Sunday, March 25, 2007

5th Sunday of Lent (C): The Story of the "Adulterous" Woman

Susanna and the Elders (1610)
by Artemisia Gentileschi (Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden)
photo grab: wikipedia

The Text: John 7:53 - 8:11
Then each went to his own house
while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area,
and all the people started coming to him,
and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman
who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him,
"Teacher, this woman was caught
in the very act of committing adultery.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
So what do you say?"
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
"Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her."
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
"Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?"
She replied, "No one, sir."
Then Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more."
There's this old priest who got sick of all the people in his parish who kept confessing to adultery. One Sunday, in the pulpit, he said, "if I hear one more person confess to adultery, I'll quit!" Well, everyone liked him, so they came up with a code word. Someone who had committed adultery would say they had "fallen". This seemed to satisfy the old priest and things went well, until the priest died at a ripe old age. About a week after the new priest arrived, he visited the Mayor of the town and seemed very concerned. The priest said, "you have to do something about the sidewalks in town. When people come into the confessional, they keep talking about having fallen." The Mayor started to laugh, realizing that no-one had told the new priest about the code word. Before the mayor could explain, the priest shook an accusing finger at the mayor and said, "I don't know what you're laughing about, Your wife fell three times this week" (source:

The news carried the other day photographs of three nuns playing slot machines and blackjack at a gaming fair in Manila. Although the nuns were there obviously not to gamble, some bishops immediately thought of possible sanctions for this "shameful" scene. Sounds like the movie "Sister Act", parts I and II. And when we the Story of the Adulterous Woman is read at Mass today, we will be smiling at such an episcopal irony.
[click on this]

From the Gospel of John?
Earlier scholars usually begin their commentaries on this Story of the Adulterous Woman by informing readers of its textual problem. Earliest Greek manuscripts do not carry this story and when some later manuscripts do, it is usually found in different places: after John 7:53 or John 8:36 or John 8:44, or even after Luke 21:38. The style of the language is not clearly typical of the Gospel of John. The story suddenly interrupts, like a shooting star, the long dialogue between Jesus and the Jews in the Temple area. Jesus who is “talkative” suddenly is restraint in this story, contented with writing on the ground. Thus, scholars had thought of this controversial story as a later addition to the Gospel of John, from a different author or “A Non-Johannine Interpolation” as the late New Testament scholar Fr. Raymond Brown put as his title of this story.

Antiquity of the Text
Recent studies, however, would like us now to appreciate the antiquity of the text, perhaps first as an oral tradition. In fact, no less than a second Christian writer, Papias, might have known this story (as mentioned by Eusebius). A third-century writing also refers to the story of the adulteress (in Didascalia Apostolorum). The reason why this is missing in important Greek manuscripts, it was a scandalous story (as it is today)—Jesus tolerating adultery (!). The early Christians were not so enthusiastic to transmit the story. In fact, St. Augustine in one of his commentaries on marriage expressed his worry that this story might give women an excuse for not taking adultery as a grave sin.

Moral Problem
Indeed, this will not be only a scandal but also put Jesus in position of self-contradiction. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave a stern warning against adultery: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:27-28). Later on, in a figurative way, Jesus would give even a stricter warning:
"If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. " (Mat 18:8-9).
This could be the reason why the Pharisees and Scribes bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. They want to “test” him (v. 6), which means to enter into a debate with him, to show to the public that Jesus is contradicting himself.

A Remarried Divorcee?
In an interesting study written some years ago, a suggestion is made that the woman was not adulterous in the legal sense (in the sense of the law of Moses) but in the sense of Jesus’ teaching. A divorced woman who remarries commits adultery (Mark 10:12, also Matt 5:31-32; 19:3-9). In support of this, the study shows that some elements necessary to prosecute the case of adultery mentioned in Deut 22:22-24 are lacking: evidence and witnesses. Because of the gravity of the penalty, stoning to death, the trial for adultery is rigorous and difficult to prove: there should be at least two eye-witnesses who could testify to the unequivocal nature of the act, to the time when and the place where it occurred. Both the adulterer and adulteress, who are equally liable to death penalty (Lev 20:10), must be present. In the story, the two witnesses and woman’s partner are missing. The study then concludes that the case is not adultery but remarriage of a divorcee which is in Jesus’ teaching is "adultery".

The suggestion is interesting, but it is not totally convincing. The text in the Gospel of John does not speak of a case of a divorced woman. Nonetheless, it gives us an idea that the legal process is not being observed and therefore would justify Jesus’ stand.

Death by Stoning
The Pharisees and Scribe remind Jesus that "in the Law of Moses ordered such women to be stoned” (v. 5). As often thought the Old Testament ("Law of Moses") punishment is harsh and barbaric—stoning to death. But if we take a closer at the supposedly Old Testament texts cited, the manner of death penalty is not specified: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death (Lev 20:10)". The text in Deuteronomy specifies stoning but as punishment for the illicit affair of a woman who is betrothed (Deut 22:21). The book of the prophet Ezekiel speaks of adultery but the punishment is not clear whether it is stoning or something else. Note that it also a metaphor (Ezek 16:38-40).
Even if the punishment is stoning to death, we do not have evidence in the Bible, even in the Old Testament, that such is made into practice. The law is there but that the punishment of stoning is actually done is questionable. In fact, there are only two actual stoning that we know of: the stoning of Naboth (in 1 Kings 21:13) and Stephen (Acts 7:11-58). Neither of the two is an adultery case.
There is a similar story, the Story of Susanna, sometimes found in the book of Daniel (chapter 13), hence a Deuterocanonical writing (probably written in 100 B.C.). Susanna is falsely accused of adultery by two dirty old men who are also judges. What kind of death penalty with which she is going to be punished not also specified.
In other words, Jesus has another basis for not applying stoning to death as punishment of the adulterous woman.

Ciphers in the Sand
Jesus' silent reaction is a bit strange given the fact that he was earlier "talkative". He writes on the ground (vv. 6 & 8). As this the only evidence of Jesus knowing how to write, we are interested to know what he could have written down. But the text is not interested with what Jesus writes but how he writes: "he bent down and wrote on the ground". It was St. Augustine who suggests (in one of his commentaries on John) that Jesus’ gesture is meant make a contrast with the Decalogue written in stone. The Law of Moses is not rigid nor cold like a stone. It is not a frozen law. Nor it is intended to be used for punishing or killing. The Law gives life (Ps 19:7). It is also written on the ground that is, a down-to-earth law. It considers the situation of the person, the circumstances, the intentions of the accusers and the victim. The Law of Moses allows us to see a broader understanding of sin rather than a narrow concept of it as shown by the accusers of the woman. That’s why Jesus could say: "Let the one who is without sin [Greek ho anamartētos] be the first to throw a stone at her" (v. 7).

Beginning with the Elders
The accusers' reaction is short but dramatic: "And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders" (v. 9). Age brings wisdom but also a lot of stupidity (Job 32:9). The disappearance beginning with the elders also reminds us of the two elders who were corrupt judges and who had falsely accused Susanna (Daniel s13). The woman and Jesus were left alone, the Miseria (Misery =Kawawa) and the Misericordia (Mercy =Awa), as St. Augustine writes. Jesus' counsel to the woman: "Go, (and) from now on do not sin any more" (v. 11) does not presuppose the woman's guilt. It was the same words that Jesus used to the paralyzed man who was healed (John 5:14).

The point of the whole story: Jesus appears as God’s representative who desires life for the sinner rather than death. What a timely text for this season of Lent.
NOTE: Even St. Augustine does not identify the woman as Mary Magdalene (unlike in Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ” or with some uninformed preachers).

Johannes Beutler, "Gesù si rivela al suo popolo: Gv 5-8" (Unpublished handouts, Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, 2006).
L. Kreitzer – D. Rooke (eds.), Ciphers in the Sand: Interpretation of the Woman Taken in Adultery (John 7:53 – 8:11) (The Bible Seminar 74; Sheffield, 2000).
R. E. Brown, The Gospel of John I-XII (Anchor Bible 29; NY: Doubleday, 1966).


trebmnl said...

An excellent exegesis for the sunday gospel. Please keep sharing your exegetical reflections every sunday. Thank you.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for posting these scriptural backgrounders. It helps me understand many other points that I could not find in the Bible itself which are very helpful in my interpretation of the text.