This story, beloved for its revelation of God's mercy toward sinners, is found only in John. It was almost certainly not part of John's original Gospel. The NIV separates this passage off from the rest of the Gospel with the note, "The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11." That is, the earliest Greek manuscripts, the earliest translations and the earliest church fathers all lack reference to this story. Furthermore, some manuscripts place it at other points within John (after 7:36, 7:44 or 21:25), others include it in the Gospel of Luke (placing it after Luke 21:38), and many manuscripts have marks that indicate the scribes "were aware that it lacked satisfactory credentials" (Metzger 1994:189). Furthermore, it contains many expressions that are more like those in the Synoptic Gospels than those in John.
It appears to have been a well-known story, one of many that circulated orally from the beginning yet that none of the Gospel writers were led to include. But some in the later church thought this one was too good to leave out. The controversy with the teachers of the law and the Pharisees (v. 3) is similar to stories found in the Synoptics, as is the theme of God's mercy mediated by Jesus.
Those who believe that authorship is a primary criterion for canonicity will suspect or even reject this passage. Most of Christendom, however, has received this story as authoritative, and modern scholarship, although concluding firmly that it was not a part of John's Gospel originally, has generally recognized that this story describes an event from the life of Christ. Furthermore, it is as well written and as theologically profound as anything else in the Gospels.
What we have here, then, is a bit of Synoptic-like material stuck in the middle of John's Gospel. Its presence highlights some of the similarities and differences between John and the Synoptics. The setting is one of controversy in the temple, though the way this is introduced in 7:53—8:2 is much more like Luke's style (cf. Lk 19:47; 20:1; 21:37) than John's. Furthermore, the theme of judgment also corresponds to the theme of the larger section in John (7:24; 8:15-16). This setting and theme probably led to its inclusion in John at this point.
Most importantly, however, this story highlights the similarities and differences between John and the Synoptics regarding Jesus identity. The clarity of Jesus' self-revelation, typical of John and central to this larger passage (chaps. 7—8) is missing from this story. Jesus has spoken clearly and openly of himself by his invitation to come to himself as the source of living water (Jn 7:37-38). Our present story is immediately followed by another clear self-revelation of Jesus as the light of the world (8:12). Thus, Chrysostom, who does not comment on this story of the adulteress (no one in the East does so before the twelfth century), notes this larger theme (In John 52.2), whereas Augustine, who does comment on the text, does not make these connections (In John 33.2-3).
It is usually said that this story interrupts John's flow of thought, as though a patch of a different pattern has been sewn onto a piece of cloth. On the contrary, while the style of Jesus' self-revelation is quite different in John, this added story contains an example of the Synoptic form of revelation, which shows that Jesus is more than a human prophet. So although there is a patch, the patch is of the same pattern as the whole, albeit less bright. While the style of the material is very different, the substance is quite similar. This specific story is a case in point of what is generally true of the relation between the Synoptics and John. The Synoptics have as high a Christology as John does, though they express it differently.
The story unfolds in four stages. The first stage sets the scene (7:53—8:2). The meeting of the chief priests and Pharisees with their servants, the "temple guards" (7:45-52), presumably took place on the last (and seventh) day of the feast (see note on 7:37). As this passage stands in this context, Jesus is coming early to the temple to teach on the morning of the added eighth day of the feast, which was a day of rest (Lev 23:39).
The second stage of the story (8:3-6) describes the challenge presented to Jesus by the Jewish leaders. Their treatment of the woman is callous and demeaning. If she had committed adultery the previous evening (which is perhaps more likely than around dawn, v. 2), then we can assume these opponents had been holding her during the night and waiting for Jesus to show up in order to use her to test him. Her fear would have been great. Putting her in the midst of the crowd would have added public humiliation. A certain attitude of male-chauvinism comes across in their statement that the law of Moses commands the stoning of such women (v. 5). More precisely the law speaks of the death of both the man and the woman involved (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22-24).
These opponents have a commendable zeal for righteousness, but theirs is a shallow righteousness that shows no concern for the soul of this woman. They are also being rather deceitful. There is no evidence that this law was carried out with any regularity, so they are raising a question in the name of loyalty to Moses, using a part of Moses' teaching that they themselves most likely have not kept. Furthermore, since the law says both the man and the woman who commit adultery are to be killed, we are left wondering why the man was not brought in as well. It may be that he had escaped, but the fact that only the woman is brought raises suspicions and does not speak well of their zeal for the law of Moses; for if they were really committed, they would have brought the man as well. Indeed, the law makes it clear that stoning could only take place after a careful trial, which included the chance for the condemned to confess his or her wrong (m. Sanhedrin 6:1-4). The hypocrisy of the opponents is evident.
This situation is apparently just an attempt to entrap Jesus (v. 6). If he is lax toward the law, then he is condemned. But if he holds a strict line, then he has allowed them to prevail in their ungodly treatment of this woman and has opened himself up to trouble from the Romans, for he will be held responsible if the stoning proceeds. The leaders of Israel are putting God to the test in the person of his Son, repeating the Israelites' historical pattern on more than one occasion in the wilderness at Meribah and Massah (Ex 17:2; Num 20:13; cf. Deut 6:16; Ps 95:8-9; 106:14).
The third stage, Jesus' response to the opponents (vv. 6-9), is very memorable. While remaining seated he bends over and writes with his finger on the ground. This act of writing on the ground is itself very significant. Kenneth E. Bailey has pointed out (in unpublished form) that it was unlawful to write even two letters on the sabbath but that writing with dust was permissible (m. shabbat 7:2; 12:5). If this were the eighth day of the feast, which was to be kept as a day of rest, then Jesus' writing on the ground would show that he knows well not only the law but also the oral interpretations.
Furthermore, his writing echoes an Old Testament passage, thereby turning it into a symbolic action (Jeremias 1972:228): "O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water" (Jer 17:13). Here "written in the dust" probably means the opposite of being written in the book of life (Ex 32:32; Dan 12:1); those who have turned away are consigned to death because they have rejected the one who is the source of the water of life. Thus it appears that Jesus is associating his opponents with those whom God condemns for forsaking himself and whom he consigns to death. The judgment that they suggest Jesus execute on this adulterous woman is in fact the judgment that he visits upon them for their rejection of him—the one who has offered them God's living water (7:38-39). In rejecting Jesus, they are forsaking God, and thereby committing a most shameful act. Adultery is shameful, certainly, but they themselves are acting in a shameful way worthy of death.
All of this is conveyed simply by Jesus' action of writing on the ground, which alludes to this passage from Jeremiah. This action could have this meaning whatever it was he wrote. Not surprisingly, many people have proposed theories of what he actually wrote on the ground. Perhaps the most common suggestion is still the most likely—that he wrote out some form of condemnation addressed toward them. This interpretation has been strengthened in recent years by the publication of a papyrus fragment from 256 B.C. (Zenon Papyrus 59) that uses the verb found here (katagrapho) in the sense of writing out an accusation against someone (Bauer, Gingrich and Danker 1979:410). So perhaps Jesus cited commands he knew them to be guilty of breaking, or it could be he cited Jeremiah 17:13 putting, as it were, a caption under his symbolic act. Or maybe he enacted Jeremiah 17:13 by actually writing out the names of the accusers. Since they did not get his point right away, perhaps first he cited Jeremiah and then, as they persisted, he began to write their names. Such suggestions are obviously speculative, but they indicate possible explanations of what is happening.
When Jesus calls for the one without sin to cast the first stone he accomplishes several things: it relieves him from the charge of having instigated a stoning; it ensures there will not be a stoning, since none of the accusers will want to take responsibility for it; and it causes them to reflect on their own sinfulness before God. It has often been suggested that the eldest accusers were the first to leave (v. 9) because they recognized their own sinfulness more readily. However, leaving in this order may simply reflect the custom of deferring to the elders. In any case, their withdrawal was in fact a confession of sin. Those who came to condemn ended up condemning themselves by not casting a stone.
Jesus is left alone, sitting on the ground, bent over and writing, with the woman standing before him. As Augustine says, "The two were left alone, misera et misericordia" ("a wretched woman and Mercy"; In John 33.5). This prepares for the fourth and final stage of this story—Jesus' response to the woman (vv. 10-11). He straightens up and asks for a report of what happened, as if he had been totally oblivious to what took place as he concentrated on his writing. He does not ask her about the charges but rather about that aspect of the situation most heartening to the woman: Where are they? Has no one condemned you? (v. 10). They had of course condemned her in their accusations, but by not following through on the charge they had thrown out her case.
But there is one left who could still execute the judgment—the only one present who was without sin and thus could throw the first stone. Is she hopeful at this point or still quite frightened? We can only speculate as to whether the woman was familiar with Jesus and his embodiment of the mercy of God. In any case, she becomes a memorable example of the fact that "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him" (3:17). Jesus says to her, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on no longer sin" (8:11). By adding then to the beginning of this sentence the NIV allows the most unfortunate suggestion that Jesus' response was caused by the response of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. The translation of the end of the verse is also unfortunate, since leave your life of sin "almost paints the woman as an habitual whore (though the Greek bears no such overtones)" (Carson 1991:337).
Jesus grants pardon, not acquittal, since the call to leave off sinning shows he knew she was indeed guilty of the adultery. His noncondemnation is quite different from theirs. They wanted to condemn but lacked the opportunity; he could have done so, but he did not. Here is mercy and righteousness. He condemned the sin and not the sinner (Augustine In John 33.6). But more than that, he called her to a new life. The gospel is not only the forgiveness of sins, but a new quality of life that overcomes the power of sin (cf. 8:32-36; 1 Jn 3:4-6).
This story raises very significant pastoral issues. The first issue is the nature of the commandments of Scripture. We see Jesus upholding the law's teaching that adultery is sin while also setting aside the specific regulations concerning the community's enforcement of that law. The implication is that the law contains revelation of right and wrong, which is true throughout history, as well as commandments for embodying that revelation in the community of God's people, which are not true for all times and places. To understand this distinction we must understand that the law as revelation of right and wrong is not an arbitrary set of rules that God made up to test our obedience. Rather, the law is the transposition into human society of patterns of relationship that reflect God's own character. Adultery is wrong because it violates relationships of faithfulness, and such violation is wrong, ultimately, because God himself is characterized by faithfulness. The morality of Scripture is a pattern of life that reflects God's own life. This aspect of the law is unchanging, but the law's prescription for how the community is to embody and enforce the revealed vision of relationships may vary.
This story also illustrates another pastoral issue. As Augustine noted (In John 33.8), we are in danger from both hope and despair. That is, we can have a false optimism that says "God is merciful so I can do as I please" or a despair that says "there is no forgiveness for the sin I have committed." This story shows we should keep these two inclinations in balance. There is no sin that God does not forgive. Christ's death atoned for all sin. The only sin that remains unforgiven is the one that is not repented of. But, on the other hand, God's call to us is to intimacy with himself, and sin cannot be in his presence any more than darkness can be in the presence of light. Christ's atonement cleanses us from sin as we repent day by day, and his Spirit is working in us a transformation so that in the end we will come out pure, though not in this life (1 Jn 1:8). But sin must be cut off. We must take it seriously. Jesus himself often tells us to fear God and his judgment.
While addressing these pastoral issues, this passage also contains extremely significant revelation of Jesus' identity. The fact that it comes in this Synoptic style and yet fits so well in this context in John makes it all the more remarkable. The opponents challenged Jesus regarding the law of Moses by saying, essentially, Moses tells us to stone such a person, but you—what do you say? (v. 5, you is emphatic in the Greek). Jesus sets aside Moses' clear command, albeit one that few ever acted on in Jesus' day. He does not follow through on Moses' command even when challenged to do so, which leads us to believe that he is more than just a prophet (see comment on 9:34).
Jesus does not say explicitly that he forgives the woman, but such is the implication of his saying he does not condemn her and then telling her to not sin again. So here we seem to have another occasion when Jesus mediates the forgiveness of God (cf. Mt 9:1-8; Mk 2:3-12; Lk 5:18-26; 7:36-50). In doing so, he is bypassing the temple and acting in a divine role. This revelation of Jesus' divinity is as profound as other such revelations in this Gospel, though it is expressed in the form it takes in the Synoptics. This patch of cloth sown onto John's Gospel has the same pattern as the whole, even if the colors are somewhat different.