Background and Context

This coming Sunday is the 5th Sunday in Lent, Year C. The gospel for the day is the well-known “woman caught in adultery.” Interestingly, it does not seem as “well known” in ancient times. It does not appear in the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel yet it appears in well attested manuscripts. Is it not original to John? Is it a later addition? St. Augustine held that it was authentic but scribes, thinking Jesus was too lenient on the adulterous woman, simply did not copy it into their manuscript. The technical specialists will debate the topic – probably until the second coming, but even the hardest critics admit that the sense of the story is Johannine is its “feel.”

The story unfolds quite naturally. It was the Feast of Tabernacles and it seems to have been Jesus’ practice to stay outside the city at night and return in the morning to continue in public teaching and discourse (see John 7:14 and following, continuing in John 8:12). It is the early morning when Jesus arrives in the Temple precinct and people begin to gather to hear what he would say. There was already a “buzz” on the street: “Some said, ‘He is a good man,’ [while] others said, ‘No; on the contrary, he misleads the crowd.’” (John 7:12). In any case, Jesus draws a crowd and is soon approached by the scribes and Pharisees who have in tow “a woman who had been caught in adultery ” (v.3). The Greek makes it clear that the  woman was found in flagranti, in the very act (v.4). Some commentators opine that this was perhaps all a ruse and the woman an accomplice in the scheme. The text is clear in vv.3,4 that this is not a play acted out for “all the people.” The implication is that this woman is married. Adultery in the Law was, for the most part, concerned with the faithfulness of the wife. Nothing is mentioned of her lover who must have escaped – or been let go. The ones bringing the charge are eye witnesses to the transgression; compromising circumstances were not adequate to levy such an onerous charge.

In the background of all this is the Law made clear in Lev 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22. If you followed the links you would have noticed that both of the people are to be charged. The man is clearly missing from the circle of shame and only the woman’s life hangs in the balance. For the Law is clear that both are to be put to death.

The intention of the scribes and Pharisee was to simply use the woman and her circumstances “so that they could have some charge to bring against [Jesus]” (v.6) in order to fulfill their own murderous intent against Jesus (7:1). Their immediate goal is to trap Jesus between the requirements of the Law and his teaching of forgiveness and reconciliation. Will Jesus show himself to be a true son of Moses and do what the Law requires, i.e. agree that stoning the woman is the God-intended course of action? Will he defy the law and offer forgiveness?

The story unfolds in four stages:

  • The Setting of the Scene (8:1-8:2)
  • The Challenge of the Jewish Leaders (8:3-6)
  • Jesus Response to the Leaders (8:7-9)
  • Jesus’ Reconciliation of the Woman (8:10-11)

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