Historical Cultural Context
Jesus As Judge
In John 8:15, Jesus claims: “I judge no one,” yet in John 8:26 he states: “I have much to say about you and much to judge.” Scholars recognize these two statements as stemming from two different traditions separated by a considerable amount of time.
The question in this story of the woman caught in adultery is: Why did the Pharisees and scribes bring her to Jesus? How was he perceived to be competent to judge?
The most likely answer is that Jesus was definitely perceived by others as a prophet and therefore competent to pronounce God’s judgment. An editorial comment in John 8:6 tells us of their base motive: it was to trap him so that he could be brought to trial.
There is a tradition that about the year thirty the Romans took away from the Sanhedrin the right of capital punishment. This is why they could not put Jesus to death. While it is impossible to tell whether this arrangement was in effect when this woman was caught, the most credible reason for involving Jesus in this matter is to assume that the arrangement already existed.
The trap is a dilemma. If Jesus urges that the woman be released, he clearly violates the Mosaic Law and proves himself to be an irreligious person. He is certainly no prophet. If he orders that she be stoned, he is in trouble with the Romans, who have taken this right away from the Judeans.
Jesus, as usual, is clever in wiggling out of the dilemma. He buys time for himself by doodling on the ground, a common custom among Mediterranean peasants when distraught. Finally, in response to the continual badgering by his opponents, Jesus challenges this overzealous lynch mob to examine their motives: “Let the one among you who is without sin—let that one be first to east a stone at her?”
This is not an argument against capital punishment. It rather questions the motives of the accusers. Perhaps the wronged husband has cynically prearranged to have his wife caught instead of trying to win her back with love (after the pattern of Hosea 2:14-15). Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees are not interested primarily in the Law of Moses and its principles, or the woman’s life situation, but rather in trapping Jesus.
Jesus the prophet, the one who speaks the will of God for the here-and-now, reminds them—and all zealots—to strive for purity of motive as they pursue their righteous goals.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University