A discussion of various interpretations of the PA.
and its Modern Rejection
Although Christian interpreters deny that there is any systemic 'racism' or anti-Judaism in the NT when it is properly understood, there is little doubt that historically, anti-Semitic interpretations have abounded.
But we have come a long way in understanding both the NT background of religious rivalry between early sects and parties. And Christians now realise and give sufficient weight to the fact that Jesus and His followers were indeed themselves ancient "Jews" (Judaeans) and Galileans.
We recognise therefore that the historical conflicts between religious parties were not themselves racially oriented, but were divisions along ethical and religious lines.
Yet, it is obvious that Christians have still not travelled 'far from the tree' in terms of their habits of thinking and that there is still a real danger of blind bigotry and misplaced animosity, fueled in part by mishandling of Biblical materials.
Handling the Pericope de Adultera
Therefore, very sensitive texts like the Pericope de Adultera are a 'double-edged sword' when it comes to their potential for restarting or perpetuating mistaken ideas.
On the one hand, we want to establish the authenticity and legitimacy of our story as Christian history and religous truth.
On the other, it is easy to see how reviving an interest in these verses could have negative effects on the dialogue between Christianity and Judaism, and even fuel new anti-Semitic hostility.
Here we want to make a cautionary notice regarding the interpretation of John 8:1-11.
Right and Wrong Interpretations
It is still very popular to look at this story as evidence of a systemic evil regarding Jews and Judaism, while the actual facts of the case cannot support any exaggerations of this kind.
Lets examine a few points:
(1) There is the tendency to see the Pharisees and scribes as representative of Judaism or the "Jews" generally, because John the Evangelist uses both terms, and sometimes gives the appearance of interchangeability or synonymity of these expressions.
We cannot delve here into the nuances of Johannine usage, but only observe that the story is about a party of Pharisees and scribes, possibly from among those disputing the day before. They are not representatives of "the Jewish people", perhaps not even of "the Jewish authorities".
(2) There is a tendency to exaggerate the Pharisee party's apparent 'crime' in this incident. This is a most serious and unfortunate matter.
To begin with, we must concede that some serious and sinful error on the part of the Pharisee/scribe party is more than just a little implied in the story as it really is.
The Real Motivating Forces
There is indeed a criminal carelessness portrayed in their handling of the woman, a callousness in their utter lack of concern for her well-being.
But allowance must be made for the very real viewpoint of those committed to O.T. law. The crime (adultery) is most grave, and the death penalty is sanctioned by God Himself.
We must allow both the deadly danger for the woman in this situation, and the willingness of Moses' devotees to carry out the sentence, while throwing personal misgivings or doubts aside.
But some commentators have gone much too far in villainizing the accusers in many cases.
The Lack of Evidence for Accusations of 'Conspiracies'
The fact that there is no man present may be proof of irregularity, but no adequate proof of a different kind of 'conspiracy'. There is nothing in the story itself to warrant casting the group as colluding rapists covering up for each other, or as knowing murderers plotting the death of an innocent woman.
In fact not only does Jesus' behaviour here make such a claim doubtful, but so does His teaching elsewhere about not judging by appearances, but to "Judge righteously" (i.e., Jn 7:24, investigate thoroughly and only judge according to established truth). That is, it is just as wrong for us to make judgments without evidence as it would be for the Pharisees to condemn the woman without witnesses.
Errors by Commentators Excusing the Pharisee Party
The text just as surely also excludes the Pharisees supposedly looking for a theoretical debate on divorce, 1 with the woman a mere divorcee, or that the accusers were seeking the help of Jesus to find a way to let the woman go. 2 Both of these absurdities have been seriously argued by commentators (See notes below).
The original accusation is:
"This woman was found in the very act, committing adultery! In the law Moses commanded us that such as this be stoned (to death)!"
These are hardly the words of someone seeking help in waiving a punishment, or seeking leniency. There is no indication at all that they wished Jesus to let the woman go. Nor can they be interpreted to support the idea that the Pharisees thought there was no crime except in the eyes of Jesus with his strict rules on divorce.
Still less do they sound like the words of conspirators attempting to frame an innocent girl in an intellectual game to embarrass Jesus.
The most probable explanation is in front of our face: Someone had caught her in an adultery, and they wanted his assent to enforce the law as they saw it. Its a plain case of self-righteousness, deflated by a technicality that forced some deep thought.
The text does not allow turning to the left or right. It is not about the "Jews", and it is not about "rape/murder".
We cannot find the Pharisees innocent of at least some serious unspiritual heartlessness, some ethical and moral blindness: Yet we cannot find them guilty of the worst possible scenario either.
There is also the additional check of Jesus' own behaviour toward BOTH parties.
Probably not an Innocent Woman...
The sly permission to stone, and reliance solely upon the interpretation of strangers hardly suggests the woman's innocence. Could a righteous Messiah even appear to put the innocent at risk like this?
The serious instruction to "sin no more" also implies at least some unspecified wrongdoing on the woman's part, perhaps enough to explain how she got into this predicament in the first place.
So likewise, also the woman is no Susanna, yet nor is she necessarily 100% responsible or guilty on her own for the crime (adultery takes two). Perhaps, the 'crime' is significantly different in its particulars than we may ever know.
An Offer of Amnesty: Back to Jesus' Mission
In both cases, the purpose of the story isn't to nail down the exact degree and nature of the crimes of either party, but rather to deal with both by offering a chance of repentance.
No just judge ought to just let unrepentant rapist/killers walk away, anymore than they should let a blatantly unrepentant adulteress skip off without at least a lecture. The accusers are convicted first by conscience, and we can assume the same for the woman.
The text then, limits wild speculation, and directs our focus upon its real purpose: to offer reconciliation with God to Israel, through repentance, irrespective of the details of the sins.
Nor is this pure innovation on Jesus' part: He relies upon the teaching given by Ezekiel centuries before in Ezek. chapter 18. If a man is still walking, there is still hope; of repentance and salvation.
The Message is a Call to Repentance, not Anti-Semitism
In summary then, the passage offers no support for excessive villanizing of the Pharisees/scribes, even here in this awful test-case.
It speaks instead of the rampant sinfulness and blindness of the whole of Israel including the self-righteous.
It cannot be interpreted as anti-Semitic in its purpose or tone, but rather it is Prophetic in its intent, calling Israel to repentance.
There is no legitimate source or support for anti-Semitism here, even though this is perhaps the most extreme example, and the easiest to twist toward such an evil purpose.
We strongly advise then retaining and/or restoring the passage to its rightful place, with the strong caution that it not be allowed to be twisted and forced to serve the purposes of racists and bigots.
1. See Alan Watson , Jesus and the Adulteress, Biblica 80 (1999) pp. 100-108:
'The woman brought to Jesus was, I suggest, a remarried divorcée. By Jesus’ own claim she was thus an adulteress, but not for the Pharisees. Moses allowed divorce, Jesus forbade it. The trap of the Pharisees for Jesus was this: the law of Moses demanded death by stoning for an adulteress; Jesus claimed remarried divorcées were adulteresses though Moses did not, and neither did the Pharisees. Would Jesus follow his argument to its logical conclusion and impose death on a remarried divorcée? The scribes and Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus very precisely to test him.
We can see now why there was no trial before the Sanhedrin. For the Pharisees there had been no crime. The problem of evidence of adultery and of the difficulties of proof disappears. For Jesus, the remarriage of the divorcée was itself adultery. Besides, we are no longer concerned with a trial and its practical problems. We are confronted rather with a theoretical issue: namely, would Jesus make a divorcée who remarried be liable to suffer the Mosaic penalty for adultery?' (pp. 102-103)
The absurdity of this solution is in the fact that we would have to discard almost the entire story in its current form, and invent quite a different one, to harmonize the text with the theory. Watson's commentary belongs to an entirely different incident with a text that has never been found (i.e., its a modern fictional account.)
2. On the basis that the narrative comment ( Jn 8:6a, missing from some MSS) is a later addition to make the passage conform to John's style, Young (1995) offers the above interpretation. I am indebted to M. Scott for pointing this out in his own footnote:
'We should note here the astonishing interpretation of Young (1995). He sees the addition of this verse to the tradition as an indicator of a quite different purpose in the original form of the story. Far from being a tale which sought to denigrate the Pharisees, he argues that the text is really about an attempt by the Pharisees to find a way to save the woman from the awful sentence of the law. In the young Rabbi Jesus they find an interpreter who enables them to achieve this end: 'They wanted to saver her, and Jesus helped them' (1995: 70). Suffice it to say that only a male commentator was ever likely to think that one up!'
- M. Scott,
On the Trail of a Good Story,
Ciphers in the Sand (2000) footnote.
Yet we feel compelled to say more. The threat against the captive woman was obviously very real in the story, as judged by the lynching party's words, their persistance in demanding a judgment, and their behaviour afterward.