By Stephen Green
First Published in Christian Voice November 2003
In many modern versions of the Bible, John 7:53 to John 8:11 is written in italics, with a foot-note to the effect that this passage is omitted from “some ancient manuscripts.” Why should that be? Why should a passage of God’s word which is there in the Greek ‘Textus Receptus,’ authenticated by Erasmus and relied upon exclusively by Bishop Andrewes and his team of translators for the King James version, be absent from other sources?
We need to remember that just because a manuscript of the Bible is ancient is not to say it is accurate. Manuscripts were often altered to bolster a heretical view. The letters of the Apostles reveal that there were heresies around in the earliest days of the church. The Gnostic heresy, which demoted the material world to be beneath the concern of God, was the most prevalent, and to the Apostle John, the most dangerous. (1 John 4:3) There will have been manuscripts of the Bible emerging in the first few centuries which had a Gnostic frame of mind. Subtle changes will have been made, to slant the New Testament message into the spiritual realm alone.
The same sort of thing happens today. In Psalm 24:10, and on fourteen other occasions in the Psalms, the Hebrew word “tsava’ah” is translated as “hosts” in the KJV, in expressions such as “The Lord of hosts.” The word indeed means a host, an army, a great number. One modern bible version persistently renders the expression into “Lord of the heavenly armies”. The word for “heavenly” isn’t there in the Hebrew – these translators had a problem with God being in charge of earthly armies, so they relegated Him to the spiritual sphere alone, and they did it by adding to the word of God.
Is it for a similar reason that the account of the woman taken in adultery was omitted by some ancient, heretical, manuscripts? Had the scribes, despite their training to be faithful reproducers of documents, spotted something they just didn’t like? Did the account oppose the Gnostic view? Or did it possibly oppose Antinomianism, the view that Jesus did away with the law of God?
One would hardly think the latter, given the stance of many recent and contemporary commentators. Thanks to their efforts, the popular view today is that the passage shows Jesus abolishing either the death penalty for adultery in particular, or the death penalty in general. For example, the following was written by a prominent reformed churchman: “Christ himself refused to allow the stoning of the adulterous woman.” The proposition being made is that at some point in the passage in question, Jesus said something like, “I will not allow you to stone her,” or “I say do not stone someone caught in adultery” or gave the impression that the death penalty is no longer valid.
TAKEN IN THE VERY ACT
Let us see if that is true. The passage is John 8:1-11, the account of our Lord Jesus and the matter of the woman taken in adultery. The Scribes and the Pharisees were hypocrites only to bring the woman, of course. The woman was “taken in the very act”. That means a man was there as a partner to the act. He seems to have been allowed to leave, even though the law says: the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Lev 20:10) Those who just brought the woman were not quite so hot on the law as they pretended.
The Lord did not point out their hypocrisy, as he did on other occasions, but events in any case were moving swiftly. He was immediately, as it appears, in the cleft stick of having to oppose the Roman occupation if he wished to support the Law of God given by Moses. It was a similar challenge to that of Caesar’s coin. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? (John 8:5) They were challenging this upstart young rabbi to accept the role of judge, and pronounce. Now, the Romans would not allow the Jews to carry out a death sentence of stoning, although that would not stop them later stoning Stephen to death for blasphemy. So if Jesus were openly to support the stoning of the woman, he could be denounced for sedition to Pilate. And if he refused to allow her stoning, as our friend suggests he actually did, then he would be revoking, changing, or “destroying” the law.
AT THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES
We must remember that this is he who said, back in Galilee: Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. (Matt 5:17) More recently, and more fresh in the mind to these Jerusalem Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus had just been teaching in the temple in the very middle of the feast of Tabernacles. (John 7:14) “Did not Moses give you the law,” he asked, “and yet none of you keepeth the law?” (John 7:19) Keeping the law was for him and for them an important matter. To be accused of not keeping the law was a serious charge.
It would be an especially serious charge to lay at the door of a teacher of the law. Teaching about the law, especially during the feast of Tabernacles, was the solemn duty of the Levites. (Lev 10:11, Deut 33:10; Neh 8:2,3,13,18) Incidentally, the Greek word used for ‘law’ in all its facets in the New Testament is ‘nomos’ which means ‘a law’. We get words from it such as ‘antinomian’ (against the law) ‘theonomy’ (God-law) and ‘autonomy’ (self-law).
The word ‘nomos’ does not quite capture the full import of the Hebrew word ‘Torah’ with its overlay of teaching, or instruction, as well as what is allowed and what is forbidden. Both the Lord Jesus and His interlocutors would have in mind the word ‘Torah’ or its Aramaic equivalent. Of course, as the Second Person of the blessed Trinity, Jesus is the author of the Torah, and its embodiment. Anyway, by adopting the function of the Levites on that day, the Lord Jesus was shaming the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Then he went even further.
COME UNTO ME AND DRINK
The seventh, great day of the feast (John 7:37) was known as “Hoshana Rabbah”, which means “great (or many) hosannas”. It was a great day of praise. There was also a ritual on that day of taking willow branches from the river banks, and praying for rain and rejuvenation. It is possible that what is known as ‘sympathetic magic’ had been added: when the willow trees are shaken or beaten, the leaves fall in simulation of the coming rainfall.
Hence Jesus’ cry on that day: If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink! He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. Living (running) water is a Hebrew symbol of salvation, and Jesus’ Hebrew name, Yeshua, means “He saves”. (see also: Isa 12:3; Jer 2:13; John 4:10-11) Doing what he did on that day was enough for some to acclaim Jesus as the Messiah (John 7:41), whilst others got stuck on the Galilee question.
Matters became heated enough for Jesus’s followers to be denounced as “this people who knoweth not the law,” (vs 49) and to poor Nicodemus, who was only trying to uphold the law, to be rubbished as a Galilean. “out of Galilee ariseth no prophet,” they said (vs 52). In fact they were wrong on the last count, but for Nicodemus to have pointed out that both Jonah and Nahum came out of Galilee (Jonah from Gath-hepher, two miles from Nazareth, Nahum from Capernaum – Kaphar-Nahum) would have only made matters worse – both men were sent to prophesy to Gentiles.
HANDS OF THE WITNESSES
There was clearly a lot at stake for both Jesus and the men who challenged him with the case of the woman taken in adultery. On another occasion the Lord Jesus refused to judge between a man and his brother (Luke 12:14) in order to make a point about greed and possessions. But here, after the curious episode of writing on the ground, he accepted the role of judge and made a ruling, as we shall see, based totally on the law.
A basic principle of God’s judicial law is that people must be properly convicted, which means at the mouth of two or three witnesses. (Numb 35:30) The Humanist version, ‘Beyond reasonable doubt’ just will not do before the Throne of Grace. And we have to remember that human agents are carrying out divine will, for the judgment is God’s. (Deut 1:17) The necessity for a matter to be established in the mouth of two or three witnesses is strongly upheld in the New Testament (eg: Matt 18:16; John 8:17-18; 2Cor 13:1).
In addition to testifying, the hands of the witnesses had to be the first against the convicted person. (Deut 17:6-7) It is a terrible and solemn duty to testify against someone, and biblically that is reinforced by requiring the witnesses to put their stones, as it were, where their mouths were. After that, all the community were to join in to execute judgment.
Can anyone imagine the horror of such an event? The Bible says: The people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously. (Deut 17:13) There would surely be an immediate decrease in crime in that community. It is difficult for us today to understand living in a society which takes adultery so seriously – the generation in which Jesus lived was not like that, being similar to our own, but more of that later.
COME WITH CLEAN HANDS
A false witness in the Biblical system was in a dreadful predicament. Not only had he helped a person to be wrongfully convicted, but he had thrown the first stone. That was something so appalling that the only remedy was for him to suffer the same fate as would the man or woman he had given false testimony against. (Deut 19:15-19) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. (Exod 20:16). It is reasonable to assume that there would be fewer false witnesses if they had to cast a physical first stone.
A further principle of God’s law is that witnesses must be totally impartial. This was well understood by the Scribes and Pharisees, even if they had forgotten it in their rush to try to catch Jesus out. Witnesses and judges must not be related to the accused. They must not be moved by hatred or love towards the accused. They must not have taken a bribe either for or against the accused. (Deut 16:19) Lastly, they must not be implicated in a similar crime themselves. (Hos 4:14) They must come with clean hands, a Godly principle of law which survives to a limited extent even today.
All of this allows Jesus’ eventual ruling to be much more penetrative than a simple “Yes” or “No” would have been. When he said: He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her, (John 8:7) he gave support to all these parts of the law, and put the onus back on the accusers. Some have attempted to say that “without sin” means perfect, but in that case, if perfect people were the only ones allowed to testify or convict, justice would be impossible. Where would we find them? The Lord’s statement would be ridiculous. Thankfully, the Greek word here translated “without sin” is “anamartetos”. It does not mean perfect, for that is “teleios”. It means not absolutely without sin, but only in a particular case.
PASSAGE MAKES SENSE
Knowing that, the passage suddenly makes sense. Jesus was calling for the witnesses who presumed to condemn the woman to carry out the sentence, whilst reminding them of their legal obligation to come with clean hands. They did not have to be perfect, they just had to be without sin in this one offence.
But these men could not even manage that. Jesus did not maintain eye contact with them, but stooped down and wrote on the ground again. It was an “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mark 8:38) and he knew already that no-one would be prepared – or able in terms of the law – to be the first witness. So we read: And they which heard, being convicted by conscience, went out one by one beginning at the eldest, unto the last, and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst, (v9)
Imagine the situation today. We have everyone in court, the judge, the prosecution lawyers, the prosecution witnesses, a full public gallery, all the court officials and the prisoner in the dock. The judge reminds the prosecution team and their witnesses of their legal duties to maintain a fair trial. Then quietly, the prosecution witnesses melt away and the prosecuting barrister and the CPS instructing solicitor collect up their papers, bow to the judge and leave the room withour a word. In practice today they would say, ‘I am sorry, your honour, but the prosecution has no case to offer. Beg to be excused’.
What does the judge do in a Court of Law when the witnesses absent themselves and no-one is left to accuse the defendant? He can hardly condemn. He is obliged to acquit the defendant. That is precisely what the Lord did, but with that sting in the tail, “Go and sin no more.” (v11) There is no earthly judge who would say that to someone just acquitted. Only a prophet, or the Son of God, can do that.
This is much truer compassion from our gracious Lord than abolishing the death penalty (as some contend the Lord did) would have been. The latter would have shown no compassion to the victim. The Son of God demonstrates his compassion by warning a sinner to repent and escape the wrath of God. As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. (Ezek 33:11)
LAW OF GOD UPHELD
So the Lord Jesus Christ, in this defining moment, upheld the law of God by Moses to the very letter whilst convicting his challengers of sin and setting the adulterous woman free with a warning. This is greater than the wisdom of Solomon. It is all so obvious that it beggars belief that anyone could seriously maintain that the passage shows Jesus changing the law, or refusing to allow the woman to be stoned, which was the claim quoted at the start.
Perhaps the very endorsement which Jesus gives here to the Mosaic law is the reason for the passage’s omission from some of the early manuscripts. Perhaps certain scribes who wanted to separate Christianity from its Hebrew roots had understood what was going on in the passage only too well. Perhaps they were Gnostics, who wanted to separate the kingdom of God from any earthly expression of it. Perhaps they wanted to spiritualise everything of God, and send Him away to inspect His ‘heavenly armies’. Or perhaps they felt that man would make better laws than God.
IS GOD BARBARIC?
When the laws of God are discussed in critical terms, the laws about stoning, and especially stoning for adultery, are always wheeled out as a prime example of God’s alleged barbarism. Despite the fact the God does not change, it is very tempting for us to say, “Oh, that’s just the Old Testament.” But with Christ’s own endorsement of the law in general, and this law in particular, that dispensationalist option seems closed. Even Christian people seem to single out stoning for adultery as that law of God they particularly do not like. “You don’t believe in the law of God, do you? You’ll be stoning people for adultery next!”
I am personally appalled by the idea of stoning. It is little comfort to realise that in our own sinful generation, we should probably have no greater success at finding witnesses with clean hands than did the Lord Jesus. But it is in any case not the function of this article to recommend inclusion of stoning as a penalty in party manifestos. Instead, I want to discern the mind of God and look at the ‘general equity’ of the penalty, to use the term in the Westminster Confession. Why does the righteous law of God include such a provision? What is its purpose? What is God saying, through it, to us in our day?
Perhaps we should first look at the element of public involvement, with the casting by the witnesses of the first stone, and also the deterrent effect so well expressed in Deut 17:13 and Eccl 8:11.
In Britain today, only our jury system involves the public in the judicial process, and long may it do so. We have no modern-day equivalent of the Biblical community involvement in carrying out penalties. Even though God instituted the death penalty for murder in His covenant with Noah for all mankind for ever, we abolished it in 1965, in our wisdom. Of course our current record for wrongful convictions overturned on appeal years afterwards argues against re-introducing it without major reform.
Even when the death penalty was in force, it was carried out for almost 100 years behind closed doors in the depths of a prison. The public baying for blood at Tyburn Hill (1) and Newgate was horrible and unbiblical, but tucking execution away from view is bad from another point of view. It says that something unrighteous is being done. The truth is that capital punishment is God’s will, and righteous. It is not a dark deed to be done in a corner.
As to stoning itself, the method of execution is less important than the principle of public involvement of both witnesses and people. Interestingly, after public execution was abolished in 1868 (2), the yearly number of executions for murder began to increase quite sharply (3). Nor do we give witnesses the solemn duty of casting any first stone, metaphorical or not. They testify and then they go home, taking their conscience with them.
Perhaps, however, people today approve of adultery just as much as they disapprove of stoning. Adultery is a complete betrayal of another’s trust, but today it is almost fashionable. Folk may ‘tut-tut’ at the revelations of adultery in the news, but, just like the woman’s accusers, their hearts are full of sin. Not only is there no death penalty against adulterers in Britain today, we have allowed our politicians to put no penalty at all. Indeed, in the divorce courts, a wife’s adultery is usually rewarded with residence of the children on the grounds that the court can see a ‘new father figure’ for them.
Is such a lack of justice something of which us British should be proud? What would the Lord Jesus, King of kings, say to us? Rather than casting stones at God’s law, should we not be slinking away in shame at the covenant-breaking and breach of promise which our law now firmly encourages? We may even find those things to convict us in our own hearts.
“From this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I plight thee my troth.” Even in the modern versions, the couple give their solemn word, in public. But our law allows either one of them to break his or her word and ruin another’s life without consequences. And they say God’s law is barbaric!
AN ACT OF BETRAYAL
If we look at what God says about adultery, then firstly we see that God regards it as a great evil. That is because adultery is an act of betrayal and because it strikes at the very root of the family in which a Godly seed is to be raised (Mal 2:15). God even likens the idolatry of Israel to adultery, to emphasise the seriousness of ‘whoring after other gods.’ (Judg 2:7)
Secondly, God regards adultery not just as an individual sin, but as a capital offence. That is because His judicial law is based on the principle of restitution, and in common with murder and rape, nothing can restore what has been taken by the act of adultery. At the same time, the death penalty for adultery is a maximum, and the guilty parties are able to make a limited form of restitution financially, presumably if the innocent parties are willing and forgiving, and not beset by what Jesus described as ‘hardness of heart’. (Matt 19:8, cf Deut 24:1)
We infer the principle of financial recompense from Numbers 35:31, where it is written: take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death (Numb 35:31). The word translated here as ‘satisfaction’ is ‘kopher’ which means a ransom, or sum of money. For this verse to be given implies that ransoms were being paid for all capital offences, including for murder. This was actually the case in Anglo-Saxon England. Money would settle anything. But the Bible says that in the case of murder – and only murder – a ransom may not be paid: but he shall surely be put to death. (4)
JUSTICE AND MERCY
In looking to be compassionate, us Christians need first to hate sin (Ps 97:10a), love the things which God loves (Ps 119:97), and stop finding fault in what He says (Ps 5:4). Nobody wants anyone to die, least of all God, so there is an element of mercy available for adulterer and adulteress, but only with the primary principle of justice in place. We start from the wrong end, trying to be nice and merciful first. Then we wonder why there is no justice. (Isa 59:14) Justice comes before mercy in the Bible (Ps 89:14). God’s way is that justice can be tempered with mercy, but not mercy with justice.
Even some Christians lose sight of the fact that God gave His law for our good, and not because He is a spoil-sport. But talking of God spoiling our sport, is adultery really so much fun? And even if it is, is it really worth living in a society where the extended family is now an intricate network of step-parents, live-in boyfriends and all their exes? Where half a generation of children have lost their fathers? Where crime increases as all sense of self-respect declines? Where a public promise can be broken on the whim of one of the parties? Have we gone completely mad?
Spiritually, neither an individual nor a nation ever stands still. We are either going towards God or moving away from Him. (Matt 7:13) At the moment, Britain is travelling fast on the road to destruction. For great is the wrath of the Lord that is poured out upon us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the Lord, to do after all that is written in this book. (2Chr 34:21) God hates divorce, and the breaking of promises, and He also hates injustice. People are fallible, and miss the mark. Some are plain lawless, and it is an injustice for them to get away with the misery they cause. If by God’s grace our nation repents, then bringing some justice back into family law and upholding the Godly solemnity of the marriage vows will be one of the things it will do first. Would it not be a wonderful thing to see our leaders searching the law of God for its wisdom, knowing that we are a nation under Christ, and that Christ upholds His law?
(1) 10,000 people used to turn up for the Monday executions at Tyburn: see www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/LONtyburn.htm
(3) Sorry, link broken – we are trying to find the statistics again.
(4) Murder is the only capital offence which may not be ransomed. The next verse, Numb 35:32, also forbids a ransom for manslaughter, but manslaughter, which the Bible defines as accidental homicide, is not a capital offence.