What Jesus Learned from a Woman Accused of Committing Adultery Alone

What Jesus Learned from a Woman Accused of Committing Adultery Alone August 6, 2019

I have consistently been one of those who said that all questions are worth asking, and should be welcomed, when others have tried to ignore questions that were felt to be too awkward, and silence those who dared to ask them.

But I didn’t feel that was actually true in all instances. I thought some questions were simply unanswerable and that that meant that we weren’t meant to ask them.

One such question was the classic one about John 8: What did Jesus write on the ground?

Lately I have had a change of heart, and have begun to think that the Gospels were intended as memory aids for early Christian storytellers, who were supposed to expect questions and left loose ends and tantalizing puzzles in their stories precisely in order to elicit a response.

And so even if we cannot definitively answer the question “What did Jesus write in the dirt?” I think we are supposed to ask it, and to ask why he was writing in the dirt in the first place. It may be that the number of possible answers would not have been viewed as a problem in ancient times the way it is today, when people look for the definitive sole correct answer to any question. In some cases the loose ends may have been less of an invitation to an audience to ask for more details, a sort of test that they are paying attention, and more of an invitation to listeners to participate in the story: what do you think he was writing?

I am not sure that I have found “the” answer. But I have had many interesting thoughts and insights because I have allowed myself and even forced myself to ask the question. Once again, I won’t share those here but will keep you in suspense, because I presume that’s what authors are expected by publishers to do.

According to Lesley Hazleton, in her audiobook I had been listening to in the car (Lesley Hazleton, The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad, p. 55), a version of the story “still current in today’s Middle East, had him physically protecting the woman by shielding her with his body and adding two crucial words: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone at me.”” Had you come across that before? Can anyone recommend where to look to find this in Middle Eastern sources, whether ancient or modern?

I’ll also explore the possibility that the woman who is the center of this story may have been a young girl, betrothed to be married, who is a victim of rape/molestation and who, as a result, has become pregnant, leading to the scene that unfolds in John 8. Are those narrative/historical possibilities for understanding the story that you’ve heard mentioned before, or thought of yourself?

Also on this topic, there was a fair amount of attention to this story a while back, as a number of media outlets picked up on what ought to be common knowledge, namely that (as The Daily Beast put it) “One of Jesus’ Most Famous Lines Wasn’t in the Original Gospels.” See also:

Candida Moss on the absence of the story from our earliest manuscripts.

The Story of the Story of the Adulterous Woman

Adultery and Jesus

Brent Pitre shared a video. Seth Price recorded a podcast with Carolyn Custis James.

Finally, I also find myself able to ask in this chapter whether Jesus had experiences similar to other prophets before him, such as when Amos saw a basket of fruit and felt it was conveying a word from God to him.

There’s a particular connection to this post as well, but I won’t explain what it is either, as once again I’m not sure how to best tantalize and intrigue you without giving away things that will hopefully merit buying the book!

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  • John MacDonald

    I like this interpretation that the Gospels may have been memory aids for story tellers that were meant to elicit a response.

    Analogously, as it says in Acts, at their worship service, they would read from the Torah, then from the former prophets (Joshua through Kings), and finally from the latter prophets (Isaiah through Malachi). At that point the synagogue leader would ask if anyone would like to bring any message or experience that might illumine the readings. So, followers of Jesus may have then recalled their memories of him which that Sabbath elicited. This is what Paul does in Acts (13:16b-41).

    • Gary

      Besides, if I believe Bart Ehrman, readers of Greek were also rarer than hen’s teeth. So storytellers probably were good at their trade, but not literate to read Greek. Unless there were more highly educated Christians, than just the Bishops. Unless we’re talking about post 200AD, in which case the storytellers were Bishops, giving sermons, not stories.

      • soter phile

        Silly Paul, writing in Greek to all his churches when “readers of Greek were rarer than hen’s teeth.”
        Occam’s razor, people.

        Never mind that explanation makes the Muratorian Canon virtually impossible.

  • John MacDonald

    Hey Gary. I just wanted to say thanks for the times you commented on my blog!

    I tried to do a presence on the internet and blog (mostly) on Heidegger from the point of view of playing-in-role as a Sith Lord and how non PC such a writer would be. The reason is that Heidegger was a Nazi for a while, and I wanted to see if the reader could look past the “how (existentia)” of my presentation to the “what (essentia)” of my presentation. It was fun writing in role, which is a strategy I used with the kids when I taught. It relates to exploring others’ opinions and debating from multiple perspectives.

    • Gary

      John –
      “All the world’s a stage,
      And all the men and women merely players”… especially on the Internet.
      I’d say to you, the same as Roy Rogers said.
      “Happy Trails to you!”
      May we not end up like Trigger.

  • James Elliott

    I remember the question, “What was Jesus writing” as early as a 16 year old at church camp (waaaayyyy back in the dark ages). The adult leader postulated that Jesus may have been writing names of various accusers who were present. The leader also postulated that it takes two to do the deed, but the man wasn’t brought in. Although in the ancient world, as well as today, it isn’t beyond the scope of possibility that the man was simply let go because he couldn’t stand up to the wiles of womanly temptation. Jesus would have none of that.

  • John MacDonald

    Maybe the moral is just that people need to tone down on holier than thou self righteous indignation because, but for the grace of God, there you could have gone yourself.

    I did a web search and found this somewhat related interesting quote:

    Jesus’ condemnation of self-righteousness was especially harsh in His treatment of the Jewish leadership of the time. Six times in Matthew 23, Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for rigidly adhering to their legalistic traditions in order to make themselves look better to others. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector was specifically told by Jesus to “some who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9–14). The Pharisee assumed his acceptance with God based on his own actions, whereas the tax collector recognized that there was nothing in himself that would cause God to approve of him. Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus clashes with the Pharisees and scribes about true righteousness. At the same time, He spends a great deal of time and energy warning His disciples about the dangers of self-righteousness, making it clear that, without Him, they could do nothing (John 15:5).

    Paul’s treatment of self-righteousness is no less scathing than Jesus’ was. He began his great argument in Romans for the grace of God by condemning the Jews’ self-righteous trust in circumcision (Romans 2:17–24). He follows that up in chapter 10, saying that the Jews tried to gain acceptance with God based on their own righteousness, demonstrating ignorance of the true righteousness of God (Romans 10:3). His conclusion is that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, not man (verse 4).

    Paul’s letter to the Galatian church also addressed this issue. These believers were being told that they had to do certain things to be acceptable to God, specifically, to be circumcised. Paul goes so far as to say that this is another gospel and calls those who advocate it “accursed” (Galatians 1:8–9). More tellingly, he tells his readers that, if righteousness could come from their own actions, then Jesus died “for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21), and that righteousness could come “by the law” (Galatians 3:21). Paul’s conclusion about the Galatian believers was that they had been foolish in their attempt to be perfected by the flesh (Galatians 3:1–3).

    It would be an understatement to say that every believer is plagued by this attitude. It is in our sin nature to try to do something to merit our salvation. The costly freedom of grace, bought for us by the blood of Jesus with no contribution from us, is difficult for our prideful hearts to understand or appreciate. It is far easier to compare ourselves with one another than it is to recognize that we cannot measure up to the standards of a holy God. However, in Christ we can know true righteousness. In Christ, we can know the forgiveness of sin that comes to us through grace. Because He stood in our place, we benefit from both His sinless life and His sin-bearing death (2 Corinthians 5:21). Because of His sacrifice, we can face our sin and bring it to the cross, rather than try somehow to be good enough for God. Only in the cross can we see the grace that covers all our sin and defeat the constant tendency toward self-righteousness in our hearts.

  • rationalobservations?

    Why is there no authentic and original, 1st century originated historical evidence of the existence and centuries later written (and almost endlessly re-re-re-re-written, added to, deleted from and exaggerated) exploits of “Jesus”?
    The most obvious answer to this is never offered by christians. Why is that?


    • Interesting that you engage in the same kind of quote-mining that young-earth creationists do, quoting Bart Ehrman and yet apparently rejecting his conclusion that there was a historical Jesus. You also seem unaware of just how troubling the conclusions of historians are for Christians, and just how common this state of affairs is for ancient people of the sort that the historical Jesus seems to have been.

      • rationalobservations?

        Interesting that you can offer no contradiction through the presentation of authentic and original. 1st century originated evidence of the existence of “Jesus” or the authenticity of any of the diverse and very different, confused and contradictory legends about “Jesus” that first appeared centuries after the time in which they are set.
        Note: Neither can Bart Ehrman…

        • Interesting that you reject Bart Ehrman’s conclusion, the consensus of secular historians on the matter, while quote-mining him. Very telling, as I pointed out.

          How are you coming up with “centuries after” the time in which they are set? You seem not to have taken even basic steps to inform yourself about this topic.

          Which figures from the first century who were akin to the figure Jesus seems to have been (i.e. not emperors and other elite figures who minted coins and literally left their mark in that way) meet your criteria of evidence?

  • Dennis

    The woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) is a beautiful story. Unfortunately, it is not part of the original Gospel of John and may never have happened. Read Section 6.8 of this: https://www.academia.edu/40046177/Biblical_Inerrancy

    • I’m obviously aware of that. There are plenty of things in the Gospels, in particular the Gospel of John, that are unlikely to have happened despite being in the original text. This is a case in which it seems plausible that the event transpired despite not having been recorded until slightly later than the New Testament Gospels (apparently Papias recorded it).

    • Gary

      Richard Elliott Friedman

      Since your paper included Exodus, truth or not, you might find this video entertaining, if not worth citing.

      Also, I noticed you said in your paper, “Two or more accounts of the same event or fact are inconsistent. See Section 6.1.”

      At the same time, you might want to check out Friedman’s book, “Who Wrote the Bible”, and consider covering doublets, at least in the Pentateuch, and their potential sources. Simple explanation – different sources, different authors, different versions of the same story.

    • Rod Bristol

      Since we don’t have the original manuscript of John, we don’t know if the story was edited in or edited out. The later copies we now have may preserve an earlier text than the earlier surviving copies. The earliest surviving copies could have descended from an even earlier one that omitted the story because the scribe thought it was implausible.

      • rationalobservations?

        We do have one of the two original / prototype bibles available for study online since 2008.
        It contains the evidence of more than 14000 differences between that prototype written in the late 4th century and the diverse and different, internally contradictory, historically inaccurate and historically unsupported, scientifically absurd bibles in circulation today.

        The fable of the cast the first stone fiction does not appear in the prototype but to additional whole books do appear but we’re deleted later.

        See ..”Codex Sinaiticus”

  • Well, the fact that you seem to think that complete compilations known as Bibles are relevant to the historical question pretty much tells any well-informed reader what they need to know about the extent of what you consider to have been “reading and researching.” But let me try again, since combatting misinformation and promoting public understanding is one of my aims on this blog. So I ask again: which first-century figures comparable to Jesus meet your standard of evidence?

    • rationalobservations?

      Let me try again:
      What tangible and verifiable historical evidence of any kind can you offer in support of the legends of “Jesus” that first appear centuries after the time in which the legends of Jesus are merely set?

      Any other legends or people that are unsupported by evidence are moot and a cop out to distract from your apparent tendency for belief without evidence.

      • I’m not interested in legends that appear centuries after Jesus’ time, not that they are by definition irrelevant, but they aren’t essential when we have someone who wrote letters within decades of an individual’s death and who had met the individual in question’s brother…

        • rationalobservations?

          What are these “letters”?
          What do they specifically relate that is in support of the Jesus of bible fables?
          Where are they conserved and available for study and authentication?
          What forensics have been applied to verify their 1st century origin and which scientist and laboratory has undertaken the forensics?
          Answer these questions or be revealed as just another fantasist and deluded religiot.

          • Sorry, but even if someone refuses to respond to an internet troll, it doesn’t change the state of our knowledge, whether that troll be denying science, history, or anything else. That’s not how academic research proceeds (he said, trying hard not to laugh out loud at the ludicrously deluded “fantasist” self-importance that an internet troll is capable of having).

            You seem not to know the procedures for determining the dates of manuscripts, and you seem not to know that historians rely on significantly later copies of texts from other authors than those we are fortunate enough to have from comparatively early dates from Paul and others.

            None of this proves anything about religious claims. I’m talking about history, the existence of particular human beings in particular times and places.

          • rationalobservations?

            Repeating evidence devoid unsupported claims fails to validate, justify or excuse those claims.
            What are these “letters”?
            What do they specifically relate that is in support of the Jesus of bible fables?
            Where are they conserved and available for study and authentication?
            What forensics have been applied to verify their 1st century origin and which scientist and laboratory has undertaken the forensics?
            Answer these questions or be confirmed as just another fantasist and deluded religiot.

  • rationalobservations?

    Koine Greek had become a shared language around the eastern Mediterranean and diplomatic communications in the East even beyond the borders of the Empire. The international use of Greek was one condition that enabled the spread of Christianity, as indicated for example by the choice of Greek as the language of the New Testament in the Bible and its use for the ecumenical councils of the Christian Roman Empire rather than Latin. With the dissolution of the Empire in the West, Greek became the dominant language of the Roman Empire in the East, modernly referred to as the Byzantine Empire.

    Lucian, Dialogue of the Dead 25; Anderson, The Second Sophistic, p. 194.
    Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, p. 5.
    Stefan Zimmer, “Indo-European,” in Celtic Culture: An Historical Encyclopedia, p. 961.
    Bruno Rochette, “Language Policies in the Roman Republic and Empire,” translated by James Clackson, in A Companion to the Latin Language (Blackwell, 2011), p. 560.

    • Greek was certainly still the lingua franca in the Eastern empire and persisted in its influence even into the Byzantine. The suggestion that Christian leaders didn’t write in Latin in the West and formulate creeds in that language is simply incorrect.

      • rationalobservations?


        What are these “letters” and “creeds” you reference as being first century originated evidence of the existence and exploits of a man named “Jesus”?
        What is any other tangible and authentic original 1st century originated evidence of any kind of the existence and exploits of a man named “Jesus”?
        What do the texts you claim exist specifically relate that is in support of the Jesus of bible fables?
        Where is the evidence you claim exists conserved and available for study and authentication?
        What forensics have been applied to verify the 1st century origin and which scientist and laboratory has undertaken the forensics?

        Answer these questions or be confirmed as just another dishonest fantasist and deluded religiot.

        • Who said anything about first-century creeds? Why do you keep bringing up Bibles when that is a later compilation of texts irrelevant to the historical question? Why do you copy and paste the same stuff while refusing to answer questions about whether your expectations are historically appropriate, repeatedly on both counts, in the manner so typical of trolls?

          If and when you’re ready to engage in an actual conversation, let me know. In the meantime, here are some links to help you inform yourself about what manuscripts we have, where they are located, and other things that you keep showing you have yet to inform yourself about at even the most basic level.









          • rationalobservations?

            I have read your little diatribe of denial three times but find within it no evidence supported answers to my questions.
            I am familiar with most of the opinion pieces you link to and had a quick check through others to check for actual evidence that supports the existence and centuries later written diverse and very different versions of the legends of Jesus. There is none.

            You suggest that a celebrity preacher who had congregations of thousands and entered in triumph into the capital city would go unnoticed and unreported by anyone?
            It is not only kings and emperors who leave evidence as demonstrated by the evidence left by a far less celebrated “Messiah” Simon “Christ” of whom much evidence exists.

            The major contradiction to your excuses must be that if no evidence of “Jesus” could be expected, upon what were the diverse and very different centuries later written legends based?

            You make the common mistake of arrogant and gullible religionists in assuming my 4 decades of research and the following up of every single religionist claim did not take place. This, as with all you other assumptons, presumptions and suppositions – is baseless.

            Try again? But this time with evidence, not bull$πit, prevarication, obfuscation and recycled baseless opinion?

          • Thanks for providing still further illustration of your trolling. The work of historians on Jesus has consistently proven disconcerting to adherents of religious views that focus on that figure. If you are interested in having a conversation with “religionists” who dogmatically adhere to a viewpoint despite the conclusions of historians, then you’ve come to the wrong place. Obviously not only actual kings and rulers, but also temporary would-be rulers, sometimes minted coins. Figures who did not seize such a role, never mind those who never pursued it, did not leave comparable evidence, for reasons obvious to historians if perhaps not to you, who despite insisting on having four decades of research, consistently provide evidence of how little time you’ve spent familiarizing yourself with the methods of historical study in general and this particular matter more specifically.

            And so let me ask again, but with greater specificity: are Hillel, John the Baptist, Theudas, the Teacher of Righteousness, Hanina ben Dosa, and any other comparable figures you may care to discuss more likely historical or non-historical, and why? You keep refusing to discuss appropriate criteria of evidence, while trying to deflect from this by projecting your own shortcomings on those of your extremely patient conversation partner. Please do better if you care to continue this conversation, since however much patience I may have, my actual time is not unlimited, and I simply cannot type things in blog comments every time someone shows up who ought to have read books and articles about historical methods and discussions, but could not be bothered to do so for reasons of laziness, ideology, or whatever else. I’m sure you can understand that – although your behavior thus far here suggests that, rather than responding like a human being to what I’ve written here, you may just offer more of the same troll content. But I dare to hope that you’re serious and better than that…

          • rationalobservations?

            Once again you offer nothing but obfuscation and diversion from the utter, total and complete absence of a single authentic and original shred of historical evidence that supports the existence and centuries later written legends of Jesus.

            The historicity or legendary/mythological nonexistence of other named real or fictional characters is moot and does not distract from your failure to validate, justify or excuse your belief in unsupported fables.

            Try again but without the film flam, prevarication obfuscation and dishonest bull$πit?

          • As predicted, you repeated instead of responding like a human being. History is not “flim flam” any more than biology is, whatever denialist trolls on blogs may claim. I think we’re done here.

          • rationalobservations?

            You have no idea how predictable this very familiar response is from religionists backed into a corner by the confounding of their recycled propaganda and debunked bunkum.

            Run away if this ongoing humiliation is too much for your cognitive dissonance and unwarranted egotism.

            You are very welcome to get back to me if you ever discover any historical evidence of the existence of Jesus. Otherwise being relieved of the duty of confounding you is welcome but your recycled propaganda and debunked bunkum will always catch you out.

            Best wishes and sincere sympathy to you and yours.

          • rationalobservations?

            You have still done nothing to defend or validate the flim flam garbage of religion, through authentic and original evidence JIm.
            Why is that?

  • rationalobservations?

    Atheism is the rational response to finding nothing within religion to believe in and requires no justification outside of that fact.

    Religionism requires justification yet none can present it.

    It is christianity that dictates that the predominantly humanitarian and peaceful members of our very recently evolved species of ape are “sinful” and in need of fake redemption to enslave them to the vile and obscenely wealthy and exclusively self serving businesses of religion.
    Note that nearly all “sins” are not crimes and many crimes are not “sins”. It’s all a big scam to extort cash and ever more cash from the deluded.

    It is christianity the claims that this life is merely a cruel test that leads to punishment or reward in a nonexistent “afterlife” invented by ancient Egyptians and copied by many religious scams and frauds down the ages.

    Meanwhile the annually assessed and published Global Peace Index indicated that the majority of the most peaceful nations in the world and in the history of our recently evolved species are also the most godless and least religious nations in the history of humanity while the most religious totalitarian theocracies are confined to the bottom of that list.

    The disgusting history of the Roman religion they called “christianity” started with it’s brutal and murderous imposition upon the world in the 4th century and no one really knows how many of the 95% of the population (who were members of none of the several “heretical” messianic cults of the time) died rather than submit too the “heresy” of Constantine’s mother’s ridiculous minority cult.
    The “Dark Ages” of persecution and suppression were followed by ten genocidal christian crusades, 300+ years of terror and torture called “inquisition” and countless individual incidents of terror, torture and murder in the name of a fictional character named “Jesus” of which no single historical trace has ever been found.

    Today the many, many diverse and different cults of “Jesus” continue to lie and deceive the ignorant and the gullible while amassing ever greater wealth that is used exclusively for the propagation of the lies with the vast hoarded profits withheld from humanity in a world filled with starvation, contaminated water, natural disasters, ignorance and easily curable disease.

    How dare you religionists support such evil and cast aspersions upon the peaceful charitable atheists who actually work for humanity rather than offer meaningless and worthless prayer while deceiving and fleecing the people they should be helping?

    The vile anti-humanitarian cult are beneath contempt and it is of great consolation to the rest of us that religion is in such rapid and accelerating decline across the educated, free, predominantly secular developed world and that freedom, education and secular democracy is now aspired to in lands still brutally dominated by non-christian religions in an entirely similar fashion to the brutal domination of the western world by christianity before we liberated ourselves from that blight.


  • David M

    I have just discovered the comments of rationalobservations. Clearly it would be fruitless to engage in any discussion with such an individual but it might be worthwhile to consider just how problematic his position is. There is an obvious objection to the claim that the Jesus myth was invented centuries later. The later you leave the invention of the myth, the more faking you have to do. All documents supposedly written in the first or second (or third) century must have been faked. Justin Martyr would then be an imaginary apologist defending Christianity against imaginary objections. Irenaeus would be an imaginary apologist attacking imaginary deviations from the norm. And so on.

    Furthermore, at that stage no one would remember anything about the first-century setting in which Jesus has been placed. So the writing of the Gospels would require extensive research. Then you would need to know why this epic fraud was carried out. What was the motive? And at what point did people end up having a genuine belief in Jesus? All of this would need to be explained. It is bizarre when people demand evidence that they would find satisfactory, without acknowledging their own burden of proof. And the burden of proof on someone who argues for a late invention of the Jesus myth is enormous.