We begin today a short study of one of the most famous passages in the gospel of John and, perhaps, in all of Scripture. John 7:53–8:11 in most Bibles records the story of the woman caught in adultery, a powerful account of our Savior’s wisdom and grace.
However, we must note that whether John actually recorded this story is up for debate. Most biblical scholars do not believe this is a Johannine text because it is not found in many of the oldest New Testament manuscripts. Moreover, the manuscripts that do have the story do not all agree on where it should be placed. Some manuscripts have it in other places in John, while some even have it in the gospel of Luke. Nevertheless, it is an ancient story referenced in several of the earliest church fathers, and the church has long held that it records an authentic episode from the life of Christ. Thus, we agree with John Calvin that since the passage “contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit, there is no reason why we should refuse to apply it to our advantage.”
The account describes an occasion when the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman they had caught in adultery (John 8:1–4). Right away, astute observers will notice that something is amiss. It takes two people to commit an act of physical adultery, and if the woman was caught in the act, a man would have been caught as well. Where is he? The text does not say, but the very fact that only the woman is charged shows that these religious leaders were not concerned with the law. Both the man and the woman were to be punished when they were guilty of adultery (Lev. 20:10), but the scribes and the Pharisees sought to condemn only the woman.
John 8:5 confirms that these leaders were not concerned with justice. They brought the woman to Jesus to test Him, asking whether they should execute her as the law demands. From a human perspective, this put Jesus in a predicament. If He were to deny that she deserved death, He could be accused of taking the law lightly and might lose much of His Jewish audience. If He were to call for her execution, the religious authorities could complain to the Roman government that controlled the Holy Land that Jesus was calling for the Jews to do something only the Romans could do in that day, namely, enforce capital punishment. Seeing their trap, Jesus crouched down and began writing in the dirt, making them wait for His answer (v. 6).