your own experience: have you ever heard a pastor/teacher talk about these things in relation to this passage? I suspect not. But wouldn't you agree, just by looking at them, that they are probably important parts of the context for understanding it?
Why do teachers leave these things out? Well, consider: the typical Christian teacher has, roughly, 20 to 45 minutes, once per week, to hold peoples' attention. They have a choice:
- Blue pill option: they can take the passage, at face value, as a story about Jesus exposing the sins of the Pharisees, showing mercy to a poor woman who was probably victimized by a patriarchal society, and proclaiming that "because everyone sins, they have no grounds to judge other sinners." It fits easily into 45 minutes. It fits with what everybody was already thinking anyway. And it reassures any adulterers in the congregation that what they did wasn't worse than any other sin, such as lying or stealing. They get bonus points if they bring in Jesus' words about "adultery in the heart" (Matt. 5:28) and claim that mental covetousness is just as bad as the (covenant-breaking) act of adultery.
- Red pill option: they can actually try to do justice to the context and the nuance of what was actually happening. They would have to talk about the text critical issue a bit, because otherwise somebody is going to ask about it. By itself, Jesus' statement in Matt. 5:17-19 is (or at least should be) one of the "foundation stones" of any interpretive system. If they haven't already taught about it, that could easily take half an hour right there. And then they would need to go back to Deuteronomy to explain about witnesses and proper Biblical judicial procedure. After that they could start explaining the John 8 passage itself, what Jesus meant by "sinless", and whether Jesus was revolutionizing the whole Jewish judicial system by eliminating witness testimony. And by the time they are finished, they've probably confused half the people who are still awake, and angered the other half who thought adultery wasn't such a big deal.
Blue pill: you're done in half an hour, you don't risk losing any tithe-paying members, and you get to keep your job.
Red pill: church board members stop by, unannounced, for a serious talk. Or worse, they say nothing to you about it and just start looking for a replacement.
These are the economic realities of just about every institutional church, which is a big problem. Here at BiblicalLaw.org, the pills are all red, which guarantees that this site will never be popular. But we get to sleep well at night because we told the whole truth.
Did Jesus come to abolish God's law?
Recall what Jesus said in his sermon on the Mount:
If you haven't studied this passage, you might want to stop and do that first, because it is very important for understanding what Jesus came to do. Several Biblical themes are brought together in this crucial passage: eschatology, law, covenant, and fulfillment of prophecy. You must reconcile yourself to these facts:
- Jesus was talking about the whole law, not just the ten commandments (which are merely a summary of the law).
- Whatever you think Jesus came to do to with the Old Covenant law, he did not actually "abolish" it.
- Jesus initiated the New Covenant, and under the New Covenant, we are not required to keep certain parts of the law (e.g. circumcision, feast observances, sacrifices, Jew/Gentile separation laws). So some of the law did pass away, but the rest of it was retained. "But what if a law isn't repeated in the New Testament?" God is not required to repeat Himself on laws which are grounded in the "goodness" of His character. There is no mention of bestiality in the New Testament.
- The Old Covenant, which was "ready to vanish away" when Hebrews 8:13 was written (probably in the 60s A.D.), was finally abolished by the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, leaving only the New Covenant for God's people.
- Jesus said that nothing would pass from the law until "heaven and earth pass away" (Matt. 5:18). He also confirmed that "heaven and earth will pass away" (Matt. 24:35). But we can be pretty certain that at the time Jesus was presented with the adulterous woman, "heaven and earth" had not yet passed away. Therefore, every jot and tittle of the law was still in effect, and Jesus had committed himself to upholding it.
What were the scribes and Pharisees trying to do?
Some people suggest that the scribes and Pharisees were trying to put Jesus at odds with the Roman government. In other words, Rome didn't allow the Judeans to execute anyone, but reserved that authority to themselves. So would Jesus have gotten in trouble with the Romans, if the scribes and Pharisees got him to say that the woman should be stoned?
Hardly. The Roman law against "non-Roman" execution didn't stop an entire group of Jews from stoning Steven (Acts 7:54-60) and even Saul the Pharisee stood by and approved. None of them seemed worried about Rome. A group of Jews actually picked up stones to stone Jesus himself later in this chapter. Why weren't they concerned?
The truth is that only the Jewish leaders (the Sadducees and the priests) were worried about provoking the Romans. People in power want to either increase their power or at least maintain the status quo. The Jewish leaders got into their positions of power by cooperating with the Romans. They didn't want their Roman benefactors to start reconsidering that arrangement: John 11:47-50.
Actually, the scribes and Pharisees were trying to put Jesus at odds with the Jewish people. The death penalty for adultery was about as popular in the first century as it is now. Consider how most Christians would respond today if Jesus stood in a pulpit and declared openly that the crime of adultery is deserving of the death penalty (which he would). This would not be conducive to "church growth."
So if the Pharisees could maneuver Jesus into calling for the death penalty upon the adulterous woman, that might cause him to lose popularity with the people (not that Jesus was worried about that: see John 6:56-66). If he didn't call for the death penalty, then that would put him in opposition to Biblical law, which he had previously pledged to uphold (Matt. 5:17-19). Then the scribes and Pharisees could call Jesus the "hypocrite."
What did Jesus write?
A lot of people speculate on what Jesus was writing in the dust of the temple. The Bible does not tell us, but we can draw one conclusion from the mere fact that Jesus was writing: he was asserting an authority that matched the scribes. Today, we are used to the fact that nearly everyone has the skill to write, but in the first century, writing was confined to a small group of skilled individuals: the scribes.
This is the only record in scripture of Jesus writing, so it must have had great symbolic value. It's as if Jesus were saying by his actions, "I am just as wise in the law as any of the scribes standing here." (For more on this, see Chris Keith, The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus, Chapter 4, especially pp. 105-110).
Legal language in the Gospel of John
As you study John, it's important to notice some recurring themes: Marriage, Light vs. Darkness, Unity between Son and Father, Jesus as the Source of Water/Life. There is also a theme of Legal Judgment, beginning with the first cleansing of the temple in John 2:14. The first part of the Gospel of John is actually saturated with references to Biblical law and legal judgment. For example, in John 5:30-32, Jesus says:
See the references in, for example: John 7:15, 19, 22-24 (where Jesus says "judge just judgment"), 49, 51, (skipping over the adultery passage) 8:13-18, 26. The story of the woman taken in adultery is about judgment, following Biblical law, witnesses, and the unjustness of the scribes and Pharisees. It fits very naturally into the narrative where it has been traditionally found.
How to be a judge in a capital crime, according to Biblical law
When the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus, they were essentially calling upon him to be a civil judge in accordance with Biblical law. Jesus called their bluff, by taking on that responsibility. Just as you would expect from reading his words in Matt. 5:17-19, he did not repudiate Biblical law: he actually followed it to the letter.
Under Biblical law, the judge would be informed of a crime by the complaining witnesses. Then he or she (the instance of Deborah shows that women could be judges: see Judges 4:5) would do some or all of the following, depending upon the circumstances:
- call for witnesses, both direct and corroborative (Lev. 5:1)
- throw out the case, if there were insufficient eyewitnesses (Deut. 19:15)
- cross-examine the witness testimony in order to search out the truth (Deut. 17:4, Deut. 19:18)
- throw out any testimony that was either contradicted or not supported by others (Exod. 23:1-2, 6-8)
- determine if there were enough truthful witnesses remaining to convict (Deut. 17:6, 19:15)
- pronounce conviction (or acquittal), calling upon the direct witnesses to execute the sentence (typically stoning — Deut. 13:9-10, Deut. 17:7)
The importance of (just) witnesses in Biblical law
On the face of it (judging by mere appearances, you might say), the case against the adulteress seemed open and shut. The woman was almost certainly guilty (implied by Jesus' final statement to her: "go and sin no more"). Since the scribes and Pharisees claimed that the woman had been "caught in the act," they were claiming that there were actual eyewitnesses to the act. If there were at least two witnesses (and there probably were: the Pharisees would not have left this loophole) then there were enough to convict, according to Deuteronomy 19:15. Biblical law was clear on this issue of the death penalty for adultery (Lev. 20:10).
Of course, Jesus knew better than to judge by mere appearances. He immediately upheld Biblical law by calling for the proscribed death penalty, without even cross-examining any of the witnesses, (because he knew that they would cross-examine themselves):
The Greek word ἀναμάρτητος (translated "without sin") is the crucial word in Jesus' statement, and we will get to that soon, once we understand the context. "First stone" is a legal reference: to Deuteronomy 17:7.:
Why was it important for the actual witnesses to throw the first stone? Because if they were false or unjust witnesses, then they would be guilty of murder:
The witnesses, by casting the first stones, accepted the onus of the responsibility; in the event of further evidence establishing the innocence of the (now deceased) accused, and thereby the false testimony of the witnesses, they would then assume the responsibility for wrongful execution, in effect murder." (Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, 251)
Under Biblical law, a false witness in a capital crime would get the death penalty: Deut. 19:18-20. Stop for a second and consider how this compares with modern law systems. Are there any modern law systems that threaten a death penalty for bearing false witness in a felony trial? None that I know about. Why is this?
Modern "justice" and rules of evidence
Modern utilitarian legal systems prefer to keep their "rules of evidence" loose. This is due to a fundamental difference in value between modern utilitarian law and Biblical law: modern legal systems work towards maximizing "justice". Biblical law is designed to minimize injustice. In other words, modern law systems are more interested in punishing the (alleged) guilty than in protecting the (falsely-accused) innocent. Biblical law is designed by God so that the human decision-makers (judges) err on the side of protecting the innocent from the harsh machinery of civil government.
In many modern jurisdications, actual eyewitnesses are not even required to bring someone to trial for a crime. Indirect evidence (sometimes called "circumstantial evidence") can be used to convict someone of a felony. Prosecutors use the unjust plea-bargaining system to threaten people into pleading guilty (often to things they didn't do). Testimony by "unjust witnesses" is encouraged and rewarded (e.g. promising criminals lesser penalties, or even immunity, for testifying against their fellows). In the United States, potential witnesses can be threatened with prison sentences if they refuse to testify (something that could never happen under Biblical law). This is nothing other than kidnapping and torture by the civil government.
Utilitarian legal philosophy is satisfied that someone gets punished: whether it's the right person is not as important as keeping those conviction statistics high.
Biblical law, on the other hand, has much stricter rules of evidence:
- a minimum of two actual eyewitnesses are required for conviction (Deut. 19:15)
- witnesses cannot be themselves implicated in criminal activity (Ex. 23:1)
- there is a threat of the death penalty for false testimony in capital crimes (Deut. 19:16-19)
- the civil government is never allowed to use torture and threats of prison in order to compel testimony (implicit in Deut. 4:2 plus the fact that there is no Biblical civil penalty for failing to testify: Lev. 5:1)
Biblical law forces human judges to err on the side of protecting the innocent at the expense of sometimes letting the (alleged) guilty go free. Modern Christian neo-Pharisees may feel this is "too lenient," but that is why God is in charge, and neo-Pharisees are mere usurpers of God's authority.
Can only "sinless" people participate in the justice system?
Here's where we need to look at that Greek word which is translated "without sin." Most of the time, I prefer formal equivalent (sometimes called "literal") translations. But sometimes literalness can be misleading, and that is the case with the Greek word "ἀναμάρτητος". When we hear "without sin" or "sinless," we think of Jesus Christ himself, the only man who was truly and totally "without sin." But the literal English translation "sinless" is not quite what the Greek word means.
How do we know? The same way we know the meaning of any other Koine Greek word: by seeing how it is used in other contexts. For example in the Septuagint (written in Koine Greek):
The word is also used in 2 Maccabees 12:42, where it is used in the following context:
The noble Ioudas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin (ἀναμαρτήτους), for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen... [emphasis added]
Notice that the word in both of these contexts is applied to regular, sinful human beings. Therefore it cannot mean "entirely without sin," like the sinlessness of Jesus.
So what is Jesus asserting, when he calls for witnesses who are "ἀναμάρτητος"? Consider what Stephen James says, in his analysis of this passage:
Jesus is asking the witnesses if they are truly eligible before the law to testify in the immediate case. The certainty of their having sinned at some time or other is not in mind. It is unfortunate that the term in question is translated "without sin," thus bringing to mind the general sinfulness of men. It would have been better translated, in context, as "competent to testify." ("The Adulteress and the Death Penalty", Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22/1 (March, 1979), 48)
In Biblical law, it isn't enough for a witness to be corroborated by others and unopposed in their testimony; they also cannot be a "malicious" or "criminal" (Hebrew: רָשָׁ֔ע) witness: Exod. 23:1. They have to be "just" (legally innocent) in the eyes of the law, or else their testimony (even if possibly true) must be legally disqualified as "vain" (Hebrew: שָׁ֑וְא).
Herein lies a strong rebuke to our modern "justice" system: Biblical law does not allow prosecutors or judges to cooperate with criminals in order to get testimony against other criminals. Granting "immunity" in exchange for testimony is unBiblical and therefore unjust. All such testimony is legally invalid, and prosecutors who do this are egregiously sinning.
Why did the witnesses walk away?
We don't know why the Pharisees' witnesses disqualified themselves by walking away. Maybe because they had broken the law simply by not bringing the male adulterer: Deut 22:22-24. Maybe they had accepted a bribe for participating in the legal action: Exod. 23:7-8. Whatever their crime, Jesus knew about it, and knew that it was enough to disqualify them as witnesses. "Judge not lest you be judged. With the measure you measure, it will be measured to you." (Matt. 7:2)
No witnesses, no prosecution, no case.
Did Jesus forgive the adulteress?
The next question you might ask is: "why didn't Jesus himself carry out the death penalty?" I'll let the scholar Stephen James answer this one:
The failure of Jesus to condemn the woman must ... be strictly understood in the civil and temporal context of the entire passage. Extension of his statement to the spiritual and eternal is not valid on either hermeneutical or exegetical grounds. Indeed, it would have been a gross violation of Biblical law if Jesus had attempted to condemn the woman. He was not an eyewitness, and he could be only one witness in any case. Given the circumstances, Jesus could not have condemned the woman even if he had wanted to do so. He was required by law to release her, and his parting admonition to "sin no more" must be understood for what it is — excellent advice!
In brief, from a legal perspective the words and actions of Jesus recorded in the pericope of the adulteress are in strict conformity to the letter and spirit of Mosaic law, which sought to exact justice within the limits of procedures designed to protect the individual from the innocent errors or malevolent perjury of others. Jesus did not here set aside or modify the Mosaic law. ("The Adulteress and the Death Penalty", JETS 22/1 (March 1979), 52)
We cannot know, from this story, whether Jesus ultimately forgave the woman. In other cases where he confronted sinners (Matt. 9:2, Luke 7:48), Jesus explicitly said (even without being asked) "your sins are forgiven." He did not say this to the adulterous woman. Nevertheless, we cannot know, one way or the other.
The gravity of the crime of adultery
The woman (assuming that she was guilty) deserved the civil death penalty, without question. So did the adulterous man who was conspicuously absent. But civil justice cannot be accomplished with unjust witnesses.
Jesus was in no way questioning the justice of the death penalty for adultery. As God, Jesus was the actual author of the death penalty statute in Leviticus 20:10. Adultery is a crime that breaks the covenant at the heart of the foundational institution of civilization: the family. That makes it one of the greatest acts of treason against the ethical order which God has established. When the prophets needed a metaphor to compare Israel's rebellion against God, they used adultery.
Scripture could not be clearer on this issue. But Christian teachers have stumbled greatly in their teaching on the nature of the marriage covenant, the role of civil government, and the seriousness of Christian marriage as the public picture of Christ's relationship with the church. It's not surprising that local churches are now being torn apart over the issue of civil government and marriage.
Christian teachers can never make things better by softening the scripture's warning against adultery. Yes, people can be forgiven for adultery, just as they can be forgiven for rape and murder. But there are real consequences to all these crimes which persist long past repentance. Unless we represent the true position of the King, we are not good ambassadors.