TMOC: The Adulteress
Let’s start thinking about what this proposed book should attempt to say.
Surely you’ve read in John 8 about the woman caught in adultery.
I’ll mention in passing this story is highly disputed among textual scholars. That is, you’ll find it’s not included in “the earliest and best manuscripts” of John’s Gospel. Yet, we all seem to recognize this is so much like Jesus in every other scene we see Him, it’s widely recognized as authentic anyway.
Why did He shut down the woman’s sentence? The Law of Moses distinctly condemns adultery with the death sentence. Before we answer any other questions, we have to understand why.
Let’s review: The basic Laws of God are founded on the Covenant of Noah (Genesis 9). Moses is an instance of Noah, serving to offer a concrete example. Despite what Jewish-Talmudic scholars insist, the Code of Noah is the fundamental Law of God for all mankind, and Moses is a specific application of that more ancient Law for a limited context. Moses applied only to those who were born under it, and who willingly remained a party of it, along with anyone else willing to embrace it on the same level. It never applied to anyone outside the ancient Nation of Israel. It was a very specific national covenant. Arrogance about Hebrew blood was contrary to the Law of Moses itself; covenant piety was the whole issue of Israeli identity. Insofar as it’s possible to be “Israeli” today, it still hinges on covenant piety.
Modern Judaism is wholly separate. Don’t get lost here. Indeed, the Judaism of Jesus’ day was not the religion of Moses, and this was the fundamental argument Jesus had with the leaders of His nation. I don’t have to prove this; it’s been done, long ago. Just read Edersheim’s Book I at the link, if you have time and need a full academic accounting. I’ve not found anything which counters his work.
The core issue of Noah is the stability and cohesion of the extended family community. This is your government, too. That business of shedding the blood of murderers is a requirement laid upon the clan elders. That the whole covenant seems tied up on that short passage about keeping social order in exchange for God maintaining natural order is typical ancient Hebrew writing, in that far more is implied than is plainly stated. The writers assume a certain amount of background knowledge in the reader. We need not slavishly follow the Talmudic teaching on what comes in the package with the Laws of Noah (AKA The Noahide Laws), but it’s not implausible. At heart, the ancient Hebrew culture is a mixture of highly educated Aramaic Mesopotamian nobility (Abraham) and the nomadic folks residing in the semi-dry climate of Palestine. We must build our understanding of basic assumptions from that cultural setting.
In that lifestyle, bedding down with someone else’s spouse was a serious attack on the whole community. It’s equivalent to raping your same sex cousin. It disrupts the community trust, raising a fragile and suspicious atmosphere, always on the edge of hostility. It means wasting a lot of time and effort preventing things which should never happen, and everyone refusing to share and the whole thing imploding quickly. The family elders must openly try and execute the people who commit such a horrible evil, and dreamy romance be damned. If you truly love and care for others, you simply must embrace the utter necessity of keeping things open, safe and trustworthy.
Israel under the Roman Empire was hardly that kind of community. Still, adultery was a major threat to social stability. But the Jewish leadership had been tearing at that social fabric for a very long time. As Edersheim notes, it began some 300 years before Christ, at a minimum. They were pushing empty legalism without any of the underlying social cohesion. They were instead creating the very divisions, hostility and distrust the Law of Moses were meant to prevent. Jesus noted this in details in other places, so when they bring him this adulteress, their intent was to get Him to play amateur judge. Given the ancient traditions of Hebrew culture, that was exactly how it worked, but they would hardly have any interest in ancient Mosaic observance from the heart and soul. What they wanted was for Jesus to pronounce sentence and rouse the crowd to stone her so they could blame Him when the Romans demanded to know the reason for this riot. It’s no secret Roman Law forbade execution under any laws but their own.
It’s not enough to know Jesus saw through this. He didn’t just sidestep this fakery for the sake of His own hide. There was something fundamentally wrong with the Jewish leadership. This is the basis upon which He attacks them. Regardless how squeaky clean and logical by Aristotle’s standards their system was, it was spiritually empty. It wasn’t Moses, much less Noah. The Law was not simply a rote observance; it was a personal commitment to the Lawmaker. Jesus knew His Father’s power. He struck to the heart of the matter. He didn’t even ask, “Where’s the man with whom she sinned?” That was damning enough, but instead He raised the issue of how wrong they were inside themselves. “Do you feel sinless? Start the stoning.” Despite their wonderful system, so clear and precise, their own hearts condemned them.
Jesus alone stood pure enough to have cast that first stone. We have no idea what He knew about the woman, but it wasn’t the point. The story is included to slam Judaism itself and it’s departure from the ancient Hebrew ways. Moses himself pointedly said the Law was not demanding the impossible. If you really wanted to please God, you would. If you didn’t care how God felt, the Law would not help you. Oh sure, it would help maintain His earthly favor in the sense of keeping social stability and all that, but it would not change your heart. The Laws of God are the doorway to spiritual enlightenment on the higher plane.
The issue with the adulteress was not her, but the nation and the Laws of God, and the heart of God.