Study #4: The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11)
This week, I thought we could tackle something a little more challenging: the famous story of "the woman caught in adultery." The almost unanimous opinion of most scholars is that this passage is not originally part of John's Gospel. (The footnote on John 7:53 in the NET Bible is quite illuminating on this point.) Recently, when the "Conservative Bible Project" at Conservapedia made news around the country, this passage was one of the more significant ones that those folks found to be "too liberal" to remain in the Bible. And yet, the fact is that the story does remain in most Bibles. The original RSV New Testament relegated it to a foonote, only to restore it to the main text in later editions; several modern translations (including the NET) have some sort of special type, punctuation, or footnote, to indicate the questionable textual support for the pericope. But so far, to my knowledge, no major translation has taken this story out of the Bible altogether (we'll see if Conservapedia's "translation" ever makes it to publication).
So what is it about this story that has so captured Christians' imaginations over the centuries? I can think of several movie adaptations of the Gospels, wherein the story of the woman caught in adultery is a central scene. I'm sure you can picture it: the woman with tears rolling down her face, the leaders with stones in their hands, Jesus doodling in the dirt with his fingertips, and those famous words: "Whoever among you is guiltless may be the first to throw a stone at her." (Or so the NET Bible renders it. I know many of us immediately think "he who is without sin," as the KJV translates the saying.) We can picture quite clearly the men gradually drifting away, perhaps looking sheepish. Then those other famous words: "I do not condemn you either." This was the phrase that seemed to rankle with the Conservapedia folks; the idea that Jesus would be liberal enough to forgive someone of such obvious sin painted a picture of Jesus that was unacceptable to their more conservative viewpoint.
Like the parable of the Prodigal Son, this story seems to offer an ideal opportunity for us to identify with different characters: we can be forgiving like Jesus, hypocritical like the town's leaders, or scared and grateful like the woman herself. Furthermore, many commentators have argued and hypothesized about details of the story that are not explained:
- Where is the man with whom the woman committed the adultery?
- What does Jesus write in the dust? (Such an odd little detail, mentioned twice in the very short passage, and yet, so evocative!)
- Does the woman repent and become a follower of Christ? Does she "go and sin no more"?
The story is so short, so simple, and yet, it says so much about sin, forgiveness, grace, hypocricy, etc.
I would love to hear others' thoughts on this one...