The Adulterer Story… if it even happened.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 September

John 7.53 – 8.11.

Today’s passage is called the Pericope Adulterae, the Adulterer Story, about a woman caught committing adultery, and Jesus was expected to judge her, and didn’t. It’s a really popular story in Christendom, and even pagans know the line, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Jn 8.7 KJV It’s used as the basis for a lot of live-and-let-live, “who am I to judge?” beliefs.

Two things though.

  • That’s not what Jesus meant by “He that is without sin.” I’ll get to that.
  • This entire story isn’t found in the earliest copies of John. Nor the gospels. It got added in the 300s. It’s a textual variant.

That second thing tends to really freak out Christians when I point it out to them. But just about every copy of the bible but the KJV points this out. The whole passage is put in brackets, or prefaced by “The oldest copies of John don’t have this story.” Some more daring bible translations even put the whole thing in the footnotes, and John 7.52 is immediately followed by John 8.12.

Here’s the story as the UBS has it. Lighter-text parts come from the Textus Receptus, which is where the King James Version’s translators got it.

John 7.53 – 8.11 KWL
53 Each person went to their house, 1 and Jesus went to Mt. Olivet.
2 At dawn Jesus went again to temple, and all the people came to him. He sat to teach them.
3 Scribes and Pharisees brought Jesus a woman caught red-handed in adultery.
They stood her in the middle 4 telling Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultering.
5 In our Law Moses commanded us to stone such people to death. Lv 20.10 So what do you say?”
6 They said this to test Jesus, so they could have an accusation on him.
Stooping down, Jesus was writing on the ground with his finger,
as if he weren’t listening, 7 while they continued to question him.
Then Jesus stood and told them, “Whoever among you haven’t sinned: Throw the first stone at her.”
8 And again Jesus bent down to write on the ground.
9 The listeners, one by one, convicted by their consciences, left, beginning with the elders.
Only Jesus, and the woman in the middle, were left.
10 Standing, seeing no one but the woman, Jesus told her, “Woman, where are they?
No one condemns you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.”
Jesus told her, “I don’t condemn you either. Go, and don’t sin from now on.”

Where’d it come from, and what do we do with it?

The story first appears in recorded history at some point before the mid-300s. Our copies of John from the time didn’t include it, but Didymus the Blind wrote a letter quoting the story, and said it’s from John. We don’t know where the story originally came from.

  • Could be another gospel, like Luke, and there was a mixup when people made copies of the bible. But it’s not like there are old copies of Luke which include it.
  • Could be an illegitimate gospel; a bit of fanfiction posing as an authentic Jesus story, and it got so popular people figured it must be true. You know how fake news spreads.
  • Could’ve actually happened, and though it never got into the gospels, Christians passed it down other ways, like retelling it to one another orally. Centuries later some copyist figured it should go into the gospels somewhere… so here it is.

John is as good a place to insert the story as any. It comes right before Jesus said, “You judge according to the flesh. I don’t judge anyone.” Jn 8.15 And in this story, he practiced that very statement: He chose to not judge the accused.

How do we know John didn’t write it? It comes from the “scribes and Pharisees” bringing the woman to Jesus—something they did in the synoptic gospels, but John doesn’t tell of them teaming up to challenge Jesus. In fact he never used the word γραμματεύς/grammatéfs, “scribe,” in any of his writings; not in his gospel, letters, or Revelation. Not that John didn’t know the word; not that Jesus didn’t debate scribes all the time. It’s just John didn’t use it.

Whenever I point out the Adulterer Story is a variant, I get one of two reactions:

  1. “Oh, this story shouldn’t be in the bible at all. What’s it doing here?”
  2. “How dare you say this story isn’t holy scripture?”

It’s super black-and-white to people: Either we shouldn’t keep it, or we shouldn’t doubt it.

’Cause your average Christian doesn’t know how to deal with variants. They do the same thing: Either they say every doubtful passage should be eliminated from our bibles, for fear people might doubt the bible; or they’re okay with variants, ’cause now they have optional passages. They can take the Adulterer Story or leave it. They can teach on it if they like, or skip it if they please. They get to choose whether it’s canon.

I know certain political conservatives who’d love to be rid of the Adulteress Story: Their political opponents love to quote “He that is without sin,” etc., at them. That’s the problem with getting to choose whether something’s canon: We tend to base it on whether we like the variant. Which is a rotten criterion for judging variants. Next you’ll be deleting every passage in the bible which offends you—and sometimes our sensibilities need to be offended, because we’re messed up and in no moral position to judge what’s meant to correct and instruct us.

But though we’re in no moral position, we can still judge it grammatically. We ask the following questions.

IS THIS PASSAGE CONSISTENT WITH THE REST OF THE BOOK? I answered that already: It doesn’t belong in John. Different writing style; different grammar; doesn’t fit the text; barely fits the narrative. John’s stories about Jesus are usually actions followed by deep theological teachings, and this isn’t that. In this story, Jesus says little. (He wrote more on the ground than he said aloud.) And where the story was inserted, is an awkward fit. These are all obvious signs it’s a variant.

IS THIS PASSAGE CONSISTENT WITH THE REST OF THE BIBLE? Does it contradict other scriptures?

Well… if you interpret it the way popular Christian culture commonly does, then yes. Because according to popular culture, Jesus broke the Law: The woman was totally supposed to be stoned to death, but Jesus forgave her.

That’s a bad interpretation, and I’ll get to that. Following a correct interpretation, Jesus actually demonstrates he knows the Law better than his opponents, and upheld it whereas they didn’t. So it doesn’t violate scripture, which is why Christians haven’t historically objected to it and thrown it out already.

IS THIS PASSAGE CONSISTENT WITH GOD’S CHARACTER? Yes. It totally fits the character we Christians are supposed to emulate: To not judge people preemptively, prejudicially, without cause. To uphold the Law. To take up the cause of people who are judged hastily, wrongly, or improperly—especially the weak and defenseless. There’s no inconsistency between Jesus’s actions here and elsewhere.

Notice these three questions didn’t ask whether the story is true. Because honestly… there’s no way to prove it is. We weren’t there. Other, corroborating stories from the other gospels, don’t exist. Sometimes a Christian will claim, “The Holy Spirit told me it’s true,” but then we gotta determine whether this Christian really did hear the Spirit. I will say the fact the story’s been in bibles for 17 centuries suggests the Spirit has no objections to it. This still isn’t proof though—if that’s what you insist upon.

But since these actions reflect what Jesus absolutely would do, there’s nothing wrong with teaching this story. Even if it turns out to be fiction.

Think about Jesus’s parables: Totally fiction. Jesus made ’em up. But we teach them because they accurately describe his kingdom. So we can teach this story too. Just remember the disclaimer: It’s a variant. Might’ve happened; might not have. We’ll never know. But knowing Jesus, this is just what he would do. So let’s profit by it.

And as for where it belongs in the gospels… meh; we’ll leave it where we found it. Stick it in brackets and move along.

Where it supposedly happened. It’s kinda important.

As for why the popular interpretation—Jesus ignored the Law and forgave her—is totally bogus, it helps if we actually know the Law. And notice the setting.

The first line of chapter 8, which people regularly skip, is “At dawn Jesus went again to temple.” This story happened in temple. Which means the way you remember this story from your favorite Jesus movies, didn’t happen that way at all.

Movies tend to show the woman as if the Pharisees just pulled her off the man. She’s sweaty, hastily dressed, a little disoriented either ’cause they smacked her around, or because the sex was really good. Often the movies turn her into Mary the Magdalene—thanks to Pope Gregory 1, who mixed up three different women in the gospels (Mary of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, and the sinner who anointed Jesus’s feet) and assumed this composite “Mary” was all three. And a whore. And loads of titillated Christian had way too much fun with this idea: Hey, one of Jesus’s students was an ex-whore! Some of them read way too many inappropriate things into their relationship… really, the sort of things they’d do if they had a horny groupie. So the more wanton they make this woman, the more it really says about them.

But again: This happened in temple.

Pharisees brought her to Jesus. Pharisees were sticklers for ritual cleanliness. And you couldn’t enter the temple grounds if you were ritually unclean. Well sex, what with all the bodily fluids, makes you ritually unclean. Pharisees would never have touched an unclean woman, much less dragged her into temple.

But let’s imagine that’s exactly what they did. They interrupted her in the middle of sex, dragged her out of the room, ritually washed both her and themselves, waited till sundown, waited overnight (’cause Jesus didn’t go to temple till dawn)… and all the while making sure the woman didn’t ritually defile herself again (which is really easy to do, by the way) so she could get out of going to temple. If it sounds ridiculous, that’s ’cause it really is.

Nearly every preacher I’ve heard, likes to point out, “So what about the man?” There were at least two adulterers, y’know. If the scribes and Pharisees caught one, stands to reason they’d catch the other. Preachers always wanna make a case out of this: Where’s the man? Perhaps those wily Pharisees were protecting the man, for some nefarious reason. Maybe he was even one of them!

But again, it’s not realistic to assume the Pharisees dragged anyone into temple right after sex. Nor prepped them for temple after catching them. The κατειλήφθη/kateilífthi, “caught” in this story therefore can’t mean just caught. The act of adultery could’ve taken place the day before, the week before, years before. It was only just that day the Pharisees brought it up.

So here’s what actually happened: Jesus was in temple. Pharisee troublemakers happened upon a woman in temple—who was all ritually clean, and there to worship—whom they knew had committed adultery, and gone unpunished. So they grabbed her and dragged her before Jesus.

Interrupting his lesson, by the way. That’s why he was writing on the ground: Jesus seldom used a classroom, so whenever he needed a chalkboard or penboard, he had to settle for dust. We don’t know what he was diagramming for his kids; we just know he was really intent on it. More so than this woman they dragged in front of him.

The Law and the death penalty.

At this point in history, Roman law forbade the Jews from executing anyone without their say-so. Jn 18.31 True, twice in John the Judeans attempted to throw stones at Jesus, Jn 8.59, 10.31 and in Acts they actually did kill Stephen. Ac 7.58-60 But none of these acts were legal under Roman law: The Romans considered them mob violence, and had they wanted to make an issue of it, they’d have crucified or beheaded any ringleaders who led a stoning.

So the people who went to Jesus about stoning this woman, couldn’t stone her. Not even if Jesus ruled, “Yeah, go ahead, the Law says you can.” The entire issue was an intellectual exercise. Nobody was really getting stoned… unless somebody tried something while the Romans’ backs were turned, which was always possible. Moot or not, this had to be terrifying for the woman.

But our Lord knows his bible. To condemn anyone to death, y’need two witnesses. Dt 17.6 And once the accused was convicted, y’need three witnesses, who’d be the first to throw stones. Dt 17.7 So if this is a legitimate trial, with Jesus as judge, fine: Present your witnesses. Only they get to accuse her of anything. Where’s the people who were expected to cast the first stones?

Incidentally, the witnesses weren’t allowed to be complicit in the crime. Say there was a murder trial, and two witnesses testified, “Judah bar Levi is guilty; we know ’cause we held the taxman down while Judah put a sword through his head.” Maybe our criminal justice system allows such things, but theirs didn’t: Witnesses had to be guiltless. “Without sin,” as the Pharisees put it.

Yeah. That’s what Jesus meant by “Whoever among you haven’t sinned: Throw the first stone at her.” Jn 8.7 It wasn’t about a totally sinless man like himself; other than Jesus there is no such person. If that’s the expectation Jesus has, it means no court can convict anyone ever again: No bailiff, no sheriff, no executioner, is sinless. Even if you built a machine to do it, somebody’s gotta program the machine.

Jesus was asking for two or three witnesses. They weren’t there. The scribes and Pharisees who brought the woman to Jesus hadn’t thought to bring any. And they hadn’t seen anything; they knew of her crime, but hadn’t seen it themselves. They had no valid testimony; they had hearsay. If you can’t prove an accusation, you’re simply slandering a person’s good name, and that means you’re the guilty party.

So where were the witnesses? Any of those guys around? No? Then shut up and go away. You have nothing to do with this. You’re a gossip.

So the witchhunt ended. The woman’s accusers went away, leaving only her and Jesus. Yeah, Jesus is a prophet, and totally could’ve known whether the woman was guilty. But he’s one man; you still need two witnesses to convict. And Jesus didn’t care to push for a conviction either. He’d much rather forgive. As he did.

Few notice the story never says she did commit adultery. Seriously. Read it again. Read it in a few other translations. All we know is the scribes and Pharisees accused her of it. Never is it said this was a valid accusation. Neither does Jesus’s order, “Don’t sin from now on,” suggest she did sin that particular way. She might’ve been totally innocent—the victim of a gossipy rumor, who got forced into this awful discussion. We don’t know, and when we leap to the conclusion she was guilty, we commit the same sin her accusers did.

As you can see, the common interpretation of this story—Jesus breaking the Law to save a whore—totally misreads what happened. But people love it ’cause it’s more dramatic, more radically forgiving. And if they’re the ones threatened with a stoning, literal or metaphorical, maybe they can get out of it too! But this interpretation nullifies the Law, and Jesus said he does no such thing. Ignore the Law, or teach others to do likewise, and you’re the least in God’s kingdom. Mt 5.19 Which is a really odd position for its King.

Christ Almighty!

Bible difficulties.