Woman Caught in Adultery - Bible Story Summary

Jesus Silenced His Critics and Offered a Woman New Life

Woman Caught in Adultery
MShep2 / Getty Images

Scripture Reference:

Gospel of John 7:53 - 8:11

The story of the woman caught in adultery is a beautiful illustration of Jesus silencing his critics while graciously addressing a sinner in need of mercy. The poignant scene delivers a healing balm to anyone with a heart weighed down with guilt and shame. In forgiving the woman, Jesus did not excuse her sin or treat it lightly. Rather, he expected a change of heart--confession and repentance.

In turn, he presented the woman with an opportunity to begin a new life.

Woman Caught in Adultery - Story Summary

One day while Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, Pharisees and teachers of the law brought in a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. Forcing her to stand before all the people, they asked Jesus: "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"

Knowing they were trying to catch him in a trap, Jesus bent down and began writing on the ground with his finger. They persisted in questioning him until Jesus stood up and said: "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."

Then he resumed his bent position to write again on the ground. One by one, from oldest to youngest, the people slipped away quietly until Jesus and the woman were left alone. 

Straightening up again, Jesus asked, "Woman, where are they?

Has no one condemned you?"

She replied, "No one, sir."

"Then neither do I condemn you," stated Jesus. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

A Displaced Story

The story of the woman caught in adultery has caught the attention of Bible scholars for a number of reasons. First off, it is a biblical addition that appears to be a displaced story, not fitting into the context of the surrounding verses.

Some believe it is closer in style to Luke's Gospel than John's.

A few manuscripts include these verses, in whole or in part, elsewhere in the Gospel of John and Luke (after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53).

Most scholars agree that the story was absent from the oldest, most reliable manuscripts of John, yet none suggest that it is historically inaccurate. The occasion likely happened during Jesus' ministry and was part of oral tradition until it was added to later Greek manuscripts by well-intentioned scribes who did not want the church to lose this important story.

Protestants are divided on whether this passage should be regarded as part of the biblical canon, yet most agree that it is doctrinally sound.

Points of Interest From the Story:

If Jesus told them to stone her according to the law of Moses, it would be reported to the Roman government, which didn't permit Jews to execute their own criminals. If he let her go free, he could be charged with violating the law. 

But, where was the man in the story? Why wasn't he dragged before Jesus? Was he one of her accusers? These important questions help unravel the flimsy trap of these self-righteous, legalistic hypocrites.

Actual Mosaic Law prescribed stoning only if the woman was a betrothed virgin and the man was to be stoned as well. The law also required that witnesses to the adultery be produced, and that a witness begin the execution.

With one woman's life hanging in the balance, Jesus exposed the sin in us all. His answer leveled the playing field. The accusers became acutely aware of their own sin. Lowering their heads, they walked away knowing they too deserved to be stoned. This episode dramatically captured the gracious, merciful, forgiving spirit of Jesus along with his firm call to a transformed life.

What Did Jesus Write on the Ground?

The question of what Jesus wrote on the ground has long fascinated Bible readers. The simple answer is, we do not know. Some like to speculate that he was listing the sins of the Pharisees, writing the names of their mistresses, citing the Ten Commandments, or simply ignoring the accusers.

Questions for Reflection:

Jesus did not condemn the woman, but neither did he overlook her sin. He told her to go and leave her life of sin. He called her to a new and transformed life. Is Jesus calling you to repent from sin? Are you ready to accept his forgiveness and begin a new life?