The Sword and the Stoning: Toward a Liberative Reading of John 8

**Content warning: this post contains discussions of sexual violence**

Most people who have grown up in the church are familiar with John 8, usually through one of two (and often both) popular interpretations of the passage.

First, there is the commonly quoted: “God and sin no more.” 

Anyone who has spent any time in conservative Christianity knows these words well. 

In the traditional reading of John 8, certain conclusions are foregone. The woman is guilty, her sins despicable. She deserves to be stoned, yet Jesus gives her grace not by any merit of her own, not as an investment in her worth, but as an object lesson. The woman is all but voiceless, decentered from her own life, a pawn on the cosmic stage of salvation.

The pastor always concludes his sermon with some variation of, “No matter how disgusting your sins, Jesus still loves you. If you will accept him, and renounce your sins, then you can escape the eternal torments of hell.”

Shame, guilt, existential dread, and fear were the intended results of such messages.

Likewise, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is familiar in a specific context. And nearly always, it is used to defend someone who has abused and exploited others from those who would see them held accountable.

I will argue that both crumble under critical analysis. And in their wake, I wish to propose a reading rooted in themes of liberation.

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Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Part 1: Decentering Patriarchy

One of the greatest obstacles to such an endeavor is the deep entrenchment of patriarchalist bias in the ways we approach the text. 

From a young age, many of us have been told the text has only one possible meaning. That meaning was established long ago, and we shouldn’t bother to dig deeper. There is nothing to be found.

As such, even those of us seeking some semblance of faith through the process of deconstruction tend to discard passages such as John 8. They are rooted in guilt, in the shame-based strictures of purity culture, in the rank and file misogyny endemic to the theology of those invested (above all) in preserving masculine hegemony within the church.

After all – as the story goes – we have a “promiscuous” woman, caught in the act of cheating on her husband, placed on trial by those charged with maintaining and executing the established laws of their time and culture. She was guilty beyond a doubt, shamed and humiliated, her promise of grace based on renouncing her disgusting ways.

Dating back to at least Augustine, the “woman caught in adultery” represents the embodiment of the filth and reprehensibility of sin as the backdrop for Jesus “grace.”

But are we bound by this reading?

Adultery

The first thread begins to unravel as we ask: 

What, precisely, does it mean to be charged with adultery under Jewish law?

Of primary note is that for Jewish men “adultery” did not mean (as it does in modern Western context) that he had a romantic or sexual relationship with a woman other than his wife. In reality, Jewish men were permitted (though the practice was discouraged) to have multiple sexual partners outside of their marriage without violating any Jewish law. 

Men were guilty of adultery only if the woman with whom they engaged sexually was also married, or betrothed, to a different man.[1]

This law existed because, under Jewish law, women were essentially the property of their husbands. A person who sleeps with a man’s virgin daughter may owe her father compensation, as her lack of virginity would have made her a less desirable bride under Jewish culture. But he does not inherently commit adultery.

Adultery, for men, occurred only when one man violated the exclusive sexual rights of a husband or betrothed man to the body of a woman.

In contrast, a woman was not afforded these rights. Her body belonged solely to her  father, her husband, or the man to whom she was promised in marriage.

Or, to put a finer point on that, the laws of adultery in ancient Jewish culture existed to uphold the economic and political rights of men over the bodies of women. It was steeped in concepts of patriarchal ownership and the desire for certainty of paternity. 

For a man to commit adultery meant, exclusively, that he had violated the property rights of another man over the woman with whom he was having sex. [3]

As such, a married or betrothed woman could not have multiple sex partners and any time she gave her body sexually to a man outside the exclusive rights of her husband or betrothed was adultery.

This creates an interesting wrinkle with the narrative of John 8.

Namely:

 If she was caught in the act of adultery, why was a man not also dragged before Jesus to be put on trial?

While there can be no definitive answer to questions about incidents for which there are no existing eyewitnesses, there is an interesting text from the Hebrew Scriptures rarely brought into discussions of John 8 that presents a probable answer.

Rape and Adultery

Deuteronomy 22:13-30 is perhaps the most maligned text in all of Scripture, and with good reason.[4]

Within the text, we have a series of commands regarding women’s bodies and sexuality, and shocking use of capital punishment should she fail to meet these legal standards.

There are several things of particular relevance to our examination of John 8.

First, note the difference in penalty between the rape of a betrothed and non-betrothed woman. If a man rapes a virgin who is not betrothed, he simply has to pay her father a fine and marry her (Exodus 22 gives the father the ability to reject the marriage). However, if she is promised to another man then he is to be stoned to death.

The issue at stake here is, explicitly, injury to men, not to the victim. While utterly detestable to anyone who believes in bodily autonomy and a consent-based sexual ethic, such provisions are part and parcel of ancient patriarchalist thought.

Second, note the distinction between sexual violence in urban versus rural settings. Here, we come across explicit directions for when the victim is to be believed, and instances in which the (exclusively male) religious authorities were permitted to call her a liar and charge her with the capital crime of adultery.

One of these stipulations regards the degree to which she protested. According to this passage, if a woman is raped in a rural setting and no one hears her scream, that is understandable. Her story is to be believed and her rapist punished accordingly. However, should the assault occur in an urban area, and she is not heard calling for help, then she is guilty of adultery along with her assailant and both should be put to death.

By any stretch, the implications of this passage are abhorrent. They ignore the role of coercion, deception, and manipulation in sexual assault. They ignore the lengths a rapist might take to ensure his victim can’t cry out, lengths taken specifically knowing that in the context of this law she would be reticent to report the crime. It is a law that serves to silence victims and empower perpetrators.

It exists as a remnant of an ancient patriarchalist society. It has no purpose in any modern understanding of rape and sexual assault, and ought to be rejected outright as to having any persisting relevance.

It does, however, create an important context for the events of John 8.

“Caught in the act?”

We know from the text of John 8 that this story takes place at the temple, within the city of Jerusalem (i.e. in an urban setting). This means that one possible reason for the absent male “adulterer” could be that he was a rapist who, upon being discovered in the act, fled from the scene of the crime. The woman, traumatized, was left behind and taken into custody.

It is entirely possible these religious leaders just so happened to come across a rape in progress. And it is also possible that, upon deciding that the woman had not met the standards for resisting her assailant required in a city, they also just happened to know exactly where to find Jesus and bring the woman to be put on trial.

But, as the text tells us explicitly, these officials were looking to entrap Jesus. Their motives were to confront and discredit a political rival who had a penchant for calling out their corruption (v. 6)

This suggests an alternative reading for Jesus’ challenge to them, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” 

The language of the text could mean “without sin” in general, it can (and I contend below should) also carry an implied “Let he who is without sin [in this matter] cast the first stone.”

That is, given the reaction of these officials to Jesus’ words, it is possible they were active participants in this woman’s plight. Perhaps they had ensured they would be able to entrap her and charge her with this crime. 

It is well within the realm of plausibility that she was a victim of sexual assault suffering further violence at the hands of those entrusted to uphold systems of justice. A violated woman further traumatized, her body politicized and exploited for the political aspirations of corrupt, power-hungry men.

This, of course, begs the question: 

Are there compelling reasons to make such a drastic deviation from the “established” interpretation of the text?

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Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Go and sin no more

Having raised several questions about the common ways this text is interpreted, it is then helpful to consider the full narrative of this story. We begin with a group of religious officials with explicitly nefarious intent attempting to discredit Jesus, a political rival.

Jesus is repeatedly referred to as a Rabbi, even by the legal scholars and religious authorities of his day. In John 3 the Pharisee and temple authority Nicodemus refers to Jesus as “Rabbi,” likely recognizing Jesus’ status as an authoritative teacher and interpreter of the Jewish tradition.

Yet, though he was a respected teacher in many rights, his message often placed him in direct conflict with certain groups functioning within the Jewish religious establishment.[5]

 The Gospels are full of moments of conflict between Jesus and certain members of the religio-political establishment of his day. Again and again, Jesus chooses the interests of the marginalized and the oppressed, even if that means stretching legal interpretation – or even violating the law outright by the interpretation of his political rivals (eg Matt 12).

When these officials brought this woman to Jesus, they were explicitly appealing to him as a person recognized to be qualified to interpret and execute the law in this matter. 

The allegations “caught in the act of adultery” are official legal charges in an entirely unnecessary trial. These men intend to act as her execution squad in a trial in which she will receive no defense. They are all coming forward as witnesses, and the legal repercussions of these actions are quite clear: she must be stoned to death.

Interesting, however, is that there was no legal requirement of a public trial for adultery under Jewish Law. Two witnesses were present, fulfilling the requirement of the law for her conviction. And further, as those acting as witness it would have been their obligation to execute the death penalty. If they wished to simply carry out the law, they didn’t need Jesus’ opinion to do so.[6]

Again, they tip their hand.

That is, while Jesus is granted the authority to pass such a sentence under Jewish law, Israel at this time was occupied territory. Having come under Roman rule, the Jews were (to an extent) permitted to carry out their own legal system. They were not, however, permitted to carry out a death sentence.[7]

Their intent in bringing these charges before Jesus is clear. As a legal official, Jesus is obligated to uphold the strictures of Jewish law. Failure to do so in such a seemingly cut-and-dry case would give his political opponents ample ammunition against him. However, carrying out the prescribed legal consequences required by the charges presented would directly violate the limitations placed by occupying forces and put Jesus at odds with Rome itself.

In putting Jesus in this position, these men tip their hand. They have no concern for this woman, nor any particular concern for Jewish law. She, and the law itself, are pawns in their pursuit of power and influence. They seek solely to discredit a political rival. And if that means dragging this woman into the street (likely in some state of undress) and publicly humiliating and dehumanizing her, so be it.

It is in this context, then, that Jesus’ actions are particularly striking.

First, Jesus seems to ignore them. He refuses to acknowledge them or their authority to bring such charges. Instead, he begins to draw in the sand. In every way, Jesus is disrespecting these men and the office they hold. He is refusing to defer to them, and sending the message that he isn’t going to be simply playing by their rules.

When the men become more emphatic, Jesus proceeds to acknowledge them. But instead of focusing on the accused, he turns the tables on her accusers. Without asking a single question of the accused, without forcing her to recount her narrative or defend her actions, Jesus stares down his opponents and offers a simple rebuttal. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

While this has often been rendered simply a generic statement, the common understanding of “Let he who has never done anything at all that could be considered sinful.” is hardly a rational argument. By that standard, no one could ever carry out any sentence or trial at all. 

Further, given the rather unabashed claims of the Apostle Paul that he was, as a Pharisee, “blameless” in all matters of the law (including it would seem the mass persecution and summary execution of Christians, Phil 3:1-6), it seems likely that at least one of these men would have possessed the arrogance necessary to cast a stone against such a general challenge.

However, if the language is specific, with the implied, “Let he who is without sin [in this legal matter] cast the first stone.” their reaction makes a considerable deal more sense. Jesus, assessing the situation, identifies their motives for precisely what they are. Regardless of whether Jesus knew the specifics of this woman’s plight, he knew quite clearly that these men had likely set her up and were seeking to see her executed as a means to political power. 

So he names their cruel and evil machinations for precisely what they are, he brings counter-charges against them in a manner clear enough that they have no doubts that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. And then he further disrespects the by going back to drawing in the sand.

In short time, the accusers have all dispersed. Leaving only the woman and Jesus.

Jesus then turns to the woman, and treats her with profound dignity and respect. Her accusers had sought to rob her of her voice. They had reduced her to a thing, an object to be exploited for their own gain. But Jesus chooses to see her humanity. He stands and walks to her, stoops down, brings her to her feet, and asks, “Where are your accusers?” And in this moment, the woman speaks for the first time. She recognizes that those who sought to accuse her have now fled. 

In this, their case is withdrawn. There is no one left with the audacity to stand as witness against her. 

She is no longer accused.

“Has no one condemned you?” Jesus asks. And the woman replied, “No one.”

She is not required to present a defense, to recount the traumatic events she had just endured. She is not questioned or interrogated further.

Instead, Jesus declares, “Then I do not condemn you.” That is, the man tasked with acting as judge over this woman declares that the charges against her have been proven invalid, since none of those who sought to bring them were willing to stand by their claims. 

The Greek for “condemn” that Jesus uses here is a decisive word. It means to be judged deserving of legal penalty. Or to put it explicitly, to be found “guilty” of the crime of which she is accused.

Jesus has asked her, “Where are those who accuse you? Is there no one declaring your guilt?”

When the woman says “No one.” Jesus’ reply is, legally speaking, “Then I see no reason to punish you.” That is, the language itself does not permit us to see merely a commuted sentence. He is explicitly stating the charges against her are baseless, and she is declared not guilty.

And this brings us to those oft-dreaded words, “Go, and sin no more.”

The common rendering of these words makes little sense in the context we’ve just established. If Jesus has just made the legal proclamation that she is unquestionably deemed “not guilty”, why would he then say essentially, “You got away with it this time, but you need to stop doing this.” 

It would radically undermine the events that had just taken place. If his opponents sought to entrap him by getting him to either violate the law or defy Rome, then stating “You’re guilty, but I’m letting you go anyway” would give them precisely what they were seeking. If Jesus simply intended to commute her sentence, his defiant actions toward his political opponents make very little sense at all.

And this is where the Greek (transliterated) words “meketi harmatane” come into play. When combined, these words mean approximately “do not act in a way that would make you guilty of violating the law.”

Given Jesus words immediately before this declaration are, “I do not find you to guilty” it makes a great deal more sense then that Jesus is not admonishing her for sinful actions but declaring her not guilty and advising her to be careful not to give the religious officials any reason to accuse her going forward.

This is further established by looking at the only other use of “meketi harmartane” in John’s Gospel: John 5:14. 

John 5

In John 5, Jesus comes upon a paralyzed man waiting by a pool believed to have healing properties. Jesus, after a brief conversation, heals the man. He then tells the man to pick up his mat and walk away.

As the man is doing so, he is spotted by religious authorities. These authorities point out to the man that carrying his mat is a violation of the law, since it is the Sabbath. The man tells them the story of his healing, and states that the person who healed him gave him permission to carry his mat in this manner.

They attempt to interrogate him on the matter, but the man is not familiar with Jesus and unable to give them a name. 

Sometime later in the day, Jesus catches up to the man in the temple. Having apparently heard of his run-in with the religious officials earlier, Jesus tells the man “See, I’ve healed you.” then offers him the warning, “meketi hamartane” followed by “lest something even worse happen to you.” 

In the context of the story, “meketi hamartane” then is a warning from Jesus. He is not accusing the man of wrongdoing, but admonishing him to be careful lest he run afoul of a legal system that is already out to find reasons to punish him. He’s had one run-in with them already, and next time they might do a lot worse than give him a warning.

With this in mind, then, the implications of Jesus’ command to this woman is not “You are a sexual deviant caught in adultery, stop it now!” but rather “Having weighed this matter, I see no reason to condemn you and advise you to be careful going forward given what just happened.”

Part 2: Practical Implications

This brings us full circle. The traditional reading of this text – used to shore up theology based in shame, guilt, and condemnation – doesn’t hold up. It disregards entirely the legal statutes of Judaism regarding adultery and rape, and fails to take seriously the legal setting of this scene and the weight that gives to Jesus’s words, “I do not condemn you.”

In the traditional reading, Jesus is aligned with the systems of exploitive and oppressive power of his day. This Jesus, operating within the theological confines of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, is not challenging the system but merely practicing grace on the guilty at his own divine whim.

In this theological system, all persons are equally sinful. Equally deserving of damnation. All are under the wrath of God, deserving of death and damnation except by the grace of God in Christ.

God kills or saves according to his own will. And this God used the imperialist systems of occupying Rome to kill his own son as proof of his own need for justice.

He murdered his son as a supposed act of love, to demonstrate the judgment that awaits anyone who does not pledge unwavering fealty.

To use the language of John 8, he who is “without sin” (God)  threw the first stone.

But this Jesus is a tool of a despot, the embodiment of a deity that enacts state violence to achieve his goals. A deity whose natural bent is to kill all who defy him in order to enforce his own unwavering concept of justice.

In this system, the white supremacist and the victim of racism are equally condemned, because the issue is sin and both are sinful. As are the rapist and the victim of rape, the abuser and those they prey upon. Both “sides” are equally under divine judgment, and salvation is divorced from the liberation of those on the margins, granted as reward for assimilation and detachment from “worldly” concerns and advancement of the “good news” of God’s “loving” sacrifice.

As such, the Jesus presented in the traditional reading of John 8 is entirely neutral on the matter of the practice of the law itself. The issue isn’t whether or not the woman standing humiliated and accused before him is innocent or guilty. Rather, Jesus’ challenge to the religious authorities highlights merely that all parties are equally condemnable. It becomes about Jesus’ authority to extend grace to those whom he chooses, and the reality that in his eyes all stand worthy of condemnation.

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Conversely, in the alternate reading I have proposed, Jesus’ words serve not only to pronounce legal innocence, but to undermine corrupt religious and political systems and authorities. The Jesus that emerges in this reading of John 8 is a political radical who openly stood in defiance of corrupt and oppressive institutions.

That is, Jesus chooses to stand with a woman on the margins. To not only defend her innocence, but to challenge the methods by which exploitive and corrupt authorities practice law.

This reframing aligns the words of Jesus in John 8 with the political figure who led a large crowd to the gates of Jerusalem chanting of Hosanna (“liberate us”) and waving palm branches (which evoke the reclamation of Jerusalem in 1 Macc 13:49-53). An event so disruptive that Matthew tells us the “whole city shook” (Matt 21:10), and whose political implications were so clear the city leaders begged them to stop before Rome intervened (Luke 19:39). An event that could be rightfully understood as a riot.

It recalls the man who immediately followed this political rally by direct political action challenging economic exploitation via destruction of property in the temple courtyard (21:12-17). An act symbolic of a liberating leader taking charge of the center of the city he intends to liberate.

In this vision of John 8, we see the Jesus who spoke out against occupation, and dared the puppet government to come for him (Luke 13:31-35). The Jesus whose continued direct action and political messages of resistance and liberation resulted in multiple assassination attempts. Who was ultimately lynched, utterly humiliated and defeated at the hands of an occupying imperialist government.

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Conclusions

The issue at stake, then, is not interpretive certainty or theological purity. Because the reality is, there is no such thing. 

I am not arguing that my reading is the one right reading, but that the ways we choose to read Scripture have a profound impact on the ethical relationships we have with our communities and with the broader political realities of human existence.

As the Reverend Canon Broderick Greer once said, 

“If theology can be used to oppress, murder, and brutalize women, black people, trans people, queer people, bisexual people, and people with disabilities, then why can’t theology be used to liberate us, dignify us, renew us?”

The reality is, the Bible is not a neutral text. For all our academic attempts to approach the core of its meaning, discerning the intent of the original authors remains a matter of best-educated guesses. These are texts written in languages no longer spoken, in contexts removed from our own by thousands of years.

To arrest our political or theological imagination in a presumed “original” meaning is a fruitless endeavor, because that context can never fully recovered. We inevitably fill the blanks with our own biases, while claiming to present the accurate meaning of the text.

When we approach the text as a compendium of ancient musings on the nature of the divine and humanity, we can accept that the text does not present one consistent ethic, but rather records the evolution of ethical thought in various communities over the course of millennia.

Only then can we realize that the priority of the text is the realization of human dignity through liberation. That love cannot exist in dynamics where oppression and exploitation are left unchecked (Rom 13:10).

This allows us to prioritize human dignity and liberation as a hermeneutical commitment. It allows us to imagine new ways forward, to embrace and affirm new understandings of human identity and flourishing that would have been unimaginable in the context in which the text is written. 

And in realizing this, we are presented a choice. 

We can wield the sacred texts as a weapon of oppression or we can beat the Sword of the Spirit into a plowshare and begin the work of liberation for all human beings.

But we must remember, we cannot serve both God and Mammon.

—————————————————————-

Footnotes:

[1]Carolyn Pressler, ” Deuteronomy,” pp. 88-102 in Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd ed, eds Carol Newsome, et al (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012) esp pp. 96-97.

[2] ibid 96

[3]Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Continental Commentary Series (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) Locations 3100-3108 in Kindle edition.

[4]Commenting on the inherently patriarchal nature of the written Halakhah (Jewish Law), Judith Plaskow (a feminist scholar of Judaism) states “Halakhah may represent a response to profound religious experience, but the law itself is not divine; it is formulated by men in a patriarchal culture […] if halakhah gives structure and content to a human religious and social vision, then it is the responsibility of those who shape the law to ensure it expresses and forwards a vision that is humane.” Standing Again at Sinai (New York: HarperCollins, 1990) p. 71.

In this same vein, it is the job of the Christian incorporating Jewish sacred text into the interpretation of our own “New Testament” to ensure that our interactions with these texts condemns patriarchalist implications without perpetuating the injustices of ant-Semitism.

[5]It is important to distinguish here that Jesus’ issue is not with Judaism, nor is it with the Temple or the entirety of the religious leadership. We must be careful to place such  conflicts within their historical 1st century CE context in order to avoid the anti-semitic readings all too common among Christian interpreters.

Jesus’ conflict is with a specific group of powerful religious authorities, and with the specific ways he believed these persons’ interpretation(s) and enforcement(s) of Jewish tradition to be exploitive and oppressive (eg Luke 20:45-47). He believed they represented a corrupt contingent which seeking to further their own socio-political interests by manipulating sacred traditions to protect their own power.

While Jesus had conflicts with these leaders, and these persons’ sold him out to the occupying Romans, they must not be equated with either the whole of the Jewish people nor with Judaism. Jesus was, after all, first and foremost a Jew.

For an introduction to the importance of avoiding anti-semitic readings of “the Pharisees” and “the Jews” in Christian interpretation, see Judith Plaskow, “Anti-Judaism in Feminist Christian Interpretation” pp. 117-139 in Searching the Scriptures: a Feminist Introduction Ed. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (New York: Crossroads, 1993). For a fuller examination, I suggest Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew ( New York: HarperCollins, 2007).

[6]J. Martin C. Scott, “John” pp. 1161-1212 in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, eds. James DG Dunn and John W Rogerson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2003) esp. p. 1182

[7]Craig S Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) p. 284.

[8]The word for shook here in Greek is eseisthe, which often is used to describe the effects of an earthquake. Daniel J Harrington, Matthew, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville: MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991) p. 292-294.

[9]The text says certain city leaders begged Jesus to rebuke his followers. The Greek here is epitimeson which carried the connotation of “warning to prevent something from going wrong.

[10]David L. Balch “Luke” pp. 1104-1160 in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) esp. p. 1145.

[11] “The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching […] The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection.” James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013) pp. 30-31.

Cover Image: Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

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