The Woman Caught in Adultery: The Pharisees’ Mistake

If there is one thing the post-modern mind detest the most is to be critiqued by a system. In an era of “free-to-do-as-willeth,” it is impossible to look at the story of the woman caught in adultery without the culture conditioned notions that create the foundation to ask such questions as, “what right does anyone (including God) has to call this woman into questions for her actions?” In fact, she is free to do as she will, it is her body, right?

At some point these questions need to be dealt with, but before any attempt is made in questioning the woman’s right to act as she did, inquiring minds need to venture to the first century’s temple court and envision the narrative play out through the pen of the apostle John. It was in the midst of a teaching session that Jesus was interrupted by the “teachers of the law and the Pharisees” (John 8:2-3, NIV). They presented to Jesus, and everyone else who was there, a woman that was caught in adultery.

The case calls for many questions. If the woman was caught “in the act of adultery” (8:4), then who caught her? Where is the witness? How many witnesses? Was it the Pharisees themselves that caught her? These questions are left unanswered by the biblical text. The fact that the Pharisees brought her to Jesus without presenting a witness suggest that they believed that their words of condemnation was good enough. This suggests that being charged by the Pharisees in the first century probably meant you’re automatically guilty.

In fact, the question was not about her guilt. It was about punishment. In their craftiness, they framed the question in a manner so that Jesus had to choose whether to agree with Moses or not. By saying, “in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women” (8:5), they put Moses, perhaps the most respected and revered Old Testament figure of the time, as the authority. Asking Jesus, “now what do you say?” is a public call to see if Jesus would challenge Moses.

The objective of this exercise was to trap Jesus “in order to have a basis for accusing him” (8:6). One obvious way that this was a trap is the fact that only the woman was presented. By saying that she should be stoned, the Pharisees were referring to Leviticus 20:10, which says, “If  a man commits adultery with another man’s wife — with the wife of his neighbor — both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.” This can also be found in Deuteronomy 22:22 which says, “if a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.”

In both verses the law calls for the stoning of both the man and the woman. The mistake that the Pharisees made was that they presented only the woman. This mistake, if indeed it is, is comparable to what the Devil did with scripture during the temptation of Jesus: misquoted. The fact that the Pharisees conducted themselves in a similar manner suggest that they were under the influence of the spirit that tempted Jesus. Why? It shouldn’t surprise any that the children of the Devil would do as their father would.

Perhaps this was not a mistake. Maybe it was intended to be this way. One part of the trap could have been to show that Jesus was scripturally illiterate. After all He was a carpenter’s son with no academic achievements. Had He said that she should be stoned, He would have proven that He doesn’t know the law. This would have destroyed His credibility as a teacher (which was what he was engaged in before the case was presented). Who would come to be taught by a man who was tested and found wanting?

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