Casting stones (September 24, 2023)

What are we to make of the woman caught in adultery in John 8? Daniel Frayer-Griggs offers some context.

Outlook Standard Lesson for September 24, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: John 8:1-11, 56-59

If you’ve ever watched a film adaptation of Jesus’ life, it’s likely that the story of the woman caught in adultery featured quite prominently. It’s a scene that transfers well to the screen because it’s full of emotion and dramatic tension. In most depictions, the woman is visibly shaken and understandably terrified about her fate, and the scribes and Pharisees are enraged as they rile up the loudly jeering crowd, insisting that punishment be meted out. The tension builds as the serene Jesus stoops down to trace his finger through the dust of the courtyard floor, and then resolves as he masterfully defuses the situation with his utterance, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). These words not only condemn the scribes and Pharisees but also call us to account for the self-righteous hypocrisy to which we all fall prey. It’s a profound and moving story, and many of the film adaptations add texture and poignancy to the narrative.

Yet as beloved as this story is, many mysteries surround it. One aspect that the movies often get wrong is the identity of the woman. Far too often, even in some of the most famous films (I won’t name names), she is erroneously identified as Mary Magdalene. This association is also often made in popular imagination and is based on the unwarranted belief that Mary was a sex worker. This popular though mistaken assumption largely owes its origin to the misidentification of Mary with the sinful woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair and whom Jesus forgives because she “loved much” (Luke 7:47). The truth is that no text identifies Mary Magdalene as a sex worker, and there is no reason to identify her with the woman caught in adultery.

Who then is the woman in the story? We simply don’t know. But whoever she is, she must feel utterly alone. She is brought out into the courtyard to be publicly shamed and perhaps even executed. The fact that she is alone is noteworthy as well, for if she was caught “in the very act” (8:4), shouldn’t there be another adulterous party present? Leviticus 20:10 indicates, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” If the scribes and Pharisees were sincerely concerned with keeping biblical law, they would not have brought this woman to Jesus alone. Something is not quite right here.

Another question this text raises has to do with the strange detail that Jesus writes something on the ground. There’s no other Gospel text that makes reference to Jesus writing anything, so It’s hard to resist wondering about the words on the ground. One popular suggestion is that Jesus wrote, “Where’s the man?” This is a clever and intriguing possibility, but it’s no more than that. The text never tells us what Jesus writes, and I suspect that if it were of great importance, the author would let us know. The very act of writing may be what’s of chief significance. Jesus writes with his finger, just as God wrote the Ten Commandments with his finger (Exodus 31:18). Perhaps we are to see this connection and realize that Jesus is no simple interpreter of biblical law but one who speaks with his own divine authority.

There’s at least one more thing that’s a bit odd about this story. If you own a modern study Bible, you might notice that there are brackets beginning at 7:53 and ending at 8:11. These brackets indicate that scholars who study the Greek texts of the New Testament have observed that this story is missing from our earliest manuscripts. In fact, it sometimes shows up at different locations in manuscripts of John or even in Luke’s Gospel. This suggests to most biblical scholars that this story wasn’t in the earliest versions of John but was added at a much later date. While some critics argue that because of its uncertain origin, we should not include this story in the canon, I simply can’t imagine the Gospel without it.

For better or worse, much of the mystery of this text must remain unresolved. Unless some very early copy of the Gospel of John is discovered that contains this story and discloses the name of the woman and the words Jesus wrote, we will never be able to answer these questions. But perhaps that’s not a problem. The story still functions like the many parables Jesus told by drawing us into the narrative so that we might see ourselves in its characters and be challenged and transformed.

Question for discussion:

With whom do you identify in this story? Why?