One of the most well known incidents during Christ's ministry is recorded in John 8. It has been quoted and commented on at least as far back as Augustine's time. Yet, some would even dare to say that because it is not in their selected "best" manuscripts, it should not be in our Bibles. (Check the footnotes of this passage in any modern translation.) It is interesting to note that this passage was not well liked by some early Church Fathers because they thought that it somehow gives women a license to commit adultery. Therefore, some omitted the passage from their manuscripts. Needless to say, how one interprets this passage affects the way he applies the Law of God in the New Covenant era. The point of this brief synopsis is to show how the popular interpretation of this passage today results in a very impractical application of God's Law, or rather a nullification of it. This will be done by stating the Law in its context and setting especially how they relate to this passage. The problem that the Pharisees presented is still with us today: "This woman was caught in the very act of adultery, Moses commands that such should be put to death. What do you say?" Indeed, what does the Lord who is virtually the Author of the Law and the "Word manifested in the flesh" say to such a question? (John 1)
Time: Early in the morning. The act of adultery perhaps just committed.
Place: The Temple - the people gathered together around the priests and teachers of the law in the courtyard to learn more of God's Law.
Note: Jesus was teaching the Law. Like teachers usually did, Jesus sat down with the people standing around him - a perfect occasion to present to him a matter concerning the Law.
Occasion: Feast of Tabernacles. Every house was crowded during feast times because Jews from all over came to Jerusalem to celebrate public feasts. During this time, many people slept in the open air - an easy way to catch people in the act of infidelity.
Motives of Scribes and Pharisees: They were not concerned with justice; rather they were looking for an occasion to have Jesus silenced. They truly thought that they had Jesus cornered. On the one hand, if he was a "wine bibber" and a "friend of publicans" and sinners, like they thought he was, then he would have demanded that her life be spared. On the other hand, if Jesus did condemn her, they would have accused him of usurping the authority of the Roman governor who alone had the right to put someone to death. See John 18:31 "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death." Their hypocrisy is revealed later on when they stone Stephen as mentioned in the Book of Acts.
JESUS' WRITING ON THE TEMPLE FLOOR
1. Pre-incarnate Christ wrote the Law first with his finger upon stone at Mt. Sinai. Now, he writes the Law on erasable dirt to show that the Law no longer condemns offenders in the Church of Christ.
Comments: This view takes a strong metaphorical stand to make John 8 fit into the doctrine of salvation. Although it does sound pietistic and appears to stand on its own, this view neglects the very context of the passage which is concerned with the application of God's Law rather than whether or not the woman was forgiven - not very good exegesis. The next two views do take into account the context of the passage (ie. from the standpoint that all Jesus did was prophetically documented beforehand in the O.T.) and answer questions like, "What significance did writing on the Temple floor have?"
2. The view held by Augustine, Melancthon, Brentius, Toletus and a' Lapide, cross referenced this passage with Jeremiah 17:13 which says, "They that depart from me shall be written in the earth." This view says that since the Pharisees distorted much of the law, and their hearts were far away from God, it was their names that were written on the ground.
3. In Numbers 5:17, if a woman was suspected by her husband of being unfaithful, he would present her to the priest in the temple. The priest would then make her drink a concoction of water and the dust from the Temple floor. Therefore, what the Lord was doing was turning the attention of the accusers of her unfaithfulness to this law by drawing in the dirt. Thus doing so, he was proving to them that although they claimed to follow the Law perfectly in this matter, they did not follow the right procedures. This view was held by Burgeon and Lightfoot.
"He that is Without Sin Cast the First Stone" v.7
1. Jesus was in effect saying that since we are all sinners, no one has the right to take the life of another. One must be completely sinless in order to "cast the first stone". The implications of this interpretation mean that it would be "immoral" to punish anybody. Fathers would have no right to punish their children because they are sinners too. Criminals would only be told not to do it again ("go and sin no more") without any retribution nor restitution on behalf of the victims. Surely, this interpretation is in clear conflict with Romans 13:3-4 ,not to mention the references that Jesus made to the Law that God requires justice (ie. an eye for an eye)!
2. If this woman was caught in the very act (v.3), where are the witnesses? Where is the man that she transgressed with? (Leviticus 20:10) Jesus challenged the legitimacy of the accusation by demanding that the witnesses come forward to cast the first stone. Since God's Law is orderly and not subject to the whims of the people or a mob, Jesus was reminding them that there are proper procedures that must be followed in order for her to have a fair trial. In other words, since there were no witnesses, the charge was inadmissible. It is a mystery however that He didn't just outright demand that the Pharisees produce their witnesses.
3. According to this interpretation, Christ's purpose was to re-establish the Law of God, not abolish it. During his ministry, Jesus repeatedly rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees for substituting God's standards with their own version. For example, in Matthew 7 he would quote their version of the Law ("You have heard it said..."), then he would refute it by quoting from the O.T. ("But, I say unto you..."). See Appendix 1 for the passages quoted by Christ. To sum up this interpretation, the Pharisees again where imposing their own version of "the Law of Moses" upon this poor woman. Jesus, in a sense meant "But I say unto you..." in two ways by saying "He that is without sin, cast the first stone." First, the ones making the accusation could not be suspected. They had to be guiltless of that particular crime. (Psalm 50:16-20; Romans 2:1-3; 22-23) Second, those witnesses had to be the ones who were to initiate the execution by casting the first stone. That stone was called the "touchstone", another metaphorical name of Christ!.
See Appendix 2 for all the passages related to the Law for the capital offence of adultery.
Comments: The second and third interpretations strongly make the case that the Pharisees were malicious witnesses against the woman. In fact, they were not interested in justice at all. They substituted their own humanistic standards for the righteous Law of God. (Deuteronomy 4:12) On the contrary, by judging her by their own standards, they condemned themselves. v.9 (Matthew 7:2) They were malicious witnesses. v.6 (Exodus 23:7) Lastly, they had no basis to execute her because they failed to provide proof that the crime was actually committed. Nonetheless, the passage makes it clear that the woman was "caught in the very act". The point John 8 seems to make is not whether or not the woman is guilty but rather that she can have a fair and lawful hearing. The Scribes and Pharisees' misinterpretation of the law was far more unjust than if the crime was left unpunished.
John 8 in no way sets a precedent that would eliminate the penalties for committing capital crimes such as adultery, murder, rape, sodomy, abduction, etc. Instead, it re-establishes them and demonstrates the continuity of Theonomic Law into the New Testament era initiated by Christ. It is only the ceremonial elements of O.T. Law like instrumental music during worship, blood sacrifices, avoidance of certain meats and food/fabric mixtures, New Moon celebrations etc. that were done away with at Christ's crucifixion. These things are made clear in the Epistles of Paul (Galatians 2-3) who re-establishes the old principle that "obedience is better than sacrifice".
The Pharisees, upon hearing Christ condemning them by quoting the context of the Law and knowing that they were without witnesses (v.17) turned their accusations against him as a true witness of the Law. (v.13) Jesus responded to their "fleshly" accusations (v.15) by revealing to them that he was not only a true witness of the Law but rather the author of it. (vs.16,58) He was one of the three witnesses of Heaven, the second person of the Triune God. (1 John 5:7) Let us not fall into the same error as the Pharisees by circumventing the Law. Let us rather honour it by demanding that our ministers of the Law enforce it. Doing so will enhance the proclamation of the Gospel and sinners will understand that if the temporal punishment of sin is so great, how much more the eternal punishment that God will bring upon those who disobey is righteous commands. Let us "Go, and sin no more!" (v.11)
By Theonomist 1996
Expository Thoughts on the Gospels - Volume 3 by J.C. Ryle. Ryle is a good resource for the opinions of earlier writers and commentators.
Theonomy: an Informed Response - edited by Gary North; See essay written by Ken Gentry.
God's Law for Today, the Continuing Relevance of Old Testament Law by Ken Gentry. This is a good introduction to Theonomic ethics.
Reflections on the Gospel of John - Volume 2 by Leon Morris; See pages 290-298 where he mentions an interesting modern interpretation that Jesus wrote Exodus 23:7 in the dust. He says that the Hebrew in written form is less ambiguous than when spoken.
The Expositors Greek New Testament - Volume 1 edited by W. Robertson Nicoll C.H.,D.D.,LLD. This scholar reaffirms that the Greek word for sin - 'anamarteitos' in v.7 can be used for the type of sin at hand rather than just any sin. So, in a sense, the passage could be understood as "Let him that is not transgressing (in this situation at hand) among you cast the first stone".
Matthew 5 - You have heard it said...
v.28 ...But I say that whosoever looks upon a woman commits adultery.
- Exodus 20:17; Proverbs 6:23-29; Job 31:1,9; 2 Samuel 11:2;
Genesis 20:17; 34:2
v.32 ...But I say that whosoever shall put away his wife commits adultery.
- Malachi 2:14-16
v.34 ...But I say swear not at all...
- Deuteronomy 23:21-23; Ecclesiastes 9:2
v.38-39 ...But I say resist not evil...
- Leviticus 19:18; Proverbs 20:22; 24:29; 1 Samuel 25:31-33
v.44 ...But I say love your enemies...
- Proverbs 25:21-22; Exodus 23:4-5; 2 Kings 6:22; Psalms 7:4; 145:9
This refutes the idea that Jesus was trying to establish some new code of ethics that was unknown to the Jews previously. It rather proves that he in Matthew 5 re-establishes the long standing O.T. standards abandoned by his contemporary, humanistic Scribes and Pharisees who sought to re-interpret the Law for their own gain.
THE LAW AND ADULTERY:
Scriptural references: Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22-24; Ezekiel 16:35-43
- BOTH transgressors (male and female) are to be executed. Lev. 20:10
- The right to a fair trial. Deut. 19:18
- 2 or 3 witnesses required v.15
- all involved shall stand before the Lord v.18
- false witnesses executed v.19
- pity for the guilty forbidden v.21
PROCEDURES FOR LAWFUL EXECUTION:
- The 2 or 3 witnesses are to cast the first stone. Deut. 17:6-7
- witnesses are not to be 'malicious'. Exodus 23:1-7
- not only stoning but hanging also. Deut. 21:22
- The punishment is to be a deterrent and an example unto the people. Deut. 17:13