The Woman Caught in Adultery: Nothing But a Charade?

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.

John 8 – What Was Jesus Writing in the Dirt?

In the eighth chapter of John’s gospel, we read twice that when the scribes and Pharisees brought the adulterous woman before the Lord (with corrupt motives), Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground.

The question that has always remained is: what did Jesus write on the ground?  I have heard eight possible answers to that question:

(1) Some think that Jesus wrote the Ten Commandments.  Morris writes,

“The only other recorded instance of God writing ‘with His finger’ is when God wrote the Ten Commandments on two slabs of stone (Ex 31:18).  It would have been profoundly significant to the woman’s accusers, as well as profoundly stirring and convicting, if Jesus also was seen writing out these Commandments instead of speaking.” 1

(2) Some suggest that Jesus wrote some texts of Scripture which should have settled the matter, such as the seventh Commandment, Leviticus 20:10, and Deuteronomy 22:22.  Of this opinion, Ryle informs us, were Bede, Rupertus, and Lampe.  Ryle goes on to say, “The action would then imply, ‘Why do you ask me?  What is written in the law, that law which God wrote with His own finger as I am writing now?’” 2

(3) Some suggest that Jesus was referring to the trial of jealousy, as described in Numbers 5:11-31, where a woman accused of adultery was required to drink a concoction of water and dirt from the Temple floor, either by writing the actual law, or by simply bringing attention to the dirt, in order to jog the memory of the scribes and Pharisees.  This action would imply that Jesus was directing the scribes and Pharisees to try the woman by the word of the Law.  Ryle informs us that Lightfoot and Burgon were of this opinion. 3

(4) Some suggest, in the manner of Augustine, Melanchthon, Brentius, Toletus, and á Lapide4, that Jesus was making reference to Jeremiah 17:13: “they that depart from me shall be written in the earth” (KJV).

(5) Ryle recounts that “One rationalist writer suggests that our Lord ‘stooped down’ from feelings of modesty, as if ashamed of the sight before Him, and of the story told to Him.”  Ryle’s reply: “The idea is preposterous, and entirely out of harmony with our Lord’s public demeanour.” 5

(6) Some think that Jesus specifically wrote the sins of the woman’s accusers, so as to prove that not one of them was without sin.  As Gill writes: “some think he wrote in legible characters the sins of the woman’s accusers; and the learned Wagenseil makes mention of an ancient Greek manuscript he had seen, in which were the following words, ‘the sins of everyone of them’”.6  A slight variation on this is the view that Jesus wrote the names of all the women that the scribes and Pharisees were sleeping with, or had slept with, proving that they were not without the sin of adultery.

(7) Some suggest, as does MacArthur, that what Jesus wrote was neither significant nor relevant.  MacArthur explains this position thus:

“You say, “What’s He doing sitting there scribbling in the dirt?” Just waiting until He can capture the moment for Himself… He’s just cool, calm, collected, waiting for the moment to become His own moment. Jesus gets pushed in to no corners, my friend, none.  He takes His time. He calmly runs His finger through the dirt until the focus has left them and moved to Him. He’s acted very indifferent.  They’re passionate. They’re anxious.  They’d like nothing better than for Him to support the law of Moses so they could stone her. And then He would be the blame and the Romans would execute Him. And so He calmly makes them wait. It’s going to be His moment and when the time is right He’ll grab that moment.” 7

(8) Closely related to the last interpretation, yet slightly different, is another view which also attaches no significance or relevance to what Jesus wrote.  This view is the one that Ryle and Calvin accepted as better fitting the context.  Calvin explains:

“By this attitude he intended to show that he despised them.  Those who conjecture that he wrote this or the other thing, in my opinion, do not understand his meaning.  Nor do I approve of the ingenuity of Augustine, who thinks that in this manner the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is pointed out, because Christ did not write on tables of stone, (Exodus 31:18,) but on man, who is dust and earth. For Christ rather intended, by doing nothing, to show how unworthy they were of being heard; just as if any person, while another was speaking to him, were to draw lines on the wall, or to turn his back, or to show, by any other sign, that he was not attending to what was said.” 8

I favour this last interpretation as the simplest, and as better fitting the context.  It is significant that John does not reveal what Jesus wrote, and by implication, that the Holy Spirit saw fit to not reveal what was written.  Had it been important, surely we could suppose that the Holy Spirit would have included it in the Scriptures.

I believe that Jesus was most likely simply making a blatantly obvious sign that He was completely disinterested in playing along with the games that the scribes and Pharisees were wont of playing.  I believe that He was simply refusing to give the scribes and Pharisees the time of day.  What Christ was writing doesn’t seem to be a significant part of the passage. Why Christ did what He did seems to be more important.  It may well be that Christ was writing something of significance, such as the Ten Commandments or Numbers 5:17, or the like, but then again, He may just as well have written something of little or no consequence, such as ‘I hate the scribes and Pharisees,’ or ‘Jingle Bells, Judas Smells,’ for all we know.

Lending weight to this understanding is the fact that some Bible translations add some extra text to verse 6:

The KJV renders the verse thus: “This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him.  But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.” (emphasis added)

The NKJV has it: “This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.” (emphasis added)

The EMTV writes that Jesus, stooping down, “began to write on the ground with His finger, not taking notice.” (emphasis added)

The LEB has it that Jesus wrote on the ground, “taking no notice.” (emphasis added)

The LITV has it that Jesus wrote on the ground, “not appearing to hear.” (emphasis mine)

The 1833 Webster Bible writes that Jesus wrote on the ground, “as though he heard them not.” (emphasis mine)

Now granted, the extra text does not appear in the original, so it hardly proves that mine is the correct understanding of the passage. However, it does lend support to my view, by illustrating what appears to be the most straightforward understanding, namely, that Jesus wasn’t particularly concerned with writing something of significance, but rather, was making it clearly evident that He cared not to even answer the scribes and Pharisees. That is, He was doing nothing more than ignoring them, albeit in a not-so-subtle manner.

Notes

1 Henry M. Morris, The New Defender’s Study Bible, notes on John 8:6, p.1587
2 J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Vol. 3, notes on John 8:6
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 John Gill, John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, notes on John 8:6
7 John MacArthur, Jesus Confronts Hypocrisy, (<http://www.gty.org/resources/Sermons/1519_Jesus-Confronts-Hypocrisy>)
8 John Calvin, commentary on John 8:6