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The woman taken in adultery

10 February 2017

Write, if you have any answers to the questions listed at the end of this section, or to add to the answers below.


Your answers


With regard to the story of the woman taken in adultery, was stoning rare or standard? If it was standard, wouldn’t divorce be irrelevant, and Matthew 5.32 and 19.9 be unlikely to represent authentic sayings of Jesus?


There is no good evidence that any­one was ever stoned or otherwise executed for adultery under Jewish law. (The Torah actually prescribes the death penalty, without specify­ing stoning, but stoning was no doubt deduced by analogy with other crimes.)

It may be that in the story the scribes and Pharisees have no inten­tion of stoning the woman, but have brought her to Jesus to pose a dilem­ma for him. Since Jesus claims to uphold the Torah, surely he should say that the woman should be executed? But then he would be showing much more severity than the Pharisees, who were known to be lenient with regard to punish­ments. Would he be able to argue with the kind of exegetical dexterity which enabled the Pharisees to interpret a law such as this in a lenient way?

Jesus pauses to think and comes up with his own way of letting the woman off. According to the Torah, those who had witnessed the offence should be those who cast the first stones (Deuteronomy 17.7). By adding a further qualifica­tion (”without sin”), Jesus calls the bluff of his enemies, while at the same time intensifying the ethical demands of the Torah, as he does elsewhere.
(Professor) Richard Bauckham


The questioner’s implied reasoning is: if stoning for adultery were stand­ard practice, there would be no pos­sibil­ity of divorce, because a dead person cannot be divorced. Jesus could not then have said “No divorce except for adultery” (Mat­thew 5.32, 19.9), but, if stoning were not standard, he could have said, “No divorce, because remarriage is a form of adultery” (Mark 10.11-12, Luke 16.18), reflecting the fact that an unpartnered woman could hardly survive economically without a man or men to support her, with the expectation in return of the sex­ual favours enjoyed by a husband. The Matthaean exception, which has caused so much exegetical and pastoral angst (divorce for porneia, unchastity, makes the woman an adulteress), can, however, be inter­preted as no exception at all, merely a critique of the logic of the word­ing: you can’t make a woman an adulter­ess if she has already qualified as an adulteress by her unchastity.
M. J. Leppard
East Grinstead


Your questions


What are the Apocrypha, partic­ularly the History of Susanna, doing in our Bibles? D. G. H.


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Sun 22 May @ 04:29
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