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Jesus and the Law of Moses: the Woman Caught in Adultery

Most people will be quite surprised when they learn the significance of Jesus' words and actions in this well-known and often misinterpreted Bible passage!

The Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS) provides a regular column to PE News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, Wave Nunnally, Ph.D., professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University and a regular instructor in Israel for CHLS, examines the story of the woman caught in adultery in light of the Law of Moses.

The purpose of this article is to give careful attention to the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Fewer episodes in the ministry of Jesus have received more attention than this one, and yet fewer have suffered more misunderstanding at the hands of well-intentioned modern interpreters. This text is often presented as the best evidence that Jesus postured Himself as being above and superseding the Law of Moses. This attitude has persisted despite the clear statements of Jesus Himself ("Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill,” Matthew 5:17 NASB) and of His followers after Him (e.g., “But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law,” Galatians 4:4 NASB).

So what do we do with these verses that, at first reading, appear to place Jesus and Moses in opposition to one another?

First, part of contextualizing any passage is understanding where an event took place and how location affects what was said or done in that passage. In the story of the woman caught in adultery, the fact that the conversation between her accusers and Jesus took place in the temple should arrest our attention. We should immediately ask, “Why would someone caught in as grievous a sin as adultery be brought straight into the temple?” 

Thankfully, we are not left to fill in the answer by simply using our imaginations. The early literature of the rabbis tells us that adulterous women were to be taken before the Great Sanhedrin of 71 (Mishnah Sotah 1:3-4). 

We are also told that in the time of Jesus, this “supreme court” of Judaism held their meetings on the Temple Mount in a room called the “Chamber of Hewn Stone” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 11:2). 

This, then, provides the reason for bringing the woman to the temple — the story we hear in John 8 is likely an interlude between her “arrest” and her “hearing” before the court that would decide her fate. It is in this moment, on the way to a likely sentence of death by stoning that the encounter with Jesus takes place! 

Next, is only fair to note that it is the presupposition of certain Pharisees and scribes who assumed that there would be a distinction between what the Law required and what Jesus would do (v. 5). 

The opening paragraph has already described the current situation in which most interpreters have indeed fallen in to the same trap as Jesus’ challengers. Since it is not Jesus’ general approach to disregard or disrespect the clear teachings of Scripture (Luke 10:25-26; 24:44, etc.), nor is it that of His immediate disciples (2 Timothy 3:16), we should at least give Jesus the opportunity to speak from His own perspective before we adopt the same conclusion as His challengers on this occasion! 

It is absolutely imperative that we read the actions and words of Jesus in light of their original context, and that we understand Jesus Himself within the exceptionally biblically literate environment in which He functioned. 

As seen in previous articles (e.g., Jesus in the Grainfields, Part 2: The Response of Jesus in Context), Jesus’ knowledge and use of the Scriptures to argue His positions were far beyond that of today’s casual reader of the Bible. In addition, Jesus could assume of His hearers (including those who challenged Him) an exceptionally high degree of biblical literacy as well. Everyone involved, then, knew the rules of the game and the sacred text that formed its content with nearly encyclopedic familiarity. Therefore, for us to recognize their subtle points of reference, we have to be watchful for the slightest hints referring to their (and our!) ancient Scriptures. 

With these points in mind, we note that the test case brought before Jesus is adultery (v. 4), which as the challengers note, is a capital crime according to the Law of Moses (v. 5, see Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). Both of these texts, however, require the death of both the woman and the man who are caught in the act of adultery. 

If as Jesus’ challengers say, the woman was “caught in adultery, in the very act” (v. 4), common sense would suggest to Jesus that the same witnesses should have observed the man involved as well, and yet he is conspicuously missing from the proceedings. Observing the absence of the man and knowing that the Scriptures on which the charge of adultery was based, Jesus had to have known there was more to the story than was being told. 

However, rather than sticking with the method of listening for subtle hints at other Scriptures being brought into play by the Master in response to His challengers, this is usually the point in the story where interpreters begin to use their own imaginations. 

As Jesus begins to write on the ground (v. 6), the speculation begins. Is He writing down the sins of the accusers? Is He writing down the name of the woman’s partner? Is He writing down the names of those in the crowd who are also guilty of adultery? Amazingly, some have even suggested that He was stalling for time while trying to formulate a balanced response! 

Although well-meaning, all of these suggestions are probably headed in the wrong direction. In this culture, which my mentor and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Ben Zion Wacholder referred to as a “text-bound society,” we should be looking to the Scriptures for cues rather than our own imaginations. 

Therefore, the right question is, “Where in Jesus’ Bible do we find evidence for “writing in the dust” or “writing on the earth”? There is only one passage where such an action is described. In Jeremiah 17:13, a prophet to whom Jesus regularly referred declared, “O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 17:13 KJV, emphasis added). 

Before dismissing this parallel because it doesn’t show up in the cross-references of our Study Bibles, recall that Jesus had just described Himself as the source or “fountain of living water” (John 7:38, see Jeremiah 17:13b). 

In addition, Jeremiah has also just addressed the spiritual and even literal adultery involved in the fertility worship of his day (Jeremiah 17:2-3). Further, this same oracle in Jeremiah even denounces the spiritual leadership who were opposing his message (Jeremiah 17:18)! Lastly, Jeremiah even declared that because of this adulterous behavior, “My mountain” (i.e., God’s Temple Mount) would be given over to destroyers and spoilers (Jeremiah 17:3-4), and the place where Jesus was writing in the dirt was in that very location, the temple of God (John 8:2; see “Stonings in the Temple?” to explain how this was possible on a paved temple mount). 

Thus, by Jesus’ writing in the dirt, He is drawing the attention of His audience to the message of Jeremiah. He is saying that the message of the prophet and His own message are the same: rejection of and disobedience to the Word of the Lord will bring about their own demise. 

Having piqued the interest of His antagonistic audience with a reference to their own culpability, Jesus moves to the next stage of His response, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7 RSV, emphasis added).

Before assuming that Jesus is merely reflecting the sentiments of our permissive society (“Who’s to judge? Everybody’s doing it!”), we should again look for subtle references to Jesus’ Bible. After all, this is a judicial setting that began with a statement and a question that both revolve around the Law of Moses. 

The Scriptures again do not fail to provide further background. Like the great rabbis of His day, Jesus often quotes a part of a verse, intending His audience to know the rest by heart and bring the entire verse to bear on the subject under discussion. 

Here, the phrase “be the first to” hearkens back to Moses’ rules for determining guilt and for execution. There were to be at least two witnesses to establish fact (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15). According to the same code, it is these individuals who are to “be the first…to put him to death” (Deuteronomy 17:7, emphasis added). 

In alluding to this component of the judicial code, Jesus is far from rejecting the Law of Moses. In fact, He is requiring that the Law of Moses be fully followed: the witnesses upon whose testimony the woman had been accused of a capital crime must come forward and identify themselves. Once this occurs, Jesus can then separate them and depose them one by one, and compare every detail of their testimony (this procedure and line of cross-examination of witnesses is exactly what is described in texts like Susanna 48-59 and Mishnah Sanhedrin 5:1-4)! 

Jesus has said in effect, “If you want to invoke the Law of Moses, then let’s do the whole thing by the book” (pun intended)!

It gets better: the “witnesses” are not merely subject to cross-examination. They also become subject to all laws pertaining to false witnesses, and the one most applicable at this point in the proceedings comes from the same section of the Law of Moses as the previous passages. This text states, “"And the judges shall investigate thoroughly; and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 19:18-19, emphasis added). 

The tables have now turned in this drama. The focus is no longer mob action or the charge against the woman. By strict adherence to the Law of Moses, Jesus has placed the responsibility squarely on the accusers to put forward their witnesses or release the accused. 

As for the witnesses themselves, they knew that if upon cross-examination they were found to be false, they stood to incur the same penalty the accused would have suffered: death by stoning! It is clear that this same attitude toward false witnesses continued to exist within the Jewish community in Israel just before, during, and after Jesus’ ministry (11Q Temple Scroll 61:7-12; Susanna 61-62; Mishnah Sanhedrin 11:6; Tosefta Sanhedrin 14:17; Sifre Devarim 190:4-5). 

From this often-misunderstood story, again we see Jesus’ mastery of argument and of the Scriptures on full display. As His followers, we are challenged to know the Scriptures and to be able to apply them to the situations of everyday life. We are also challenged to adopt the same reverence He demonstrates for the Scriptures — all of them, regardless of their age, literary style, or classification within the Canon! 

Indeed, “All Scripture is God-breathed, and profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, emphasis added). 

As we study the original context provided by the languages, geography, archeology, history, cultures, and literatures of the land of the Jesus, we often come to a clearer and more powerful understanding of the Scriptures and their Author. 

If clarifying your understanding of Scripture is important to you, visit the Center for Holy Lands Studies website to learn about opportunities to visit and study in the land where “faith becomes sight”!