The Woman Taken in Adultery
Then each went to his own home.
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
When the rulers of the Jewish nation failed in their attempt to have Jesus arrested by the temple guards, they immediately devised a plot to trap him. This plot is the most despicable action by these men recorded in the Gospels. At the same time, it became an occasion by which Jesus not only revealed the depth of his justice, wisdom, and compassion but also provided a message of hope and great peace for those who come to him. The story is that of the woman taken in adultery. The problem of the story is how justice and mercy can be harmonized while, at the same time, neither encouraging sin nor condemning the sinner. In this respect it is a central, even a pivotal, point in John’s Gospel.
Before beginning our study of this story, I must be frank to admit that it involves us in a serious textual problem. The difficulty, simply put, is that the majority of the earliest manuscripts of John do not contain these verses and, moreover, that some of the best manuscripts are of this number. The best evidence for the story is its presence in Codex Bezae, of the fifth or sixth century, now in the University Library at Cambridge, England. But it is not in the older Codices Sinaiticus or Vaticanus, nor in the Washington or Koridethi manuscripts. In fact, of the older manuscripts, eight omit it entirely, though two manuscripts leave a blank space where it would have come. And not until the medieval manuscripts does it seem to have been included with any regularity. Some early manuscripts attach it at other places, such as at the end of the Gospel or after Luke 21:38.
Does that mean that we should just throw out these verses? Should we place them in the same category as the apocryphal gospels? Interestingly enough, very few scholars (even many of the liberal ones) seem willing to do this, and the fact that a good case can be made out for the other side, should make one cautious in how he deals with it. I am willing to deal with the story as genuine—though perhaps not a part of the original Gospel as John wrote it—for the following reasons:
- While it is true that most early manuscripts omit this story, it also is true that the story itself is old, regardless of who wrote it or whether or not it was originally in John’s Gospel. We find it in The Apostolic Constitutions (third century a.d.). And Eusebius, the church historian, tells us that Papias (who died not long after a.d. 100) knew a story “of a woman who was accused of many sins before the Lord.” Later, Jerome unquestioningly included it in the Latin Vulgate.
- A good case can be made for its inclusion at this particular place in John’s Gospel. For one thing, without it the change of thought between the fifty-second verse of chapter seven and the twelfth verse of chapter eight is abrupt and unnatural. We do not know where Jesus is in John 8:12, nor to whom he is speaking. For another thing, the introduction of a story at this point seems to fit the pattern that John has been using in these opening chapters. In each case, from chapter 5 onward, a story is used to set the theme of the teaching that follows. Thus, the miracle of healing the disabled man, which begins chapter 5, becomes the text of the sermon that follows. The feeding of the multitude in chapter 6 leads into the discourse on Christ as the bread of life. The discussion between Jesus and his brothers about going up to the feast in chapter 7 is an introduction to Christ’s words at the feast. So, likewise, is the story of his dealing with the adulterous woman an introduction to that speech on the combination of righteousness and freedom in Christ that the rest of the chapter declares that Christ brings.
- Third, there is an excellent reason why the story may have been omitted in the early manuscripts. In a contest with paganism, it is easy to see how the story might have been used by enemies of the gospel to suggest that Christ condoned fornication. Indeed, this is the reason for its omission given by both Augustine and Ambrose in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.
- The fourth and last reason for dealing with the section is the feeling, which many have had, that this story is indeed true to Christ’s nature, in accord at every point with his perfect holiness, wisdom, and deep compassion.
As we turn to the story we must see three things primarily: first, the horror of sin; second, the mastery by God of all circumstances; and third, the word of the Savior to the sinner.
First, the story reveals sin’s horror. And, of course, I do not mean the sin of the woman. I mean the sin of the rulers. Adultery is sin, certainly. The woman was guilty of adultery. But compared to the sin of the men who were using her in an attempt to trap Jesus, her sin was minimal—a mote in her eye compared to the beams that were in their eyes (Matt. 7:1–5).
To understand precisely what these men were doing we must understand that not only was their approach to Jesus a trap; they actually had already been active in trapping the woman. In fact, it could hardly be otherwise, on the basis of their testimony and in light of the very exacting requirements of Jewish law in this and other capital cases. Under Jewish law, as it was practiced by the rabbis in the time of Christ and later, it was necessary to have multiple witnesses to the act of intercourse before the charge of adultery could be substantiated, and even this was to be under the most exacting of circumstances. Thus, as one scholar points out, “There is absolutely no question of [the witnesses] having seen the couple in a ‘compromising situation,’ for example, coming from a room in which they were alone, or even lying together on the same bed. The actual physical movements of the couple must have been capable of no other explanation, and the witnesses must have seen exactly the same acts at exactly the same time, in the presence of each other, so that their dispositions would be identical in every respect.”
Under these conditions the obtaining of evidence in adultery would be almost impossible were the situation itself not a setup. We are justified in supposing that the liaison had been arranged, perhaps by the very man who committed adultery with the woman. Was he a member of the Sanhedrin? Whatever the case, the arrangement must have involved the posting of witnesses in the room or at the keyhole.
We see the horror of the sin of these men in another way too. For the fact that only the woman was brought to Jesus reveals their dishonestly. If adultery could be proved only by the testimony of witnesses who had seen the couple in the very act of adultery and if this is what the rulers were claiming, as they were, where then was the man in the story? Why was he not brought with the woman? At the least, the rulers allowed the man to escape. At the worst, the man had been in on the plotting and had been granted immunity beforehand. How horrible! Yes, but it is only the old case of the double standard that exists still today. Men should take their stand with the women in such cases, confessing their share of the guilt, which is usually greater anyway. But they do not. The poor woman had to bear the shame alone.
God of Circumstances
The horror of sin is not the only subject these verses introduce, however. They also reveal the mastery by God of all circumstances.
We will appreciate this aspect of the story better if we realize that this was a serious problem with which the Lord was confronted. This was not like the problems with which he had been challenged before. On an earlier occasion the Sadducees, who did not believe in the afterlife, had come to him with a trick question about the resurrection. They imagined the case of a woman who had married seven brothers in turn, each one having died and having left her with no children. “In the resurrection, therefore, when they rise, whose wife will she be?” they asked. It was a stupid, almost infantile question. So Jesus answered that they had erred, knowing neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. On another occasion some of the rulers tried to trap him with a question regarding taxes. But again this involved only the conflict between public sentiment and the law of Rome, and Jesus dealt with it easily.
It was not this way with this problem of the adulterous woman. In this case three important matters were at stake: (1) the life of the woman, (2) the teaching of Jesus about the compassionate nature of his kingdom, and (3) the divinely given law of Moses. The way the matter was posed—so it seemed to the rulers—there was little doubt that Jesus would have to relinquish one of these items.
Everyone knew that the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ had been marked by compassion. He had moved about among publicans and sinners. He had befriended the outcasts. He had said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened” (Matt. 11:28). But if he was consistent with this teaching and if, on the basis of his compassion for the woman, he actually waived the law of Moses, then the rulers could rightly denounce him as a dangerous and false prophet. What prophet could speak against the law? Jesus had already been suspected of this because of his attitude toward the sabbath regulations. If he rejected Moses’ judgment, they had him. On the other hand, if Jesus upheld the law—if he said, “Kill the woman”—then they were also sure that they had him. For they reasoned, “If he says that, then we will ridicule him to the end of his days. We’ll say, ‘Sure, he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” but he neglects to tell you that when you do come he’s going to stone you.’ ”
With devilish insight these men had hit upon the problem of all problems in respect to the relationship of a sinner to God. How can God show love to the sinner without being unjust? Or, as Paul states the problem: How can God be both just and the justifier of the ungodly (Rom. 3:26)? From a human point of view the problem is unsolvable. In this the rulers were right. “Even if Jesus wants to show love, he cannot,” they argued. But they were not aware that they were not dealing with a mere man when they dealt with Jesus. They were dealing with God, and with God all things are possible.
At first Jesus appeared to ignore them. Instead of replying he simply bent down and began to write on the ground.
I do not know why he wrote on the ground, and, what is more, I do not believe that anyone else does either. I have read numerous commentaries on these verses, and I have been surprised to find that nearly every one of them gives a different answer. Some have suggested that Jesus wrote on the ground to gain time. Others argue that he did so to force the accusers to repeat their charges, thinking that perhaps the shame of the situation might become evident even to them as they said it. Lawyers sometimes follow this procedure in courts of law. One person has suggested that Jesus was himself overcome with shame and horror in much the same way as he shuddered at the tomb of Lazarus or wept over the city of Jerusalem. Some suggest that this was a symbolic action, intended to remind the accusers of Jeremiah 17:13—“O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust.” Perhaps, since Jesus knew their hearts, he was writing out their sins. Perhaps he wrote the words he later spoke. Whatever the case, the fact of Christ’s writing had no effect on the rulers, who rudely continued to press for an answer. One of the sad effects of sin is that it hardens the sinner.
After a while Jesus stood up and replied, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7). How simple and, at the same time, how disarming! So we read that “those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there” (v. 9). Obviously, there was something in the gaze of the Lord Jesus Christ, or in the tone of his voice, or simply in the power of his presence that got through to these men, unrepentant as they were, and left them powerless. Think of the efforts they had gone through! Think of the plotting! Yet they were destroyed in a moment when they were confronted by the God who masters circumstances.
Words to the Sinner
At last, Jesus turned to the woman and for the first time addressed her directly. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
She answered, “No one, sir.”
“Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (vv. 10–11).
On what basis did Jesus make the statement, “Neither do I condemn you”? Some have suggested that at this point Jesus took advantage of the requirements of the law itself according to which it was necessary to have two or three witnesses in any judicial hearing. Jesus was one accuser perhaps, because he knew all things. But the others were gone, and so the requirements of the law could not be met. This may be right in part. Certainly it freed Jesus from having to condemn the woman. Yet to handle the matter like this is to miss the real meat of the story. For when we ask, “Why did the Lord Jesus Christ not pronounce judgment?” the only substantial and ultimately satisfying answer we get is that he did not pronounce judgment against the woman for precisely the same reason that he does not pronounce judgment against those who come to him in faith. It was because of the cross upon which he was about to bear the full penalty of God’s wrath against every sin ever committed by those whom the Father had given to him. He did not give forgiveness easily. He did so only because he was about to make forgiveness possible by the act of suffering in place of the sinner. This is the gospel. This is the only solution to the problem of how God can remain just and also excuse the sinner. To us, salvation is free. But it is free only because the Son of God paid the price for us.
Finally, Jesus told the woman to stop sinning. This always follows upon divine forgiveness, for we cannot be saved by God and then continue to do as we please. We must stop sinning. At the same time, we can be glad that the order is as Jesus gave it. For if he had said, “Go, sin no more; and I will not condemn you,” what hope would there be? We all sin, so there would be no forgiveness. Instead he says, “I forgive you on the basis of my death. Now, because you are forgiven, stop sinning.”
I hope this has been your experience. I hope you have heard and understood these words of Jesus.
You must place yourself at some place in this story. Are you like the crowd, who stood watching? These witnessed forgiveness, but they did not enter into it. Are you like the rulers? These were sinners, like the woman, but they went away from Jesus without even hearing the words of forgiveness. Or, finally, are you like the woman, who not only heard but also received the gospel message? Of all who were there that day by far the best one to be is the woman. The crowd was indifferent, as crowds always are. The rulers went out from Christ into darkness and six months later were killing the sinless Son of God. But the woman—well, the woman was forgiven through Christ, who died for her sin and for yours, whoever you may be.
and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” (8:9b–11)
After the departure of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus was left alone with the woman, who remained standing where she was, in the center of the court. The text does not say whether the crowd that had been listening to Jesus’ teaching (v. 2) had also left. Whether they were still there or not, the focus of the narrative is on the Lord and the woman.
For the first time, someone addressed the woman. Straightening up from His posture of stooping to write, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” The term woman was a polite, respectful form of address (cf. Matt. 15:28; Luke 13:12; 22:57), one with which Jesus addressed His mother (John 2:4; 19:26), the Samaritan woman at the well (4:21), and Mary Magdalene (20:13, 15). With her accusers gone, there was no one left to condemn her. Exercising His divine prerogative to forgive sin (Matt. 9:6; cf. John 3:17; 12:47), Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”
Forgiveness does not imply license to sin. Jesus did not condemn her, but He did command her to abandon her sinful lifestyle. Gerald L. Borchert writes,
Jesus’ verdict, “neither do I condemn,” however, was not rendered as a simple acquittal or a noncondemnation. The verdict was in fact a strict charge for her to live from this point on (apo tou nun) very differently —to sin no more (mēketi hamartane). The liberating work of Jesus did not mean the excusing of sin. Encountering Jesus always has demanded the transformation of life, the turning away from sin.… Sin was not treated lightly by Jesus, but sinners were offered the opportunity to start life anew. (John 1–11, The New American Commentary [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002], 376)
As Paul wrote in Romans 6:1–2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”
This story is far more than a battleground for textual critics. It paints a marvelous picture of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose gracious humility, infinite wisdom, convicting speech, and tender forgiveness are its central themes. All Christians should be grateful to God for sovereignly preserving it. 
11 Jesus is not saying that the woman’s act of adultery is not worthy of condemnation but that he doesn’t intend to press charges. In no way does he condone her sin. Neither does he offer her divine forgiveness for what she has done. He simply tells her to “go, and never sin again” (Montgomery). We would hope that the guilty woman repented of her sin, but the text is silent about that. And of course there is room in the kingdom for every kind of sinner (including the adulteress) who turns from sin and embraces by faith the Lord Jesus.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 601–606). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 329–330). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 472). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.