This is a famous passage, but one which can often be rather poorly interpreted. At least it is often used to support various agendas which the passage itself may never have had in mind. Pacifists for example are happy to cite this text, as are those who oppose capital punishment, or oppose just war theory, and so on.
Indeed, some rather careless or undiscerning Christians take this passage to mean that Jesus is showing us that we should never judge anyone anytime for any reason. The text therefore becomes the ultimate in tolerance falsely so-called, and almost a carte blanche acceptance of everything.
The passage is of course about the woman caught in adultery, and how Jesus takes a stand against her accusers. It occurs as a trap is set by his critics, but Jesus turns the situation around rather remarkably. There are a number of points which need to be made about this pericope. The first and most important one is this: it may not in fact be part of the original text.
This is not meant to serve as an escape hatch here, nor am I not seeking to take the easy way out. The truth is, as any proper Bible will attest, we simply do not have good manuscript evidence for this pericope. It seems at best to be a latter addition to the gospel.
Thus the NIV for example does not even feature this segment, but instead has this note: “The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.” Almost all the early Greek manuscripts do not have this story, and all of the early Christian commentators who wrote on John did not discuss it.
Many contemporary Bible translations and commentators follow suit. It simply does not seem to be a part of the canonical Gospel of John, and we should therefore not consider it to be a part of the inspired Word of God. All this is not to say that this may not be an authentic saying of Jesus; just that it is not part of John’s inspired gospel.
We could end the discussion there, but let me continue. A number of somewhat shoddy readings of this text need to be discussed. There is lots of sloppy exegesis or unwarranted application of this passage to be found. So let me address a few of them.
One common position taken on this passage is that Jesus is here somehow abrogating the law, or negating it. But he instead seems to be confronting the accusers for not fully meeting the conditions of the law in this case. In fact, he seems to be affirming the strict requirements of Old Testament justice here.
According to the law, as recorded in Deut. 22:22-24, the man involved in the adultery was also to be included in the punishment. Jesus implies that the accusers were at fault, and were violating the Old Testament provisions for such a case.
And according to Deut 17:7, the witnesses were required to cast the first stone. So he was in fact being quite stringent about the law here. As he stated in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17), “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
As R.V.G. Tasker comments, “Jesus does not in fact imply that the woman’s sin can be glossed over, or that it can be lightly forgiven without any payment of the penalty it deserved. On the contrary, Jesus himself was going to pay that penalty, the penalty not only of the woman’s sins, but of the sins of her accusers, and indeed the sins of all mankind.”
Another faulty understanding of this passage is the idea that no one – unless they are perfect – can judge anyone or make any moral pronouncements against another person. This too is greatly mistaken. Jesus is not saying that unless you are in a state of sinless perfection, you have to suspend all discernment and moral judgment.
If absolute sinlessness was being required here, no one would ever be able to speak out against any evil. People like Wilberforce would have been quite wrong to judge the evils of slavery because he was not perfect. Indeed, someone like the Apostle Paul would have been quite wrong to make his many moral pronouncements. After all, he would be the first to acknowledge his own sinfulness.
And if such moral perfection was necessary, we would have no judicial system at all. All courts of law, all police, all armies, and all authorities would have to be seen as wrong and unnecessary. So even if we do read this as Jesus somehow setting aside the requirements of the law, that does not mean he is arguing for the abandonment of all social and legal justice in this world.
Indeed, we still have passages like Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; and so on, where we read of the state as being ordained by God to administer justice and punish evildoers. So this questionable passage from John certainly cannot be used to dismiss many other clear segments of Scripture.
Then there is the question of how much the death penalty was carried out for adultery anyway. There does not seem to be much evidence that over the recent centuries this punishment in fact took place. And it is even more difficult in this period, when the Jews, under Roman occupation, were basically not permitted to carry out capital punishment for this crime.
And finally, we must recall the closing words of Jesus to the adulterous woman. While he may have freed her from her wrongful accusers, he certainly did not let her off the hook. He said most bluntly to her: “Go and sin no more” (8:11). He still had high – even perfect – expectations which he saw as binding on her, and every one of us. Indeed, as he said in Matt 5:48, “Be perfect therefore as your heavenly father is perfect”.
Bruce Milne offers some helpful concluding thoughts here: “It is a mistake to interpret this story as though sin is unimportant. Jesus upheld the law here, even to the point of setting in motion the application of its judgments. Furthermore, while his forgiving the woman is not conditional on repentance, he clearly sees her repentance as the natural outcome of it. Forgiveness does not operate in some non-moral sphere ‘above’ the moral law. There is no such place, for all realms, whether above or below, are the place of the presence of the living God who distinguishes between right and wrong and who is always the holy one, even as he is also the merciful and forgiving one.”