Go and Sin No More – Misinterpreting Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery

Go-and-Sin-No-More

Alternate Title: You keep citing that story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery– I do not think it means what you think it means.

Before I jump into this topic, let me say that there is merit in the idea that we shouldn’t judge people for sinning differently than we do. But like all pithy slogans, this statement loses nuance in favor of brevity. We should love and value people regardless of their sins. But that does not mean we should pretend that they are not sinning any more than it means that we should feign that we are not sinners.

In ongoing conversations about religion, law, sexuality and culture it has become increasingly common for people to argue that the only sin that it is acceptable to reprove is the sin of “reproving the sins of others”.

Of course, that is not how they say it. What they say is that because we are all sinners it is inappropriate for anyone to judge another for what they consider a sin. And when they say it, they are apparently completely oblivious to the fact that by reproving others for being judgmental, they are themselves judging another for what they consider a sin.

That is why the “you have no right to judge another’s sins” line of reasoning is nonsense. It is self-contradictory. It cannot be expressed without violating its own meaning. You cannot advocate for non-judgmentalism without judging those who are (in your estimation) judgmental.

Some advocates for tolerance run into a similar problem because apparently they believe that everything should be tolerated except for those views or actions they consider intolerant.

Ultimately saying that people can’t ever judge someone else means that nobody can ever stand up for what they believe because standing up for any principle or standard will always imply that those who live or think contrary to that principle are in the wrong.

Employing this line of reasoning is really just an emotional rhetorical bludgeon meant to delegitimize a point of view with which you disagree by defining it as “out of bounds” while allowing you to continue to judge others for what you feel is immoral, and impose your own standards of morality on others.

Thus, in our present culture it has become okay to call someone a bigot and shame them because they say that homosexual actions or abortion are sinful, but it is not okay to say someone is sinning because they have an abortion or engage in homosexual behavior–even though calling someone a bigot and calling someone a sinner are both clearly forms of judging and reproving another.

It is common for those who promote this lop-sided and self-refuting viewpoint among Christians to cite the biblical example of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11) as a religiously authoritative proof-text of the kind of non-judgmentalism they advocate.

As they retell it, when an adulterous woman was brought before him, Jesus said “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And since all of them were also sinners (as we all are), nobody was willing to do it and they left. And then Jesus, even knowing that she was guilty, also refrained from condemning her, and let her go with, as they tell it, a friendly, general admonition to “go and sin no more.”

Retelling the story in that way, they then explain that if Jesus refused to condemn this woman for her sins, then we also should never, ever reprove another for sin. EVER. Sometimes also followed by “HOW DARE YOU CLAIM TO BE A CHRISTIAN WHILE  REJECTING THIS CLEAR TEACHING OF JESUS BY SAYING THAT PEOPLE WHO [________] ARE SINNING!”

Again, proclaimed without a hint of self-awareness or irony.

But this is an oversimplification and misinterpretation of the scriptural account. While the story certainly has moral implications, the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman is NOT a parable crafted to teach a specific principle with general application; this is a report of an event from the life of Jesus brought about by specific circumstances.

So it is important to understand the complex dynamics of what was happening before we try to apply it to our modern lives and interactions.

Dore-THE-WOMAN-TAKEN-IN-ADULTERY

The first thing to recognize is that the pharisees who brought the woman before Jesus were not sincere. This is a crucial element of story. These weren’t good, religious men who were concerned about right and wrong and upholding morality and the law. Their entire purpose in bringing her before Jesus was to trap him. They didn’t really care that the woman had sinned. She was merely a pawn in their ongoing efforts to undermine and hopefully kill Jesus.

At this time, the Jews in Israel were under the control of the Roman Empire. That is why in the story of the Nativity, Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem to be taxed by decree of the Roman Emperor, Cæsar Augustus.

Under Roman rule, the power to impose capital punishment, including by stoning, had been taken away from all Jewish authorities. Only a Roman tribunal could impose the death penalty. That is why even after Jesus was eventually arrested and condemned to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin, they didn’t stone him immediately themselves; he had to be taken before the Roman governor, Pilate, to actually impose the death penalty. And when it was imposed he was killed using the Roman method — crucifixion– not stoning. The Jewish leaders had no legal authority to put him to death.

The same was true of the adulterous woman. Even though adultery was punishable by death under the Law of Moses, under Roman law, adultery was not a capital crime. Neither Jesus nor the pharisees could legally have stoned the woman to death for having committed adultery.

So when the pharisees brought the woman before Jesus, and asked “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” They weren’t actually planning to stone her at all. They couldn’t. If they had, they would have violated Roman Law and endangered their own positions of power. Bringing the woman to Jesus was simply a form of emotional theater meant to manipulate the crowd and pressure Jesus into answering carelessly by making the question real and immediate instead of just hypothetical. (And to this day readers are still falling for their theatrics, caught up in the drama while largely oblivious to the real trap.)

The pharisees were trying to construct a verbal snare for Jesus. If he answered that the woman should be stoned as the law of Moses dictates, then they would paint him as a revolutionary and try to have him arrested by the Romans for advocating the violation of Roman rule. If he responded that the woman should not be stoned, they would accuse him of rejecting the law of Moses and use it to undermine his influence among the believing Jews who considered him a great Rabbi or potentially the Messiah.

For the pharisees, whether the woman was guilty or not was completely irrelevant to their purpose. Had they actually been concerned about following the law of Moses, they would have brought both the woman and the man with whom she had been caught. If she was caught “in the very act” as they had claimed then they would have caught the man simultaneously, and the punishment in the law of Moses for adultery was death for both participants.

Jesus wisely ignored them initially. He wasn’t about to be pressured into giving an off-the-cuff response by their contrived theatrics and the spectators it attracted. They kept demanding an answer while he wrote in the dirt with his finger.

When he finally does respond, his brilliant answer turns the snare back onto the trappers. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

He recognized the demands of the law of Moses, but he also knew that the pharisees could not carry it out any more than he could without violating the Roman law.

The law of Moses dictated that to be convicted to death because of adultery, there had to be at least two witnesses. It also dictated that the witnesses whose testimonies established the guilt of accused were to be the first to begin the stoning. So Jesus was asking those who claimed to have witnessed the adultery to step forward themselves to impose the punishment as the law demands. And so the accusers were entrapped in their own catch-22. If they stepped forward as witnesses, they would have opened themselves to questions about how they witnessed the act and why the man involved is not also accused as demanded by Moses. If they try to carry out the stoning, they will be in violation of Roman law.

We don’t know what Jesus was writing in the dirt. But I like to speculate that, being the Son of God and knowing the thoughts and intents of the hearts of the pharisees, he may have been writing quotes from the law of Moses related to the the specific secret sins of each of these men.

The other thing to keep in mind is that these men were secretly plotting to have Jesus murdered. This is clear from the previous chapter and throughout the rest of the Gospels. They put on a public show of concern about piety and the Law of Moses, but they cared little for the law in private. They were perfectly willing to violate the law in secret in order to remove Jesus as a threat to their power. In the terms of The Book of Mormon, they were essentially a secret combination. So another possibility I like to speculate about is that Jesus was writing their secret oaths and plans in the dirt; telling them essentially “I know your plans and your secret.”

But that is just speculative. As I said, we don’t know what he wrote in the dirt.

But we do know that when Jesus tells them that he who is without sin should cast the first stone, he isn’t just talking about typical human sins of weakness. He was not talking to honest men who have fallen short of an ideal in which they truly believe. He is talking to evil men whose secret plot to murder and get power is far more wicked than anything the woman may have done.

Unable to legally stone the woman, unwilling to step forward and act as the witnesses who would throw the first stone in violation of the Roman law and face cross examination, and confronted with the fact that their trap had failed, the pharisees left in silence.

Jesus then asked the woman, “where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

The law required two witnesses. But nobody was willing to step forward and claim to be a witness.

No man, Lord,” she responds.

And Jesus declares, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

Whether or not she is guilty, to be judged guilty the law requires witnesses, and since Jesus himself did not witness her alleged adultery himself (even though being the Son of God he knows), and there are no witnesses, he cannot condemn her either.

The chances that she was going to be stoned contrary to Roman rule were low in the first place. If it had happened it would have been a lawless act of mob violence. Even among the Jews stoning for adultery hadn’t been actively practiced in a long time. The whole thing had been contrived. She had been an unfortunate prop in the pharisee’s theater.

—————————————

Now, having explored this complex story in depth, let’s return to the original discussion of how this story applies as as support for a modern concept of non-judgmentalism.

First off, it has to be pointed out that there is a vast difference between saying someone is a sinner in need of repentance, and threatening the death penalty. The woman in the story isn’t just being verbally reproached for being a sinner, the condemnation they are discussing is condemnation to death and damnation not verbal condemnation . The stones are not metaphors for judgement. They are literal stones.

So it is a huge stretch to say that when Jesus says that he who is without sin should cast the first stone he is saying that nobody should reprove someone else for sin. He was talking about severe, final punishment for sin, not merely calling someone a sinner.

Additionally, the story is clearly not primarily about the woman’s guilt. It is about the snare set by the pharisees against Jesus involving specific contradictions between the Law of Moses and Roman Law and presented theatrically instead of hypothetically in order to try to force an error by Jesus. Trying to extrapolate a general principle about whether or not it is appropriate to reprove someone else for sin from this very complex, specific event is difficult if not impossible.

There is simply no comparison between the wicked, murderous pharisees who were trying to trap Jesus and good, honest religious folks today who are truly concerned about serious sins and their effect on our society and their families. The pharisees didn’t really care about the woman’s sin. Their concern about righteousness was false. That is why Jesus called them “whited sepulchres” on another occasion. (For more on this topic, see my previous post: Having A Form of Godliness – Modern Mormon Pharisees)

When the pharisees leave in silence it is not because they realize that as sinners they have no right to judge another’s sins; they leave chagrined because they have been outwitted and caught in their own trap– and it is clear that Jesus knows their wicked plot against him.

Furthermore, when he did not condemn the woman, Jesus wasn’t being merciful at the expense of the law. He was following the letter and intent of the law: Jesus didn’t condemn the woman because there were no legal witnesses and because Roman law did not allow capital punishment. So his words toward her do not imply that love is more important than law. To the contrary, his strict adherence to the law, including not condemning another to punishment without witnesses, shows how important the law is.

And seeing that his lack of condemnation was primarily an act of strict adherence to the law, the only thing he says regarding the woman’s adultery is that she should “go and sin no more.” So he clearly calls her actions sinful and exhorts her to repent and abstain from sin.

It seems clear that there is nothing in this story that can be legitimately used to support a blanket doctrine of non-judgmentalism.

As Christians, we are in fact required to preach the Gospel consisting of Faith in Jesus as our Savior, Repentance, Baptism, and the reception of the Gift of the Holy Ghost. People cannot repent unless they know that they are sinning. But if it is out of bounds to say that someone is sinning, then we can never say that someone needs to repent because doing so implies that they are doing something wrong, and judging others is wrong (except when you are judging others for judging…).

It is our duty as followers of Jesus Christ to preach repentance and as I have written previously, A Real Friend Will Say What You’d Rather Not Hear.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church has spoken extensively about the relationship between Love and Law, as well as Appropriate and Inappropriate Judging.

Rather than get caught up in modern notions of non-judgmentalism, we should take counsel of the words of a modern apostle:

“Judge Not” and Judging by Elder Dallin H. Oaks 1998

There are two kinds of judging: final judgments, which we are forbidden to make, and intermediate judgments, which we are directed to make, but upon righteous principles.

Love and Law by Elder Dallin H. Oaks 2009

The love of God does not supersede His laws and His commandments, and the effect of God’s laws and commandments does not diminish the purpose and effect of His love.

As I have written previously, I’m not saying we should be mean or constantly beat those who disagree with us over the head with our beliefs. There are times when love means treading softly so as not to offend. But there are other times when love means calling a sin a sin even if it offends.

We have a responsibility to try to uphold right and wrong and extend mercy simultaneously.

Even though I have quoted it previously in an unrelated post years ago, to close I’m going to reprint an excerpt of Orson Scott Card’s novel Speaker for the Dead that is particularly appropriate to this post and the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. It is a short story told at the beginning of one chapter of Speaker for the Dead (Emphasis added):

A great rabbi stands teaching in the marketplace. It happens that a husband finds proof that morning of his wife’s adultery, and a mob carries her to the marketplace to stone her to death. (There is a familiar version of this story, but a friend of mine, a Speaker for the Dead, has told me of two other rabbis that faced the same situation. Those are the ones I’m going to tell you.)

The rabbi walks forward and stands beside the woman. Out of respect for him the mob forbears, and waits with the stones heavy in their hands. “Is there anyone here,” he says to them, “who has not desired another man’s wife, another woman’s husband?”

They murmur and say, “We all know the desire. But, Rabbi, none of us has acted on it.”

The rabbi says, “Then kneel down and give thanks that God made you strong.” He takes the woman by the hand and leads her out of the market. Just before he lets her go, he whispers to her, “Tell the lord magistrate who saved his mistress. Then he’ll know I am his loyal servant.”

So the woman lives, because the community is too corrupt to protect itself from disorder.

Another rabbi, another city. He goes to her and stops the mob, as in the other story, and says, “Which of you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone.”

The people are abashed, and they forget their unity of purpose in the memory of their own individual sins. Someday, they think, I may be like this woman, and I’ll hope for forgiveness and another chance. I should treat her the way I wish to be treated.

As they open their hands and let the stones fall to the ground, the rabbi picks up one of the fallen stones, lifts it high over the woman’s head, and throws it straight down with all his might. It crushes her skull and dashes her brains onto the cobblestones.

“Nor am I without sin,” he says to the people. “But if we allow only perfect people to enforce the law, the law will soon be dead, and our city with it.”

So the woman died because her community was too rigid to endure her deviance.

The famous version of this story is noteworthy because it is so startlingly rare in our experience. Most communities lurch between decay and rigor mortis, and when they veer too far, they die. Only one rabbi dared to expect of us such a perfect balance that we could preserve the law and still forgive the deviation. So, of course, we killed him.

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5 Responses to Go and Sin No More – Misinterpreting Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery

  1. One of the things President Monson has emphasized time and again as president of the church (and as a member of the 12) is to refrain from judging and criticizing one another. http://thomasmonson.com/605/thomas-s-monson-quotes-about-judging-others I think this is a healthy thing. I am not qualified to thrown stones at anyone–and that means I am not qualified to throw stones at those who do criticize or judge. It just isn’t emotionally healthy for me to get caught up in assessing the goodness or good faith or bad faith of others. I agree with the principle of judging as to my own actions, and when my employment or religious calling necessitates judging. I am the last person who could have lifted a stone against the woman caught in improper conduct, nor against those who might have stoned her. I do not know what was in her heart nor in the heart of those who would have punished her. Nor am I in a position to criticize this post. I simply state what is healthy for me and how I see things. And I feel relieved when I am successful in not getting upset or angry about the wrongdoing of others.

  2. The Law of Moses required that both the man and the woman taken in adultery be stoned. The group brought only the woman before Him. Perhaps Christ knew that the male perpetrator was in the group. He could have been using that to turn the tables on those who would catch Him in a trap.

  3. This topic has been on my mind a lot recently and I have written several blog posts related to it. Honestly I think the fact that, as Joseph Fielding McConkie put it, we live in a day when “the only thing that is morally wrong is to say that something is morally wrong” is the only reason these matters are so hard for us to see clearly, because honestly they are simple.

    The fact that the only story about the gospel and its relation to adultery anyone ever seems to come up with is the story of the woman taken in adultery is a sad commentary on us, especially if one takes a moment to think about the story. Just who was it that imposed that terrible death penalty she was being put to, and just why was she spared (good point about the two witnesses being needed)
    (see “The Woman taken in adultery section” of
    http://mormonmortal.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-mmm-and-matt-walsh-blog-response.html )

    On judging:

    We are here to learn good from evil. Just sit throw the endowment and ask yourselves how important correctly judging good from evil is. Insofar as we hope to be judged by a God who can correctly determine good from evil we ought to also seek to walk in his path, become hte kind of being he is, and learn to discern good from evil. The scriptures use the phrase “judge good from evil”, and warn us that if we do a bad job, calling good evil or evil good then we are in danger of being judged (Moroni 7 and the JST of the famous verses in Matt 7). Judging good and evil is a task that is given to us (“therefore it is given to you to judge”) and is a crucial one to succeed in this life. We are here to become as Gods, knowing (or correctly judging) good and evil.
    (see http://mormonmortal.blogspot.com/2014/01/righteous-judgement.html )

    While there are many ways in which we must learn to judge good from evil, when it comes to what we actually SAY to someone we have two great obligations.

    1. There is an essential obligation for members to pass over each others faults. One cannot built Zion in the midst of petty criticism. Joseph Smith asked how we would feel if God and his angels were to object to us over trivial matters. Even so we must look over each others petty flaws.

    2. There is a critical obligation for us who have been warned to warn our neighbor. This obligation is wound through the scriptures as one of the critical obligations of mortality. The situation, as portayed in D&C 4, is that we need to have enough food in winter, and the only way to provide it is to thrust in our sickles and harvest enough souls during the harvest to have stored up food for the winter season. We tend (myself included) to thrust in our sickles as if we were maybe considering gathering a single stalk of wheat. Maybe. Instead we are to gather as if our lives depended on it. That is because Heavenly Father doesn’t take the loss of his spirit children lightly. Anyone who has been warned is to warn his neighbor. If you see someone doing something that will cost them their exaltation, your obligation is to warn them. How to do that is up to you, but there is no escaping that obligation.

    (see http://mormonmortal.blogspot.com/2014/01/warning-your-neighbor-without-authority.html )

  4. Thank you for your article. This is also something I have been thinking about quite a bit over the last few months, and I put out the following just a day before this article. I also reference the story of the woman taken in adultery, although not as thoroughly as you have done here.
    http://seekingabsolutetruths.blogspot.com/2014/03/why-its-not-enough-to-simply-love-as.html

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