Why Was the Woman Taken in Adultery Brought to Jesus?

Paul Tambrino, EdD, PhD

Ask Augustine with Dr. Paul Tambrino


Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.

Question #33 – Why Was the Woman Taken in Adultery Brought to Jesus?

The story of the woman taken in adultery and brought before Jesus is one of the most widely cited passages in the entire Bible. In many respects it is one of the most beautiful and remarkable stories in the New Testament.

It is found only in the Gospel of John and is not so much as alluded to in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). The incident occurred while Jesus sat in the temple and taught the people early in the morning.

3) And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,

4) They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.

5) Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

6) This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

7) So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

8) And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

9) And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

10) When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

11) She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.John 8:3-11 (KJV)

The authenticity of this incident has been attacked with more vigor than almost any other part of the Bible.

Higher critics are almost unanimous in saying that this passage was not part of John’s original Gospel (others believe that it was originally a part of Luke): because it is not in the style of the author and the rest of John; that it breaks the normal sequence of the discourse of Jesus at that point; and that it contains “several discrepancies and improbabilities.”

For these reasons you will find the passage printed within brackets or in a footnote in several other versions (eg. RSV, NRSV, etc.) of the Bible.

Higher critics insist that strangulation, not stoning was the historic Hebrew method of executing adulterers; that the death penalty for adultery was obsolete in the time of Jesus; that it was not a legal function of the scribes and Pharisees to accuse and bring to judgment a woman guilty of adultery, but that of the husband and the proper judges; that such a case would not be brought before Jesus for a decision, and that it is inconsistent with the rest of the Gospels for Jesus to have undertaken to judge a civil case of this kind.

Those of us who dispute the higher critics insist upon the authenticity of the passage and say that it dates back to Apostolic times.

Even if it was not a part of some early copies of John; that the woman taken in adultery may have been only betrothed, not actually married; that the sin of a betrothed woman was equivalent to a species of adultery according to rabbinic interpretation; that the enemies of Jesus wished to make Him unpopular with the people by inducing Him to revive and obsolete law; that they sought to embroil Jesus with the Romans who would not permit death penalties without their approval, and that they expected only an opinion and not a legal decision – do not obviate its authenticity.

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Image Credit

Christ and the Woman in Adultery, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1650-1674. The Rijksmuseum. SK-A-106.

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