The text itself is misplaced like the woman whose story it tells. In all likelihood, the text does not belong to the Gospel of John at all. In some manuscripts of the NT, it is missing; in others, it is located in a different place, such as the end of John or the end of Luke. Where the text belongs is as uncertain as the woman whose story it tells.
Of course, I’m talking about the story involving an adulterous woman (known to scholars as the Pericope Adulterae) found at the beginning of John 8 in most Bibles today. The story, nevertheless, is one of the most illustrious stories about Jesus. Wherever the story came from, it recites an episode of Jesus’s life that rings true with the rest of the gospel.
The scene begins with Jesus in the temple courts teaching the people. Enter the woman, not of her own power, but dragged into the presence of Jesus by the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the scribes. Somehow, caught in the very act of adultery, only the woman was brought before Jesus; the guilty man was not. Clearly, the religious leaders humiliated the women by making her stand in the middle of the group for all to see.
They made their case: “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:5). The narrator makes sure the readers know that religious leaders were using this question to accuse Jesus and trap him. The law actually commanded: “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death” (Lev 20:10) and “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.” (Deut 22:22; cf. also Job 31:9–11).
Enigmatically, Jesus stoops down and begins to write on the ground with his finger. Nobody knows exactly why Jesus did this. The accusers pressed Jesus, so he straightened up and said the well-known line, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 7:8). He again stooped down and returned to his writing. While he was writing, the religious leaders disbursed, the oldest first, until they were all gone. Alone now with the woman, Jesus asked,
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, Lord.”
“And neither do I. Go and don’t sin like this, again.”
This text is usually known as “Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery,” however, a more appropriate title would be “Jesus and the Men Caught in Hypocrisy.” A close reading of this text shows why this second title is more accurate and to the point of the story.
First, the woman was caught in the act of adultery. She was caught in the act of having sex with her lover. But where is the man? If she was caught in the act, the man was both known and excused from the humiliation imposed on the woman.
For these religious leaders, the woman was nothing more than a prop for the scheme they had set up to frame Jesus. The Law of Moses required the execution of both the man and the woman (see texts mentioned above). The religious leaders were willing to skirt decorum, legality, and common decency to use this woman to make their point. For them, unlike Jesus, the woman was not important. The hypocrisy of the men was felt from the oldest of them to the youngest of them. Only when they had been routed by Jesus did they have a chance to realize what they had done.
Second, Jesus’s writing on the ground may have been to defocus everyone’s attention away from the vulnerable woman—for a few seconds anyway. He found a way in the awkward moment to protect her.
Jesus loved this woman at every point in this story, even though she was involved in serious sin. If transformation came to this woman, it was only after she encountered Jesus; it was only after this story was over. The narrative leaves us hanging as to what became of her next. In other words, in this text, Jesus loved the one actually caught in the act.
While the overly religious might focus on Jesus’s final directive, “go and sin no more,” the climax of the story is clearly Jesus’s welcome: “Neither do I condemn you.” That is the good news of Jesus and the promise of God’s absurd sense of hospitality.