Pardon, not Acquittal: Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery

The woman caught in adultery as portrayed in The Passion of the Christ¹

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is generally referred to as “Jesus and the Woman caught in Adultery” and is found in the beginning of John 8:2
“Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 
This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. 
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 
But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 
Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 
She said, “No one, Lord.”And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
There are several aspects of this passage that make it stand out to me.

The True Colors of the Pharisees

Here the Pharisees, the supposed keepers of the Law, slip up and show themselves to be less concerned with the integrity of the Law than they are in trapping Jesus in a difficult situation. You see, the Law of Moses did require that a woman caught in adultery be put to death, but it also required the same punishment for the man (Leviticus 20.10; Deuteronomy 22.22).

Since the woman was “caught in the act of adultery,” the Pharisees clearly knew who the other guilty party was, and by not bringing him forward for punishment, showed that they weren’t too concerned with what the Law said. Instead, they were trying to trap Jesus between a rock and a hard place, forcing him to either disregard the Law of Moses, or be the one who pronounced the woman’s death sentence (and thus, likely cause problems for him with the Roman authorities).

Writing on the Ground

Twice in this passage, it specifically mentions Jesus stooping down to write with his finger on the ground. It’s an interesting detail that is included, and helps the scene come to life for the reader. Scholars and commentators have pounced on this little detail over the years and offered various interpretations of it.

Some have suggested that Jesus was writing out the 10 Commandments; others have argued that this was an explicit reference to Jeremiah 17.13, where those who forsake God are “written in the dust”, and that Jesus is making a specific judgment against the Pharisees. I once read a short story called Las Palabras in la Arena (Words in the Sand), in which the words Jesus writes are actually the specific sins of the scribes and Pharisees who have brought the adulterous woman.

All of these suggestions (and others have been made as well) are interesting and, I guess, possible, but ultimately, we aren’t told what it is that Jesus writes on the ground. Personally, I’ve always been inclined to think that perhaps Jesus didn’t write anything of consequence on the ground at all, but just the act and the pause it produced helped to diffuse the energy and volatility of the situation and made the Pharisees more prepared to hear and respond to what Jesus says.

Pardon, Not Acquittal

The story of Jesus and the Woman caught in Adultery ends on a high note, as Jesus’ response to the Pharisees leaves them speechless and causes them to leave the scene, one by one:
Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 
She said, “No one, Lord.”And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

What Jesus says here is incredibly important—Jesus pardons the woman, but He doesn’t say that her sin doesn’t matter or that it isn’t a big deal. Instead, he specifically addresses the sin—by telling her to “sin no more,” He indicates that He knew that she was indeed guilty of adultery and that she needed to change her life.

Which leads to an important idea that is central to the Gospel—Jesus offers us pardon, not acquittal. He doesn’t come to us and say, “Your sin is not a big deal; no crime has been committed, you are innocent.” Instead, He says, “Your sin is significant; it must be paid for, but you don’t have to pay the price.

Our sin is such a big deal that Jesus paid the price for it on the cross; because of that sacrifice, pardon can be offered to the adulterous woman, and to the rest of us as well.

• • •

1The Passion of the Christ portrays the woman caught in adultery as the same person as Mary Magdalene. This is depicted often in Christian art and church tradition, but there is no biblical support for it.
2This might seem like an odd statement, since a lot of early New Testament manuscripts do not contain the story of the woman caught in adultery at all (most modern translations either set the passage off in brackets or include it in a footnote), and some scholars would argue that this story should not be in the Bible at all. It seems likely to me that this story wasn’t originally in the Gospel of John, but I agree with this author who believes it belongs in the Gospel of Luke.


Justin and Heather Bland 7/19/12, 11:33 AM  

fantastic post. I love Jesus' ability to respond perfectly to those trying to trap him, it is simply amazing to me (especially since I only think of good responses between the hours of 11pm and 3am several days later).

Luke Dockery 7/19/12, 6:11 PM  


I agree; no one ever gets the best of Jesus when they try to ensnare him. Yet another reason (of many, many reasons) why I could never be Jesus. :)

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