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Jesus, the Woman Caught in Adultery, and Capital Punishment

Let the One Who is Without Sin Do What?

Earth from space, with the cloudy black expanse of the Universe behind it.

It’s a terrible feeling when you realize you have misunderstood something all your life.  That’s what happened when I read John 8:1-11 recently, for the umpteenth time.


I suddenly realized that the passage was not primarily about what I had been taught it was about.


Calling it "The Woman Caught in Adultery" misses the point


In many translations of the Bible, this passage has a heading such as: The Woman Caught in Adultery, or words like that.  Not all Bibles have passage headings, but we have been trained, through sermons and articles, to think of the passage as being about an adulterous woman.


But passage headings don’t appear in the original manuscripts and are not considered the inspired word of God.  They are added by scholars during the translation process to aid readers. The scholars work very hard, but they are not perfect.

That’s what I discovered when I read John 8:1-11 with fresh eyes.


First, I realized that the woman is not the central character in the story.  She is barely given a chance to speak.  She is a pawn in other people’s game.  The central characters, other than Jesus, are the scribes and Pharisees who bring her to Jesus in order to ask Him a question that might allow them to bring a charge against Him (John 8:6).


These men are the ones who set the incident in motion.  They are the ones with the ulterior motive.  They are the ones who speak.  They are the ones who react to Jesus’s response.  The story is primarily about them and their concerns, not the woman.


The issue is capital punishment


But what is the subject matter about which they approach Jesus?  Capital punishment.  The death penalty.


They claim that the woman was caught in the act of adultery.  They remind Jesus that the Mosaic Law mandated execution by stoning for cases such as this.  And they know that the Roman authorities do not allow the Jews to handle capital cases, so carrying out an execution based on Jewish Law would be a violation of Roman law and put them in jeopardy.


They ask Jesus to respond to this dilemma, hoping either to get Him in trouble with the Roman authorities or to discredit Him among Jews who are devoted to the Law.


Jesus says nothing, writes with his finger on the ground, and, when they continue to press him, says: Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7).


At this point, I realized that, while my first misunderstanding was thinking that the story was primarily about the woman’s sin, I was also missing the point of Jesus’s words about “casting the first stone.”


What does it mean to “cast a stone”?


We don’t stone people in our day, so we don’t talk literally about casting stones.  Therefore, our tendency is to think of the phrase “cast the first stone” as metaphorical.


We might say of someone, “He was careful with his words so that they wouldn’t cast stones at him.”  We don’t mean it literally; we mean that he was trying to avoid verbal attack.  We’re using the phrase as a metaphor.  When we say, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” we don’t mean it literally.  It’s a metaphor.


Jesus spoke in metaphors often.  But here, he is not using a metaphor.  He is speaking literally.


He is saying that a person who is sinless is the only one who is authorized to pick up a literal stone and literally hurl that stone at the woman with the intention of killing her. He's talking about an execution.


"Let the one who is without sin be the chief executioner"


To fully appreciate Jesus’s words, it helps to translate the situation to our reality.  We don’t execute people by stoning.  Our governments inject people with a deadly drug, or put them in a gas chamber and fill the chamber with poisonous gas, or line them up in front of a firing squad, or hang them.


When Jesus says, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” He is saying:


  • “Let the one who is without sin inject the deadly drug.”

  • “Let the one who is without sin fill the gas chamber.”

  • “Let the one who is without sin tie the noose and trip the trap door.”

  • “Let the one who is without sin pull the trigger and fire the rifle.”


So if we are going to provide an accurate heading for this story, we should not call it: The woman caught in adultery.  We should call it something like: The men who sought an execution.


But there is more to consider.  The Law of Moses had procedures for determining guilt.  There had to be two witnesses (Deut. 17:6 and 19:15), and those witnesses had to be the first to cast the stones (Deut. 17:7).  If there was a disagreement about the facts, the judges had to conduct a thorough investigation.  And if a witness testified falsely, the false witness was supposed to receive the penalty that would have applied to the accused (Deut. 19:16-19).


John's account offers no evidence of  judges or investigations.  Furthermore, the men who sought the woman’s life knew that they were not empowered under Roman law to execute her.  If Jesus had given them His approval, would they have stoned the woman then and there, and blamed it on Him?  It is possible that a more accurate heading might be: The vigilantes who sought approval to execute a woman they had no authority to kill.


Regardless of which of these headings you choose, they are all about capital punishment, not adultery.


Jesus rejected the death penalty


What is Jesus telling us about capital punishment in this story?


Jesus’s response is very clear: Only someone who is sinless has the authority to execute another person.


There was only one person present in that incident who was sinless – and He consciously rejected the death penalty for the woman:  "Has no one condemned you?  . . . Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way, and from now on do not sin again" (John 8:10b-11, NRSV).


So, in John 8:1-11, Jesus's answer to the central question of whether the death penalty should be carried out is clear. His answer is: No.


In declining to endorse the death penalty for this woman, Jesus showed us – and told us – that capital punishment is not an acceptable way of dealing with those who break the law.


But you would never know that from a story entitled: The Woman Caught in Adultery.



Voting for the death penalty would also be casting the first stone;

or sitting on a jury in a capital case; or ...

Thank you for walking us through an over-familiar story with your insight.


Very thought provoking.

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