1 Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, 2 but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. 3 As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
4 “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
6 They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. 7 They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” 8 Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
9 When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. 10 Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
11 “No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
Okay, let’s lay the obvious questions on the table:
1. Where is the dude? Mosaic Law required adulterous couples to be stoned as a pair. If she was caught in the act, where is her partner in crime? One aspect of this story is the cultural abuse of women. This poor woman was being used by the religious leaders to set a trap for Jesus. They didn’t care anything about her (or her sin really), she was merely a means to an end, a tool they could use without regard. There is a marked difference between their shameful mistreatment of her and Jesus’ palpable compassion toward her. They were ready to kill her (either literally or at least socially). Jesus brings her new life. As we read him telling her to go and sin no more, we can readily imagine her doing just that because we know that the grace Jesus extends is what transforms us.
2. What was Jesus writing in the sand? Plain answer: we aren’t told so we don’t know. But conjecture is fun! Some (mostly older) commentaries suggest he was writing down the sins of the would-be stoners, perhaps the names of their lovers, and seeing this causes them to leave. Part of me likes that idea, but it has at least one problem, maybe two. The definite problem: Jesus would be doing almost the same thing they were doing, meeting public shaming with public shaming. Airing people’s dirty laundry is not Jesus’ style. Pretty much the opposite of that transforming grace we were just thinking about. The maybe problem: this idea carries such a high view of Jesus’ divinity that it might downplay his humanity too much. It can suggest Jesus walked around knowing everyone’s stuff all the time, which is not a human trait. It also seems weird. You could make a case that the Spirit gave Jesus this specific info in this specific instance, but that doesn’t really track with how the Spirit usually works either.
Another explanation is that Jesus did this for one of two reasons (or maybe both at the same time): 1. to buy time to consider his response, and, 2. to draw attention away from the poor woman who was probably being gawked at. This gives us a more fully human Jesus, tracks closer to how the Spirit usually works (I love when those clever answers come, but they often take a minute), and reemphasizes the compassion Jesus shows to the woman here. Like I said, conjecture is fun. Nothing overly crucial hinges on this. As C.S. Lewis said, the lack of any direct discernible reason for this odd behavior to be recorded leads one to conclude it comes to us because it actually happened. Someone saw Jesus do this weird thing and passed it down and it has come all the way to us. No one has ever known for sure what to make of it, but we have kept it because that’s how oral and then written traditions work. Which leads to the third question.
3. Why does my translation put brackets around this whole passage and say something about it not being in the oldest manuscripts? What gives? Does this belong in the Bible or not? The verses we mark as 7:53 – 8.11 do not appear in the four oldest copies we have of John’s Gospel. Those manuscripts jump from 7.52 to 8.12 with no discernible break (remember chapter and verse numbers were later inventions). And these aren’t just isolated copies. The story is missing from all Bibles in the Eastern church for about 1000 years. In the West, as early as Augustine the presence or absence of this passage was an issue. Augustine suggests it might have been taken out by an early church leader or Bible copier because it might be read to condone the woman’s behavior. Never mind that Jesus doesn’t do that. If Augustine is correct, this would be yet another instance of cultural abuse of women, with the anonymous leader hiding the story based on much the same logic the leaders in the story use in exposing the woman.
So why do we have the story after all? Because church leaders like Augustine and John Calvin decided that the story is valuable to us. Calvin concluded it should be included for three reasons. One, nothing in it contradicts the overall message of the Gospels. Two, the way it presents Jesus tracks with the rest of John (and the other three canonical Gospels). And three, it gives us one of the most beautiful, most poignant examples in all the Gospels of the compassion and grace that Jesus extends to each of us.
We have this story because the church has decided we should have this story. And this really is the case for everything in each of the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament, and even the Hebrew Scriptures we have brought over (as the ‘Old Testament’). We would be wrong to think this passage is some sort of special case, as if the rest of Scripture came to us in some other manner. Someone saw Jesus doodling in the dirt, remembered this scene and passed it on. Orally at first, and then at some point someone (probably someone else) wrote it down. Either John wrote it down, or John came across someone else’s notes, or it came down separately and got lumped in with John. However it happened, this story got included in what the church decided needed to be preserved and passed down and that’s why we have it. That’s why we have all of Scripture. It is a communal document, a social document, the expression of people’s experience with this guy Jesus, this man who is the Word of God. But wait, isn’t the Bible divinely inspired? Yes, it is. And this is how we know it is inspired. People like Augustine and Calvin seek to protect it and reinsert it even when it somehow almost gets left out. Like so much else in the Christian faith, divinely inspired/humanly produced and preserved aren’t an either/or option. They are both/and. And I sure am glad, because, wow, this is a great story. You should read it again and let Jesus’ care and compassion for this woman – and you! – leap from the screen into your heart.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.