Alan Watson, «Jesus and the Adulteress», Vol. 80 (1999) 100-108
Many factors contribute to a re-examination of the story of the adulterous woman (John 7,538,11). This essay responds to these factors by its defense of the suggestion that the woman is a re-married divorcee, at fault not with the Mosaic Law, but with the teaching of Jesus on divorce.
The opening verses of chapter eight of John (with 7,53) present one of the most puzzling episodes in the New Testament. There is widespread agreement that the pericope was not part of the original Gospel. It is missing from the earliest manuscripts1. In the manuscripts in which it does appear it is usually in this position, but sometimes after John 8,36 or John 8,44, or even after Luke 21,38. The language also seems not to be consistent with the general pattern in John2. Still, the view of Bruce Metzger is one widely held: "At the same time the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity. It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places"3. In presenting a new interpretation of the pericope I will leave open its genealogy4. My concern is with its meaning. My mention of the episodes genealogy should not mislead. I am not concerned with its historicity or otherwise. Whether such an episode actually occurred or not, the anomalies or troubling features in the tradition equally require an explanation.
I believe it would be generally accepted that the episode has never been adequately explained. I should like to begin with listing the troubling features.
1. The woman is accused of adultery; we are told she was caught in the act (v. 4), yet she has not been tried for the crime, nor apparently will she be. Jesus asks if no one has condemned her (v. 10), and she replies, "No one, sir" (v. 11).