Once upon a time, there was a man who spoke the truth to anyone who would listen. You know how that usually works out in practice. Let me tell you about one particular incident in which some of his numerous enemies set a trap for him, but his superior knowledge of the truth and his willingness to use it turned it around on their heads.
One persistent clique of detractors brought an apparently open and shut criminal case to him and asked what he wanted them to do with the guilty party. He wasn’t a lawyer, a prosecutor, or a judge; he was a teacher and an activist. He knew there was no way they were going to take the person to the police because most of the accusers were also law breakers, and they didn’t want their own crimes exposed. If he said the perpetrator should be punished, they would accuse him of being a vigilante and call in an anonymous tip to the authorities. If he said they should let the perpetrator go, they would accuse him of aiding a criminal. It was an obvious trap, and there was no winning answer to their question.
The man’s response was quite clever.
He didn’t answer their question at all. Without divulging any details, he made them aware that he was well informed of their crimes, and did they really want to press this matter? Realizing they had underestimated their opponent, they backed down and released their prisoner.
The really unfortunate thing is that when people read about this story today, they continually misinterpret the real moral, thinking that the man defied the law of the day instead of championing it. They always seem to assume that mob lynching was a normal part of accepted legal proceedings at the time, as if courts, written law, and due process are all modern inventions. Since the man refused to join the vigilantes, readers today conclude he taught that, since everyone is guilty of something, people ought not to be punished for their crimes at all. It seems a most absurd conclusion, but there it is.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, the man was Jesus, and the accused was the woman caught in adultery. Here’s a paraphrase of the story as it was recorded in John 8:2-11.
A group of scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They quoted the law to him, that an adulteress is to be killed, and asked what they should do with her. He squatted and began writing something in the dirt. He stood and said, "Whichever one of you is innocent, he should cast the first stone." Then he squatted again and went on writing in the dirt. The shamefaced men drifted off, one by one, leaving the woman behind. Jesus asked the woman where her accusers had gone. Wasn’t there anyone left to pass judgment? Then he also declined to pass judgment on her, telling her to "go and sin no more."
John left a lot of information out of his account. His readers were primarily Jews—or at least familiar with the laws and traditions of Judaism—and they didn’t need to be reminded of the requirements of the Mosaic Law (aka the Torah) in such cases any more than you need to be told that it’s not appropriate to lock suspected burglars up in your basement.
Here is what the Torah says needs to happen when a woman is caught in adultery:
- The woman and the man with whom she committed adultery are to be tried and executed together. (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22)
- The trial is to be conducted before the duly appointed judges at the city gates. (See Exodus 18:21-22, Deuteronomy 1:16-17, Deuteronomy 16:18-20, etc.)
- At least two eye witnesses must testify to the crime. (Deuteronomy 17:6-7, Deuteronomy 19:15, etc.)
- The witnesses and judges must be impartial and just. (Exodus 23:8, Deuteronomy 16:18-20 in which "they" are the judges and "you" are everyone involved in the proceedings.)
- Once found guilty, the witnesses must be the first to begin carrying out the sentence. (Deuteronomy 13:9, Deuteronomy 17:7)
You can see that there are several ways in which carrying out the trial or execution of this woman would have been in violation of Torah. They were not trying the man with the woman and had no intention of executing him. Jesus had not been appointed as a judge in the city of Jerusalem where these events took place, and the trial was not taking place at the city gates, but rather on the Mount of Olives. These witnesses were by no means impartial; bringing this woman to Jesus in the way that they did automatically disqualified them as viable witnesses. Finally, when Jesus was alone with the woman, he had no standing in the case, being neither a witness nor an offended party. He had no choice but to let the woman go.
Jesus did not declare that only the sinless have any right to judge another person when he said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Since we are all sinners, that would result in complete anarchy. No one would be qualified to witness against or to judge any crime, and everyone would be free to do whatever they pleased without fear of punishment, at least not from any Christians. No, what Jesus meant by this statement was, "Let he who has not transgressed the Torah’s rules concerning witnesses cast the first stone."
Jesus also did not set aside the Torah in favor of a kinder approach. To the contrary, he insisted on a rigorous application of the Law to all of the facts and parties involved in the case. The end result of this obedience to Torah was mercy and forgiveness and not condemnation at all, which is exactly backwards from what most of us are taught in Sunday school.
Remember that John, the same man who wrote the passage in question, defined sin as the transgression of the Law. (See 1 John 3:4.) The only way that Jesus could avoid transgressing the Law in this instance was to decline passing judgment on the woman at all. If he had participated in this sham of a trial, he would have committed a sin himself, and we would all then be condemned with no advocate and no atonement for our own sins. It was not Jesus’ abrogation of the Law, but his obedience that enabled God’s mercy and forgiveness.