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Difficult Bible Passages: John 7:53-8:11

May 3, 2011

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.”

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15 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: John 7:53-8:11

  • Great article Bill. One more thing to note is that often that passage can be read as saying “let him who is without this sin cast the first stone”. With this reading of the passage, the accusers of the woman can be seen to be hypocrites, wanting Jesus to condemn to death a woman for a sin they had committed themselves.
    Matt Vinay

  • Most likely because of textual criticism John 7:53-8:11 was omitted by those who were troubled by it. A few early Greek texts had a propensity of omitting many key scriptures. The NIV, based on these faulty texts, is notorious for factual errors, such as Mark 1:2 and 2 Samuel 21:19.
    Bill Bryant

  • Agreed, Jesus did not excuse the sin, he forgave it with the commandment, ‘Go and sin no more.’ I have seen political figures like Robert Kennedy Jr. try to defend homosexuality using this piece of scripture, that we should not judge others.
    Bill Bryant

  • Thanks Bill

    But respectfully you may be out of your depth regarding the manuscript issue and textual criticism. I already said in my article that this has absolutely nothing to do with people not liking the message being presented here. The simple reason this passage is not found in most Bibles is simply because of what I already said: there is no reliable manuscript evidence for it, and none of the early church commentators even discussed it. It is not at all about a “few early Greek texts” but about the overwhelming majority of early texts, as biblical scholars will attest to.

    It may be an authentic saying of Jesus, but it is simply not a part of the inspired word of God. And as to the NIV, like all translations, it is not perfect. But in this case, like all the other good translations, it rightly noted this passage and its problems and then left it out accordingly.

    But you are right on how people wrongly seek to use this text.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • You have given no reason to believe that this story is true and some reason to doubt that it is authentic. So why even expound on it? If it is a dubious anecdote then any application of it is questionable. In reasoning, the doubtfulness of a premise transmits to the conclusion.
    John Snowden

  • Thanks John

    As with many possible authentic sayings of Jesus which are not part of the canonical gospels, they are still worth exploring and discussing. But the reason I raise it here of course is what I already said: some believers are foolishly trying to use it in their arguments against the use of force, or the death penalty, and so on.

    And as I also mentioned, all the good Bibles and commentaries today tend to just omit this pericope, with a brief note in passing explaining why.

    And I did not say it was not true or authentic, I just said that there is little solid manuscript evidence for it as being part of the original, inspired, canonical gospels. There is a big difference between the two. But as a non-believer and a sceptic, I do not expect you to see this distinction, or at least want to see it. But we have been over this ground before, so we may not wish to rehash it all again here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill.
    Two basic points, both of which you have raised:
    1. The textual issue. Bill Bryant, by the tone of his comment, sounds like a King James Only advocate, or at least a “Textus Receptus Only” advocate (although I may well be wrong here). I have a paper in my archives on this issue, and I am happy to supply it to those who so desire. In short, my own view is that the passage, while,not Johannine, is authentic and canonical, and has a place in our Bibles.
    2. The oft-quoted verse in John 8:7 is not any sort of carte blanche against moral judgments. I wrote in “Saltshakers” some years ago the following:

    In this environment where “tolerance” is now the supreme virtue, and where anyone with firm moral convictions receives frowns of intolerance (!). “After all, that is just a private matter”, comes the insistence. To press home the point many will quote the only text (apparently) in their Biblical repertoire, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”

    This text from John 8:7 has all too often been used to minimise adultery, or to silence anyone from making any sort of moral judgment. Since no-one is without sin, no-one has the moral right to condemn transgression. For these egregious but commonplace perversions I fear that churches, and preachers, have only themselves to blame.

    Did Jesus really say what this flaccid and supine estimate of His statement would have us believe? Indeed not! Jesus was teaching in the Temple compound when He was rudely interrupted by a delegation from the scribes (interpreters of the Law) and the Pharisees (the very strict sect of Judaism) who dragged before Him a woman caught “in the very act of adultery”. They demanded that Jesus give a legal pronouncement, although elsewhere He explicitly repudiated any such role (Luke 12:14). Of course, it was all a set-up, a trap designed to put Jesus in a “catch-22” dilemma, either to put Him in trouble with the Roman authorities as some upstart judge, or with the Jewish moralists that he was somehow “slack” on public morality. However, there was a fracture-line of inconsistency: their own insistence that the woman was caught in the act meant that that they knew the identity of the male paramour. But where was he? Under the Law both had to be put to death (Deuteronomy 22:22), with the accuser casting the first stone to begin the death sentence. Somehow there had been a cover-up. By this oft-quoted rejoinder Jesus was exposing their own hypocrisy.

    Jesus, true to His mission, did not get Himself entangled in legalities. Meanwhile, whatever He wrote in the dust had a devastating impact on this “lynch mob”. One by one they abandoned their quarry and slunk away into the shadows. With the accusers gone the woman had no case to answer, whereupon Jesus insisted that He would not assume the role of a temporal magistrate by condemning her to death. That is all He meant at that point. It is not carte blanche against all moral judgments. Furthermore, He had not been drawn into the false dilemma which they contrived. Alas, so many moderns have fallen into this very trap (which He avoided): “Jesus was not concerned with public morals; therefore we need not be either.”

    Of course Jesus is concerned about the gravity of immoral lifestyles. Even a cursory glance at the text shows this. Jesus, far from playing loose with the issue of her sinful life, commands that she “sin no more”, or in other words, “Stop this life of sin!” Jesus was no pre-existent post-modernist, unconcerned about either sexual misdemeanours or any other form of sin. He was indeed concerned to redeem and restore people from the entrapment of sinful lives. This woman was a case in point. But from sin He came to deliver; and he came to redeem, not to condone.

    Murray R Adamthwaite

  • Thanks Murray

    Well said.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • As I was reading your article, I was pondering if the question is, as well as being the passage is authentic or part of the inspired gospel of John, whether it is consistent with the rest of scripture, which I believe it is, for all the reasons mentioned in your article and the comments.
    The reference to Mat 7 about not judging, I believe that Jesus is hear telling us not to judge according to our own finite fallen judgement, that the Word of God pronounces its own judgement as Jesus later mentions about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, can’t remember the exact reference in John, that the Holy Spirit comes to convict of sin, righteousness and judgement, so when we as believers judge according to the scriptures and by the Holy Spirit, rather than our own sinful fleshliness, that judgement is then accurate just and sure.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • Thanks Ursula

    I deal with Matt. 7:1 – and its misuse – here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/10/08/thou-shalt-judge/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Yes, many revisionists and so-called “liberals” prefer to forget the last words: “Now go away, and DONT do it AGAIN!”
    John Thomas, UK

  • As a professional counsellor I refer to this often. I take a simple principle from it: love sinners, hate sin. Don’t judge persons, OK to judge behaviour.
    John Bennett

  • Bill
    I had just recently purchased an NIV bible with the latest copyright of 2002, as you mention above it has the note of “The earliest manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.” But it also then states the verses in their entirety, is this reflective of more current thinking?

    Rich Smith

  • Thanks Rick. Many versions will do both (offer the text and tell us its manuscript history).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Please ask Murray to send me a copy of the paper he has in his archive regarding the Pericope on John 7:57-8:11.

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