Many Christian apologists make use of John 8:1-11 in an attempt to show the kind and wise nature of Jesus. However, after citing the aforementioned verses, I will show that although Jesus did a good deed (saving a woman from being stoned to death because of an adulterous relation), his reasons and motivation are quite unconvincing and wrong. Therefore, we are not justified to say on the basis of John 8:1-11 that it follows that Jesus was kind and/or wise, let alone a model worthy of admiration and imitation.
In John 8:1-11 it is written:
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 [his] 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.” (KJV)
Notice first that at the time this scene took place, the law commanded death by stoning as punishment for adultery. Second, the woman mentioned in the above verses clearly broke that law. There is no question about it, since she was discovered while engaging in adultery. Therefore, the persons who were preparing to stone the woman were actually acting according to the law. It is also important to see that the woman was not special, not out of the ordinary, in any relevant way. The Bible is referring to her simply as a person who broke a law. Therefore, what Jesus said with regard to her should be viewed as having universal application to all cases of women and men who were caught breaking the law.
Now what did Jesus say to the men prepared to kill the adulterous woman? He told them: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
Some apologists interpret these words as implying that Jesus wanted to save the woman from being killed. If that is so, however, the problem is that he seems to be suggesting here that no one has the right to condemn anyone who broke the law. The Bible tells us repeatedly that no one is without sin (Ge 8.21, Ps 38.3-4, Ps 51.3–and especially Pr 20.9: Who can say, “I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin?”). Since Jesus said that only the person without sin is entitled to begin punishing the guilty one(s), and since no one is without sin, it follows that, according to Jesus, no one should begin punishing the guilty one(s). In other words, the guilty shouldn’t be convicted as the law requires, no matter what law are we talking about. All this boils down to saying that people should never be punished for their evil deeds as required by the law. It also seems to imply that the whole juridical system should be abolished. After all, what’s the point of judging people by the law if you are never allowed to condemn them by the law?
So as we see, Jesus’ way of saving the woman’s life is highly problematic, suggesting that no one should judge and/or condemn delinquents. But it is clear that this doesn’t and shouldn’t follow just from the fact that we are also sinners; In case we also broke the law, the appropriate advice is not to refrain from condemning other delinquents, but to surrender ourselves to the authorities, confess our crime, and wait for the punishment the law has in store for us. Similarly, if we commit immoral deed(s) (but do not break the law) then the appropriate advice is to try not to commit them again and attempt to undo their evil consequences. We shouldn’t refrain from condemning delinquents just because we are not without sin!
It is also clear that if we would follow Jesus’ suggestion here and abolish the juridical system, we would permit evil people to inflict evil on others, since legal punishments–the only thing that keeps many people from doing harm to others–would no longer exist.
So it appears that if Jesus really did want to save the life of the adulterous woman, he was neither kind nor wise. By refraining from punishing delinquents as required by the law–and, as I pointed out, this is what Jesus seems to be suggesting–the evil done in the world would be much greater. Surely, it would have been much more morally appropriate and wise to stop the men who were ready to execute the woman by pointing out that the law which demanded death for adultery was unfair and clearly exaggerated. But this wasn’t Jesus’ reason for making them stop.
Other Christians, however, believe that in the aforementioned verses Jesus does not wish to save the woman from being killed when he said “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” They believe, instead, that Jesus only wished to imply that since all have sinned, it is more prudent to reflect on one’s own faults before accusing others.
But it is not clear that this interpretation is more favorable to Jesus. If he didn’t want to save that woman from death despite the obviously extremely harsh law, how could we say that he was kind and compassionate? Letting this point aside, as I have already said, the woman had clearly infringed the law. The punishment for her deed was clear and well-known. In this situation, why should the persons who wanted to punish the woman start reflecting on their own faults as suggested by Jesus? If we know that X broke the law and if we agree with the law–and Jesus never condemned it–we must punish X accordingly. That we should reflect on our own “sinful” nature shouldn’t have anything to do with punishing delinquents according to the law.
(Note also that Jesus doesn’t say anything here about judging or arriving at a verdict and a sentence in an organized way, as in done in the courts.)
So either way, it doesn’t follow from John 8:1-11 that Jesus was kind and wise. Quite the contrary: On one interpretation of the verses he suggests that the judicial system is useless–which is not exactly a wise saying nor a kind one; on the other, he would agree that a person should be punished by an extremely harsh and unfair law–and again his morality must be questioned. In addition, on this second interpretation he seems to suggest that it is not a priority to put into practice a punishment required by a law with which we agree even when the criminal is obviously guilty. I don’t see why this should be considered to be wise advice.
[Editor’s note: The story of the woman caught in adultery belongs to a section of the book of John, verses 7:53 through 8:11, which are omitted in many ancient manuscripts and sometimes found after Luke 21, thereby suggesting that this story was not originally found in John’s Gospel. It should also be noted that John is the work of multiple authors; see The Literary Origin of the Gospel of John by Howard M. Teeple, Ph.D. It should be kept in mind, however, that these facts say nothing necessarily about the authenticity of the story.]
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