What If The Woman Taken In Adultery . . . Wasn’t?

In the abstract, there are three possibilities: she was guilty, she was innocent, or she was raped.

John 8:1-11 tells the story we commonly refer to as ‘the woman taken in adultery’ [1]. The traditional reading, of course, is that the woman was in fact an adulteress. I think that, at the very least, this is an open question. Here’s thoughts on each of the three options:

(1) She was guilty. This has the weight of tradition behind it. The narration in verse 3 does seem to suggest that the woman was taken in adultery. (The narrator could have said, for example, “The woman who the Pharisees claimed was taken in adultery ” but s/he did not.) Proponents of this view might also point to Jesus’ final admonition to “go and sin no more” but that doesn’t persuade me: he says the same thing to the invalid healed on the Sabbath (see John 5:14) where there is no reason to assume that the person in question is guilty of anything besides your average garden-variety sins.

(2) She was raped. The two references to “taken in adultery” (v3 and v4) are both passive verbs which could possibly be interpreted to imply that her involvement in the act was passive, meaning that she was raped.

(3) She was innocent. (Of course, if she was raped, she was also innocent, but here I mean that she was not involved–willingly or otherwise–in any sexual activity; she was just some innocent bystander that the Pharisees nabbed and dragged in front of Jesus.) Note that her only accusers

(1) have their motives impugned by the narrator in v6
(2) are not willing to stand by their accusation
(3) have decided not to follow the law of Moses because they didn’t bring the man to be stoned
(4) have subtly misinterpreted the law of Moses: the word “such” in v5 has a feminine ending so what they are saying, in effect, is that “Moses in the law commanded us, that such a woman should be stoned” which is not what the law says–it says that both parties should be stoned.

So why exactly would we believe their accusation?

Let’s consider Jesus’ response: as I noted above, his admonition to go and sin no more probably in itself isn’t evidence that she is guilty of any great sin. He says he will not condemn (literally: judge against) her. Why would he not render judgment against her if she were guilty? He presumably wouldn’t need witnesses to know if she were guilty.

Interestingly, if you think she was innocent, there are some intriguing similarities between her story and Jesus’ trial:

(1) Both are falsely accused.
(2) Both face a sham trial (compare 7:51).
(3) Both are publicly humiliated and described as being “in the midst� (8:3, 9, and 19:18).
(4) Both are victims of religious leaders.

I lean toward option (2) or (3) and away from option (1). But I’ll admit that I can’t make as tight of a case as I’d like. I suspect that may be The Point: the story has been constructed in such a way that the woman’s guilt or innocence is not determinable by the audience. Why should it be? It is none of our business and the story clearly castigates those who thought it was. Regardless of her past, The Point is her present (where Jesus will not allow her to be dehumanized and treated like a life-size object lesson) and her future (where she is invited to live a Christlike life). The Inspired Version adds to the end of verse 11: “and the woman glorified God from that hour, and believed on his name.â€?


[1] In a rare case of unanimity, scholars conclude that 7:53–8:11 was not a part of the earliest manuscripts of John. Fernando Segovia summarizes the evidence:

(1) The passage is missing from manuscripts that date before the fifth century.
(2) When the story does appear in the fifth and sixth centuries, it is accompanied by scribal notes that the text is unsure.
(3) In later manuscripts, it appears in several different places (after 7:36, after 7:52, after 21:24, and after Luke 21:38), suggesting that it was a ‘floating’ story that was added to different places by different copyists.
(4) The vocabulary has more in common with the Synoptics than with John.
(5) The story breaks the unity between 7:52 and 8:12.

I mention this because it seems negligent to discuss the story without mentioning it, but I am not convinced that the history of the story impacts the discussion above.

48 comments for “What If The Woman Taken In Adultery . . . Wasn’t?

  1. I don’t mean to hijack your post immediately, but I recently sat through an RS lesson about how Bathsheba’s poor decisions negatively impacted the kingdom of David, and it never occurred to me that people would assume that Bathsheba had consented to sex with David.

    It always seemed obvious to me that David coerced her–“Hey, your husband’s in my army, subject to my whims, and I’m king of the whole land, and it’s just the two of us here, who do you think they’ll believe?”

    Thanks for the possible rereading of this section.

  2. Hi Julie,

    I read your essay and enjoyed it. I disagree with you in several ways, but I did want you to know that I appreciate the effort that went into your work.

    First of all I have to confess that I have no special knowledge of ancient languages so I really can’t debate the story with you on that level. My bias is that one shouldn’t need a special knowledge of ancient languages to understand the scriptures. If we did, the scriptures would be closed to the vast majority of the church. As such I tend to reject interpretations that differ too greatly from those established by “church tradition� (in the body of accumulated conference talks, for example.) I know that this is a minority view in a community like Times and Seasons.

    Leaving that aside, my real concern is this:
    Let’s assume you are right and there two other readings potentially more valid than the traditional one. I would argue for most people, the scriptures would be weakened rather than strengthened. My opinion is that the vast majority of church members are more in need of illustrations of how we can be forgiven of our sins rather than that we can be freed of our false accusers.

    (I should also confess that I am a man, so perhaps I shouldn’t be posting in this thread.)


  3. I personally favor the first interpretation. While I think there may be valuable lessons about gender to learn here, I like to believe that the story illustrates forgiveness of sin and the importance of not judging the guilty. I would hate to think that the only reason that Jesus does not consent to her stoning was that she in fact was not guilty; that kind of guts the moral of the story in my mind.

    I know that I am misreading your intent here, but the first interpretation teaches us something about mercy that the other two interpretations simply cannot.

  4. I tend to favor the first interpretation as well. I think the Savior’s response would have been more immediate toward her and less worried about the accusers. He also didn’t vindicate her of wrongdoing in addressing the accusers; He simply reminded them that they were not without sin in their own lives, so they should not have been judging her. And then He invited her to move forward without the sin of which she had been accused (speaking as though #1 is correct).

    I also deeply appreciate the message about forgiveness. If #1 is the correct interpretation, that makes the story that much more powerful to me, since adultery is one of the more “serious” sins. The Savior is quick to forgive if we will but turn away from our sins. What better message can there be?

    Incidentally, I think one can still appreciate interesting similarities even if she wasn’t innocent. All but #1 of the list of four seem to apply, regardless of her innocence.

  5. Julie, if you’re right then it’s easy to see why the writers or compilers of the early manuscripts would omit the story. Like them, I question the authenticity of a story of Jesus teaching the Pharisees that only those without sin can stone innocents.

    The Pharisees specifying that she had been taken “in the very act” suggests that they believed her involvement was not “passive,” unless, of course, the Pharisees considered rape victims to be guilty of adultery. If that’s the case, then the traditional interpretation would indeed warrant revision.

    Under your interpretation, though, why do you suppose Christ would tell the Pharisees to cast stones only if they’re without sin, rather than saying, “Umm, guys, as a general rule it’s wrong to crush the heads of innocent women with big rocks”?

  6. Two comments–
    1. If she was indeed taken “in the very act” where is the guy? The Law of Moses which the Pharisees seem particularly ardent in upholding does not have a double standard.

    2. As to Bathsheba. In virtually every Church class I have been in where this story is discussed, Bathsheba becomes the villian, tempting poor David. However, what does the text say? Here are a couple of scriptural texts to consider–

    2 Samuel 11:1 “And it came to pass, after the year was expired, at the time when kings go forth to battle. . . David tarried still at Jerusalem.” So if he had been where he was supposed to have been, doing what he should have been doing this whole mess would never have occurred.

    Matthew 1: 3-16 (especially verse 6) This is an especially interesting listing of Christ’s genealogy. The women mentioned (or referred to) are Thamar, Rachab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. All of these women have been seen to various degrees in problematic ways in their own times and ours. However, I would challenge anyone to find any condemnation of any of them in scripture or modern authoritative LDS writings.

    As an example of how Mary fared in her own time consider John 8:41 where Jesus is accused of being born of fornication. Interesting, that by the time our Bible is organized the way it is, this exchange is in the same chapter as the story of the woman taken in adultery.

  7. I agree that David was not innocent in his affair with Bathsheba. With the power that he held and in the cultural status of women on the day he was not innocent in this sin. In fact I believe that Samuel goes to great length to show David\’s guilt. However in defense of David, the fact that David did not go to battle is a credit to David. Instead of going out and killing, plundering neighboring towns, and killing his people, and taking more taxes and resources from Israel, David does something different, he breaks from the traditions of the world, and decides to live in peace. That is a testament to David\’s goodwill, not a reason for his sin.
    As for the adulterous woman, I think her guilt is not in question; rather the story uses this example of Christ\’s love for the sinner. This story gives us a good example of how the world (the Pharisess,) deal with sin, and how God (Christ) actually deals with sin.

  8. I should have added to the above that while Bathsheba is never criticized in the scriptures, David is. God seems to put the blame squarely on David. Consider 2 Samuel 12;1-7 and D&C 132:39. This seems to be an early account of sexual harassment by an older, powerful man of a younger and vulnerable female.

    I would also like to add that however uncomfortable contemporary Christians may be with Tamar, she has an honored name among the Jews. (There would be no Jews without Tamar.) And Tamar was within her rights, as even Judah finally acknowledged. Today many girls are still named Tamara or Tami (derivitives of Tamar). No one names their daughter Jezebel for example.

    Matthew probably included these women and not others, such as Eve or Sarah or Leah in his listing because his audience was familiar with the stories of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba and knew that everything was not necessarily as it first appeared to be. I think he was making a similar connection with Mary the mother of Christ.

  9. Another great, thought-provoking post Julie. And worrisome comments: are there really wards out there where “blame Bathsheba” is the norm? Yeccchh, as A. E. Newman, the noted Biblical scholar, would have said.

  10. I think we should be open to the possibility that the woman was caught in the act with one of the Pharisees and that the other Pharisees knew about it. Therefore, she is guilty, but such sin was common among the Pharisees and Jesus was pointing out their hypocrisy. This is why they couldn’t stone her in the end. But she was guilty, and therefore Jesus’ advice to go and sin no more is valid.

  11. Great post Julie. I’m probably in the camp that the story was added later. Yet we can still learn from it.

  12. “…I am not convinced that the history of the story impacts the discussion above.”

    I don’t see how it couldn’t. Since the passage is not attested before the fifth century (whereas there are mss without it beginning circa 200), it is likely that the event it describes never occured.

  13. Wow, lots of great comments. Thanks to all.

    Heather Bigley, your threadjack is appreciated. Bathsheba’s bathing was probably the post-menstruation purification ritual, performed in the typical roofless “bathroom” of the time. Since David would have had the highest vantage point from the palace, he most likely would have been the only one capable of seeing her–but he was supposed to be out of town. Assuming that she was acting provocative might be done commonly, but it finds no footing in the text. I also agree with commenters who note that David is condemned in the scriptures but Bathsheba isn’t and also that it is difficult to imagine consensual sex between a commoner and a king.

    Herodotus, your comment raises many interesting issues. You wrote, “My bias is that one shouldn’t need a special knowledge of ancient languages to understand the scriptures.”

    I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, yes, the scriptures should be accessible to everyone. On the other hand, there’s no point in pretending that they are when they simply aren’t. Maybe we could make a useful distinction between (1) readability to get enough knowledge for salvation [which I think any literate person could do] and (2) readability to realize nuances not obvious in translation [which may require specialized skill].

    “As such I tend to reject interpretations that differ too greatly from those established by “church traditionâ€? (in the body of accumulated conference talks, for example.)”

    Even with my distinction above, I do think that this is a very good guideline and I think one of the weaknesses of theories (2) and (3) is that they don’t have any support in the writings of Church leaders.

    You then make a point about the theme of forgiveness in the story being destroyed if we go with (2) or (3). Many other commenters (Nate W., etc.) make this same point. While it is certainly true, it bothers me because I think it is fundamentally wrong to say, “That interpretation can’t be true because I want this story to teach that X is important.” That seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse. A common LDS folk theory is that the “eye of the needle” is a gate and camels had to kneel to enter. This is false (even an Ensign article took that one up!) It isn’t acceptable to say, “But the eye of the needle must be a gate because the image of having to humbly kneel to enter God’s presence is a beautiful one.” I think we need to say: forgiveness is important, Christ taught forgiveness, but whether he did so in this story or didn’t in this story needs to be determined on its own merits and not on whether we

    I think an interesting comparison story is the anointing in Luke. In that story, the woman is clearly penitent. Luke 7:47-50: “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
    48 And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.
    49 And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also?
    50 And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace. ”

    Compare this with His reaction in John 8. In luke, He acknowledges the reality of her sins (“her sins which are many”) and clearly states that they are forgiven. There is also several references to her penitence. In John 8, he doesn’t acknowledge that she sinned, doesn’t state that she is forgiven, and there is no evidence at all of her repentence. To me, these differences suggest that John 8 is not giving us a repentence/forgiveness story.

    “(I should also confess that I am a man, so perhaps I shouldn’t be posting in this thread.)”

    One of the things I like about the bloggernacle is that there is more male-female interaction than in sometimes typical in LDS settings and I think we all benefit from the variety of viewpoints. So I hope you will continue to comment on my posts.

    That only gets my through comment #3 but I have to surrender the laptop to its rightful owner. I’ll get back to this sometime later today–thanks for the great conversation and keep ’em coming.

  14. Thanks for this post, Julie. Great thoughts — and about halfway through, I found myself thinking, Julie really missed her calling. She should have been a member of the defense bar. :)

  15. Hello again Julie,

    Thanks for your reply. If you don’t mind, I’d like to also respond to your comment about how people sometimes think, “That interpretation can’t be true because I want this story to teach that X is important.�

    Eventually, I think I am in agreement with your original post that the truth of these interpretations can’t be known for certain. I think you presented these ideas in a very reasonable way, not claiming to be able to prove the superiority of one idea over another. When I am in this situation and the truth of an idea is beyond me, I next ask myself about the idea’s *utility.* Does the idea help me? Does it hurt me? Admittedly, this does not inform me about the truth of an idea, but it does tell me about the idea’s consequences. And I would argue that when the truth is unknowable the consequences are a pretty valuable thing to know. On a personal level, accepting the new interpretations of this story would be for me a net negative. I see that I generalized this in my previous comment. Perhaps I shouldn’t. Other people can speak for themselves.

    Finally, if you don’t mind I’d like to ask you a question.
    Let’s accept that there are different categories of scriptural knowledge as you suggest: “(1) readability to get enough knowledge for salvation [which I think any literate person could do] and
    (2) readability to realize nuances not obvious in translation [which may require specialized skill].�
    My question is this: What is the significance of the second category? Should I bother myself with it? Why? I’m not trying to bait you in any way. I’m just curious what you think. Perhaps you have already discussed this ad infinitum on these forums. I apologize if this is an invitation to resume the beating of a very old and dead horse. I unfortunately am a newcomer and haven’t heard the conversation to date.

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  17. Julie,

    Thanks much for your post.

    I can’t readily choose among the various alternatives, myself, but I think it’s because I stumbled over this: Why would he not render judgment against her if she were guilty? He presumably wouldn’t need witnesses to know if she were guilty.

    I understand you to assume that Jesus was omniscient during His mortality. I’ve never thought that (though it’s entirely possible I’ve missed something pretty important). I have understood the story to present a situation in which those dragging the poor soul to Jesus seek to play on Jesus’ very lack of omniscience. Jesus, adroit as ever, makes clear that He doesn’t need to know whether she was or was not engaged in adultery — via common sense, He’s confident that none of those accusing her is free from sin, and via similar common sense, He’s confident that she isn’t, either, so He tells her, (as you’ve already observed, the same as He tells others who are not overtly Scarlet Letter sinners) to sin no more.

  18. Idahospud, # 16 –

    Well said. Your comment is more cogent than many in the ‘nacle. On many blogs, your comment would actually raise the bar.

  19. She WAS guilty! Why do I think that? Well for one the scripture says that she was caught in the ‘very act’. Certainly that doesn’t exclude rape but it seems that one could tell if they had come upon an affair versus a rape. The second is that if she was raped Christ would never say ‘go thy way and sin no more’, He would-as I would hope anyone with true compassion-have said something like ‘you didn’t do anything wrong and you need to know that and know that you can have peace again’. Last, the story is about FORGIVENESS! Christ is showing that something as terrible as adultery is forgiveable and that he has the power to forgive it. Christ also shows us that we are not the judges-He is the judge-we have no right as we are all impure in the sight of God. So, I’m afraid that I think it is not only silly to say that she was innocent it ruins the whole story-in fact it almost seems insulting to think that Christ would have told a rape victim or someone that hadn’t had any sexual activity that had just barely escaped an execution for an invented crime something like “go thy way and sin no more”. That kind of response to me, would only appropriate in a situation where someone had just escaped punishment for a crime she was guilty of.

  20. I always saw the point of that story as a demonstration of Jesus\’ teaching that we should not judge others. In which case, the ambiguity of her guilt actually reinforces the point. We don\’t, and can\’t, know if she is truly guilty, and likewise cannot know if she is worthy of punishment.

    Jesus\’ comment at the end, to sin no more, applies whether she was guilty of this particular sin or not..after all, she was human, and therefore a sinner.

  21. But Doug wouldn’t the ‘go and sin no more’ be a very inappropriate thing to say to someone who had just barely escaped her life for a sin that she hadn’t done or even worse that she had been accused of due to a rape? It seems weird to me to imply that it has meaning to sin in the general sense- “Now that you just barely escaped your life for something you weren’t guilty of you can go home and oh, by the way, don’t be sinning-since everyone is apt to that.”

  22. An alternative reason she was an adulteress is that she was a divorced woman who had remarried. Christ said that a divorced woman who had remarried was committing adultery. Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:3-9, also Mark 10:2-9. This was a higher standard than the law of Moses. The Pharisees may have been exploring the practical application of Christ’s higher standard by asking what to do with a remarried divorcee. Christ essentially said, “don’t worry about her, worry about yourselves.”

    If she wasn’t a remarried divorcee, but had committed actual willing adultery, there is one good reason they wouldn’t have brought the man before Christ along with her. If he was a Roman soldier, the Jewish laws wouldn’t have been able to reach him anyway.

    Both of those ideas are from “Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels,” by Frances Taylor Gench (Westminster John Knox Press 2004) at page 150.

  23. Since Bathsheba was a Canaanite Jerusalemite (Remember that David had conquered the Canaanite Jerusalem and made it his capital), it would seem reasonable to speculate Bathsheba to be more urbane and worldly than long-time subjects of Israel. Surely an Israelite KING should know better than to covet another’s wife.

  24. Matt and Yomo,

    My apologies for not including this in the original post, but the phrase “in the very act” is not included in the earliest manuscripts for this story (which, again, aren’t that early themselves). Most scholars do not believe the phrase is original to the story. Even if we think it is, we need to decide whether we are going to believe their accusation; we shouldn’t a priori accept it, given that the narrator–and then Jesus Himself–impugns their motives.

    Matt then writes, “Under your interpretation, though, why do you suppose Christ would tell the Pharisees to cast stones only if they’re without sin, rather than saying, “Umm, guys, as a general rule it’s wrong to crush the heads of innocent women with big rocksâ€??”

    Good thought. Maybe his main concern is just dismissing them, since they aren’t there to learn but to entrap him. Hard to say. Perhaps he thought his response (which is a very interesting riff on Deut 17:7) might give them better guidance for future events.

    adam writes, “However in defense of David, the fact that David did not go to battle is a credit to David. ”

    Hmmm–I always saw him as shirking his duty in this–if he were going peacenik on us then why did he send his men into battle?

    adam also writes, “As for the adulterous woman, I think her guilt is not in question; rather the story uses this example of Christ\’s love for the sinner. This story gives us a good example of how the world (the Pharisess,) deal with sin, and how God (Christ) actually deals with sin.”

    This is lovely. Thank you. It is what I tried to come to at the end of my post: her guilt or lack thereof isn’t the point.

    g. wesley writes, “Since the passage is not attested before the fifth century (whereas there are mss without it beginning circa 200), it is likely that the event it describes never occured.”

    I don’t think your conclusion follows from your premise. If you had your hands on a pre-Jesus’-visit copy of the Nephite record in addition to the BoM, you might assume that Samuel the Lamanite never existed because only the later mss. would attest to it. There’s no reason to think that John 8.1-11 wasn’t a floating pericope or an oral tradition that is basically accurate but just wasn’t included until later.

    Kaimi writes, “Julie really missed her calling. She should have been a member of the defense bar.”

    I’ll kindly ask you to refrain from personal insults on this thread.

    Herodotus asks, “My question is this: What is the significance of the second category? Should I bother myself with it? Why?”

    Excellent questions. May I make an analogy to genealogy work? The essentials are names and relationships because that’s what we need to do temple work. Stuff like photos and journals are nice, but not essential. But they sure do motivate you (or, at least, me!) to be more interested in the work and add meaning to it. Similarly, with scripture study, the essential, necessary stuff is available to anyone who can read or listen, but the icing on the cake can increase motivation to continue and may be worthwhile for that reason. I know a lot of people who find scripture study boring. (“I Nephi having been born blah blah blah I’ve read this a million times.”) I find that people are fascinated when they learn “new” stuff about the scriptures. If this increases their motivation to continue studying, then it is worthwhile. I imagine that some of us would have been bored to come across this story in our scripture study, but now–even those who don’t agree with me!–are thinking through the story in ways that they probably haven’t before. That’s a good thing.

    Re #16: I’ll kindly remind you that our comment policy prohibits speaking in tongues and we will have to delete any further comments along these lines.

    greenfrog writes, “I understand you to assume that Jesus was omniscient during His mortality.”

    Not so. Perhaps, but not necessarily. But we do have ample evidence that Jesus had non-garden-variety knowledge in many, many situations (i.e., Samaritan woman’s situation, that Lazarus would die and be raised, his own death, etc.) and so I don’t find it implausible that he would here. But I do think your comment gets at a more important idea anyway: that they (we) are all sinners and all given the same invitation.

    Yomo, please read John 5:14 and then rethink your #19 comment and follow up comment.

    Re #20–exactly.

    Melinda writes, “An alternative reason she was an adulteress is that she was a divorced woman who had remarried. Christ said that a divorced woman who had remarried was committing adultery.”

    Very interesting. Not provable, of course, but interesting. (Same with the idea that the guy was a Roman soldier.) I think this plays into my final point that we (the audience) don’t have enough information to decide what she is or isn’t guilty of.

  25. re: #16

    DOH! I of course have little to say of coherence on this thread, and “my” comment proves it. Madame Chaos has been at it again, I suspect.

    Thanks for the heads up, Julie! Heh heh heh

  26. Thanks for your reply Julie. I’d like to challenge you on your response if you don’t mind.

    We’re assuming again that there are two categories of scriptural knowledge. The first as you put it is “knowledge for salvation� while the second represents a category which engages our general interest. If I have mischaracterized this please correct me.

    You mentioned that the scriptures frequently become boring to people (an incontestable fact in my opinion) and that the process of learning new interpretations to these scriptural stories can pique our interest (also incontestable in my opinion). I imagine that anyone who has attended a gospel doctrine class with several opinionated people has an idea of the creative and near infinite number of interpretations that can be formulated to traditional gospel stories. But presumably only one interpretation is actually correct. In this case, the woman was either an adulterer or she was not. While the text may admit either possibility, her actions defined only one.

    Here is my question: At what point does formulating and studying such alternate explanations become an obstacle rather than a help to our salvation? In this example (for instance) we both agree that only one interpretation has the benefit of support in “the writings of Church leaders.� While they incontestably engage us intellectually, does the study of “interesting� things always bring us closer to God or does it sometimes distract us from “knowledge for salvation?�

    I apologize if these questions seem argumentative in any way. My profession deals with the boundary between speculation and action. Again, I’m just curious about your thoughts.

  27. Herodotus, I think we have here a hard case making for a less-than-useful discussion. Let me say that most of the time, the biblical studies stuff that I bring to my LDS classes might enhance, nuance, tweak, or add depth of meaning to the standard interpretation–not debunk it. This is one of the only cases that I can think of that is radically revisionary–and when I teach this passage, what I teach is mostly focused on my “Conclusion” in the original post: I think the story had enough ambiguity regarding the woman’s situation that it encourages us to focus on her present and future and not on her past–which is, of course, exactly what Jesus does in the story.

    I think you said at one point you were relatively new around here; maybe your question “What is the significance of the second category? Should I bother myself with it? Why?” would be better answered through some of these posts:


    . . . or maybe it won’t. This kind of stuff if not everyone’s cup of herbal tea, and that’s OK.

  28. One way to read the story (a way a prominent BYU professor reads it) is to look at the protocol under the law of the day. For one to be convicted and stoned, there had to be two eye witnesses. If I remember right according to law, these witnesses had to be the first to throw stones if one was convicted and set for a stoning, which involved the stoners being above (on a kind of mound) casting/dropping large rocks on the guilty who will be below in something of a pit. Two guys out to trap Jesus set up a woman (perhaps a poor prostitute), bring her before Jesus, who, seeing through the situation, then says ‘Let him (the one of you two) who is without sin (who didn’t commit the act) cast the first stone. Seems like a plausible reading, and could explain why they didn’t have the man defendent.

  29. I appreciate your reply. I know that these questions can be interpreted as an attack on everything from FARMS to blogs like these. Thanks for not being offended. The issue is part of a broader discussion I’ve been engaged in recently and I was curious what you would add.

    Thanks again for your reply.

  30. Herodotus, I’ve been thinking about similar questions about how different readers approach scriptures. I read an interesting article by David Clines recently who is a prominent advocate of a reader-response approach to scripture. Here is an interesting example on Psalm 24 which also gets into a theory on reader-reponse (esp. as a next step after deconstructing a text…).

    Here’s a very simplified version of my view: Post-modernism usually focuses on the subject in an encounter. So in philosophy, the philosopher’s thinking becomes as (or more) important as what the thinker is thinking about. In reading a text, the reader’s ideas that she brings to the text become an important component to think about when thinking about the meaning that is created in the text-reader encounter. (This is where the notion comes that the text by itself does not have any meaning, only readers can give a text meaning….)

    In Nephi’s terms of likening the scripture unto ourselves, I think we have to consider as much of the historical situatedness of the text into account as we are able (often very limited by our knowledge, time, energy etc.), but ultimately it is up to us to make sense of the text for ourselves. With scripture, I would venture that the more we think about the scripture, from different angles and possibilities, the more likely it is that we will be able to come up with a meaning that is personally meaningful and edifying (presupposing we ponder and pray about each of these meanings). To me, this is what it means to feast upon the word….

  31. Julie #24: I couldn’t find discussion of the phrase “in the very act” being in some manusripts but not others. Can you cite a few that didn’t have it or reveal your sources on this? (The Word Biblical Commentary discusses the earliest manuscripts and commentaries on this passage, but doesn’t mention the “in the very act” not being in the first manuscripts….) Thanks by the way for the very interesting post.

  32. I checked Kevin Barney’s NT footnotes. He doesn’t address the “in the very act” manuscript issue, but I thought this note was interesting:

    Long used to demonstrate Jesus’ forgiving nature, [this story] seems incongruent in
    light of some of his other sayings. In this chapter, he forgives a woman caught in an
    adulterous act, for which the law of Moses required the death penalty (Leviticus 20:lO).
    Yet elsewhere, Jesus chides the Pharisees for not requiring the death of rebellious
    offspring, as Moses taught (Exodus 21 : 17; Leviticus 20:9), by allowing him to pay a fine
    (Mark 7:9-13).

    The WBC goes into some depth discussing different views on what the penalty for adultery was for marrieds and singles at the time of Moses, so it seems there are differing views at least on this point.

    In brief response to Kevin’s main point, I think one could argue that in Mark 7:9ff Jesus is chiding the Pharisees because of their hypocrisy regarding the law, not b/c he’s endorsing this enforcement of the law per se. But this is off-the-cuff, I’d be interested in hearing others’ responses to Kevin’s point on this.

  33. Re #31:

    My source is Deborah W. Rooke, “Wayward Women and Broken Promises: Marriage, Adultery and Mercy in Old and New Testaments,� in Ciphers in the Sand: Interpretations of the Woman Taken in Adultery (John 7:53–8:11), ed. Larry J. Kreitzer and Deborah W. Rooke (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 45.

    However, in rereading it to answer your question, I realize I may have misinterpreted the source: I think she is saying that the best mss. say that the woman was in fact caught in the act but not by the Pharisees reporting it to Jesus. This is the statement:

    “Although a few late manuscripts give the reading ‘we found her in the very act’, most manuscripts use a passive formulation, ‘she was taken’ or ‘caught in the very act.’ Who caught her? Where are they?”

    If I have time today (doubtful), I”ll sit down with NA26 and look at the variants so I can give you a more definitive answer.

  34. Robert C, #32: I think you can read both passages that way: Jesus condemns the Pharisees for being hypocrites, not for being too lax or too strict with law.

    Julie: I liked the main idea of the post, ie. we don’t really know whether to believe the Pharisees, but I side with others that the simplest explanation—and most meaningful in interpreting vs.10-11—is that she was guilty. As you said, you “can’t make as tight of a case as [you’d] like.” Like Robert C, I am interested in the later addition of the phrase “in the very act,” but in the end I wouldn’t know what to make of it. If the story is a later addition to the Gospels, then the phrase is an addition to an addition—and if I reject additions then I would have to reject the entire story.

    A Question: I n verse 6 there is an interesting phrase that I don’t fully understand. The Pharisees say what “Moses in the law commanded,” but ask Jesus what he thinks. The text tells us “This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him.” My question is: of what did they hope to accuse him? Did the Jews have the power under Roman rule to stone anyone, or did all executions need approval? If so, then this seems analogous to the trick they tried with the taxation question (see Mark 12, “Render to Caesar…”).

  35. BrianJ asks, “My question is: of what did they hope to accuse him? ”

    This is a very good question but I don’t think the matter is immediately obvious; I think it depends on how you read the rest of the story.

    For example, if you believe the woman to be innocent (and believe that the Pharisees know this), then if Jesus says to stone her, then they can show him to be a false prophet but if he says to release her they can maintain their ruse and show him to be acting contrary to the law of Moses.

    #22 and #28 offer other options and I’m sure there are others as well.

  36. Robert C. #32, just to be clear, the Gospel of John footnotes were written by John Tvedtnes, not by me.

  37. Kevin #36: Thanks for the clarification, I wondered after I posted but didn’t get around to checking who wrote the John notes. These notes have already proved tremendously useful!

    BrianJ #34: Here’s the WBC take—my sense is that it’s a pretty standard Mormon view too (i.e. I’d be surprised if, say, Talmage or McConckie didn’t take the same view, if they mention it…):

    If he upholds the Law [and approves the stoning of the adulterer], he contradicts his way of life and his preaching; if he maintains his outlook and preaching regarding sinners and denies Moses, he shows himself a lawless person and perverter of the people who must be brought to justice. [Beasley-Murray, G. R. (2002). Vol. 36: Word Biblical Commentary : John. (146). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]

  38. The woman was clearly guilty. She was taken in the act, Jesus points out what the correct judgement for such a case is (i.e., stoning), and then tells her to sin no more. She is guilty. Suggesting anything otherwise is breaking the text entirely.

    What you are missing, Ms. Smith is the entire context. The Pharisees are trying to get Jesus in trouble. They have cooked up a case that will set Jesus either at odds with the Law of Moses or the Romans. If Jesus says she should be condemned to death via stoning, they report him to the Romans for sedition as Roman law forbade any capital punishment outside of their hands. If Jesus said she was not to be put to death, then Jesus was clearly contradicting the Law of Moses and they can badmouth him for that. It was a setup. If she hadnt been guilty, there wouldnt have been any setup.

    Detailed comments here:


    And, regarding Bathesheba’s complicity in David’s dalliances, Bathsheba was up washing herself on the roof, performing ritual purifications after “the custom of women was upon her”. Now, tell me, what sort of woman washes herself in such a provocative manner on her rooftop? A modest one, or one looking to promote herself? See here:


  39. I have learned by sad experience that reasonable discussions with Kurt aren’t possible so I won’t engage him here, but I do want to point out to anyone else reading this that 2 Samuel 11 doesn’t indicate that Bathsheba was on her roof. As I said above, there’s no indication–during the story or in later commentary on the incident–that she’s done anything inappropriate but every indication that David has.

  40. Kurt, there is nothing in either of your commentaries that suggests that you are presenting fact any more than Julie is. You are, as she is, presenting your *interpretation* of what is written.

  41. Is the woman taken in adultery authentic? Anyone here read Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus”?

  42. Great post Julie,

    I appreciate your careful handling of the text. For those who wonder if such analysis is really valuable, let me point out that Julie earns a lot of respect from someone like me who is outside of the LDS church. No doubt, because of my own prejudices, I would have never expected to see such concern for the meaning of the text in an LDS context. Julie’s posts have forced me re examine many of my assumptions about Mormons.

  43. Julie, thank you for this important post. I agree that the account is compelling and has important messages to us regarding forgiveness and judgmentalism.

    That said, I continue to find it more than annoying that treatments of this account in Church continue to ignore the role of the man “taken in adultery.” This is consistent with the treatment of women in the scriptures (from Eve on) as a prime source of evil and deception.

    I hope to see the day when talks in Church relating this story point out that the man who was with the woman in adultery somehow escaped the threats of stoning and was not even mentioned in a disparaging manner.

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