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The Woman Caught in Adultery

The story that we, today, refer to as the adulterous woman, floats in antiquity.  Sometimes it shows up in the Gospel of Luke, sometimes we have copies of John in which does not appear.  And, it took a couple of centuries for this to be text to be accepted as Gospel truth, as canonical.

In terms of the story itself, I think it raises more problems than it resolves.  Even to ask Jesus the question, “What do we do with this woman?” already says, “Wait a minute, if the law says you should stone her, then you stone her.” The very fact that they can raise the question suggests that they’re not stoning women in the first century for adultery. 

The second question that I have is where’s the lover?  It usually takes two, sometimes three, to commit adultery.  She’s there by herself, which means this is a setup situation.  It looks very much, actually, like the Book of Susannah found in the deuterocanonical writing, sometimes called the Old Testament Apocrypha.  So the scene is an illegal trial to begin with. 

In terms of the woman herself, what people fail to ask usually is what happens to her at the end?  Jesus never says, “I forgive you.”  It’s not about forgiveness, but she’s simply left saying you’re not condemned.  But now what does she do?  She’s guilty of adultery; can she go back to her husband?  Where’s he?  How does she fit back within the community?  What happens if you’re actually guilty—and she seems to be guilty—when you’re called on it and the community knows?  How are you reconciled to family, how are you reconciled to friends, how are you reconciled to God, and the text never tells us.  In a sense, that might be the genius of the text.  It says, “Here are the right questions to ask, there are no easy answers, but you must ask those questions.”

  • Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, TN; she also Affiliated Professor, Woolf Institute, Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge UK and in spring, 2019, teaching at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.