Casting stones

As nearly every Bible translation points out in the footnotes, the passage in John 8 about the woman caught in adultery isn’t found in the earliest manuscripts.  Therefore, it may not have been in the original writings of the Bible.*

It is a memorable passage and doesn’t contradict other doctrines, but neither does it add anything that isn’t taught elsewhere.  The problems start when people twist the passage to say things that aren’t there.  Here’s the text:

The Woman Caught in Adultery — John 8:2 – 11

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.  The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst  they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.  Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”  This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.  And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.  But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.  Jesus stood up and said to her,”Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

If someone drew the conclusion that Jesus was once again clever and outwitted the Pharisees who were trying to trap him, that would be fine. Or that He upheld the law on capital punishment (you must have two witnesses). Or that He outed their hypocrisy in not bringing the man. Those would all be good.

The main misuse of the passage is by those who exclaim, “He who is without sin can cast the first stone!,” when trying to shut up anyone making a judgment they disagree with.  But as you may have noticed, that objection is self-refuting and ironically hypocritical: They imply that all judging is wrong, but they are judging you for judging.  But there is more.

Jesus was referring to real stones that would kill the person. Real stones thrown at a real person until he or she was really dead.  Criticizing someone else hardly rises to the level of killing him by stoning. Flippantly equating death by stoning with mere criticism is beyond hyperbole.

And even if Jesus said the part about not casting the first stone, it wouldn’t have meant, “Never say adultery is wrong!”  Note that the passage also says, “Go and sin no more.”

Those advocating the “judging = casting stones” view typically make all sorts of judgments, including advocating hate speech / hate crime laws.  But shouldn’t they be consistent and not judge anyone for anything, ever?

The passage is also misused to oppose capital punishment in principle.  But again, Jesus upheld the law: If there had been two witnesses present, stoning would have been appropriate at that time.

Keep in mind that any criticisms of this post will be considered stone-casting on your part.  And you know how wrong that is!

* Skeptics like Bart Ehrman like to say that this passage and the “long ending” of the Gospel of Mark reduce our confidence that the original writings were the word of God, but they are really proof that the system works.  Based on the work of textual critics on literally thousands of ancient manuscripts, we can be very confident about what the original writings said.

12 thoughts on “Casting stones”

  1. The President recently said that there are a lot of people who “love to throw a rock and then hide their hand.” I’m not sure that I’m casting stones here, but I certainly won’t hide my hand.

    As for capital punishment, there’s nothing in the Old Testament that says everyone guilty of adultery should be stoned. Presumably there are times when the penalty would be less, Jesus was just exercising his Judicial authority. He decided (for whatever reason) this person deserved a lighter sentence. He never questioned her guilt. (no real difference from your comments).

    As for the “excuse” that He was holding to the two or more witnesses part, I’m not sure I agree. The scripture says that the “scribes and Pharisees” brought her. It’s not exactly clear who caught her, but I always assumed they went as a group and got her out of some dude’s bedroom. (mild disagreement with your comments).

    The key as you noted is the “go and sin no more” part. Her sin was already going to cost her a lot, her reputation, her relationship with this man, her marriage (if she was married), most likely her family. Jesus gave her the chance to repent, a word we hear to seldom. Notice that he told her to “go”. An action word. Repentance involves action.

    I like your comments about these parts of scripture and how they agree with the rest of scripture. I was taught that the Cannonization (if that’s a word) was essentially a process of building a filter and passing the various texts through that filter. What passed through, was then declared the Bible and inspired. Clearly, this part of scripture passes the filter. For me, that’s good enough to include it in the Bible. Maybe there are better ways to decide, but this is simple enough for me.

    Good post…


    1. As for the “excuse” that He was holding to the two or more witnesses part, I’m not sure I agree. The scripture says that the “scribes and Pharisees” brought her. It’s not exactly clear who caught her, but I always assumed they went as a group and got her out of some dude’s bedroom. (mild disagreement with your comments).

      Hi Randy — as clarification, I agree that the Pharisees may have been witnesses. My point was that Jesus had chased them off, so no witnesses were left to condemn her.


    2. John sort of stole my thunder. I think a big point was that the woman was supposedly caught in the very act of adultery, which means there should have been a man with her to be stoned. This alone demonstrates the hypocrisy of their actions, and may even have been a set up. I’d like to have known what Jesus wrote in the dirt – perhaps it was, “Where’s the guy?” :oD

      And the crux has always been, “Go and sin no more.” I have many, many times had this passage thrown at me about how Jesus didn’t allow the woman to be stoned, so therefore homosexuality is just as okay as adultery. Very poor logic to start with, since no one says adultery is okay! But the old “the one without sin cast the first stone” claim to excuse homosexual behavior is quickly blown by pointing out the “Go and sin no more” command.

      I’m not one to always trust the “older” manuscripts, and I see no reason why this incident would have been added by later scribes. There are a lot of issues with the whole textual criticism subject which disturb me, but that’s a whole other topic!


      1. This passage caused quite a stir among the church fathers. When Jerome translated the New Testament into Latin, there were manuscripts that included this passage as well as ones that excluded it. According to Jerome, the passage was removed because some were concerned it would condone immorality.


  2. You know, of all the times I have read this passage and discussed it, even correcting misunderstandings, I had never noticed that the group hadn’t brought the man, who would also be guilty, with her for condemnation. I think that fact may be more compelling than “no more witnesses”.

    @Randy, what can you point me to in the Bible that Jesus had any recognizd authority (outside His disciples) that He would make judicial decisions that the Pharasees would obey?


    1. John – I almost have an answer for you, but you limited me a little too much. I’m not sure I can point to Scripture, but I think of Jesus as the ultimate Judge using the Old Testament Judges as the example. Who better to fill that role. But you added the phrase “that the Pharasees would obey”. That certainly leaves him out.

      Neil – Jesus had a knack for chasing the Pharisees off, didn’t he?

      I think it was Tony Evans that painted the word picture of Jesus as a judge, who at our trial announces us guilty, then takes off His judicial robe, comes down and puts his arms around us and says “look, the fine’s already been paid.”


  3. I think I find the lack of witnesses the most important thing, And Jesus did tell the woman to go and SIN no more. After all, how could Jesus condemn the woman with no witnesses.

    I would like to know what Jesus was writing on the ground, I would guess that it was a list of sins that hit home with the onlookers.


  4. This is great. I really enjoyed it. I’ve made many of the same points, but you made them even better.

    I’m so sick of secular types trying to use this passage to “shame” me for telling them right from wrong.


    1. Yes, that is one verse the secular types love, along with taking Matthew 7:1 (“don’t judge!”) out of context as well. If only they cared about all the verses that much!


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