Five overlooked details about Jesus and the adulterous woman (John 8) and Ravi Zacharias
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
In Christian society they say criticizing and judging others is bad form. Therefore, among Christians, there exists an imbalance; they say never point fingers but always offer love and forgiveness. On the other hand, if some had been more "legalistic," and had talked frankly with Ravi Zacharias sooner, would his sad legacy be what it is today? Here are five (5) overlooked details from John 8 and the woman caught in adultery which may help correct a clear shortcoming in the Church.
Here I am, writing my first blog ever, and it's on legalism, finger-pointing, the woman caught in adultery and Ravi Zacharias. Really!? Maybe I should have picked something more complicated?! (Maybe I should be less sarcastic!)
Caught in the Very Act: John 8
You know the passage: some poor woman is caught in adultery by those infamous scribes and law-loving Pharisees, all itching to test Jesus and find something to accuse him of. However, by the end of this famous battle of wits, Jesus has not only ruefully scared off the legalistic accusers, he's also mercifully forgiven the wayward Jewess and let her off the hook. Wow, Jesus saves the day and not a single stone is tossed at anybody — kinda of a Hollywood ending!
Holding out for a hero
But honestly, is this event recorded in John really about a distressed damsel looking for a hero? Have we examined all the facts? I only ask because during emotional contests, such as this one, significant details get lost or be overlooked. Even though John carefully selected what he wanted on paper, are we equally careful about reading and studying it? Let's read it afresh, keeping our eyes open by not focusing on simple surface facts, or plain bare-bone words and actions between participants, but by reading between the lines and taking in ideas from other Scripture. Everyone know that careless reading leads down the wrong path. So let's look for and consider subtle — but very tangible — facts lying which are always under the surface. Let's read it again.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees bring a woman having been caught cheating on her husband, and setting her front and center, they say to him, “Teacher, this woman was arrested in the crime, cheating on her husband, and in the Law, Moses commanded us that such women should be sentenced to stoning. Therefore, what say you?” Now they were saying this to test him so that they might have something of which to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with his finger, as if he did not hear. Then as they were still asking him, he rose up and said to them, “The sinless one among you is first, he must throw a stone at her.” Then again, stooping down, he wrote on the ground. Then those hearing this — and being chided, knowing their past deeds — they began leaving one by one, starting with the oldest to the last, and Jesus was left alone and the woman in the middle. Then Jesus rose up and, noting no one except the woman, said to her, “Woman, where are they, your accusers? No one has handed down your judgment?” Then she said, “No one, lord.” Then Jesus said to her, “Neither am I myself handing down your judgment. Be on your way and stop your sinning.” (John 8:3-11; author's translation)
Our goal now is to be a little more analytical, to examine what exactly was, and was not, written and to dig under the top layers and find new lessons, important "gems," which are waiting for us.
The Devil's in the details
It appears there are two (2) main conclusions which Christians come to after reading John 8. They usually conclude that being righteous and pleasing before God means a person must always:
avoid criticizing and finger-pointing others (unless it's at a scribe or Pharisee!), and,
show mercy and love and forgiveness to everyone else.
Is this a fair assumption of what people conclude from John 8? (If you disagree, please write you thoughts in the comment section below.)
However, this article will try to prove that a carefully reading of the passage exposes a number of overlooked details. And each detail helps remove the extremities of the above two conclusions. Admittedly, these "hidden" facts are not glaringly obvious, but they are, nonetheless, in the text. And by noticing these finer points, we may be forced to modify our original conclusions, and come up with new ones so as to modify our behaviour. This process of studying and learning new lessons from Scripture is normal because all lovers of God's Word know to expect something in every verse which teaches, tests, corrects or matures us (2 Timothy 3:16).
The five (5) overlooked facts from the event in John 8 will demonstrate that:
A: adultery is judged as wicked by the scribes, Pharisees and by Jesus,
B: Pharisees are not always the bad guys,
C: Jesus of the New Testament is entirely consistent with the God of the OT,
D: the Law is strictly upheld by Jesus's statements and actions,
E: the accusers show greater moral conscience than the accused,
Focusing on these five items should bring some balance on the Biblical view of judging and the Law on one side and and mercy and love and forgiveness on the other side. Avoiding extremes in your walk with God is vital — not easy, but vital. (There are still other points within John 8 which could be discussed; Jackson's article is well worth the read.)
A is for Adultery: Is it really that bad?
The scribes and Pharisees which went to work that day found a woman in the act of cheating on her spouse. (I'm curious how they did that exactly?) Then, between themselves, they judged her guilty of breaking one of God's Top Ten commandments:
Never cheat on a spouse לֹא תִּנְאָֽף (Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18; author's translation)
At this point, you ladies are going to interrupt — or erupt — with, “Well where was the guy? Why didn’t the Pharisees nab him too?” and you ladies would be perfectly right to ask such a question. It wasn't fair and I totally agree. However, I prefer not to follow that path right now. But check Wilson's article out; he has an interesting insight about this concern.
As unfair as this whole affair is presented to us, wouldn't you agree that such actions by the woman (and her Mr. Not Tobefound) were wrong and destructive? Would you ever want to catch your man, or your lady, with someone else? Cheating on a loved one brings terrible pain and horrible disruptions to the lives of so many. That's why God said no messing around, ever!
What Jesus did and did not do
Now consider reactions of the Master: Did Jesus directly rebuke the Pharisees at any time for judging the woman or for sentencing her? Did he say at any time that they were too legalistic or too judgemental? The answer is that Jesus did not judge them for judging her! That might be surprising for some of you, but it should be noteworthy for all of us wanting to come away with an honest understanding of this event. (The matter of sentencing, or condemning, will be discussed shortly.)
Furthermore, Jesus made no attempt to downplay the woman's crime. Never did he say something like, "Chill out, boys. Be nice to her, she's only human." Instead, he simply listened to what the Pharisees announced and to what the woman didn't say — she never denied the accusation. Also, Jesus never — and I repeat, never — made an announcement like, "Woman, thy sins are forgiven thee," which was something he did say in Mark 2:5. So why have you and I both heard countless sermons claiming that Jesus forgave her?!
If these details were not surprising enough, and contrary to what we've been taught, remember it was Jesus who once insulted some (more on this below) scribes and Pharisees as being part of “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39). Reflecting on this important you-adulterous-generation comment alone should speak volumes to a careful reader!
Judging vs Sentencing / Condemning
Now you may have some confusion at this point if you are not clear on the distinction between judging someone and sentencing (condemning) someone. The only question the Pharisees asked Jesus about that morning was handing down the woman's judgment — aka, her sentence. Basically, all they asked was, "Now that's she's been judged, how do you say that she should be sentenced, condemned, treated?"
The first step in the "court" proceedings was over — she had been judged guilty. The next step, that of condemning, of handing down her sentence, was all the scribes and Pharisees and Jesus ever discussed. Notice in verse eleven that Jesus didn't say, "Neither do I judge you," but rather he said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go home and stop sinning."
So sentencing was the only thing on the agenda that morning and it was what Jesus replied to, because, as was typical of Jesus, he rarely changed the subject of a conversation. Admittedly, he took subjects in surprising directions (John 8 is no different), but he rarely changed the topic presented to him.
So if Jesus wasn't criticizing judgmental attitudes as Christians claim, what did he mean by, "the sinless one among you is first, he must throw a stone at her"? It appears clear that he was criticizing their goals and approach to handing down the sentence! Instead of seeking righteousness within others and removing evil from Israel (Deuteronomy 17:7) — a very commendable act — their objective was only trying to trip Jesus up and show everyone he wasn't the Messiah. Plus, knowing their hearts, Jesus saw a lack of humility in their self-righteous attitude. Therefore, the phrase, "the sinless one among you" helped correct both of their short-comings: each man took stock of his own life and no one could honestly proceed with the execution.
Bottom line: The defendant was guilty of adultery and Jesus 1) agreed with the verdict, 2) never defended her, 3) never forgave her and 4) never denounced the scribes or Pharisees for the judgment, but he was critical of how they wanted to condemn her.
One cannot take John 8:1-11, and particularly Jesus's statements, as the be-all and end-all argument against judging others — or even a criticism of execution by stoning! Jesus was obviously commanding humility within those who have a desire for God's righteousness in the world. Our first takeaway: Because Jesus didn't judge the Pharisees for judging, maybe today's Church needs to rethink its motto about never judging others. Consider for a moment that if more people close to Ravi Zacharias had honestly confronted him about any seemingly improper behaviour — in a humble way and with the sole desire of seeing God's righteousness name upheld — and demanded an honest answer from Mr. Zacharias, we would probably not have thousands of people questioning everything he said and taught right now.
Another takeaway, which goes without saying, is that we also need to individually and ruthlessly judge ourselves. Each of us, man or woman — whenever we feel a concern in our spirits — needs to personally look in the mirror and frankly ask ourselves if there is anything at all adulterous in our relationships with someone of the opposite sex. And if there is any wrong behaviour — and if we're serious about living righteously — then we should consider the radical changes suggested in Naftali Silberberg's thoughtful article?
What Jesus really was saying
Indeed, the Messiah's expectation was that persons in authority, during sentencing, should be humble and honestly aware of their own weaknesses and be thankful they have not been "led into temptation" and fallen as the people they were condemning.
Few of us are in positions of authority to condemn or hand down sentences. But we are all, sadly, in places where we may have to judge the actions of others — and humility will be needed. For this reason I myself, personally, feel very uncomfortable bringing up anything about Ravi Zacharias's case. I most certainly am not without sin and understand all too well the anguish in David's cry, "My sin is continually opposite me" (Psalm 51:3; c.f. Psalm 40:12) and a similar lament by the Apostle Paul that he was the chief among sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Regardless, we are obligated to point out faults when we see them in others. Doesn't this more balanced view agree well with, "First get out from your own eye that joist, so then you'll see clearly to get the speck out from the eye of your brother" (Matthew 7:5)?
B is for Pharisee Bashing
When all is said and done, we may come to the surprising observation that the Pharisees were basically doing the right thing that morning when they came into work. (Yes, you did read it correctly.) In an earlier chapter in John, Jesus is recorded as having said (in the imperative), "you must not judge by looking; instead judge the righteous judgement" (John 7:24;¹ author's translation). And was it not clear (above) that the Pharisees of John 8 had judged righteously? Therefore, despite the fact their manner of sentencing was less praiseworthy and they were trying to trap Jesus, in the final analysis, the scribes and Pharisees of John 8 were complying with the words of Jesus of John 7.
All things Pharisaical
Either way, pastors should not be so passionate about poking fun at the Pharisees, in this passage or any other. Knee-jerk reactions to everything Pharisaical is based on false stereotypes and no one should judge an entire group because of the actions of a few. (The same can be said of the scribes, as some sided with the Pharisees and others were with the Sadducees.)
There are straightforward examples of Pharisees who were very righteous individuals and it would do well for Christians to recognize this face about them. They clearly came in assorted flavours and didn't walk in lockstep. Therefore, painting them all with the same brush is unwise and unfounded.
Nicodemus and his meal-time companions
For instance, a reoccurring character in John's Gospel is Nick the midnight inquirer (John 3:1). He was an important Pharisee who followed Messiah and it was his line of questioning which moved Jesus to declare his most famous verse of all, John 3:16. Also, while the Pharisees in John 8:3-11 ran off with their tails between their legs, there was an entirely different group still hanging around in the Temple courtyard, still listening to Jesus teach (John 8:13). Though they challenge him, John's narration is not directly critical of the second group.
Two chapters later, a whole group of Pharisees was split down the middle over Jesus's actions, some for and some against (John 9:16). Later still, John says "many chief rules believed Jesus" (John 12:42), which certainly would have included some Pharisees.
Reflect on, for a moment, all the free lunches Jesus had with a Pharisee picking up the tab! Luke seems to emphasis this. First there was Simon (Luke 7:36ff) and then at least two other Pharisees who had Jesus over for a meal (Luke 11:37ff and 14:1ff). Arguably those sit-downs were not totally amicable — and indigestion ended up being on the menu — but it seems the dinner invite came from a Pharisee honestly wanting to host and meet with Jesus on a very intimate level and it was a perk the Master didn't see to object to.
(Not to get too far off track, compare the Pharisees' actions with those of the Sadducees — and the chief priests who were all of the same party at the time of Christ — and you will not find a single Sadducee in the entire New Testament who believed in Jesus's teachings or who ever shared so much as a sandwich with him.)
It is alarming that careful scholars have found great similarities between Jesus and the Pharisees — actually more in agreement than in disagreement — yet this knowledge seems completely unbeknownst to a great too many pastors. An excellent summary of these works is found in Ralph Marcus's article. After reading Marcus work, and gaining a more positive view of the Pharisees, one will admit that the Biblical texts do support such a view, if one tries to avoid a totally negative bias.
One slight problem is ambiguity in John's style of writing. The author of the Gospel refers to any and every group of Pharisees as "the Pharisees" (compare John 8:3 with John 8:13). Besides John's love for over-generalizations and gaps in logic or thought, he is noted for making exaggerations, such as John 21:25, which Wayne Jackson points out. Again, carefully reading each text by paying attention to an author's style is another vital habit for studying Scripture.
In summary, let's not automatically assume that everything every Pharisee did was wrong. Admittedly, some Pharisees didn't always wash the Master's feet or greet him with a kiss at lunchtime. And Jesus locked horns with some on a number of occasions. But Jesus knew many Pharisees were close to the kingdom of God — he said exactly that to one (Mark 12:34) and Pharisees joined with the Apostles after the resurrection (Acts 15:5) — and it was because of their closeness that he pointed fingers at the ones falling behind. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were a lost cause.
C is for Christ, the NT's more Cordial Chap
A significant number of Christians and church leaders seem to be siding with that angry atheist, Richard Dawkins, and his infamous comment that the Almighty "is arguably the most unpleasant character."
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
(Frankly, anyone of my high school students, armed with a thesaurus and a vindictive spirit, could have written as much as our angry Oxford professor.)
In the same way, too many preachers slander the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob by comparing His "rage and wrath" to the love and gentleness of Jesus — when it's simply not true. There is no difference in attitudes between the God of the Old Testament and Jesus of the New Testament. Plenty of Church leaders are concocting stories and giving an imbalanced view of God Almighty and His Messiah.
David versus God
Between Genesis and Malachi, there are many examples of God's patience and love and mercy. For instance, what was God's reaction to king David committing adultery? David took the wife of one of his best men, and then had the man killed! Did God burn David to a cinder right there? Did He have the king stoned on the spot? No, He didn't. (If the story is unfamiliar, read about David's terrible lapse of judgement, 2 Samuel 11, and God's judgement, 2 Samuel 12.)
David knew the laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy forbid adultery and that murder was punishable by death. Therefore, when the prophet Nathan accused him and gave him God's judgement in the same breath, the king knew immediately that he should have been finished. But no, the "wrathful" God of the Old Testament did not execute him there and then. Yes, David would suffer other difficult consequences, but he was not put to death, though the king knew he justly deserved immediate execution.
There is an interesting parallel between David and the woman in John 8 caught in adultery; neither was outright forgiven. Nathan said God was "overlooking" David's sins and Jesus's comment was that he "would not condemn the woman" yet!
The prophet Nathan and King David: example in reverse
(This artful depiction of the denunciation of David by Nathan is cool, but not totally accurate; Did Bathsheba really sat on the throne with David? Artistic license at work!)
From Genesis to Malachi, there are literally countless examples showing the perfect balance which the God of Israel has between mercy and judgement. (Here are seven to get you started.) However, the passage which best sums up His reasonable, impartial nature is in the following:
"The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and kind. He is slowly angry and full of loving-kindness and truth, keeping loving-kindness for thousands of people, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but definitely not freeing some, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon their sons, and upon the sons of their sons, upon the third and upon the fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
This quote from Exodus 34 is God talking about God. It's His opinion about Himself — so we get it straight from the horse's mouth! (Hope I'm not making this point in a blasphemous manner!) But based on the verse, God undoutedly has His own balanced view in mind.
God's Messiah is equally as balanced.
Jesus specifically claims that judgement, mercy, faithfulness and love are the over-arching aspects of the Law and taught his students to follow them (there are differences between Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42, but the common item in both is judgement) — as well as obey the "lighter" points of the Law, like tithing cumin!
Verdict? Jesus did not preach "mercy and faith"! No, he preached "judgement, mercy and faith." Please remember this.
As for other examples showing these two sides in the Messiah, there is not enough time here to point them out. (I see another blog.) But search the four Gospels and the Book of the Revelation — if you believe it is God's Word, than you should accept the descriptions of the bloody warrior-king at his Second Coming — and make note of all the judgmental and even damning teachings of Jesus (which are just as "nasty" as the God of the Old Testament), instead of glossing over them and noting only the parts where Jesus is all loving and forgiving. Part of the reason we see Jesus imbalanced is due to our preconceived ideas about him!
(Here is a skeptic's list of the "nasty" side of the Messiah.)
What's the connection to John 8? Re-read the passage, admitting that Jesus didn't call out the Pharisees for judging the woman (though he is critical of their manner of sentencing), and that he did order the woman to stop sinning. It is his last word on the subject. Jesus is equally "judgemental" as he is loving and merciful with the woman. (Lastly, I need to remark that many Christians are angry with David for committing adultery, yet I've never heard a preacher say how nasty the woman was for doing the same thing!)
D is for De Truth, De Whole Truth and Nothin' but De Truth
When Jesus said, "The sinless one among you is first, he must throw a stone at her," he was making a undeniable allusion to punishment by stoning according to the Law of Moses and that the witnesses were ordered to start the execution because they personally saw the crime.
The hand of the witnesses will be first upon him to put him to death, and the hand of all the people afterward; thus you shall rid evil from your midst." (Deuteronomy 17:7)
Furthermore, please compare, "Let any one of you who is sinless be the first to throw a stone at her," with, "The sinless one among you is first; he must throw a stone at her" (John 8:7). The first one has the words and tone of 40+ other translations, even though the second one is closer to what many commentators point out about the Greek verb, that it is an aorist imperative, thus not permissive. This is a definite bias given the fact all ten other aorist imperatives of this exact same verb are translated as imperatives — and not with a permissive, "Let him throw."
Therefore, the allusion to Deuteronomy and the tone of voice used by the Messiah show, once again, how he strictly upheld the Law. None of the commandments about adultery, or punishments associated with, were removed or weaken in any way, shape or form. Rather, he did seem to heighten the Law. How so?
When Jesus was speaking with the witnesses (aka, the scribes and Pharisees) he adjusted the wording to make it more narrow. By removing the words you witness and replacing them with you sinless one, he was narrowing down the list of people who could stone her, but at the same time, was raising the bar. By qualifying his answer, "the sinless [witness] must cast stone," Jesus reinforced the Mosaic commands about adultery, and he comes across looking actually more legalistic, more ridge.
E is for Exceptional Accusation Fixation
At the top of this page, you see a penitent woman kneeling beside Jesus. As lovely as this marble representation is from the Collégiale Saint-Vulfran in northern France, someone in the cathedral was using artistic license again. Who said she was begging for mercy? Where does it say that in John 8?
We never read much from the woman herself. During all the religious wrangling, she gave no counter arguments, nor did she ever protest her innocence. Standing there quietly, she as much as admitted her guilt. By the same token, she is not recorded as asking for mercy either. On the other hand, she does call the Master, lord, and no one could ever address him with that title who wasn't sincere — so there's a point in her favour.
But still, there is no comment by John the author which puts her in a favourable light. If anything, John's testimony about her and the testimony from the scribes and Pharisees is identical. Note that the narration by the author in 8:3 about the "adulterous woman caught" in the act is quite indistinguishable from the quote from the Pharisees in 8:4, that "the woman was caught in the act of adultery." Therefore, we have here one notable point of concord which normally goes unnoticed by commentaries. Conclusion: John himself never puts her in a positive light.
And what is Jesus's last words to her? Stop sinning.
The morality of her accusers
By comparison, we need to give credit to the scribes and Pharisees there that day. At the very least they get a point for admitting to themselves — and Jesus and the adulterous woman — that they were wrong because not one of those men picked up a stone. None of them tried to bluff their way out. Like each of us, they knew their sins and accepted their status as sinners. Probably no outright confessions were made that morning, but by walking away they showed everyone that they were acknowledging their errors — Jesus just helped bring it to the surface at the right moment.
However, one could counter by stating that the accusers really had no choice; they couldn't pick up the stone because doing so would give the impression they considered themselves perfect. Then again, someone hellbent on a certain goal might actually do that. But our boys that morning were not so seared to the heart. They could feel some personal short-comings of their own. Laughingly (in a mocking tone), I think of how many people were running amok this past summer, 2020, tearing down statues and berating the police in the US. Indeed, those were people claiming to be perfectly righteous, claiming to be better than the people represented by the statutes, and better than the people who erected them. They obviously felt superior to everyone else, more sanctified in their rebellion and hate of the past. But sadly, what they really displayed was contempt for law. Their love at that moment was for destruction and anarchy. I believe that at the very least our scribes and Pharisees did better.
But the woman caught in adultery — did she stop sinning?
Conclusion: Regaining a balance between judging and forgiving
Having reexamined details from John 8 and Psalms and Deuteronomy, etc., we know God Almighty and His Messiah expect mercy and forgiveness from His followers. And besides love and righteous, He loves and expects His followers to love judgement and justice. However, these latter two are the ones we seem to have trouble with; we either completely ignore them (like we ignore the faults of the lady caught in adultery or perhaps like some may have done with Mr. Zacharias during his lifetime), or we take them to extremes. So we need balance. God expects it of us. But all true followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Messiah need to be just and even judge — righteously and with humility — remembering we were all sinners once and that our salvation and changed lifestyle are gifts from the kindness of God (Ephesians 2:5).
Search for Him.
Search His Scriptures. They are sensible and true.
¹ Interestingly, Jesus was quoting Zechariah 7:24, "מִשְׁפַּ֤ט אֱמֶת֙ שְׁפֹ֔טוּ ; Judge a truthful judgement" (author's trans.).