I have heard it said that the account of the adulterous woman in John chapter 8 was nothing more than an elaborate charade. That is, as the claim goes, there never was an act of adultery committed; the whole scenario was a fabrication designed to entrap Jesus.
That the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman before Jesus for no other purpose but to entrap Him, there can be no doubt, for the Apostle explicitly records that their motives were that of testing Jesus, that they might have some charge to bring against Him (v. 6). That being said, I believe the view which ascribes to this passage the recording of nothing but a fanciful charade to be a forced and unnatural reading of the text.
This view really has only two facts upon which to base the supposition that there was no act of adultery: 1) there is no sign of the male adulterer (and we all know that it takes two to tango), and 2) the scribes and Pharisees were notorious for their attempts to trap Jesus by their false accusations (Mark 14:55-57 is often offered as substantiation of this second point).
As for the first assertion, that there was no man brought before Jesus, I must ask, what does this actually prove? From the fact that the male adulterer was not brought forth, it does not necessarily follow that there was therefore no act of adultery committed. The fact proves nothing more than that the male was not brought before Jesus, which, when viewed in light of what is said about the scribes and Pharisee’s motives in verse 6, better illustrates the priorities of the scribes and Pharisees, namely, that they were not concerned with maintaining the purity of God’s law, but rather, they were intent on living out their hatred for Jesus, and taking advantage of any and every scenario in order that they might find some way to condemn the Christ.
As for the second assertion that there was no actual case of adultery because the scribes and Pharisees were notorious for their attempts to entrap Jesus as revealed in Mark 14:55-57, it must be pointed out that the proof-text only says that “many bore false witness against him” (v. 56; emphasis added). This fact obviously severs any connection between the two texts, as Mark 14 records that many bore false witness against Christ, while in John 8, the scribes and Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus in His words by (allegedly) bearing false witness against a woman. Mark 14 in no way supports the conclusion that the adulterous woman was not, in actuality, adulterous.
On the other hand, and in support of the view that the woman was truly adulterous, is the plain reading of the passage. Let us consider:
» John the Apostle records that the “scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him [Jesus]…” (Jn. 8:3-4a; emphasis added). John’s choice of words would seem to indicate that he accepted that the woman was indeed an adulteress. Had the Apostle believed that the woman was being falsely accused, or had the Holy Spirit intended to convey the idea that the woman was being falsely accused, would it not be reasonable to suppose that a more unambiguous choice of words would be in order? Perhaps something along the lines of: ‘The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who was allegedly caught in the act of adultery…’?
» If this whole scenario was nothing but a fanciful charade, the woman would have to have been privy to it. If this was nothing but a charade, and the woman wasn’t in on it, surely the charge of adultery would have 1) taken her by surprise, and 2) been objected to. Yet nowhere in the text do we read of the charge taking the woman by surprise, nor do we read of her objecting to the charge. This leaves two possibilities: 1) this was a charade, and the woman was privy to it (her actions would thus be in the manner of ‘playing along’ with the charade), or 2) there was no charade, and the woman not being surprised, nor objecting to the charge is indicative of her guilt. I believe that the interpretation which better fits the context is that the woman’s actions (or lack thereof) indicate her guilt.
» In verse 9, we read that the scribes and Pharisees went away one by one. Evidently, they recognized 1) the futility of trying to entrap Jesus, and 2) their own consciences were condemning them. What’s more, we read that after the scribes and Pharisees had left, “Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him” (v. 9). As pointed out above, it is only reasonable to conclude that if this entire scenario was nothing but a charade, then the woman herself would surely have been in on it. If it was a charade, and she was in on it, then why would she stay even after the scribes and Pharisees are gone? Would it not be reasonable to suppose that, after everyone else has realized the futility of such a charade, the woman (who would have to have been privy to the charade) would also have departed from Jesus? If this was a charade, and the woman was in on it, there is no reason for her to have stayed; the attempt to entrap Jesus had failed miserably. The fact that she stayed behind is indicative of three things: 1) this scenario was not a charade, 2) therefore, by necessity, this woman was not in cahoots with the scribes and Pharisees, for there was no charade for her to be a part of, and 3) the woman recognized her guilt, as evidenced by her silence (i.e., she did not object to the charge of adultery).
» When it was apparent that no one had stayed to condemn the adulterous woman, Jesus dismisses her with the solemn words, “go, and from now on sin no more” (v. 11). He says nothing to the woman that indicates that she can now depart without any stain or blemish on her character. Quite the opposite, in fact, for our Lord’s words “go and sin no more” clearly imply that the woman had sinned, and was in fact, guilty of adultery. Jesus’ choice of words indicates that He accepted that the woman had indeed committed an act (or possibly acts) that needed to be repented of.
In summing up, then, the reasons why I believe that this passage is recording Jesus’ dealing with an actual adulteress, and not an elaborate charade, are as follows:
» John’s choice of words in verse 3 indicates that he accepted that the woman was indeed an adulteress.
» If the whole scenario was nothing but a fanciful fabrication, then the woman would surely have to have been in cahoots with the scribes and Pharisees, yet her actions tell a different story.
» Jesus’ choice of words in verse 11 indicates that He accepted that the woman was indeed guilty of adultery, hence the command to repent.