Since we are going through the Gospel of John in our college group, I taught on this a few months ago and I’ll try to condense the lesson into this post.
One of the more famous sayings of Jesus is John 8:7, which is typically paraphrased as, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The saying occurs during the story of the adulterous women, who is thrown before Jesus by the scribes. Here is the passage:
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” (John 8:1-11, NASB)
This story, and the saying in 8:7, come up frequently in several contexts: People have used it to argue against capital punishment, to advance some sort of feminist agenda, and more generally, to tell admonish others that they should not rebuke another’s sin unless they are completely sinless themselves, which nobody is (in effect, don’t ever call out another person’s sin). Recently, I’ve seen John 8:7 used by Christians to tell other Christians that they should not be saying that homosexual relationships are sinful because it sounds “judgmental.”
As usual, unfortunately, for many oft cited verses, this verse and the entire story are grossly misunderstood by people. Not only are such people unfamiliar with the text critical issue, even if one were to take the story as true, a careful study would not lead to these conclusions.
The Tricky Textual History
Daniel Wallace, a well-respected Greek scholar at Dallas Theological Seminary, jokes that the story of the adulterous women is his “favorite story that’s not in the Bible.” While I cannot get into specifics here, it’s enough to know that the story is not in our earliest manuscripts of John. It actually shows up fairly late in the texts that we have, and not only that, it has even showed up in Luke. In fact, given the writing style, one could make a good case that Luke was the one who wrote it (for example, “scribes” is never used by John but is used by Luke), though it’s most likely not part of Luke’s Gospel either. This is why any typical translation of the Bible will have brackets around the story and explicitly tell the reader that the it is not in our earliest manuscripts (so yes, Christians are very honest about such things).
Where did the story come from, then? Some think it was oral tradition that floated around until someone decided to put it in John. Some think it was preserved in texts outside of the Gospels and was later inserted. One such theory I’ve heard surmises that Luke wrote it but ultimately made the editorial decision not to include it in his Gospel, so it was left on the cutting room floor and got circulated. No one really knows.
The tricky part is that it actually has many hallmarks of a genuine story about Jesus. Thus, while most scholars do not think it was part of John’s original Gospel, many also think the story is actually true. For Protestants, this creates a bit of a complicated issue on how we approach it. While the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Church simply accept the story as canon, most Protestants do not accept it as part of John, but then we also have some good reasons to think that the story is a true one about Jesus.
My conclusion: It’s not part of our inspired text, but that does not automatically mean it is not true and that we cannot learn from it. It’s not Scripture, but it’s also not untrue and it teaches something consistent with Scripture. Still, this whole discussion should already give pause to those who woodenly cite John 8:7: Someone could quite justifiably shoot back, “That’s not part of John” and be well within his rights to simply reject the entire story.
Sinlessness is not a prerequisite for wise judgment
Assuming that the story is true and useful, what does it teach? Does it really mean that one has to be absolutely perfect before denouncing sin?
First, it’s important to see that the scribes are coming for the purpose of testing Jesus. Jesus is put in a trap: If he advocates simply letting the women go, he could be accused of rejecting God’s law on adulterers (Deut. 22:22-24 and Lev. 20:10). If, however, he advocates stoning her, he could be accused of going against his teachings on mercy. He could also get in trouble with the Romans, since the Jews technically did not have the authority to enact punishment (though they sometimes did anyway). Deep in thought, Jesus bends done and writes something. Much ink has been spent trying to speculate on what he wrote, but that’s rather unnecessary; it’s more important to see that he is thinking and probably annoying the scribes because he is calm and taking his sweet time.
Then Jesus arises and delivers his famous line, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Slowly, the scribes disperse, a supposed victory against all “judgmentalism.” Or is it? The word used for “sinless” or “without sin” here is anamartetos, as opposed to constructing a phrase with the typical word for sin (h)amartia, which may provide a clue that something different is going on. Of course, simple words won’t do by themselves; we have to look at context and also look for clues in the Law because, after all, the scribes brought up the Law. The relevant laws are the ones on multiple witnesses (Deut 17:6-7, 19:15) and ones against false witnesses or witnesses with bad motives (Deut. 19:16-19; Ex. 23:1-3, 6-8). Such laws protect people from verdicts with scant evidence and from malicious witnesses. In fact, a false witness, if caught, would invite the same punishment on himself as he was seeking on the accused.
Look at the scene. What is wrong? For one, the text explicitly states that the scribes are trying to test Jesus in order to accuse him; they’re not concerned about justice at all. Furthermore, did they have any sort of trial? It seems more like a mob scene. In addition, where’s the guy? They said she was caught in adultery, but it takes two to tango and the Law states that both parties are to be put to death. This could hint to bribery, favoritism, or even outright lying.
In other words, there’s enough just in the scene itself to see that the scribes did not have the pure motives required of a witness. No doubt Jesus himself knew much more of their motives, given that he can read the hearts of men. Thus, I think a better translation of anamartetos is “without fault,” so a better understanding of what Jesus says is something like, “Let he who is without fault as a witness cast the first stone.” This understanding makes infinitely more sense when explaining the scribes’ reactions. They leave. If Jesus said something more like, “Let he who has led a perfect, sinless life cast the first stone,” we would probably expect that they’d laugh in his face and ask him where the Law ever gives such a standard. However, it changes completely when he calls out their status as witnesses. They know they did not come with pure motives, and they know that’s against the Law and invites punishment itself. They know that he knows it too, and therefore they cannot risk a trial of words with Jesus here. Jesus was essentially saying, “If you’re confident in your motives as a witness, enough to risk punishment yourself, then come forward.” That’s why they slowly leave.
When it’s just him and the woman, Jesus actually continues to follow the Law. He asks her if anyone is there to accuse her, and she says, “No, Lord.” Since he alone is a possible witness (though he could, if he wanted, invoke the Father as another witness as he does elsewhere), he tells her, “Neither do I condemn you,” and also, “Go and sin no more.” Thus, we can see simultaneously Jesus following the Law, showing mercy, yet ultimately still confronting sin. He’s following the Law because there are not two or three witnesses there, physically speaking. He’s showing mercy because, as the Son of God, he could still condemn her for her sin if he so wanted, yet due to her profession that he is “Lord” (I take it as such), he does not. And he still confronts sin because he tells her to stop. It’s still a beautiful scene of the meeting of miseria et misericordia, misery and mercy, as Augustine put it. However, it is absolutely not a text that can be used to stifle any discussion of sin whatsoever. The text presumes that such rebuke and identification is possible.
What does such a text teach us? One, when we do call out sin in church or society, there’s no requirement that we ourselves have to be perfect, but there is a requirement that we do so with right motives. We should be concerned about justice, holiness, and the glory of God, and also should show concern for the person out of love. If we call out sin, even if it’s real sin, out of malice, we sin ourselves. If Christians followed this, it would actually help a lot in church and avoid a lot of the spats that we see.
Furthermore, while we should always want to show mercy, mercy does not require that we ignore sin. Jesus did not tell the women, “Go and do whatever you darn please and get offended when someone says you’re sinning.” He told her, “Go and sin no more.” When some Christians, out of fear of being called “intolerant” or offending anyone, pretend that sin is not sin, they do not show real mercy or love; they deceive people and invite the judgment of God on them.
Lastly, for those who do not yet know Jesus, the application is obvious: Those who turn to him will be granted mercy. From a physical standpoint, one could argue that Jesus was either just one witness or no witness at all, and therefore there was no way to condemn this women. But as the Son of God, he knew that woman was a sinner, and if he blew her up then, she would not be able to say anything. Yet he showed her mercy. Jesus invites sinners to come so that he may save them and lead them out of their slavery to sin.
This is the great tragedy of how John 8:7 is typically used. Such uses gloss over sin and therefore diminish mercy, but a true understanding of the passage magnifies Christ and his merciful triumph over sin.