The Adulterous Woman
I have been listening to Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s study of the Life of Messiah and it has been very interesting. He recently went through the story of the adulterous woman and he had a perspective on it that I had not heard before and it really caught my attention. Before I discuss what he taught I should probably acknowledge that this is a disputed passage and that some of the early biblical manuscripts do not contain it (I don’t profess to be an expert on this). However, Dr. Fruchtenbaum discussed the passage and never mentioned its being disputed. So I am going to go ahead and post what he taught and my readers can decide for themselves whether or not they believe the passage is canonical.
Throughout the later part of Christ’s ministry the Pharisees often tried to trip Him up. What I had not realized before listening to this study is that most of these attempts involved the Mishnah. In fact there are examples in the Gospels where Jesus apparently went out of His way to break the Mishnah but he always kept the Mosaic Law. This passage is the only one in the Gospels where the Pharisees tried to get Jesus to break the Mosaic Law.
The passage of interest is from John’s Gospel:
2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
3 And the scribes and the Pharisees bring a woman taken in adultery; and having set her in the midst,
4 they say unto him, Teacher, this woman hath been taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such: what then sayest thou of her?
6 And this they said, trying him, that they might have whereof to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground.
7 But when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8 And again he stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground.
9 And they, when they heard it, went out one by one, beginning from the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the midst.
10 And Jesus lifted up himself, and said unto her, Woman, where are they? did no man condemn thee?
11 And she said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn thee: go thy way; from henceforth sin no more.
The first thing to notice is that this was clearly entrapment. Everyone present knew this and it was done on purpose to put Jesus in a tough spot. How do we know this was entrapment? The Mosaic Law did indeed demand the execution of those caught in the act of adultery. It takes two people to commit adultery and the Pharisees only brought the woman. Whoever the man was the Pharisees had no interest in prosecuting him. He may have been someone the Pharisees talked into committing the act or he may have been one of the Pharisees but bringing the woman only before Christ and demanding that He condemn alone her was clearly wrong. Even though this was wrong it is true that she was still responsible for her actions before the Law.
In verses 6 and 8 He just stooped down and wrote in the dirt. I have heard a lot of people speculate about what Jesus was writing but Dr. Fruchtenbaum points out that the writing is not the emphasis in the Koine Greek. In the Greek the emphasis is on Christ’s finger (the noun for finger is in the “emphatic position”). This seems a little odd at first but Dr. Fruchtenbaum says that in the Jewish context it is making a strong statement. In the Mosaic Law the are 613 Mitzvot (commands) and that 603 of those commands were written with pen and parchment by the hand of man. However, the Ten Commandments were written by the very finger of God (Ex 31:18, Ex 32:15-16, Deut 4:13, Deut 9:10) and that by Christ’s writing with His finger like this He was claiming to be the author of the Ten Commandments.
Since Christ was the author of the Law (we don’t need this passage to hold that He was the author of the Law) He of course knew all about the sin of adultery and its punishment. In verse seven when He says “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” this is often pulled out of context and made to say something that it was never meant to mean. Some people try to claim that that this verse commands that we should never judge others. However this violates many commands in the bible (including the Mosaic Law) since there are times when we are commanded to judge others.
This verse is also not saying that you cannot cast the first stone unless you are sinlessly perfect. If He is claiming that sinless perfection is required to cast the first stone then He is contradicting the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law did not require sinless perfection before a criminal could be executed.
What He was claiming is:
- If we judge the woman on the basis of the Mosaic Law then we have to judge based on all that Moses said about this sin and its punishment.
- Yes, Moses did say that that anyone guilty of this sin had to be stoned to death but that is not all that Moses said.
- No one could be stoned to death but by the testimony of two or three witnesses. This number of witnesses they have.
- Moses also said that it is the two or three witnesses whose testimony convicts that must cast the first stones.
- Even that is not enough, there is more. In two key passages of the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 13 and 17) Moses deals with faithful and true witnesses. The two or three witnesses who cast the first stones cannot be guilty of the same sin!
So, what He is saying is that if the two or three witnesses are innocent of the same sin then to go ahead and cast the first stone just as Moses said! All of them, one by one, drop their stones and walk away implying that they were also guilty of the same sin.
Christ does not excuse her sin, as some teach, since He tells her to sin no more. If He had modified the Mosaic Law in this passage, which was within His power as its author, He would have failed the test in the eyes of the Jewish crowd who was watching. He had to keep the Law to validate Himself as the Messiah.
As a bit of a postscript to this I have to say that I knew a lot of this before listening to Dr. Fruchtenbaum’s teaching this passage. The one thing I had never heard before was point five above about the true and faithful witness. So I immediately broke out my bible and read Deuteronomy chapters 13 and 17 but could not see a verse that spoke directly to this. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that what Dr. Fruchtenbaum said is true. My guess is that ancient Jewish jurists developed the concept of the true and faithful witness from those passages in Deuteronomy and that it is legitimate.
I did a web search looking for “true and faithful witnesses” and what would disqualify a witness before the Mosaic Law and I really couldn’t find anything. My guess is that all of the source material is in Hebrew (which I don’t happen to know). I did find one article on the web that discussed the same passage and mentioned the disqualified witnesses (link here) but it really didn’t fill in any of the gaps for me.
If any reader happens to know the answer please let me know what it is and point me to any resources you know of. Thank you!
Update: I finally found an answer to my question about what would have disqualified the Pharisees as witnesses before the Mosaic Law. See my post: The Adulterous Woman Revisited if you are interested in the answer.