by Mark B. Johnson  |  1 October 2021  |

This essay is based on John 7:53–8:11

At the beginning of John 8, we find a potentially deadly interaction going on between Christ and the Jewish leaders. 

This portion of scripture is called the pericope adulterae by biblical scholars. It is “the part taken out about the adulteress.” For the first 1000 years of Christianity, this story was literally taken out of most biblical manuscripts. While many modern translations now include it, it is usually set off in brackets or parentheses, or marked out with a special delineation or space, or has a comment in the scriptural line itself or in the footnotes stating that this portion of John is not found in most of the earliest, and presumably the most trustworthy, manuscripts. 

In reviewing the reasons on record as to why it was left out of the earliest manuscripts, I find the comments by two early church fathers, Ambrose and Augustine (both from the late 4th century) compelling. 

Ambrose hinted that there was dissatisfaction among the church fathers with the idea that Christ did not condemn adultery, which they felt might lead some women to feel free to sin. Augustine, always very colorful and direct, stated that “the mind of the unfaithful was terrified…fearing that an excuse for sinning” would be given to women, so “in order that insane men may not be offended…enemies of the true faith…removed from their (manuscripts) that thing which the Lord did concerning pardoning the adulteress….” 

The setting

In the plot we have four main groups or individuals. We have Jesus, the woman caught in the very act of adultery, the scribes and Pharisees, and the people in the crowd who had been listening to Jesus when the interruption took place. We also have good evidence regarding their roles. Verse 6 of chapter 8 tells us that the scribes and Pharisees were using the woman as bait in a trap they were setting for Jesus. Knowing of his mercy and compassion, they believed He would go against the laws of Moses. They hoped that this would infuriate the religious crowd against Jesus. To them, the woman was just a disposable means to that end. However, if Jesus agreed with Moses that the woman should be stoned, the religious leaders believed that the common people would become incensed, and that the Romans would see Jesus as assuming authority which alone belonged to them. It was a beautifully strategic trap.

Several years ago, we had a young woman in our church who submitted a request that her membership be dropped. After a church in business session where a group of members with the best of intentions led in a vote that denied her wish, she asked to meet in person with the church to have the vote reconsidered. As she sat in front of the group, clutching a small teddy bear to her chest, in a trembling voice she told her story. As a young girl, she had been sexually assaulted by a respected elder in the church. After many difficult years of trying to deal with this on her own, and with much subsequent counseling, she had been convinced that any future healing for her depended on a complete separation from the Adventist Church, physically, spiritually and emotionally.

But what could a young Jewish girl do if she had been assaulted and there is no counseling available? What if the man was an incestuous relative, who was a well-known leader in the local church and who still lived in her small village? What if she was continually being reminded of her sinfulness by the words and actions of her well-meaning sister, who unconsciously insinuated that the way she acted and the way she dressed were somehow responsible for the assault?

She also might have to leave home. Move to Galilee, where she could hide among the Gentiles and sinners who were known to inhabit that part of the country. Of course, she must find a way to make a living, but she had been groomed to be good at what she did, and the money rolled in. Each night, however, after they were gone, she was consumed with guilt and overwhelmed by her demons.

Who was she?

I believe there are compelling reasons to believe that Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Mary of Magdala, a small city in Galilee, and the woman caught in adultery may have been the same woman. In Luke 7:39, we are told that the woman at Simon’s feast who anointed the feet and head of Jesus with expensive perfume, was known as a sinful woman, and John, in chapters 11 and 12, identifies that woman as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Being known as a sinful woman, for all practical purposes, means that she had a history of being sexually promiscuous.

In Luke 8:2, we are told that Mary Magdalene had had seven devils cast out of her by Jesus. Ellen White goes further, and states not only that Mary Magdalene had seven devils cast out by Jesus, but so did Mary of Bethany. Most of the Gospel writers state that Mary Magdalene was at the foot of the cross of Jesus, and all of them say she was at His tomb. Ellen White says that the woman caught in adultery was at the foot of the cross of Jesus and was at His tomb. It’s possible, but I believe improbable, that there were two or three different women who had seven devils cast out by Jesus and found themselves at the foot of the cross and at His tomb, but I believe a strong argument can be made that Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene and the woman caught in adultery share such striking similarities that it is very likely that they were the same woman.

There are no great theological points to be taken from this speculation, except for this: if true, it means that this humiliated woman, standing in front of Jesus and all the world, half-clad or possibly naked, was the first person to announce that Christ had risen from the tomb. Perhaps that is one reason the disciples had such difficulty believing her. 

It also makes the story of the feast at Simon’s house much more interesting, since Ellen White also states that Simon, the Pharisee who had been cured of leprosy by Jesus, was the uncle of Martha and Lazarus, and thus of Mary, and that he had been the one who led Mary into her life of sin in the first place. You may remember from Luke’s account of this story that when Simon saw how mercifully Christ treated Mary, he convinced himself that Jesus must not be a prophet, or He would have known what a wicked woman Mary was. Christ then covertly confronted Simon with the evidence that He indeed knew both that Mary was a great sinner and that Simon was an even greater and more hypocritical sinner.

The adulterous man

But there is one important person who is not accounted for in this story: the man with whom she was caught committing adultery. If she was in the very act, so was he. 

  • According to the law of Moses, as found in Deuteronomy 22, if a man was found having sexual intimacy with another man’s wife, they were both to be killed. 
  • If a man had sex with a woman who was betrothed, or engaged, if it happened in town they were both to be stoned, as it was assumed she could have called out for help. 
  • If it happened in the countryside, only the man was to be killed. The girl was given the benefit of the doubt that she had attempted to yell for help, but nobody had heard her. 
  • Finally, if a man raped a virgin who was not engaged, he was to pay the girl’s father a fee and was obligated to marry the girl. He also could never divorce her. 

I think we can assume this woman was not a virgin, so, from all of the other scenarios in the Law of Moses, we see that the man was to be killed as well. He, however, is nowhere to be found in the story. It seems pretty obvious that as part of this dastardly plot to trap Jesus, the man involved in the adultery had been given an exemption by the religious authorities. 

I am intrigued by who this man may have been. I have spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what kind of man would, or could, do something like this, and I’ve decided he would have fallen into one of four possible groups. 

  • The first group would be made up of Roman soldiers and the gentile rabble in town. These men would have had no moral hesitation in helping out with the plan, and would not have fallen under the legal religious authority of the Jewish leaders, so they would have had little to lose. 
  • The second group would be the Jewish rabble. Again, they would have had no moral reluctance, especially if given the right guarantees that they would not be punished.
  • The third group would be the Pharisees themselves. This may seem like an unusual possibility, but when you want to make sure something is done right, you do it yourself. Might the ends justify the means?
  • The fourth group, from which I think this man might have been chosen, would have zealous, religious Jewish patriots. Someone was scrupulously devoted to the law, who would never seriously entertain the thought of going to a prostitute, but who might be obsessed that his younger brother had wasted his fortune on such women. Someone who took lots of cold showers, but who fantasized about what it might be like to live the life of his brother. Someone not a Pharisee or religious leader, but who was trusted by them, and who, for the right incentive, could be convinced that “it is better that one man (and woman) should die for the people than that the nation should perish.” (John 11:50). Someone like the prodigal son’s older brother.

I’ve also wondered how the act itself went down. I would conjecture that at least two things were included that are not mentioned in the script. The first would have been a part of the man’s contract – that he would give a signal to ensure that the “very act” was not interrupted too soon. The second point is that after escaping, I believe the man would have circled back and attached himself to the outer margin of the crowd to watch how this plot was going to play out. 

Jesus Christ in the conflict

The most important player in this plot, of course, is Christ Himself. I have heard this story many times in sermons, and the lesson I was always supposed to get from it was that it ended with Christ’s command, “Go and sin no more.” I don’t believe that was the lesson. Neither did the early church fathers who wanted it taken out of the Bible. 

To me, though, this is the least remarkable thing about this story! There is no controversy or debate about it. 

No, the amazing thing about this story is the words “Neither do I condemn you!” Christ had no condemnation for anyone! He did not come to condemn, but to save. He called Mary, “Dear woman,” and freely forgave her of something almost everyone considers one of the more sinful acts. 

He pointed out the gross hypocrisy of those despicable scribes and Pharisees, but did it in one of the least public ways possible: by sketching it in the dust. A few gusts of wind, the trample of the crowd’s feet, and the record would be gone forever. He did nothing to point out the duplicity of the man. He took a definite stance against sin, but at the same time he pointedly spoke to the hearts of those who needed the lessons while doing all he could to shield them from scorn and ridicule. He did the same thing at the feast at Simon’s house, covering for the judgmental treachery of Simon while speaking straight to his heart.

Judging the world

We have a tendency to divide the world into good and bad, righteous and wicked, friends and enemies. To Christ, there was no such division. He came and attempted to reach everyone, for even His enemies are His children. When He was called on to denounce hypocrisy, unbelief and iniquity, we are told that there were tears in His voice as He uttered His scathing rebukes. 

No one is won by condemnation, censure or criticism. It is the goodness of God that leads us, and that led Mary, to repentance.

Mark Johnson is a graduate of Pacific Union College and Loma Linda University, with a medical residency at Johns Hopkins University in Preventive Medicine and Public Health. He is the local public health officer in the Denver metropolitan region. He’s an adult Sabbath School class teacher and church board chair at the Boulder Adventist church.

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