Wednesday, October 19, 2011


The subject of Capital Punishment has been much in the news lately.  Trials and executions have been prominent, as well as questions raised in Presidential debates.  I have even mentioned it a number of times in this blog and have even said on another blog that I planned on attempting a thorough biblical study on the subject.  I have yet to do so, though I am collecting and researching and discussing with my wife Uni.  I believe that she was the one who brought up this story.

Anyway, before going into a lot of other biblical passages, it might be good to ask “What would Jesus do?” or in this case, “What did Jesus do?”  Thought I could (and plan to) analyze Jesus’ sayings that are relevant, it just might be a good idea to look at a story where Jesus actually is called on to adjudicate a case involving Capital Punishment.

John 8:2-11:
2)  And early in the morning, He arrived again in the temple, and all the people were coming to Him, and He sat down and was teaching them.

3)  And the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, made her stand in the midst, 4) and said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, right in the act!  5)  Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.  So then what do you say?”  6)  They were saying this testing Him so that they’d have something to accuse Him of.

But Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground with His finger.  7)  Now when they kept on asking Him, He stood up and said to them, “The one among you who is without sin should be the first to throw a stone at her,” 8) and He stooped back down and continued writing on the ground.

9)  And when they heard this, they began to leave, one by one, beginning with the oldest ones and He was left alone, with the woman standing there.

10)  And Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they?  Did no one condemn you?”

11)  And she said, “No one Lord.”

And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you!  Go your way and from now on, sin nor more!”

Before I make any comments on the story itself, I feel that I must give a few notes about some technical difficulties.  If you, the reader, are uninterested in these, you may skip them without a loss of understanding.

·        First, this passage (John 7:53-8:11) is not found in most of the earliest Greek manuscripts of John’s Gospel, as well as other early versions.  Some manuscripts have it in other places in chapter 7 or at the end of John’s Gospel; others have it in Luke’s Gospel after 21:38.  Its style and vocabulary differ quite a bit from the rest of John (I discovered this as a first-year Greek student, reading through John.), and it seems to interrupt the general flow of the narrative.  So there is near unanimous agreement among scholars that it is not part of John’s original Gospel.
·        Yet, as one scholar put it, “…the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity.”  That, plus the fact that it is included in some ancient manuscripts causes many to believe it is authentic.  A few have even supposed that it was deliberately “expunged … because it was liable to be understood in a sense too indulgent to adultery.”
·        I will accept and treat it as a true story, a genuine part of God’s Word, even if it wasn’t written by John.  Besides all the above, it gives us a picture of Jesus similar to those we find elsewhere in the Gospels – His tenderness toward women, His disdain for the religious leaders of His day, His ability to get out of the traps set for Him, and especially, His demonstration of grace and forgiveness within a context of Legalism.

Now back to our story:

The Gospel writers tell many stories of confrontations such as this, between Jesus and the religious leaders.  It would seem that He took their constant questioning as a matter of course, and even seemed to enjoy it.  He always won in these verbal battles, sometimes turning their questions back on them, other times tearing into their false teachings and motives, but nearly always using the disputes as “teaching moments.”

But this incident was different.  Here, Jesus is not simply being tested with a goal of trapping Him in His words.  Here He is being challenged to make a life or death decision.  Nowhere else are we told of an incident where He is urged to decide the fate of another human being.

I believe we can see His opponents’ aims pretty clearly:  if Jesus decides to exercise compassion toward the woman, He will clearly (to them) have defied the demands of their God-given Law.  This could be used as evidence against Him in their plot to have Him legally put to death.  If He decided against the woman, He would be going against all He had taught.  He would no longer be “a friend of sinners.”

Their actions were, of course, based on the Law as found in Deuteronomy 22:22-24 (also see Leviticus 20:10):
22)  If a man is found lying with another man’s wife, both of them must die – the man who lay with the woman, and the woman.  Thus you will sweep away the evil from Israel.

23)  If there is a young woman who is a virgin, engaged to a man and a man finds here in town and lies with her, 24) you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death.  (The word “engaged” here is inadequate.  Under the Law a couple was as good as married when the bride price was paid, even though they were not to cohabit for up to a year.)

However, there are some serious questions about their prosecution of the case.  Where is the man?  The Law appears to put the major portion of the blame on the man.  “If a man …”  It takes two to commit this act.  In fact, there were some cases where the man alone was to be prosecuted – see Deuteronomy 22:24-27.  I have my suspicions as to where the man was.

And there’s another question:  Where are the witnesses?  A capital case required two or more witnesses.

There are many theories regarding Jesus’ writing on the ground and what He was writing.  Some think He was listing the sins of the accusers, but there is no indication of this in the text.  Some think He was writing His decision down as a judge would do.  The King James has “… as though He heard them not,” at the end of verse 6, which is apparently only found in a few late manuscripts.  I believe that expresses it well.  Jesus was simply doodling!  He was showing His disinterest and disdain, while they kept on pestering.

Finally He gave His decision, which appears to be a guilty verdict.  His words in verse 7 are among the most quoted words of Jesus, usually, however, in a situation where the one who quotes is defending or justifying his or her own behavior.  But what did Jesus mean by this?  Perhaps another passage regarding Capital Punishment can shed some light on His words.

Deuteronomy 17:6, 7:
6)  On the testimony of two witnesses or three witnesses the condemned shall die; he must not die on the testimony of one witness.  7)  The hand of the witnesses must be the first to put him to death, then afterward the hand of all the people.  Thus you will sweep away the evil from your midst.

Thought I can’t say for sure, I believe that the male partner was standing right there among the woman’s prosecutors.  And Jesus knew it.  This was a setup.  One or more of them had apparently engaged in sex with this poor woman (who was not allowed to testify in her own defense) in order to trap Jesus in a dilemma.  Her life was of no importance to them.

This would mean that the witnesses themselves were her guilty sex partners.  Yet, according to the Law, they were to cast the first stones.  Jesus was not demanding complete sinlessness of her executioners, He was saying that they must not be guilty of the same crime.  He put them in a Catch 22 situation.  He had turned the tables and they could not carry out the sentence.

Jesus gave this woman words of grace and forgiveness.  His words “sin no more” would imply that He knew she was guilty.

So what does all of this have to do with our 21st century views on Capital Punishment?

We could argue that this case is in no way relevant to current thinking.  Adultery is not a capital offense today and no one is trying to make it into one (at least not to my knowledge).  Capital Punishment today is reserved for murderers and a few others who commit horrible crimes.  Certainly Jesus would behave differently toward a murderer, wouldn’t He?

But Jesus lived under the Law of Moses which required death for adultery.  And He knew this woman was guilty.  Didn’t respect for the Law require Him to support his Law?  Was Jesus not a “law-and-order” supporter?

I don’t believe we can argue that because this was a lesser crime than murder Jesus could slack off on enforcement.  “The soul who sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:4).  Jesus wasn’t simply cutting the woman some slack – He was pronouncing her free of condemnation.  He was setting her free from the condemnation of the Law.

Jesus died for that woman’s sins.  He died for the sins of the condemned man hanging on the cross next to Him.  He died for my sin.  He died to cancel the debt we owed God and the condemnation God’s Law pronounced.

And it should be noticed that in this case, He went beyond teaching that we must personally forgive, He was pronouncing forgiveness from criminal law.

I don’t know exactly how this should affect our attitudes toward the laws of our land.  But it should affect them in some way.  It should certainly lead us away from cheering the death of a criminal, no matter how heinous the crime.  It should lead us to seek to be imitators of Christ, even in this area.


Sharon. said...

This is AWESOME !!!!!!!!!!

Rob said...

You present an interesting hypothesis about the nature of the woman's accusers. Naturally, there's no way to prove it and accepting it would in some ways undermine the notion that only the sinless should be passing judgment. According to the common understanding that they are all disinterested accusers, I cannot judge you for sin x because I am guilty of sin y. We are all sinners and sinners judge not other sinners. With the witnesses implicated in her own transgressions, suddenly I can call you on your faults as much as you can on mine...which is perhaps better.

Bill Ball said...

Thanks Rob. The hypothesis isn't original, but I'm not sure where I got it.

Rabbi Caudill said...

The interesting thing to my way of thinking is the question; What authority of Judgeship did Jesus hold that would put him in the position of being able to examine witnesses and decide a Capital Case on his own? A decision that would allow the woman to go free without punishment? If he did not hold recognizable authority, the plaintiffs would simply take the woman to another "Judge."