Students of Scripture have lately thought that the narrative of the woman caught in adultery belongs more in one of the Synoptic Gospels, maybe St. Luke, than in the Gospel account of St. John.
St. Luke’s Gospel account is often labeled the “Gospel of Mercy” since compassion and empathy are among his constant themes.
For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan is found exclusively in St. Luke’s rendering of Christ’s parables and has clearly become the iconic tale of human tenderness. So too, Jesus’ sympathy for the plight of the adulterous woman, starkly contrasted with the harshness of the religious leaders, certainly would fit well into St. Luke’s narrative.
But the tale of the woman caught in an illicit union also fits well with the street corner dialogues or, more accurately, arguments in which Jesus and the Pharisees frequently and testily engage. The altercations over the payment of taxes to Caesar, over the eternal fate of the woman with the seven husbands, over which commandment of the Law is the greatest, over the eating of grain on the Sabbath, were all engineered by the religious leaders to embarrass Jesus in public, to diminish his stature, to lessen his prestige. Jesus himself was not above a bit of antagonistic repartee as when he asked the religious leaders whether John the Baptist’s authority came from God or man. Their non-response was a public victory for Jesus.
The incident of the woman caught in adultery corresponds largely with these other Lucan episodes of public one-upmanship. The Mosaic Law did indeed demand death for any woman involved in an adulterous act. But, as with many other Biblical mandates, by the time of Jesus Christ these punitive laws were not observed.
Roman practice in the first century limited the Jews to inflicting forty lashes as punishment for serious crimes. St. Paul claims to have endured forty lashes less one for his supposed violations. The “less one” indicated the fear the Jews had of overstepping their legal limit. So the religious leaders that asked Jesus’ opinion on the fate of the adulterous woman knew that his answer would be inconsequential. Public embarrassment and not Mosaic justice was their true objective.
The episode involving Jesus, the religious leaders and the unfortunate woman exposes several narrative details that students of Scripture have long pondered. In the midst of the event, Jesus begins to write in the sand with his finger. Some scholars see this simple act as testimony to Jesus’ ability to write. The Bible had already indicated that Jesus could read.
His taking the scroll at Nazareth and reading from Isaiah confirmed that. Now Jesus is appreciated as doubly literate: he could read and write. Other students of Scripture have mused over the centuries regarding exactly what Jesus was tracing on the ground as he waited for the religious leaders to respond. Some speculate that Jesus was writing down the sins of the distinguished gathering before him. Their exit was prompted by the fear that Jesus would get too specific, literally fingering them for the sinners that they were.
Then, of course, there is the concluding interchange between Jesus and the hapless woman: “So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” This current translation, “…do not sin anymore,” is certainly an improvement over the tactful “avoid this sin,” which American Catholics heard at Mass for a couple of decades.
Jesus does not condemn the woman for her past offenses, but he is firm about her need for regret and repentance. Jesus leaves no doubt in her mind that she has to change her ways and live up to Judaism’s lofty morality regarding virginity, betrothal, marriage and family. The Jews of Jesus’ era were very “pro-life” and “pro-family,” to borrow terms from our contemporary experience. Marriages were carefully arranged by families to the advantage of both spouses. Divorce, while permitted, was rare in ancient Jewish society. Children were a blessing both as helpers in the family trade and as caregivers in old age.
Adultery, then, was rightly understood to strike at the very heart of Jewish society. What promoted the traditional family was virtuous. What harmed the traditional family was vicious.These are lessons modern America might well ponder.