16. Jesus and the Adulterous Woman (John 7:53-8:11)

Audio (17:29)

Liz Lemon Swindle, 'He That Is without Sin,' copyrighted by the artist. Permission requested.
Liz Lemon Swindle, 'He That Is without Sin,' copyrighted by the artist. Permission requested.
In the account of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, we see Jesus' compassion on full public display in the temple. This story is matched only by Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son in showcasing God's love and mercy -- and the way to salvation.

This passage is also one of the most misinterpreted incidents in the New Testament -- and at the same time, wasn't even originally part of the New Testament. Nevertheless, it is worthy of careful examination.

Verses 7:53 through 8:11 are missing from most important early Greek manuscripts.[68] In the ancient manuscripts where the passage appears, it is sometimes placed elsewhere than its position in John's Gospel in our Bibles.[69] The vocabulary and style are closer to Luke's than John's, and the case against John's authorship seems to be conclusive. Having said that, Metzger concludes:

"The account has all the earmarks of historical veracity. It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places."[70]

The passage doubtless records an authentic part of Jesus' ministry, and has been loved by Christians throughout the ages. Let's see what the message is for us today.

Teaching in the Temple (7:53-82)

"7:53  Then each went to his own home. 8:1  But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2  At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them." (7:53-8:2)

Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus
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Jesus is in Jerusalem teaching. At night he is on the Mount of Olives, but in the mornings he teaches in the temple (Luke 21:37-38) -- probably in the area at the edge of the Court of the Gentiles known as Solomon's Porch, where, after his resurrection, the early church would gather for teaching (John 10:23; Acts 3:11; 5:12).

In our culture public speakers stand to teach, but in Jesus' culture, the rabbi would often sit to teach (Matthew 5:1; 13:2; 15:29; Mark 4:1; 9:35; Luke 5:3; John 6:3).

The 'No-Win' Trap (8:3-6a)

Jesus has been teaching in the temple, but now his enemies bring a clear challenge, designed to embarrass Jesus and get him in trouble.

"3  The teachers of the law[71] and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4  and said to Jesus, 'Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5  In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?' 6  They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing[72] him." (8:3-6a)

Jesus' opponents often sought to trap him (Mark 3:2; 10:2). This one was similar to his opponents' challenge about whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-22). It was a trick, a trap[73] to turn the authorities -- and the people -- against Jesus. Jesus' enemies had invented a "no win" predicament for him -- at least that what they thought. If Jesus were to say the woman should be stoned, he would be going contrary to his longstanding reputation for showing mercy to the broken and disreputable. And it could get him in trouble with the Romans, who might view stoning as overstepping the Jews' authority to exercise the death penalty.[74] But if Jesus said she shouldn't be stoned, he could be accused of teaching against the Law of Moses and undermining the social order.

Q1. (John 8:3-6) What was the trap Jesus' enemies tried to spring on him with the woman taken in adultery? What might be the consequence if he upheld stoning her? What might be the consequence if he said not to stone her?

Hypocrisy behind the Trap (8:3-6a)

It is clear that this was a "set-up." However, there were some serious legal problems with the Jews' test case:

1. Caught in the act. The accusers were clear that the woman had been caught in the actual act of adultery.[75] This isn't easy to do. Just finding a man and woman in the same room might not be enough. Careful planning must have been done to entrap the couple -- and to entrap Jesus. This wasn't an innocent inquiry to a rabbi concerning how to apply the Law of Moses.

2. Only the woman was brought. Where was the man? The Law specifically states:

"If a man commits adultery with another man's wife -- with the wife of his neighbor -- both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death." (Leviticus 20:10)

There was something fishy about the charge here.

3. Stoning wasn't specified for all cases of adultery. The Law of Moses doesn't specify stoning for all cases of adultery (though it might be implied), but only in the case when a betrothed virgin was caught in adultery, in which case both parties would be stoned (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).

4. Death for adultery was seldom carried out. In fact, the most common punishment for adultery in Jewish society in Jesus' day was not death, but divorce and financial compensation for the husband from the adulterer himself.[76]

Writing on the Ground (8:6b-8)

The accusers demanded a response, but Jesus didn't answer right away.

"6b But Jesus bent down[77] and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7  When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up[78] and said to them, 'If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.' 8  Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground." (8:6b-8)

There is lots of speculation about what Jesus wrote in the sand covering the bricks that paved the temple courtyard. We don't know. If it had been important to the story, surely we would have been told. Probably, it was a way of letting their specious charge be considered by all -- Jesus' audience as well as his opponents. Jesus let the gravity of the situation sink in.

Cast the First Stone (8:7)

Then he straightened up from his writing and spoke a simple sentence:

"If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." (8:7)

This verse is often pointed to by liberals to invalidate anyone from judging any sin as wrong. Let's carefully consider Jesus' answer.

1. Without sin is anamartētos, "without sin," that is, not having sinned.[79] I don't think he means that any person who has ever sinned cannot condemn another person as having broken the law. That would completely overthrow the rule of law. It seems to refer to a witness or judge who has another interest in the matter besides justice for the accused. In many modern courts, a judge who has a personal interest or conflict of interest in a case is required to recuse himself or herself.

This is much like Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Judge not, until you have removed the sin from your life that keeps you from seeing another's sin clearly and dispassionately (Matthew 7:1-5).

2. Throw the first stone is a reference to a requirement in the Law of Moses that witnesses be the first to put a person to death.

"You [who heard his blasphemy] must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people." (Deuteronomy 13:9)

"6  On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. 7  The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you." (Deuteronomy 17:6-7)

But the witnesses in this particular case weren't interested in justice being done, but rather in entrapping Jesus. Thus they were tainted witnesses who had an interest in the outcome of the case -- and everyone knew it. They weren't without sin!

3. The fine balance Jesus achieved with his simple reply accomplished several things: (1) It upheld the Law of Moses, (2) it required the accusers to take action to carry out the law, (3) it pointed to their culpability as prejudiced, evil witnesses in this case, and (4) it may have prevented a "lynching" in this woman's case. This is a good example of a "word of wisdom" (1 Corinthians 12:8).

Jesus' words have the desired effect. Jesus goes back to writing in the sand, but gradually all the accusers leave.

"At this,[80] those who heard began to go away[81] one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there." (8:9)

I don't think the people Jesus had been teaching left, only the woman's accusers, though the text is not clear.

Q2. (John 8:3-8) Why did Jesus insist on unbiased, righteous witnesses casting the first stone? Why is verse 7 so often misused? Does Jesus require sinlessness of those called on to judge? What does he require? How does this compare with Jesus' teaching in Matthew 7:1-5?

Q3. (John 8:3-8) Why do you think Jesus wrote on the ground? Was the content of his writing important to the story? What effect did this have on the situation?

Neither Do I Condemn You (8:10-11)

Now Jesus, who has been writing in the sand, straightens up again.

"10  Jesus straightened up and asked her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?'
11  'No one, sir,' she said.
'Then neither do I condemn you,' Jesus declared. 'Go now and leave your life of sin.'" (8:10-11)

The woman, who had been the defendant in a capital case, is now alone in court. Only Jesus, the rabbi who had been asked to settle the case is still present. None of her accusers -- and, more important, witnesses against her -- are present to testify. The case is thrown out of court for lack of evidence.

"Then neither do I condemn you," says Jesus. According to the Law of Moses, no sentence or condemnation is appropriate without witnesses.

Go and Sin No More (8:11b)

But this doesn't mean that no sin has occurred. The woman knows it and so does Jesus. Jesus is not acting as if her sin is of no consequence, just that it cannot be legally judged without competent witnesses. Rather, here Jesus is taking sin very seriously indeed, just as he did with the man healed at the Pool of Bethesda:

"Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you." (5:14b)

Here he says to the woman:

"Go your way, and from now on do not sin again." (8:11b, NRSV)

The core of both these commands is exactly the same in Greek, literally, "sin no longer,"[82]

A Call to Repentance

In both instances, Jesus does not excuse or pass over sin. Rather, he gently calls the sinner to repentance, to change. Sometimes in our day the gospel is presented in such a way that real repentance from sin doesn't seem to be required. Dear friends, this is not the true gospel! There is no forgiveness, no new birth, no change without repentance. Consider these passages:

"From that time on Jesus began to preach, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.'" (Matthew 4:17)

"Unless you repent, you too will all perish." (Luke 13:3, 5)

"There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." (Luke 15:7)

"Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38)

"Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord." (Acts 3:19)

"In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent." (Acts 17:30)

"First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds." (Acts 26:20)

Repentance is not a so-called "work of righteousness," it is an act of faith. We believe that Jesus is Lord, and then consequently are sorry for everything we have done that goes contrary to our Lord's way.

Yes, our repentance may be shallow at first, but there we must start. Years ago, Dr. Sam Shoemaker advised people, "Give all you know of yourself to all you know of God." As our knowledge of ourselves and of God increases, then we must give that as well.

Q4. (John 8:10-11) Why didn't Jesus condemn the lady? Was she guilty, do you think? Instead of condemnation, what did Jesus tell her to do? Why is repentance necessary for salvation? What happens to the gospel when we don't emphasize repentance?

When we are called upon to restore a person who has fallen away, Paul tells us to do it both gently and humbly.

"Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself." (Galatians 6:1-3)

Lessons for Disciples

There are several things we can learn from Jesus' actions and words in this story.

John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Entire study is available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.
  1. When people tried to trap Jesus in words, he relied on the wisdom from God to help him find a "word of wisdom." So can we (1 Corinthians 12:8).
  2. Writing quietly on the ground was part of the wisdom Jesus exercised on this occasion.
  3. Jesus doesn't require absolute sinlessness of judges and elders. But he does require us to have dealt with our own sins so that we can see clearly and dispassionately. Otherwise we're likely to project our weaknesses and sins upon another person in our judgment. We are to restore a person with gentleness and humility (Galatians 6:1-3)
  4. Jesus refuses to condemn the lady because the requirements of the law were not met -- not because he is soft on sin.
  5. Jesus calls on her to repent and stop sinning. Repentance is vital for salvation.


Father, give us wisdom when people try to put us on the spot. Help us to seek our wisdom from you. Help us not to be harsh and judgmental, but gentle and compassionate. Help us to repent from our sins and to support Jesus' call for repentance in his church. In Jesus' holy name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." (John 8:7b, NIV)

"'Then neither do I condemn you,' Jesus declared. 'Go now and leave your life of sin.'" (John 8:11, NIV)


[68] The passage is missing from p66,75 Aleph B L N T W etc. and early Greek fathers.

[69] Codex D, etc.

[70] Metzger, Textual Commentary, pp. 220-221.

[71] "Teachers of the law" (NIV), "scribes" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is grammateus, "specialists in the law of Moses: experts in the law, scholars versed in the law, scribes" (BDAG 206, 2a). Used only once in John. See Appendix 3. Religious Leaders in Jesus' Day.

[72] "Accusing" (NIV) is katēgoreō, nearly always as legal technical term, "bring charges" in court (BDAG 533, 1a).

[73] "As a trap" (NIV), "to test" (NRSV, ESV), "tempting" (KJV) is peirazō, which we've seen before in 6:6, here in the sense of, "to attempt to entrap through a process of inquiry, test" (BDAG 793, 3).

[74] The right to impose the death penalty had been taken away from the Jewish courts by the Roman authorities about 30 BC (Sanhedrin 41a). After this the Sanhedrin would petition the Roman governor to put a person to death (John 18:31; Matthew 27:1), though there are records of mob violence in stoning (Acts 13:28).

[75] "Caught" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "taken" (KJV) is katalambanō, generally, "to seize, lay hold of," of forceful seizure. Here, "to come upon someone, with implication of surprise, catch," of moral authorities, "catch, detect" (BDAG 520, 3a). "Act" is the adjective autophōros, "(caught) in the act," from autos, "self" + phōr, "thief." The word was used first of thieves, and then of other wrongdoers, especially adulterers.

[76] The Mishnah tractate Sotah 5:1 seems to take for granted that the punishment for adultery would be divorce.

[77] "Bent/stooped down" in verses 6 and 8 is kyptō, "bend (oneself) down" (BDAG 575).

[78] In verses 7 and 10, "straightened up" (NIV, NRSV), "stood up" (ESV), "lifted up himself" (KJV) is anakyptō, "to raise oneself up to an erect position, stand erect, straighten oneself" (BDAG 66, 1).

[79] Anamartētos, BDAG 67.

[80] The KJV, "being convicted by their own conscience," is an explanatory gloss found in some later manuscripts (K bopt and the Textus Receptus), but omitted by most (U Γ 28 700 892 101 pm). Metzger gives the text without the gloss an {A} "virtually certain" rating (Metzger, Textual Commentary, p. 222).

[81] "Began to go away" (NIV), "went away" (NRSV), "went out" (KJV) is exerchomai, "go out," in the imperfect tense, continuing action in the past. The accusers left gradually, over a period of time.

[82] Mēketi, "no longer, not from now on" (BDAG 647, fα). Mēketi hamartane, imperative present active of the verb hamartanō, "to sin."

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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