The DEEP

Words in the Dust

A teacher, a trap and a tangled text

John 7:53-8:11

7:53 And everyone went to his own house.

8:1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.

So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”

11 She said, “No one, Lord.”

And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

 

Sandwiched among the ongoing interactions of Jesus and the Pharisees, you will find a curious story. It is a story of guilt and betrayal, of mercy and repentance. 

It is a story that does not belong in John’s Gospel.

This is the story of the woman caught in adultery. You know it well: the images of a broken and shamed woman, Pharisees and Jewish leaders posing an impossible question to Jesus, and His incredibly simple response that seems to pull back clouds of guilt to shine the beautiful light of His mercy.  

This story, found in John 7:53-8:11, is well-known but, in truth, is simply not part of the Biblical canon. So, how did it find its way into John’s Gospel? Who wrote it, and why would that person or others insert it into the gospel? More importantly, is this truly the Word of God and should you heed its message?

The answer to these questions is not simple.

This passage–or pericope (meaning “extract from a text”)–is found in over 1,000 early manuscript copies in which we find the Gospel of John. It is not found, however, in any of the earliest manuscripts–and herein lies the problem.

The earliest Greek manuscripts containing copies of John’s Gospel that date back to within 200 years of the events recounted do not contain any mention of the woman caught in adultery. The earliest church fathers such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and John Chrysostom do not count it in their works.

Around AD 400, the pericope began to appear in copies of the gospel and other various works. Codex Bezae is one of the earliest of these to record the passage, and it is also mentioned in the works of the noted church fathers Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine.

Other early copies use symbols to note the questionable nature of the passage, change certain details, or relocate it altogether to another place in John or even the Gospel of Luke. Indeed, some details–such as the reference to the time of early in the morning–seem to place the passage more in line with Luke’s wording and character.

No amount of past or modern scholarship has been able to successfully place this passage and its wonderful story within the current location here in John’s Gospel. If you look at your own Bible, the passage may or may not appear depending on the translation you are using.

How, then, do we approach this passage? I found some guidance in the words of D.A. Carson who, unlike some Bible commentators, tackled this passage head-on. After dealing in length about the passage’s murky past, he shed some light on how we may view things:

On the other hand, there is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred, even if in its written form it did not in the beginning belong to the canonical books. Similar stories are found in other sources.–D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John

Simply put, this story is very likely a very real and personal anecdote from an eyewitness to one of Jesus’s interactions with the Pharisees and Jewish leaders.

So, what do we do with this? Should we teach and preach from this passage? If it has been a part of your daily devotional or has spoken to you personally in some fashion, have you been believing a lie? These questions cut to the heart of frequent discussions that can occur when encountering non-believers or skeptics who deny or struggle with the truth of God’s word because of “questionable passages” like this.

John Calvin dealt with the passage quite a bit in his works. Despite its questioned authenticity, he nevertheless found insight and usefulness in its inclusion:

But as it has always been received by the Latin Churches, and is found in many old Greek manuscripts, and contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit, there is no reason why we should refuse to apply it to our advantage. – John Calvin, Commentary on John

This is exactly what we will do here: apply this passage to our advantage.

You have come to the temple in the morning hours and encounter Jesus teaching a group of disciples. You stop to listen to His words, but your fascination is interrupted by a commotion in the crowded courtyard :

Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?”–John 8:3-5

Here is a woman, hair unkept, barefoot, and trying desperately to keep her garments closed as she scrambles to sit up in the dust at Jesus’s feet. There is a mixture of horror and amusement that appears in any crowd at the onset of conflict. Men wink and elbow each other, noting that the woman certainly looks the part–and maybe even has a reputation for that which she has been accused.

This occasion is meant to be more than an embarrassing spectacle; this is seen as a “teachable moment” in the eyes of the Jewish leaders–and they intend to take this upstart Galilean “rabbi” to school over the intricacies and moral minefields of the Mosaic Law.

You see, there is no safe answer for Jesus to give.

Fans of the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (you know who you are) are familiar with the bridge keeper’s “questions three” that the knights are asked before being allowed to cross the “Bridge of Death:”

Bridgekeeper: Hee hee heh. STOP! What... is your name?
King Arthur: It is Arthur, King of the Britons.
Bridgekeeper: What... is your quest?
King Arthur: To seek the Holy Grail.
Bridgekeeper: What... is the average air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
King Arthur: What do you mean? An African or European swallow?
Bridgekeeper: Huh? I don't know that! EEEEEEAAAARRGH!!! [is cast into the gorge]
Sir Bedevere: [to Arthur] How do you know so much about swallows?
King Arthur: Well, you have to know these things when you're a king, you know.

(For those of you who have unexpectedly wandered off, mindlessly quoting other scenes and saying “Ni!” aloud to the annoyance of others around you, you may now return to our study.) 

Herein lies the trap: if Jesus questions the law of Moses that this adulteress should not be executed, then He will be open to accusations that He does not uphold the Law–something the Pharisees are ready to pounce upon, doubtless to file their own charges against Him. 

If Jesus upholds the law of Moses, He will be in a triple trap in that He would immediately run afoul of the Roman administration that controlled and distributed capital punishment. Secondly, stoning was not necessarily a common practice in the first century because it had grown unpopular. Lastly, Jesus’s own message of grace, forgiveness, and compassion for the broken and downtrodden could possibly be invalidated if He suddenly became a capital punishment hawk.

What can Jesus do? What would you do?

Jesus, as usual, does the unexpected. This is one consistency that the pericope has with the Gospel of John: Jesus is bigger than our expectations: 

This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.–John 8:6

Jesus’s response is simply that their question, their trap, is not worthy of being heard. He does a curious thing by beginning to write with His finger in the dust at the accusers’ feet.

For the Jewish scholars witnessing this scene, Jesus’s actions may have been eerily reminiscent of the words of Jeremiah:

O Lord, the hope of Israel,
All who forsake You shall be ashamed.
“Those who depart from Me
Shall be written in the earth,
Because they have forsaken the Lord,
The fountain of living waters.”–Jeremiah 17:13

 Much ink has been spilled over what precisely Jesus wrote in the dust on that day. Names? Points of the law? The Pharisees and scribes badger Jesus with questions. They expect Him to falter, to stammer, or at the very least, to debate them.  Jesus is undisturbed and as He continues to write, it begins to become clear to them what He is doing:

So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.–John 8:7-8

The Greek here is κατέγραφεν, which mean simply “to write down.” Jesus is making a list but there is no need to check it twice, the accusers quickly see that even if their names are not on it, Jesus is writing about them. He may be logging sins or listing their own violations of the law. No matter what, it unnerves them and the questioning trails off as they begin to disperse:

Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.–John 8:9 

Now, in the bright morning sunlight, the crowd drifts awkwardly away, leaving only Jesus and the woman standing in the courtyard: 

10 When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”

11 She said, “No one, Lord.”

And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”–John 8:10-11 

Her accusers have been put to shame, not out of a sense of wrongful conviction of her sins (of which she was surely guilty) but by the thought of their own sins coming to light before others. Shame before men motivated their mercy and not repentance. This is what Jesus calls her to do: repent. Here the passage does echo John’s voice:

17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.–John 3:17

Jesus calls her, and you and me, to a life of repentance. We may be accused by others–and we may be called upon to confront sin in our own brothers and sisters in Christ out of love–but we must always be seeking our own repentance.

This passage shows that Jesus, despite the tricks and traps of His growing list of enemies, always stays focused on the mission of seeking His lost sheep. Musician Michael Card captures the voice of the woman accused of adultery in his moving song “Forgiving Eyes.” She has experienced incredible, unexpected redemption through the young rabbi who wrote in the dust: 

In this new light now I understood
He would not condemn me though He could
For He would be condemned someday for me

This story then really is the root of the gospel, not that our sins are acceptable to God, but that through the work of the Redeemer, we ourselves are made acceptable because of His work on the Cross. 

 

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The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.