Casting the First Stone

John 7:53-8:11 “They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, L-rd.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Most Biblical Scholars now believe that this passage was not in the original manuscript of John and was likely added later by early Christians after the Gospel of John was written. This story also appears in some manuscripts of Luke in chapter 21 after verse 38. Most commonly however, it appears between John 7 and 8. What does it mean for us and what authority are we to give this story. Should we consider this story a part of Canonized Scripture?

Though it does not appear in the earliest manuscripts, this does not mean that story is untrue. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger writes “the account has all the ear marks of historical veracity. It is obvious a piece of oral tradition which was circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts.” I would agree with Metzger assessment. By belief is that the story is true and reflects an accurate oral account that was passed on Disciple to Disciple. Oral transmission of the Apostles experiences with the Master was the most common method of spreading the Gospel in the 1st and early part of the 2nd century CE. In fact many of the early Christian fathers preferred the oral tradition over the written Gospel accounts. For those who are interested in learning more about the Oral traditions of the Gospel consider reading Richard Bauckham’s book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”.

Let me place this story in your minds eye for a moment. Israel has just concluded the seven-day festival of Sukkot. Each family then went to his own home, but Messiah Yeshua went to the Mount of Olives, perhaps to get a good nights sleep after the 7 day party. Most likely at the home of Miriam, Martha, and Lazarus. On the 8th day of Shemini Atzeret He returned to the Temple Courts and sat on the terrace to teach. As He was teaching some of His opponents brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. We don’t know her story but it is the type of thing that happened commonly during Sukkot.

A seven day party with drinking, all night dancing, and thousands of little booths set up throughout Jerusalem. A little too much to drink, one thing leads to another and you have an unfortunate situation.

The Jewish sages recognized the festivities of Sukkot had gotten out of hand and were leading to impropriety. In fact, it was because of these festivities that the sages began to segregate men and women in public.

Most readers are probably familiar with the story of the adulterous women and how at the end of the story Messiah Yeshua sends her away free of punishment. This message is often used to show how the Old Law of punishment has been removed to make room for a New Law of grace and forgiveness. Under the Old Law, the women would have been stoned. Under the New Law she was absolved. But the Master does not allow that sort of thinking. He taught very clearly against it on a number of occasions. Something else must be going on here.

We are told that the officials were using the question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing Him. It’s a clever trap, similar to the question about paying taxes to Caesar. No matter how He answered the accusers would have grounds for a formal accusation against Him.

If the Master had said to stone, then they would have grounds before the Sanhedrin and the Roman authorities. The Sanhedrin had been given authority in the Torah to mediate capital crimes. Ultimately it is a moot point as the accusers were likely members of the Sanhedrin, or had been sent on their behalf.  The most likely setting of the trap pertained to Roman authority. By the third decade of the 1st century the Romans had taken away the power of capital punishment from the Sanhedrin. They no longer had the authority to stone anyone. This is why they needed Pilate to execute Yeshua, as it says in John 18:31 “We have no right to execute anyone.” On the other hand, if He says “show some kindness and let her go” they would have accused Him of lawlessness and at the very least making light of adultery.

It was the wise and just sages of the Sanhedrin (as opposed to the ones trying to trap Him) that recognized the need to mitigate the literal Word of G-D in the Torah with kindness and mercy. After all G-D has always shown mercy to Israel when she was found guilty. They were still bound to keep the letter of the Law. They could not arbitrarily set it aside on the basis of feeling compassionate and having pity. How did they show mercy while keeping the letter of the Torah? By finding a legal loophole.

In most cases the legal loophole was the disqualification of witnesses.

The Torah states clearly that there must be two credible eye witnesses.

The case was otherwise dropped. What is meant by credible eye witnesses? A witness was not considered unless they were known to live an upstanding reputable life. A relative, an enemy of the accused, or anyone with a shady past was disqualified. Without two reliable witnesses the Torah did not allow for a trial or the punishment to take place. Even if the case went to court, the judges were expected to attempt to disqualify the testimony of the witnesses through tough cross examination.

The Master employed a similar approach when confronted with this woman. Rather than defend the women or dismiss the Torah, He disqualified the witnesses. According to the Torah only qualified upstanding and reputable witnesses could cast the first stones.

He pierces them with His words “Let he who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at Her”. Each accuser present became consciously stricken. They had begun to walk away one at a time, beginning with the oldest and wisest, until there were none left.

They knew they were undone. Without witnesses there could be no trial, and the Torah mandates that she go free. The Messiah Yeshua then asks her, “women, where are they? Has no one condemned you.”?

Though He freed her from the punishment of the Torah, He did so through the boundaries of the Torah. Like the sages of His day, He did so through disqualifying the witnesses. He did so without tough cross examination or investigation, but by examining the hearts and conscience of the accusers. Contrary to the opinion that this shows how the Messiah Yeshua disregards the Torah in favor of love and grace, the story shows how He used the Torah to save the woman. Though He used a legal maneuver against the accusers His compassion for the woman was genuine. When sending her away He says to her “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more”. He used the Torah to save her and then placed the Torah before her as a pathway to the Father..

The Master is G-D’s word made flesh; how could He then be against G-D’s word? He would be against Himself. If the Torah could just simply be ignored and pushed aside then there is no need for the Cross. He could have just chosen to have mercy on us and ignored everything.

 Likewise, in order to save us from the punishment we deserve He found another loophole in the Torah. By satisfying the demands of the Torah with His own righteous life and innocent death, He sets us free. He uses the Torah to save us.  Like the Women accused of adultery he tells us “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more”.

Isn’t this the heart of the Torah of the Master, and why He often bumped heads against some of the Torah teachers? The Torah is not an inflexible set of rules and regulations. It is not a list of do’s and don’ts, but it is heart, mind, and soul. It is always measured by the heart of G-D who wrote it. It is weighed by mercy, loving-kindness, compassion, and perfect justice. We must remember that we too deserve punishment for our iniquities, but we do not receive what we deserve. We receive mercy too. We must extend the kindness that was shown to us not only amongst each other but even our enemies.

Based on the teachings of Daniel Lancaster, Dr. Brad Young, and Dr. Dwight Pryor

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