Jesus—His Life and Message: The Adulterous Woman

February 4, 2020

by Peter Amsterdam

Within the account of the Feast of Tabernacles, the book of John inserts the story of a woman who was caught in the act of adultery (John 7:53–8:11). I didn’t include these verses in my commentary on the Feast of Tabernacles,1 as they aren’t part of the flow of events of the feast or Jesus’ interaction with the scribes and Pharisees during the feast, which was the focus of that series of articles. Another reason for postponing covering these verses is that the majority of contemporary Bible commentators do not feel that they were written by John.

The reason Bible scholars don’t consider this to be part of the original Gospel of John is that it is not found in any of the oldest manuscripts, but eventually does appear in Western manuscripts from later periods. When it has been included in manuscripts, it is sometimes in other positions, such as after John 7:36, or after verse 44, or in some cases at the end of the Gospel of John. Some manuscripts also include it after Luke 21:38, and it has some textual similarities to the Gospel of Luke. While most commentators question the placement of the account, as well as whether it was written by John, they agree that the event did take place; it certainly aligns with Jesus’ teaching ministry and His way of interacting with people that we see elsewhere in the Gospels.

This account begins by telling us that while some of the chief priests and the Pharisees wanted to arrest Jesus, no one laid a hand on Him.2

They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.3

After spending the night on the Mount of Olives, Jesus returned to the temple to teach. It was then that:

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.4

According to the Mosaic law, two witnesses were required in order to legally testify that someone had broken the law.

A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.5

Presumably there were at least two people who claimed to have witnessed her having sexual relations with someone other than her husband. In asking what Jesus had to say about the situation, the scribes and Pharisees were probing to see whether Jesus was willing to affirm what the Law of Moses stated as the punishment—that she should be put to death.

The Mosaic law states,

If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.6

It’s interesting that in this case, while the woman was caught in the act of adultery, the man wasn’t. The scribes and Pharisees make no mention of the man involved, but if they caught the woman in a sex act, why didn’t they catch the man? This suggests that this was a trap or that they were being dishonest.

This put Jesus in a difficult position. If He agreed that she should be executed, He could have appeared to be violating Roman law, as only the Romans could approve an execution, and adultery was not a capital crime in the Roman Empire. If He said that she shouldn’t be put to death, then He must give a reason why He was not fulfilling the sentence mandated by Mosaic law. They clearly didn’t ask Jesus this question because they were seeking spiritual insight into the matter; they were trying to trap Him into saying something they could use against Him. Jesus didn’t answer them. Instead, He stooped down and used His finger to write something on the ground. We’re not told what Jesus wrote, only that He did.

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.7

As it seemed Jesus was disregarding their questions, or couldn’t answer, they kept on questioning Him, likely asking Him the same question repeatedly. When Jesus stood up, His answer was short but powerful. He wasn’t rejecting the Mosaic law; in fact, He was affirming that according to the Laws of Moses, the woman was guilty and the penalty was death.

According to the Mosaic law, those who witnessed a crime that carried the penalty of death were to be the first ones to stone the lawbreaker, then others would join in.

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.8

Jesus wasn’t stating that those who were going to carry out the penalty had to be perfect—for no one is—but rather that they were to have personal integrity before God in the matter at hand.9 They weren’t to be malicious or lying witnesses, but rather as witness-executioners, they had to be confident before God that they were doing the right thing. Apparently these witnesses, according to their own actions, didn’t meet that standard. Having made this statement, Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground again, indicating that He was not going to say anything further. What was to happen next was in the hands of the accusers.

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.10

As the significance of His words began to sink in, the elders, who because of greater experience would most likely grasp the implications of Jesus’ words more quickly, were the first to leave. One author states:

If the witness was false, or not legally valid, and the woman was killed, the oldest men present would have a major share of the responsibility. So they went out.11 

The younger men followed suit. Their focus shifted from the woman’s sin to concern about their own sin. The accused woman was left alone with Jesus.

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.”12

This was the first time Jesus spoke to this woman directly. Addressing her as “woman” was the same manner in which Jesus addressed His mother when He was on the cross.13 Jesus verified that her accusers were no longer present. The Law of Moses demanded that those who were eyewitnesses to the crime be present before the person’s guilt could be determined and the sentence passed. Once the “witnesses” were gone, she was no longer able to be judged or condemned. However, Jesus wasn’t condoning her actions; rather, He told her to stop sinning.

Jesus didn’t make a statement, as He had in other situations, indicating that the woman was a believer and had eternal salvation—such as, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace,”14 or, “O woman, great is your faith!”15 In this case, Jesus told the woman she was not condemned, but He also challenged her to change her life; as one translation reads: “Go now and leave your life of sin.”16 There is no mention of her repenting or coming to faith, but the interaction does show Jesus’ love, mercy, and forgiveness, as well as His call to change. He wasn’t saying that her sin was unimportant; rather, He told her to sin no more.

We would all do well to remember that while we are sinners saved by grace, we are still sinners. We can tend to find ourselves feeling morally superior to others, or becoming judgmental and self-righteous toward someone else because of their sin. But none of us have the right to cast stones, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.17


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Carson, D. A. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 1999.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Elwell, Walter A., ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Gnilka, Joachim. Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Prayers of Jesus. Norwich: SCM Press, 1977.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.

Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.

Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

McKnight, Scot. Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Morris, Leon. Luke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

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Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

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Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

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Talbert, Charles H. Reading the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Witherington, Ben, III. The Christology of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

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Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

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Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Jesus’ experiences during the Feast of Tabernacles, found in John 7:1–8:59, have been covered in seven articles within this series, starting here:

2 John 7:44.

3 John 7:53–8:2.

4 John 8:3–6.

5 Deuteronomy 19:15; also 17:6.

6 Deuteronomy 22:22; also Leviticus 20:10.

7 John 8:7–8.

8 Deuteronomy 17:6–7.

9 Michaels, The Gospel of John, 498.

10 John 8:9.

11 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 785.

12 John 8:10–11.

13 John 19:26.

14 Luke 8:48.

15 Matthew 15:28.

16 John 8:11 NIV.

17 Romans 3:23.