An Adulterous Scandal

How does Yeshua use the Torah to deal with adultery?


Let’s take a look at an example in which deliberate judgment is demonstrated by Jesus in the case of the woman “caught in the very act of adultery” (according to the KJV) from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John. Although most are familiar with this passage, let us refresh our memory before we continue. 

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11) 

In this encounter, Jesus is confronted with a test from some of the religious leaders of his day. As he sits down to teach the crowd, a woman is brought before him with the claim that she was “caught in the act of adultery.” They then press Jesus with the question regarding the situation of an adulteress in the Torah (vs. 5). Jesus acts as if he is ignoring the accusers; he bends down and begins to write on the ground with his finger. When he is questioned again, he stands, responding with the famous quote, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (vs. 7). He sits back down and begins to write on the ground a second time. Those around Jesus began leaving “one by one, beginning with the older ones,” until only Jesus and the woman were left. Jesus stands and addresses the woman, asking her where her accusers had gone, and if anyone was left to condemn her. She replies that no one was left to accuse her. Jesus then responds with the celebrated words, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Although this passage has been admired by the church over the centuries — and is, in fact, due considerable admiration for the way Jesus, the Master of Torah, uses Torah to uphold the justice of Torah — we have heralded it largely for the wrong reasons. Almost inevitably, when reading the story of the adulterous woman in John’s Gospel, most readers will envision a summary statement that reads like the words of a newspaper headline: “Grace conquers Law.” We have been taught that

Most readers will envision a summary statement that reads like the words of a newspaper headline: “Grace conquers Law.”
Jesus overrides the Torah with his decision to ignore the “letter of the law” and show mercy to this woman. However, if we have a good familiarity with the Torah and we understand the actual situation properly, it becomes quite clear what is happening in this encounter. Let’s see how knowledge of the Torah helps us to not only understand the actual circumstances, but also how Jesus resolves this situation as well. Let’s replay the events of this situation in slow-motion to catch what we have always missed in this encounter. 
First, who were those who were holding the stones, eager to deal the blows of death to this woman? Were they righteous men looking to uphold the Law of God? Or were they wicked men trying to use this woman’s unscrupulous action as a pawn in an elaborate trap? We fail to remember a small but key point about this incident. Verse six clearly states, “This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.” This case had nothing to do with the woman or her situation. It was a setup to “bring up a charge” against him. But what charge could they have brought up against him? 
In this account, the ones coming to Jesus were seeking to “test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.” Verse1 What kind of charge could they bring against him in this situation? In their eyes he had two choices: to rule that the woman should either be stoned or that she should not be stoned. If he ruled that she be stoned, they could bring in the Roman authority and have him arrested for inciting an action forbidden by Roman law. Since the Sanhedrin no longer convened in the Chamber of the Hewn Stone in the Temple precincts, the Jewish people did not have the means to try capital cases. Rome could have taken Jesus as an insurrectionist and meted out the consequences for such behavior. 
If he were to rule that the woman should not be stoned, however, the crowd would have seen this as forsaking the edicts of the Torah regarding the seriousness of adultery. In their minds, they had presented Jesus with a lose-lose situation. It was the perfect setup. There was seemingly no way for him to wiggle his way out of their trap. But in pure rabbinic fashion, he finds a way to both uphold the Torah and protect the life of one caught in the middle of an injustice. Jesus uses this incident to teach his disciples that two wrongs do not make a right. 
The first thing he does is to bend down and begin writing on the ground. Although this may seem insignificant, it is recorded for us so that we will know it is a pivotal point of the confrontation. Rather than answer the accusers immediately, he intentionally takes time to scribble something in the dust near his feet. Many people have wondered what Jesus may have written that day. While no one can say with certainty, it is a possibility that he could have been writing Leviticus 20:10: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” If we review the story carefully, we will find the woman’s accusers had brought her to Jesus alone, without her partner. There is no mention of the man at all. Her accusers were in violation of the Torah themselves by leaving the man out of this process. He was just as guilty as her, yet he was nowhere to be found. With this in mind, we can better understand his response after he finished his writing. He said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Hearing these words must have been like hearing your own death sentence. They immediately realized they had not trapped Jesus, but that the net had been pulled onto themselves instead. On top of this, they would have been afraid of doing or saying anything else, since they knew the consequences of such actions.
“If a malicious witness rises against any man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days; the judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.” (Deuteronomy 19:16-19) 
In their minds, they had presented Jesus with a lose-lose situation. It was the perfect set up. There was seemingly no way for him to wiggle his way out of their trap. But in pure rabbinic fashion, he finds a way to both uphold the Torah and protect the life of one caught in the middle of an injustice.
After he addresses them, Jesus bends back down to again write on the ground. This time, however, he may have written the names of those in attendance, beginning with the eldest as a reminder of the passage in Jeremiah which says: 
O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water. (Jeremiah 17:13) 
This would have been a stern reminder of the grave consequences of using the Torah inappropriately. When her accusers gave up and walked away, he asks her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” In amazement, she responds, “No one, Lord.” Rather than ending the conversation with his signature statement, “Your sins are forgiven,” he first assures her by saying, “Neither do I condemn you,” and then he calls her to true repentance by saying, “Go, and from now on sin no more.” This incident was resolved through deliberate judgment. By reminding the accusers that they were sinning by their unlawful use of Torah, Jesus both protects the sanctity of the Torah and gives the woman an opportunity to repent for her ways. 
In every matter we must be diligent in seeking truth. In judging any situation we must be sure to receive all of the information necessary to make an educated decision. We must be especially wary of interpreting the words or actions of our Master in a way which compromises either his message of repentance and the Kingdom, or his dedication to upholding the principles of his Father’s Torah. Jesus commands us in this regard, saying, “Do not judge by appearances [i.e. by “presumptions”], but judge with right judgment.” 2
  • 1.  6
  • 2. John 7:24 with additional notes added.