By Wayne Jackson (January 1, 1999)
Over the past several months, as controversy has swirled around the president’s conduct, with almost predictable regularity media personalities have cited what is possibly the only passage in their biblical repository: “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”
This passage has been perverted in a number of egregious ways. First, as in the present example, it is employed to minimize adultery. “Oh, we all sin,” it is claimed. “In the instance of John 8:1-11, a woman committed adultery, but Jesus did not condemn her. We should not, therefore, make a ‘big deal’ over such a trifling and personal matter.” Others “paint” with an even broader brush. They allege that no one who is flawed himself by sin has the right to censure anyone for any transgression; after all, none of us is “without sin.” No one, therefore, possesses the moral authority to condemn. This episode in the Gospel of John even has been cited in an effort to set aside the clear biblical injunctions which demand the discipline of apostate Christians.
We believe, therefore, that a careful consideration of this context is warranted. The details of the New Testament narrative are as follows.
A Synopsis of the Incident
Early one morning Jesus came from the Mount of Olives, just east of Jerusalem, to the temple compound of the sacred city. Probably in the court of the Gentiles, the Lord sat down (the usual posture for a Jewish teacher) and began to teach the folks who had gathered. Suddenly, there was a rude interruption. The scribes (copiers of the law, thus religious “experts”) and the Pharisees (those of the strictest Jewish sect—Acts 26:5), broke into the assembly, bringing a captive woman. They probably dragged her into the midst of the group.
Having positioned her prominently, they, with malevolent designs, fired a question at Jesus: “Teacher [no doubt with a tone of sarcasm], this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. The law of Moses commands that she be stoned. What do you say regarding her?” Quietly, the Son of God stooped down, and, with his finger wrote a message in the dust. (This is the only context in the New Testament which mentions Jesus writing.) The biblical text does not reveal the substance of the message. But the Lord said nothing.
The inquisitors continued to press him for a verbal response. It was at this point that he made the statement to which so many frequently appeal: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.”
The Textual Controversy
Before giving some analysis to the passage, let us first briefly comment upon the matter of the genuineness of the context. Virtually every translation of the English Bible, this side of the 1611 King James Version, at least footnotes the passage, calling attention to the weak manuscript evidence behind the section embraced by John 7:53-8:11. All of the best Greek manuscripts, including the two oldest papyri (P66 and P75—dating from about A.D. 200) omit it. Most scholars—including many conservative ones—doubt that this section was a part of John’s original Gospel. On the other hand, some very respectable names defend it. The famous critic F.H.A. Scrivener affirmed that “the arguments in its favor, internal even more than external, are so powerful, that we can scarcely be brought to think it an unauthorized appendage to the writings” of John (1883, 610). One of the best summaries of the controversy is found in R.C. Foster’s, Studies in the Life of Christ (1971, 796ff).
In spite of the sparse manuscript evidence, there is a wide-spread conviction among textual critics (those who pursue the science of restoring the original text from available data) that this narrative represents a factual episode in the ministry of Jesus. Even Professor Bruce Metzger of Princeton University, a renowned textual scholar (and no conservative), concedes that “the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity” (1971, 220). There is much concurrence: “Throughout the history of the church it has been held that, whoever wrote [this section], this little story is authentic” (Morris 1971, 883). We are not, therefore, uncomfortable in accepting the record as actual history.
Analyzing the Facts of the Case
What are the basic facts of the case?
A sinful woman was somehow apprehended in the act of committing adultery, i.e., she was engaged in sexual activity that violated either her own marriage commitment, or that of her paramour. Adultery is a sexual act, and it involves the breach of the marriage covenant. There is virtually no controversy among language authorities regarding this matter, not to mention clear biblical testimony. “Let marriage be had in honor among all, and let the bed be undefiled: for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4). Note the connection between “bed” and “adulterers.” The rather modern—certainly novel—theory, which holds that adultery is only “covenant breaking,” whether or not sexual transgressions were involved, is utterly without merit, and is, in fact, a base attempt to sanctify adulterous relationships formed subsequent to unscriptural divorces.
It is more than obvious that the scribes and Pharisees were not the least interested in seeing true justice executed. Had they been in pursuit of justice, they would have taken the woman to the appropriate authorities for remedy. What did Jesus of Nazareth have to do with such legal affairs? Nothing at all. No, this was a trap laid for Christ. The Jews did not have the authority to execute law-breakers (see John 18:31). Rome retained for itself the right of life and death over its subjects. In A.D. 6 (the year that Judaea became a Roman province), Coponius, a governor, was sent to Palestine by Augustus Caesar. He was “granted supreme power over the Jews” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.1.1.), which included the power of life and death (Wars of the Jews 2.8.1). Though this fact has been disputed by liberal critics, the historical evidence sustains the biblical record (Green 1992, 850). A.N. Sherwin-White, Professor of Ancient History at Oxford, has addressed this matter most thoroughly in his work, Roman Society And Roman Law In The New Testament (1978, 35ff).
Accordingly, had Jesus pronounced judicial sentence upon the sinful woman, the Jewish leaders would have reported the matter to the Roman authorities, and their diabolical plan to rid themselves of the Lord would have been achieved.
The accusers committed a colossal tactical blunder. Their charge itself contained information sufficient to expose their hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees emphatically declared that the poor woman had been caught “in the very act.” That is significant.
I am reminded of the circumstance where two men were in a fight and one bit off a portion of the other’s ear. When the case came to trial, the attorney for the accused asked a witness: “Did you see Mr. Jones bite off Mr. Smith’s ear?” “No,” the witness responded. The lawyer might well have stopped at that point with: “No further questions.” But he just had to ask one question more. “How, then, do you know that Jones bit off Smith’s ear?” “I saw him spit it out!”
When the Jewish leaders decided to be so specific, “in the very act,” they acknowledged an important point: they knew the identity of the male participant! What is the significance of that? Well, it is this: the Old Testament code demanded that both the adulteress and the adulterer be subjected to the same penalty (see Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). Where, then, was the man? These sanctimonious prosecutors were themselves in stark violation of the law. Had Jesus been under a commission to render a civil judgment in this case (and he did not come to attend to such matters—see Luke 12:13-14), he could not have countenanced this “kangaroo” procedure. The thrust of Christ’s statement—“He that is without sin . . .”—was this: “None of you is in a position to stone this woman, for you have disregarded the very law you profess to honor. It is a travesty.”
Remember this: the Savior’s admonition in John 8 cannot be divorced from its immediate context and used as a general axiom, the design of which is to mute the legitimate rebuke of evil. Even some Bible scholars have missed this point. William Barclay, the famous Scottish writer, was far off the mark when he, in connection with this verse, declared: “It was a first principle of Jesus that only the man who himself is without fault has the right to express judgment on the fault of others” (1955, 7). That is a misappropriation of this text.
Whatever Christ wrote on the ground made a powerful impact upon his critics. Silently they slipped away into the shadows, progressing from the older to the younger. This effect usually is interpreted as an indication that the Lord’s written message impacted the more mature first, and then the younger. It is hard to focus upon another’s sin when your own is exposed. At any rate, Jesus’ response—whatever it was—was devastating. The Pharisees’ inconsistency had been laid bare.
The accusers abandoned their prey. They were no match for the Son of God (neither is any critic today). The Lord arose and spoke to the woman. (Had she been defiant? Was she weeping? We can only wonder.) Christ inquired: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” The use of the expression “woman” might seem a tad sharp to the modern English mind, but the address conveys no such meaning in the original language (cf. John 2:4; 19:26). Christ then added: “Neither do I condemn you.”
The Greek word for “condemn” is a strong one, katakrino (the prefix kata strengthens the root form). It suggests handing down a judgment, passing sentence. The Lord was informing the woman that she was not judicially sentenced. As Bloomfield observed, Jesus was simply making “a declaration that, since his kingdom was not of this world, so he would not assume the office of a temporal magistracy” (1837, 376). He was not sanctioning adultery, nor minimizing the lady’s wickedness—quite the contrary. Christ was commenting upon the legal aspect of the situation. With the accusers gone, there was no case left! The witnesses were required to throw the first stones (Deuteronomy 17:7); without them the matter could proceed no further.
Even a cursory reading of the text reveals that the Lord did not condone the woman’s sin. In fact, he said: “Go on your way; and sin no more.” The verb (“sin”) is a present tense form in the imperative (command) mood. The idea conveyed is: “Stop this life of sin.” Or, as William F. Beck rendered it: “Go, from now on don’t sin anymore” (1963, 181). Christ unequivocally indicated that what the woman did was sin.
It is apparent that the common, cast-the-first-stone defense cannot be employed legitimately as a cloak for the protection of impenitent sin. Consider the following facts.
Paul taught that there is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10). That included himself. He sometimes found himself doing wrong (Romans 7:15). He had to fight to keep himself under the Lord’s control (1 Corinthians 9:26-27). He knew that so long as he remained in the flesh he would never achieve a permanent plateau of perfection (Philippians 3:12).
On the other hand, the apostle did not hesitate to “judge” a brother who was living in open, impenitent sin (1 Corinthians 5:3), and he rebuked those who tolerated such (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). Paul had learned the Master’s truth that while we are not to judge according to appearances, we are obligated to “judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Paul thus withdrew his fellowship from blasphemers like Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Timothy 1:19-20), and again, exposed Hymanaeus and Philetus when they taught that the resurrection had occurred already (2 Timothy 2:17-18). Nor did he hesitate to openly mention that Demas fell in love with the world and forsook him (2 Timothy 4:10).
It is obvious, therefore, that one does not have to be “without sin” before he can call attention to the grievous error that wicked men practice on a sustained basis.
The misuse of John 8:1-11, as a covering for unrestrained sin, is a gross evil within itself.
Barclay, William. 1955. The Gospel of John. Vol. 2. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press.
Beck, William F. 1963. The New Testament in the Language of Today. St. Louis, MO: Concordia.
Bloomfield, S. T. 1837. The Greek Testament with English Notes. Vol. 2. Boston, MA: Perkins & Marvin.
Foster, R. C. 1971. Studies in the Life of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
Green, Joel B., Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, eds. 1992. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Metzger, Bruce M. 1971. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. London, England: United Bible Societies.
Morris, Leon. 1971. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Scrivener, F. H. A. 1883. A Plain Introduction to the Cristicism of the New Testament. Cambridge, England: Deighton, Bell & Co.
Sherwin-White, A. N. 1978. Roman Society And Roman Law In The New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.