“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is a well known quotation. What many people don’t know is that the passage in John where Jesus is writing in the dust and disperses an adulterous woman’s accusers is not part of the gospel of John in its original form. The story is included because it became a tradition to include it hundreds of years later. Why do we include it in the gospel when we can be quite sure that it is not part of the original?
Firstly, even though the story was omitted for a long time in the eastern churches, western churches included the story much earlier. Very early writers told a story which resembles the one now told in John, but it was not included in John. The style of the writing suggests that the story might have orginated with Luke. However, because the story shows signs of being authentic it has been allowed to stay in most English language Bible texts.
One of the problems that it solves is that the early church were very aggressive about sexual sin. Some early church fathers saw adultery and fornication as unforgivable. After a few hundred years a standard penance of 15 years was decreed. This story was promoted as reflecting Jesus’ attitude to sexual sin. Forgiveness of sexual sin can be instantaneous, just like any other sin. It also addresses some of the injustices of the day. Where is the man who was guilty of adultery? Did the crowd trap her or did they warn her as the law required?
Do you think the inclusion of this story is helpful or unhelpful?
John 7:53 – 8:11
53 Then they all went home,1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 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. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 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. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
- What had the teachers of the law caught the woman doing?
- How do you think they did that?
- Why doesn’t Jesus condemn her?
- Have you ever witnessed someone delighting in catching someone else in an act of sin? What was that like?
- When have you longed for Jesus to bring forgiveness and others condemned you?