Most scholars today are of the opinion that this text did nor originally belong to the Gospel of John and was added later. Numerous reasons are put forward to support this view. One is that the term “scribes” used here is the only time in the Gospel that it is used. John does not use “scribes” anywhere else in his Gospel. Another reason is that while in the rest of the Gospel of John the debates with the Jewish leaders are long, here it is brief. This fits in better with the controversy stories of the Synoptic Gospels. Also the
Mount of Olives is
mentioned only here in the Gospel of John, though in the Synoptic Gospels it is
frequently mentioned. Jesus is addressed as “teacher” only here in John. Be
that as it may, the text is now part of John’s Gospel and we have to interpret
it within the Gospel.
This event takes place in the
. Though the law commanded that both
the man and woman who engaged in adultery would be put to death (Lev ; Deut ), the scribes and Pharisees accuse the
woman alone and do not provide the necessary witnesses who had “caught” the
woman in the very act of committing adultery. The intention of the scribes
seems clear: it is to trap Jesus. Initially, Jesus does not want to engage the
question and so bends down and writes with his finger on the ground. The point
here is not what Jesus was writing but the distancing gesture that he performs.
Since the scribes persist in the question, Jesus straightens up and addresses
the scribes directly. The statement that he makes takes them beyond the
question that they ask to a self examination and introspection. Once he has
raised the issue, Jesus bends down again and writes with his finger. This time,
the intention of writing is to show that he has said all that he has to say and
wants them to decide what they have to do. They do not answer in words, but
through their action of leaving the place. That all of them leave beginning
with the elders is an indication that no one is without sin. When Jesus
straightens up the second time he addresses the woman who is alone with him
since all others have gone away. The woman who is addressed directly for the
first time confirms that no one is left to condemn her. Jesus responds by not
condemning her, but also challenging her to receive the new life that
forgiveness brings. Temple
The attitude of Jesus to people, whether those who engaged in condemnation or the condemned seems to be the focus of the story. The questions of Jesus to the scribes and Pharisees and the woman allows them equal opportunity to part with old ways after having received forgiveness. Jesus condemns no one, not even those who condemn. However, while the woman accepts the gift of new life, the scribes and Pharisees show their non-acceptance through their actions of going away. It is thus a story of grace and mercy freely given by God in Jesus which when received results in a radical transformation of a person and the challenge of a new life.
While it is true that this story may be seen as a moral lesson informing us that we are not to judge rashly or point fingers at others since when we do, there will be three fingers pointing back at us, it is also a story that goes beyond this moral lesson to the core of the revelation that God makes in Jesus. The God revealed in Jesus is a God who does not condemn, a God who accepts each of us as we are and a God who even when we find it difficult to forgive ourselves, keeps forgiving and accepting us.