3 minutes

The Mystery of John 8:1-11 – The Adulterous Woman

John 8:1-11 tells the familiar story of the adulterous woman. The Scribes and Pharisees drag her to Jesus in an attempt to test him. They tell Jesus the woman is an adulterer and they remind him that the penalty for this in the Law of Moses is stoning. Then they ask him what they should do. The test they present is similar to the question I was once asked as a child: “Does your mother know you’re stupid?” Hmmm…How’s a 10-year-old to answer? Regardless of how I answered, I was stupid.

The religious leaders tried to put Jesus into a similar situation. If Jesus said to stone her, he would be encouraging the people to act against Roman Law, which forbade the Jewish leaders from sentencing anyone to death. However, if he said to let her go, he would have been disobeying God’s Law, written in the Torah, stating that stoning was the prescribed punishment for this crime. The Jews thought they had Jesus trapped.

Instead, Jesus’ response turned the tables and gave us an adage that has been used for the past 2,000 years: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

The Jews drop their stones and walk away, heads bowed, defeated once more by the Son of God. Jesus turns to the woman caught in sin and asks if anyone has judged her guilty. She responds that no one has. Jesus tells her that he also does not find her guilty and that she should go and sin no more.

It is a classic story. It is a well-loved story. It is used to preach and teach several different Biblical lessons. The problem is, it was not part of John’s original Gospel.

The Setting

To understand the setting, we need to go back to John 7. We quickly determine the time of this incident is during a Feast. Specifically, it is the Feast of Tabernacles, a week-long festival (Leviticus 23:34). This Feast is also called Sukkot, Booths or the Ingathering. It was one of the three Festivals when the Jews were to go to Jerusalem to worship (Deuteronomy 16:16). By definition, to worship means to sacrifice and this could only be done at the Temple. The week-long festival built up until the last day of the Feast,  which was the Great Day (as opposed to the eighth day, which was a High Sabbath, a solemn convocation: Leviticus 23:34-36, Leviticus 23:39, Numbers 29:35, 2 Chronicles 7:8-10, Nehemiah 8:18).

Two rituals took place on the Great Day: the pouring of the water upon the altar and the lighting of the huge lamps in the Court of Women. These two activities are key to our lesson. Jesus is going to teach how both of these ceremonies are being fulfilled in Him. Hence, John 7-8 take place on the Great Day, the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Let’s remember our mystery story of the unnamed adulteress takes place during this time.

The Teachings of Jesus

In John 7:37-39, we read that Jesus taught about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Note this takes place on the last day of the Feast. It is the Great Day. Jesus is revealing the true meaning of the ritual of the pouring of the water upon the altar. It pointed to God’s pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon those who would believe in Him.

In John 8:12, Jesus teaches the people that he is the light of the world. He is illuminating the significance of the ritual of the Lighting of the huge lamps in the Court of Women. That ritual resulted in lights so bright, it lit up the night so that the Temple was as if it were in daylight. It pointed to Jesus being the Light of the World.

The Problem

Both of these rituals occurred on the Great Day. Here we run into a problem. If we look closely at our Bibles, we will notice that John 7:53-8:11 has brackets around it. It is in this bracketed section that we read two things: everyone went home until the next morning followed by our story of the adulterous woman.

If you are paying attention, you will notice this passage of the adulterous woman occurs “early in the morning” (John 8:2) between the two events that closed out the Great Day. This cannot be. The water libation occurred just before evening and the lamp lighting occurred after sunset. Yet, John 7:53 tells us everyone went home and John 8:1 tells us everyone came back to the Temple the next morning.

The Solution

John would never have made a mistake like this, for he would have known there is not a full day between the water pouring and the lamp lighting ceremonies. Additionally, the next day is the eighth day and was a High Sabbath, a solemn convocation. There would not have been any additional rituals on that day, such as the lamp lighting ceremony. Therefore, it is obvious that John 7:53-8:11 has been added to John’s Gospel sometime afterwards. It was not part of the original writing. If the event of the adulterous woman ever did occur, it did not happen at this point of the Gospel. Only someone ignorant of the Jewish Feast of Sukkot would have placed this event here (i.e.: a non-Jewish Christian scribe probably added this into one of the copies).

Your Turn

Do you think this event regarding the adulterous woman happened at all? Could it have been an oral tradition that was added on later? In any case, what do you think we should do with it? Let me know in the comments section below.