The Woman Taken in Adultery and the question of capital punishment

How do Bible Christians reconcile support for the execution with the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery?

I recently had the experience of lecturing at Pepperdine University on the (possible) roots of Jewish liberalism in the Book of Deuteronomy and the connection it makes between the redemption from slavery in Egypt and the obligation to help the disadvantaged. The subsequent discussion reminded me of something that has puzzled me for a long time: the apparent irrelevance of those passages (especially, in the current context, the ones about not mistreating “the stranger”: i.e., immigrants) to the political commitments of many who consider themselves Bible Christians.

That, in turn, reminded me of a related puzzle, this one based on a passage from the Gospels rather than the Hebrew Bible.

Consider, if you will, John 8:1-11, the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery.

Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

It’s a familiar story, having supplied two phrases (“casting the first stone” and “Go, and sin no more more”) that any reasonably literate English-speaker will recognize, even if unaware of their source.

And yet I have never heard it quoted in the debate on capital punishment. It seems, on the surface, to be quite decisive. The message seems to be that even if an offender has earned the death penalty under the law, no sinful human being is fit to carry it out. Is the Governor of Texas “without sin”?

So consider this an invitation to readers who know more about the Christian tradition than I do: What is the theory that reconciles this passage with support for actual imposition of the death penalty? (There seems to be more than a trace of doubt as to whether the passage was a part of the original Gospel of John, but that’s not someplace evangelical Protestants want to go.)

Footnote Some ground rules: This is not an invitation to argue about capital punishment, or about the truth or value of Christianity, or about the authority of the Bible. My question is how Christians who take the Bible as authoritative have actually dealt with the issue.

As to why death-penalty opponents don’t use this text, I think I have a good guess: it’s because, being liberals, they have swallowed the Rawlsian principle of “public reason” and thus consider the use of sacred text inadmissible in political argument. Since the words attributed to Jesus aren’t binding on non-Christians, they shouldn’t be used - says Rawls - in public discourse. Here I would add “The fool!” save for my fear of Hellfire.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

58 thoughts on “The Woman Taken in Adultery and the question of capital punishment”

  1. The church I grew up in (conservative Lutheran) was pro-capital-punishment. But biblically speaking, it’s complicated. Churches throughout history have come down on both sides of the question.

    A classic pro-death-penalty citation is Romans 13:3-4. “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.”

    There are others, including in the New Testament - notably, Luke 23:40, where the “good thief” crucified at Jesus’ side remarks that unlike the sinless Jesus, his own punishment is just (which Christ does not contradict).

    In general, this question is just one more in the age-old Christian debate over how best to serve the interests of justice and mercy alike. In the New Testament it is plainly expected that Christians should be forgiving toward one another, but the NT doesn’t really seem to offer much direct advice to those in positions of earthly power, beyond “be honest” and “treat the poor well”. On the other hand, Paul and Jesus both are plain in stating that “the powers that be are ordained by God”. The Bible is just not conclusive on the question.

    1. Another potential citation: the parable of the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20 and parallels), in which the owner of a vineyard justly slays the tenants who have murdered his son. While the parable seems to obviously symbolize the wrath of God against the unbelieving Jews, it depends for its effect on the audience recognizing capital punishment as just.

    2. DN,

      That’s essentially what I would say (I support capital punishment in principle, but only really for treason and related crimes).

      This passage makes a strong prima facie case against capital punishment, but there are others (including the ones you cite) against which it needs to be balanced. Putting them all together is tricky, but it leads me to believe that Christianity calls on us to greatly limit the use of capital punishment, but not to get rid of it entirely.

      1. I oppose it in all cases, personally. I prefer to view justice as a matter of restoration rather than retaliation, and I don’t see capital punishment as having any meaningful restorative purpose. “Vengeance is mine, saith the LORD; I will repay.” (Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I no longer identify with any particular church; it’s hard to conceive of justice in such a way without reducing the crucifixion itself to mere symbolism.)

    3. I would support this, and add that many, if not most, Christian sects lean very heavily on that verse when they have a chance to be the Nero.

    1. My understanding is that the textual problem has been noted at least since Origen (3rd century). Virtually all modern Bibles bracket the passage. On the other hand, it’s been pretty much universally held up as authoritative by sects of every theological and scholarly persuasion. It’s just too appealing a passage to throw out.

    2. The wingnuts are all aware of its dubious authenticity.

      They have more trouble with Exodus 21:22, which is of unquestioned authenticity. It seems to say that abortion is not as bad as murder. Here, the wingnut response entails athletic hermeneutics. The Truth, after all, is prior to the Biblical text. Here is Exodus 21:22 (KJV). Remember that the ordinary Biblical penalty for murder is death:

      If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

      1. I’ve seen anti-aborts interpret this as “so that her fruit go out from her” - meaning she gave birth prematurely - “and yet no mischief follow” - meaning that nobody is harmed.

      2. I don’t know if you’re including me with the ‘wingnuts’, but I’m strongly pro-life, so here’s what I would have to say about that.

        1) It doesn’t especially bother me if the Story of the Adulteress was in the first draft of the Gospel of John, or if it was floating around on a scrap of papyrus (or in oral history) for a couple centuries beforehand. I believe that those who edited, copied and collated the Gospels were divinely guided, along with those who wrote them, so I accept whatever made it into the Received Text as authoritative.

        2) The stronger arguments against a strict abolitionist interpretation are, first, that there are other New Testament passages which suggest the death penalty is sometimes legitimate, and secondly, that as DN notes, if you reject the legitimacy of capital punishment in principle then the crucifixion loses a lot of its meaning. Having said that, I think the death penalty should be reserved for certain special crimes, like treason. Probably not for murder or rape.

        3) Regarding abortion, the writers of Exodus were wrong about a lot of things, including genocide. I believe that the Christian revelation supersedes and overrides the Jewish one. While there are no explicit condemnations of abortion in the New Testament, most Christians believe that early Christian tradition and practice is a valid authority as well, and a quick look at Christians in the first and second century shows that they essentially universaly considered abortion to be murder. (Stuff like the Visitation story is certainly consistent with a pro-life, ‘life begins at conception’ ethic as well).

        1. If those who edited, copied and collated the New Testament were divinely guided, wouldn’t the same have been true of the Old Testament? If so, how can you justify the idea that the writers of Exodus were wrong about genocide? If not, then how do you justify the Old Testament being included as a part of the same assembled guiding text as the New?

          1. We’re venturing dangerously close to territory Mark has declared off-limits here, but I’ll just mention that over the centuries virtually no area of Christian theology has inspired more puzzlement, or more varied and complicated rationalizations, than the question “what is new about the New Covenant?” How you answer it has huge implications for what use you can make of the Old Testament in trying to answer virtually any question of consequence.

          2. A couple of notorious cruxes for debate over the OT vs. NT (there are many more):

            -Psalm 19, which concerns the universality of revelation and the righteous perfection of God’s laws and decrees

            -Hebrews 7, which concerns the imperfection, obsolescence, and replacement of the Mosaic Covenant

            The former appears to exalt the Old Covenant, yet is quoted authoritatively by Paul in Romans in support of the New; the latter denigrates it, yet makes its case by extensively quoting Jeremiah! (Of course, one can easily argue that both Paul and the unknown author of Hebrews do violence to their source material by citing them in such a way.)

    3. And there is the other even more dubious continuation of the same text which goes:

      And the sound was heard “Psssssheww…BONK!”
      And Jesus turned and said, “MOM!”

      1. As Brother Dave Gardner said in a long-ago comedy riff, a young preacher fresh out of seminary steps into the pulpit of a south Georgia Baptist Church and declares “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” and BLAP, that rock hit him!

    4. It is undeniably not in the earliest known versions of the Gospel of John (so crows rock-star New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman), but an early Church father (I believe Papias) apparently alluded to it as being cited in an earlier (now lost) scripture, the reference being quoted by an early Church historian, probably Eusebius. So there are certainly grounds for accepting its authenticity, even if not in John’s Gospel. And it certainly is firmly in keeping with the spirit of Jesus’ teachings.

      1. I think this review of the passage, through history, establishes it as legitimate.

        Excellent review of the challenges to the authenticity of John 8

        as of 8/31/13

        Start here: • John 7:53 – 8.11: The “woman taken in adultery” story: Metzger’s statement. Just before page 105 and through page 201

  2. The churches I grew up in (a mix of Southern Baptist and other fundamentalist sects) generally supported capital punishment. Some admitted it is problematic, but ended up coming down on the Pauline texts (Romans, but also elsewhere) holding that the authorities are appointed by God and (more or less) serve at God’s pleasure.

    By definition, then, whatever the duly-appointed authorities might do carries God’s sanction.

    I’ve never found the argument particularly persuasive — I much prefer Micah 3 — “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord your God.” That Joshua bar El later summarized the law and the prophets in a similar tone adds weight to my preferences. That justice may at times cry out for the death penalty makes sense to me: we can all name cases where this so. But it is even more apparent that we fallible humans cannot manage this without executing innocents, nor can we manage it without imposing undue suffering on all concerned, including the victim’s survivors.

    Do justice, and love mercy: abolish the death penalty.

  3. If a sinful person are prohibited from casting even one stone, then this applies to all punishment, not just death. Right? Put another way, instead of stoning to death, if the accusers wanted to lock her up in a cage for life, would that require the punishers be sinless?

    1. You can distinguish the passage by its theme of adultery. Every heterosexual male is frequently attracted sexually to married women, and the thought of sex with them is rarely repressed as evil, which it should be for the would-be stoners. More commonly it’s enjoyed as an impracticable fantasy. Few men have similar temptations to armed robbery, the crime of the crucified thieves. Jesus’ target here is hypocrisy.

  4. A couple of others have mentioned passages from Romans 13, which speaks to the authority of rulers. In my experience, having grown up fundie evangelical Baptist, this passage is used very selectively to justify one’s position. It was quoted to me when I asked my family in 2004 what the Christian motivation was for re-electing Bush after all we knew about the lies and war crimes of his first administration — he was doing God’s Will or he wouldn’t have been President!

    But I’ve noticed some change in their tone regarding the passage, however, once Obama was elected. Since then, I’ve found myself quoting Romans 13 back to them on a few occasions (particularly verse 7). While they do still accept it as Biblical Truth, I’ve noticed a sharp drop in their enthusiasm for this passage whenever someone they didn’t vote for holds office.

    When I asked them in 2004 how their position re: Romans 13 squared with their prior support for the impeachment of Bill Clinton, I was lectured that the Bible does not provide specific guidance that speaks directly to participation in a representative democracy, so we should trust the Holy Spirit working through us, and vote our consciences.

    So, in my experience, the answer to your question is: “Whenever the Scriptures happen to match my will they reveal God’s Will, and when they don’t, God’s Will is then revealed not through Scripture, but through the Holy Spirit. And waddya know — it just so happens that it still matches my will, because I’m a Good Christian In Fellowship With God Through Jesus Christ Our Lord, and if you disagree it must mean that you need to pray, pray, pray to get back In Fellowship and then you will see this issue as clearly as I do.”

    I do find it amusing when people use something so open to selective interpretation as the Bible as justification for their political views, having grown up having Old Testament Law pounded into me relentlessly by my right-wing, fundie, blended fabrics wearing, pork and shellfish eating parents worried to death that I was too friendly with gays and blacks to get into heaven.

    1. Well, one is supposed to render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s, and render unto God what is God’s. But, equally, one is supposed to refuse to render unto Ceasar what is God’s. Perhaps they think this particular Ceasar is invading God’s territory? I get that impression.

      1. Wow, Brett. That’s some link. The Archbishop needs to be reminded about the Bible’s view of “false witness.”

      2. But, equally, one is supposed to refuse to render unto Ceasar what is God’s.

        You interpret the passage in an almost syllogistic manner, but I don’t think it’s quite so neat. Recall the Psalmist: “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof”. Nevertheless, one must still render unto Caesar.

      3. This is probably the best-attested Gospel passage quoting Jesus (i.e., almost certainly authentic), but its precise meaning is far from clear. Much scholarly debate about it, ranging from “endorsing separation of church and state” to “in your face, Caesar!”

  5. Matthew 5:38 intrigues in that it is an explicit rejection of the standard of retribution that people at the time would have absorbed from Hammarabi: An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, which seems to justify capital punishment for murder (see also Romans 12:19).

    1. Worth mentioning: The code of Hammarabi was, at the time, a considerable improvement, for it’s imposition of the concept of proportionality.

      Something we could stand to benefit from today, in our legal system.

  6. A subtle hint is to be found in the fact that this is a woman taken in adultery (where is the man in the case?) and not, for example, the case of a man who raped and murdered a ten year old girl. Support for the death penalty for adultery is minimal even in most fundamentalist churches.

    Capital punishment is probably bad law, but I can say that if I had raped and killed a child, I would not want to live, and would want to be executed. I would also rather die than commit such a crime, but it would be bad law to provide for the state to administer the death penalty to prevent a man from committing such a crime.

    1. How can you opine on what you would want if you had raped and murdered a child? The people who do such things probably don’t believe what they did was all that bad, or if they do, the probably don’t care. If you do feel the way you say you would feel, and perhaps you would, you can always commit suicide before the cops show up, or point a gun at them until they shoot you.

  7. On an emotional level, I think that people tend to dismiss the passages that they figure are “obvious”, and emphasize the ones that seem surprising.

    When someone reads a passage about being a decent person and being good to the poor, the passage doesn’t really sink in because it’s the kind of stuff you’ve heard before. You think it’s obvious that it’s good to be nice to poor people, so you don’t think about it much.

    When there’s a passage about sex, then you pay more attention because there might be more disagreement about it.

    Of course, the problem is that when you brush off the endless number of passages about the poor, it’s easy to then treat the poor terribly.

  8. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” The relevance of this to our situation is that, with rare few exceptions, every criminal prosecution in America is based upon false evidence. This is the [only] pragmatic objection to capital punishment. This is also why there is no point in discussing the philosophical (or pseudo-philosophical) underpinnings of our legal system: it hasn’t got any. It is a form of politics, which is another way of saying that it is a form of theater. Its only purpose is deterrence and its political constituents believe that the deterrent effect of punishment does not depend, to ANY degree, upon getting the right guy.

  9. Mark, what portion of professed Christians do you think conscientiously seek to derive their 21st Century moral and political positions on capital punishment from this level of intellectually honest scriptural analysis? Of those who do, how many conclude that their scripture, however sacred and inspired, is a non-helpful muddle on this particular issue? I wonder if the likely answers are a good bit of your point here.

  10. Given the enormous mish-mash of text that is the Bible, you can find justification for any stance on any issue.

    However, the more likely answer is that the Bible doesn’t really factor into their decision making at all, but is merely used as a convenient justification for what they want to do anyway, as an appeal to authority.

  11. A point to consider is that the New Testament really doesn’t seem to envisage a future in which Christians will be the ones making the laws. Paul says that “the saints will judge the world”, but that comes at the end, after their salvation is completed and spiritual mastery achieved. (Remember the classic prophetic trope about valleys being exalted and mountains made low. Divine justice tends to take the form of a reversal.) Many of Jesus’ parables involve masters and servants, but in none of them is the audience expected to identify itself with the master; that’s God’s role.

    More directly, the end-time polemics of Revelation are directed against Rome - the beast whose number is 666 is probably Nero - and there’s an expectation of an imminent second coming to be preceded by state persecution of Christians.

    Basically, the concept of predestination really complicates everything. You have to simultaneously accept that rulers are God’s tools and that injustice is nevertheless rampant. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!”

    1. (Off-topic, but that last verse, out of Matthew, singlehandedly establishes Abraham Lincoln as our greatest president in my opinion. What other president would have the balls to take a verse like that and publicly apply it to the Civil War, as his side was on the verge of winning?)

      1. Oh wow, prompted by your comment I just went and looked at this verse in its context. The next sentance: “Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.”

        Yep, that’s a pretty amazing image to evoke in connection with a currently-ongoing civil war.

        1. It’s an incredible verse both in its biblical context and in the context of AL’s Second Inaugural. “Someone is going to screw up and go to hell. Don’t let it be you.

    2. Nero, schmero!

      How many letters are there in “Ronald”? In “Wilson”? In “Reagan”?

      Behold the Beast.

      1. Funnily enough, my own full name is similarly numbered. Unfortunately, no one ever takes me up when I offer to mark their forehead or their hand. I can’t figure out why.

  12. As a born-and-raised Jew, I’m not quite your intended audience. On the other hand, I have some familiarity (not much, in all honesty) with the written and oral Law that Jesus probably used as support for his argument.

    The oral Law, later written down as the Mishnah and referred to as the foundation of Talmud, consists (according to traditional Judaism) of explications on written Torah, provided to Moses at Mt. Sinai along with the Torah itself. That oral Law is quite clear; when it comes to death penalty cases, no punishment is handed down or carried out unless two witnesses come to the court and testify to the exact same behavior on the part of the accused. What’s more, those two witnesses must be of recognized piety and good behavior, and must testify that they advised the accused BEFORE the sin actually occurred, “What you’re about to do is not lawful, so don’t do it,” whereupon the accused went ahead and did it anyway. Which explains in part why two of the greatest rabbis in Talmud declared “Had we sat upon the Supreme Court, none would ever have been executed.”

    Regarding the incident with Jesus, it’s clear enough from the text that whoever brought this woman to Jesus would not have qualified as a good witness anyway, since he or she or they were bearing tales. Jesus did not constitute a valid court by himself - according to Jewish law, a valid court consists of three people. He could not have handed down a death penalty even if he did have a valid court with him, because only the Supreme Court could do so. And it’s spelled out that these people weren’t interested in a valid judgment anyway; they sought to trap him. Therefore the whole incident was meaningless.

    In short, from a Jewish perspective, this isn’t a comment on the death penalty at all, for or against. It sounds to me like “He who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” means, not “No one can accuse another of sin without being sinless himself,” but rather “In causing this scene, you show that you’re not interested in justice anyway, so correct your thinking before you try it again.”

    1. Hillel the Elder is reputed to have developed the oral law you’re referring to. The story goes that Hillel wanted to outlaw capital punishment, but the Torah clearly required capital punishment for specific crimes. Hillel realized that there was no specific guidance on how to judge guilt and through remarkable Talmudic logic, was able to set the evidentiary bar so high that no one could be executed.

      What’s really interesting here, is that Hillel died in 10 CE. If Jesus lived when he was supposed to have lived, their lives overlapped. As an adult, Jesus would certainly have known of Hillel. This parable always sounded to me as if Jesus was just putting his own take on a ruling from the House of Hillel.

      1. What is the source for the idea that Hillel changed the standard? I’ve been studying Mishna and Talmud for some time and have never run into that claim.

        1. I didn’t mean to imply Hillel changed the standard. He set the rules of evidence, and made them almost insurmountable.

    2. I’m no Bible scholar, but I find that odd. Doesn’t that give us license to ignore half of the Gospels? “Oh, sure, Jesus SAID he’s the Son of God, but he was just double-talking the Pharisees, so he didn’t mean it literally.”

      In John John 10:34, when the Pharisees test Jesus on a point of the law, Jesus cites the law. Which he could have done here, in your interpretation, but doesn’t.

      1. Well, remember that the passage is widely thought to be an interpolation, and so one would expect there to be differences compared to the rest of John. The whole episode is actually somewhat out of character for John’s Jesus. In the rest of the book Jesus is positively loquacious, constantly launching into lengthy discourses; here he more closely resembles the clever, laconic Jesus of the synoptics.

  13. Mark:

    This passage is used in the death penalty debate, not infrequently. Do a Google search “death penalty” “woman caught in adultery”.

    It is not a death penalty story.

    David Z is spot on, but I would go a bit further.

    Those trying to entrap Jesus had, themselves, knowingly broken the law. Where was the man, the other party to the adultery? One cannot catch a woman, in the act of adultery, without also catching the man.

    They not only had no interest in justice, they were being unjust with the crime, itself and with the two criminals, intentionally trying to condemn one and not the other, in contradiction of the law.

    Jesus was upholding the Law.

    It is clear the Jesus was not applying the text “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” to all peoples and all times, but only to the accusers in this one context.

    It is always a mistake to apply a single text, atomistic ally, without looking at it in the broader aspects of the entire bible and its teachings.

    Some would have us believe the text is literal, for all people and all times, which would mean that all sinners could not enforce any law for any sanction.

    That would be impossible, as it would mean that no one would be able to punish any guilty criminals because, as we all know, there is no man without sin.

    It would be impossible that Jesus would teach there could be no law enforcement, because only sinless people, meaning no one, could enforce the law.

    As the biblical text stated, this is an entrapment story, wherein Jesus, as usual, bested His adversaries.

    Yes, some say that this passage is a forgery.

    However, I think this review of the passage, through history, establishes it as legitimate.

    Excellent review of the challenges to the authenticity of John 8

    as of 8/31/13

    Start here: • John 7:53 - 8.11: The “woman taken in adultery” story: Metzger’s statement. Just before page 105 and through page 201

    1. While the linked page is bewildering in its layout and looks like it has a traditionalist axe to grind, it does offer one interesting tidbit regarding the Pericope Adulterae that I had not heard before - namely, Augustine’s claim that the passage was deliberately excised by moralistic Christians who thought the woman shouldn’t have gotten off so lightly. Certainly is suggestive of actual attitudes among at least some historic Christians.

      1. It is a bit of a mess, no doubt, but fascinating.

        Until I read it, I thought John 8 was a forgery.

  14. The Woman Caught in Adultery, The Death Penalty & John 8:2-11
    Dudley Sharp

    1) Anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, often inaccurate, got this right: “It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical proof text in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this. Even Jesus’ admonition “Let him without sin cast the first stone”, when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) – the Mosaic Law prescribed death – should be read in its proper context. This passage is an entrapment story, which sought to how Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment.” Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking.

    Sr. Prejean has, completely, reversed her take on this passage, seemingly, based upon her anti death penalty advocacy, as opposed to the reality of the passage.

    2) What about the woman caught in adultery? From “Why I Support Capital Punishment”, by Andrew Tallman, sections 7-11 biblical review, sections 1-6 secular review See Part 11

    “the Pharisees wanted to make Jesus a heretic for opposing capital punishment, but He evaded their trap. The tremendous irony is that now, two thousand years later, people who claim to love Jesus teach that He was precisely the heretic His enemies wanted to paint Him as.”

    3) Sanctity of Life & the Death Penalty: Flip sides of the same “Divine” coin, Richard Eric Gunby, Quodlibet Journal: Volume 5 Number 2-3, July 2003, ISSN: 1526-6575 John 8:2-11 (NRSV)

    “Therefore their motives (to entrap Jesus) were nothing but evil. They were not seeking to follow God’s Law - Word in godly fashion; rather, they were attempting to employ surreptitiously what Moses said, towards their own evil ends of trying to trip Jesus up. What a foul thing.”

    “This cannot be read as an example of Jesus doing away with the law. Far from it! This is an example of Jesus, again, going by the clear unencumbered dictates of the law and not allowing it to be used towards evil ends in His presence. It is Jesus together with the Law triumphant over His enemies and their tradition. This is clearly an upholding of the law.”
    as of 4/24/10

    4) John 8: The Woman Caught in Adultery – Dealing with Capital Offenses Lawfully

    “John 8 in no way sets a precedent that would eliminate the penalties for committing capital crimes such as adultery, murder, rape, sodomy, abduction, etc. Instead, it re-establishes them and demonstrates the continuity of Theonomic Law into the New Testament era initiated by Christ. It is only the ceremonial elements of O.T. Law like instrumental music during worship, blood sacrifices, avoidance of certain meats and food/fabric mixtures, New Moon celebrations etc. that were done away with at Christ’s crucifixion. These things are made clear in the Epistles of Paul (Galatians 2-3) who re-establishes the old principle that ‘obedience is better than sacrifice’.”

    5) The biblical text could hardly be more clear, this was an entrapment story.

    John 8:6 - “They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. ”


  15. I was wondering the same thing: where is the court, where is the judge, where is the trial? What little description we have suggests a mob, and unless mob justice was standard at the time for such offenses (versus the complex, multilayered judicial system that was supposed to have convicted Jesus himself), that’s really all there is to it. Someone could easily (ahem) be opposed to lynching without being opposed to judicial execution.

    1. One of the intriguing features of the story is Jesus’ act of stooping to write in the dirt, rather than respond directly to the mob. An occasional pastime of exegetes is to speculate over just what he was writing. The most satisfying interpretation I have read is that it is a subtle nod to the Old Testament, where the finger of God can be found writing out the words of the Ten Commandments, and later spelling out judgment against Belshazzar in Babylon (the proverbial “writing on the wall”).

    2. Paul,

      That ‘minimizing’ interpretation is one that a lot of people have made, historically. They say that Jesus was simply intervening to prevent a particular exercise of mob rule, or perhaps taking mercy on a particular victim, and not making any broader remarks about the death penalty, and thus there are no problems with imposing the death penalty.

      The minimizing interpretation might well be the case. My problem with that is it’s the easy, congenial interpretation, telling us what we want to hear. The message of the New Testament isn’t supposed to be easy, or to tell us what we want to hear, and it seems doubtful to me that so much attention would have been taken to safeguarding this historical record and making sure it got into the Bible, if it wasn’t intended to tell us something broader.

      1. I must say that I find the “minimizing” interpretation to be entirely adequate and not at all “easy”. Firstly, it ought to be obvious that human beings often have difficulty with the idea of due process, preferring to rush to judgment. Secondly, if the motives of the mob are what is at issue here, then there is another important lesson to be learned: that the law requires a spirit of love, and that legalistic manipulations for selfish ends have zilch to do with justice. (Along with everything else, this passage is a splendid example of the Greek principle of oikonomia, or “good handling” of a problem in keeping with the spirit rather than the letter of the law.) Thirdly, it can’t be forgotten that the person of Jesus is paramount in the Gospels and that this story therefore has not just a moral point, but a theological one - emphasizing Jesus’ supreme grasp of the law and oikonomia, which confirms his messianic authority.

Comments are closed.