The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is found in John 8. “In this scene Jesus is teaching in the temple when the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman to him who has been caught in the act of adultery, in the hope of trapping him into objecting to the law and gaining grounds to bring a charge against him” (Jesus and Women, p. 64). To understand the significance of Jesus’ radical response to the scribes and Pharisees–as well as the woman–we must first take a look at the criminal and religious laws and social customs and norms of the time, particularly in how they unfairly punished women.
Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery: The Law
During the time of the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, women were seen as inferior to men. Women were “owned” by the men in their lives–either a father or husband–and a woman’s worth rested on the number of children she had. Deviating from their socially-accepted roles was not looked upon lightly. Additionally, women were held to much higher standards than men, especially in regard to their sexuality, and the criminal laws were rooted in double standards between men and women.
For example, while it was accepted–even praised–for men to have multiple partners, a woman could only have one. And while it was ok for men to engage in sexual relations outside of marriage (so long as the woman wasn’t married), a woman caught in adultery was condemned to death, no matter the circumstances.
So, in John 8:4-5, when the scribes and Pharisees say to Jesus: “‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’” they were hoping to “trap” Him into speaking out against the law.
Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery: The Response
Naturally, Jesus did not give the scribes and Pharisees the answer they expected. “Jesus’ initial response is to bend down and write on the ground, an act that has been interpreted in various ways” (Jesus and Women, p. 65). Some interpretations include the following:
- Kneeling as a symbolic act in reference to Jeremiah 17:13, reminding the group of men that they were also breaking the law since they only brought the woman under accusation, not the man with whom she committed adultery.
- Kneeling as an attempt to spare the woman of further humiliation by directing His gaze–and the gaze of others–on something other than her.
- Kneeling as a move to defuse tensions, as “Jesus is dealing with what is, in effect, a wound-up mob, itching to stone the young woman to death” (Jesus and Women, p. 65).
Whatever the case, it is the words Jesus speaks next that highlight His revolutionary response to the men. He says, “‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’” (John 8:7).
“This statement, as well as highlighting the unfairness of their judgemental attitudes, forces each man to think as an individual and not as part of a mob. As a result, they leave one by one, and not as the group which had brought the woman to be stoned” (Jesus and Women, p. 65).
Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery: The Meaning
What follows is a conversation between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery: “Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’” (John 8:10-11).
Jesus neither condones nor condemns the woman’s act of adultery. Instead, He shows her mercy, kindness, and compassion–something that was radically different during such a time in history. By doing so, Jesus acknowledges that “without knowing the circumstances of her life, judgment cannot be passed on her end and, even more importantly, that her character and personhood cannot be defined solely by a sexual affair” (Jesus and Women, p. 65).
Understanding Jesus’ Radical Response to Women in the Bible
The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is one of many that highlights Jesus’ empathic and loving treatment of women. It also exemplifies Jesus’ mission to fulfill the law by transcending it when necessary.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I encourage you to read Jesus and Women, in which I highlight more stories of Jesus and women in the Bible that point to His unconditional love, respect, and admiration for women. In addition, it offers insight into what the Bible says about feminism and how Jesus’ radical life paved the way for a restoration of harmony between the sexes.