The Gospel of John’s account of a woman about to be stoned has layers of meaning. “Be ready to duck,” says Fr Gordon MacRae, but first see the writing on the ground.
Pay close attention to the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It’s an account that virtually everyone in Western Culture has read or heard about. It’s the story of a woman caught in adultery, in danger of being stoned, and it’s one of the most memorable, familiar, and oft-quoted scenes in all of Scripture.
But before we travel into the depths of that wondrous account, Holy Week is coming, and that means some in the news media are already preparing for their traditional stoning of your faith by the re-airing of Catholic scandal. A lot has changed since I first wrote of this annual media tradition in a 2010 post entitled, “Breaking News: I Got Stoned with the Pope.” Don’t be afraid to click on it. The media’s Holy Week hot seat then was occupied by Pope Benedict XVI, but despite my title, neither he nor I inhaled anything illicit. I wrote it because Pope Benedict and I had both been subjected to a stoning in the public square at about the same time, but the most interesting part of the post was its presentation of the history of this Biblical form of capital punishment.
Stoning was the most common method of execution in ancient Israel, and was seen as the community’s “purging the evil from its midst” (Deuteronomy 21:21). Stoning was imposed as both a punishment and a deterrent for a number of crimes against the community including idolatry (Deut 17:5), blasphemy (Leviticus 24: 14-16), child sacrifice (Lev 20:2), sorcery (Lev 20:27), adultery (Deut 22:13-24), and being “a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey” (Oh, for the good old days of Deut 22:18)! That latter example reminds me of a post card I received years ago from my mother on vacation in her native Newfoundland:
“Dear Son: Newfoundland is as beautiful as I remember it. Right now I am standing at Redcliff, a 100-foot precipice where Newfoundland mothers of old would take their most troublesome sons and threaten to heave them over the edge. Wish you were here. Love, Mom.”
It is interesting that in that latter case – the stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey – the stoning was carried out by all the men of the community (Deut 21:21), and only the men. In each case, the punishment of stoning always took place outside of town. More importantly – and this has a bearing on the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11 – the first stones could be cast only by first hand witnesses of the offense. And the punishment could be imposed only when there were two or more such witnesses. “A person shall not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness” (Deut 17 6).
THE STORY’S PLACE IN SCRIPTURE
The sources and limits of stoning in the Hebrew Scriptures present a necessary backdrop for a fuller understanding of John 7:53-8:11, the story of a woman caught in adultery. It’s best to let Saint John tell it:
“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. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in their 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. What do you say about her?’ 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.’ Again he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard this they went away one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, ‘Where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” (John 7:53-8:11)
The placement of this account in Scripture has endured a long controversy. The story is believed by some Scripture scholars to be an ‘agraphon,’ a source of authentic sayings of Jesus that survived orally, then became part of the written canon of Scripture toward the end of the Apostolic age. Two well known Catholic Scripture scholars – Sulpician Father Raymond Brown and Jesuit Father George W. MacRae (my late uncle) – were among those who defended that this story is both authentic and canonical despite the controversy about where it lands in the text.
The controversy itself is fascinating. It seems that some ancient versions of the Gospel of John did not contain this story, but an early text of the Gospel of Luke did. It was found in an early version of Saint Luke’s Gospel after Luke 21:38 and before Luke 22:
“And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. And early in the morning, all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.” (Luke 21:37-38)
In the very next verse (Luke 22:1) the chief priests and the scribes began ‘a conspiracy to kill him. For some scholars, the story of the woman caught in adultery may have been originally placed in between these verses, but instead somehow ended up in the Gospel of John, the last of the Gospel texts to come into written form at the end of the Apostolic age. Outside of Sacred Scripture, the historian, Josephus, mentions the account, but mentions it in reference to the Gospel of Saint Luke. For me, this little side road into the examination of texts and origins does not in itself question whether the text is canonical – that is, an authentic event in the life and sayings of Jesus, and an inspired Scriptural text.
For Fathers Raymond Brown and George W. MacRae (and his nephew), there is simply no reason to doubt this. But I will add one factor that the scholars may not have considered. The very idea that this story may have somehow become separated from one tradition (the Lucan tradition) only to end up in another (the Johannine tradition) is evidence of the importance of the story for the Gospel. It seems a divine determination to ensure that this story comes to us regardless of where it ended up in the Gospel narrative.
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS
The presence of the Pharisees, and their intentions in this story, call to mind another post of mine, “On the Road to Jericho: A Parable for the Year of Mercy.” That post reaches into the greater depths of the setting of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37). In both that account and the account of the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John (John 8), Jesus is confronted by a Pharisee with a question. In both cases, the purpose of the question is not to learn from Jesus, but to entrap him in a corner from which he cannot emerge. In both cases, Jesus turns the table on his questioner in a checkmate.
In the account of the woman caught in adultery above, the Pharisee seems to have laid a more solid trap. “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” Jesus and the Pharisee both know that the Roman Empire has occupied Palestine. One of its many imposed laws is that the death penalty for crimes must be imposed and enforced only under Roman law and not under local custom. The Pharisees, therefore, could not execute the woman as the law of Moses prescribes. It is for this same reason that the High Priest, Caiaphas, had to hand Jesus, accused of blasphemy, over to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. The prohibition is mentioned later in John:
“Pilate said to them, ‘take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.’ The Jews said to him, ‘It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.’” (John 18:31)
And so part of the trap is laid using both the Law of Moses and the politics of Rome: “This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.” If Jesus openly concurs with the law of Moses about the penalty for adultery laid down in the Book of Deuteronomy (22:22) then the Pharisees can charge him with sedition for subverting the laws of Rome. If Jesus openly forbids the stoning, the Pharisees can use that to discredit him with his disciples as a false Messiah who contradicts the law of Moses.
The response of Jesus seems very odd. Instead of replying at all, he simply bends down and writes with his finger on the ground (John 8:6). Centuries of Scriptural wrangling have been devoted to what he could have written. What Jesus inscribed on the earth is entirely unknown, but it may well be that the act of writing on the ground – and not the content of the writing – is itself the point. What may be happening here – and some Patristic authors agree – is that Jesus uses the authority of the Prophets to undo the Pharisee’s trap using the authority of the Law. The gesture of writing on the ground may have recalled for them the Prophet Jeremiah:
“Those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.” (Jeremiah 17:31)
Just a few verses earlier in the Gospel (John 7:38), Jesus identified himself as the fountain of living water: “He who believes in me … out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Thus Jesus may well have been inscribing into the ground the very names of the Pharisees standing before him. Then Jesus did something equally odd. He stood and said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.” It strikes me as immense irony that the only person without sin in that gathering is Jesus himself, the one posing this counter-challenge.
This challenge of Jesus – about who is to cast the first stone at her – also recalls a law these Pharisees would know well. Deuteronomy (17:7) prohibits anyone but a first hand witness to the crime – and there must be at least two such witnesses – from casting the first stone. So the befuddled Pharisees look at each other, wondering which of them is about to implicate himself in this offense against the law of Moses, and, if he casts the stone, implicate himself in an offense against the law of Rome.
As Jesus stooped a second time to continue his list on the ground, the Pharisees left one by one, “beginning with the eldest.” That is another way of saying “beginning with the wisest” among them, for they were the first to catch on that their trap had not only been sprung by Jesus, but actually turned round in a way that entraps them. Once again, Jesus has exposed their duplicity and thoroughly frustrated their plans, a trend that will eventually land him before Pilate.
Thus being the sole person present without sin, and under his own terms the only one qualified to stone her, Jesus assures the woman with an act of Divine Mercy:
“‘Where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.’” (John 8:10-11)
It is the perfect Lenten story. Christ is the fountain of living water, the source of the Spirit poured out upon the world, and he is simultaneously the source of mercy poured out in equal measure for those who come to know and profess the truth about Him – and about ourselves.