When the scribes and Pharisees approached Jesus with the woman, they were not seeking his advice. The Law of Moses was quite clear on the point, as the scribes and Pharisees themselves point out (John 8:5). Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 make adultery a capital offense. Why, then, did they approach Jesus with this problem? John 8:6 tells us that they were “…testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him” (John 8:6). It is here that a little background reveals the nature of their trap.
During this time, Judea was ruled by the pagan Romans. Although the Romans conceded some measure of authority to the Sanhedrin, they did not give it the ius gladii or power of execution. Only Roman authorities could administer capital punishment. This is why the Jews handed Jesus over to the Romans to be executed by crucifixion (John 18:31).
The Roman usurpation of the power of execution made it impossible for the Jews to carry out various Mosaic prescriptions that called for capital punishment, such as the penalty for committing adultery in Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22. If the Jews did execute someone or even incite others to do so, that action would itself be a capital offense against Roman law. Herein lies the trap.
Had Jesus said, “We must carry out the Law of Moses. Let her be stoned.” The Pharisees would have grounds for accusing Jesus of inciting the people to break Roman law. But if Jesus put aside the Law of Moses because of political circumstances, he could hardly been seen as the Messiah. After all, what kind of Messiah would dismiss the Law of Moses for mere political expediency? Either choice would be disastrous.
What does Jesus do? He bends down and writes in the sand (John 8:6). Scripture does not record what Jesus wrote. Many have speculated as to what it could be. The fact that he wrote in the sand calls to mind Jeremiah 17:13, which reads, “O Lord, the hope of Israel: all that forsake thee shall be confounded: they that depart from thee, shall be written in the earth: because they have forsaken the Lord, the vein of living waters.”
After pressing Jesus for an answer, Jesus responses, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” It is often thought that Christ is trying to prick the conscience of his hearers so they realize they are sinners just like the adulterous woman. But this could hardly be true for the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were the strictest sect in Judaism (Acts 26:5). Their name comes from the Hebrew persahim from the word parash, meaning “to separate.” In other words, they were separated from ordinary sinners by their strict obedience to the Mosaic law. They believed that by keeping every precept of the Law, they would be justified before God. In this regard, they saw themselves as perfect, as St. Paul says about his former way of life as a Pharisee, “…in righteousness based on the law I was blameless” (Philippians 3:6).
But their fidelity to Mosaic law was quite shallow and external. As Jesus said, they pay “tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity…” (Matthew 23:23). Our Lord compared them to white-washed tombs that appear beautiful on the outside but inside are filled with every kind of filth (Matthew 23:27). Jesus’ view of the Pharisees as hypocrites was well-known to everyone who followed him.
With this in mind, let’s return to our passage. When Jesus said, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone,” did he authorize an illegal stoning? If the Pharisees stoned the woman, could they convince the Romans that Jesus’ words authorized them to break Roman law? On the other hand, if the Pharisees didn’t stone the woman, they would implicitly show the crowd Jesus is right: they are sinners. Their trap for Jesus had swung around and trapped them. The elders were the first to realize their predicament and silently left (John 8:9). Truly, all who forsake the Lord are indeed confounded (Jeremiah 17:13).
Gary Michuta is a professional author, speaker and apologist and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.