Who is the Adulterous Woman?
The woman’s story has two parts:
1 The woman is brought before Jesus (see John 8:2-3)
It is early morning, and Jesus is at the Temple, teaching. Some Jewish leaders bring a woman to him. She has been found guilty of adultery. Would Jesus condemn this woman, or let her go?
2 Jesus responds (see John 8:4-11)
The Temple leaders (scribes and Pharisees) challenge him to find a solution to a problem: what is to be done with this woman guilty of adultery, a capital crime? Jesus does not question her guilt, or condone it. He enigmatically refuses to speak, but instead writes in the gravel.
Then he straightens up, looking at the crowd of accusers: ‘Let the person who is without sin cast the first stone’. One by one the crowd melts away. Jesus tells the woman to go, and not to sin again.
The Adulterous Woman: a trap for Jesus
We are in Jerusalem, and it is not long before Jesus’ own death. He is probably spending his days in Jerusalem and his nights in the house at Bethany, traversing the valley and hill road between these two places each day.
This is an introspective Jesus, not the vigorous man who roamed the countryside of Galilee teaching anyone who would listen. This man knows he is in danger, and knows he is surrounded by enemies.
But instead of doing what the rest of us would do and heading back to safety in Galilee, he faces the danger head-on, in the Temple.
His presence here is a tacit statement that he will not back down from who he is and what he believes.
Early morning in the Temple of Jerusalem
It is early morning, and the place is only beginning to stir. There are not many people around, not the crowds that will gather later in the day. In this muted atmosphere, in the great open courtyard of the Temple, Jesus is approached by a group of people.
They are the scribes and Pharisees, the educated people of their day, cautious, law-abiding, economically prosperous. Most of them are lawyers and civil servants of one kind or another.
They know their worth. They have worked hard to get where they are, and take their responsibilities seriously.
One of these responsibilities is maintaining calm in a society that is prone to mayhem.
It is not easy to do. There have been frequent rebellions against the Romans who, if there is any trouble, will kill first then ask questions later.
The scribes and Pharisees, much denigrated in Christian literature, are in fact trying to maintain the status quo.
Why do the Pharisees approach Jesus?
They see Jesus as a threat to stability. He constantly challenges the traditional authorities and appears to have a gang of followers who accompany him everywhere.
He disregards the normal Jewish ritual laws about eating, by sitting down to meals with known law-breakers.
With Passover now approaching and the crowds flocking to Jerusalem, he must be kept in check. Any hint of rebellion at this time will bring down the wrath of the Romans on a lot of innocent heads.
One way of containing him would be to discredit him as a teacher. If he is given an insoluble dilemma and fails to find a solution, his reputation will be undermined, and people will be less likely to flock around him.
This will diminish the danger he poses to himself, to them, and to others.
What should happen to the woman?
They hit on a problem they themselves are wrestling with: what to do when the Law of Moses and the edicts of the Romans challenge each other. Such a situation arises whenever they are commanded by the Law of Moses to impose the death penalty for a particular offense, such as adultery.