Yesterday, in The Death Penalty — a Biblical Command, I cited verses throughout the Bible (including New Testament passages in the Gospels and Epistles) supporting capital punishment. But to understand God’s truth, we have to deal with all passages that seem to address a topic. We can’t just pick and choose — all Scripture is God’s Word.
Some believe Jesus abolished the death penalty in the famous Pericope Adulterae (the beginning of John 8). So I thought I’d better take a post to examine it.
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
The “Abolition of the Death Penalty” Argument
The position (with variations) runs something like this:
- This woman was undeniably guilty, under the Law, of a capital offense.
- Jesus said only those who were sinless could carry out the penalty (cast the first stone).
- No one is sinless.
- Therefore, no one is qualified to carry out the death penalty.
- Since “no man” condemned her (verse 11), it was left to God alone to do so.
- Even Jesus, as God (more than “a man”), did not condemn her, and she was free to go.
- Therefore, Jesus was teaching that the death penalty, while instituted by God in the Old Testament, had now been abolished.
- This is because we are not under the Law, but under grace.
Some Problems with the View
There are multiple problems with seeing the passage this way.
- The passage is not really about the death penalty, so we should be careful about reading too much about the death penalty into it.
- When God instituted capital punishment in the Old Testament, there was no requirement that those who carried it out be sinless. Why would this have changed?
- Jesus came to fulfill the Law. Why would He send away a guilty person (under the Law) without any punishment or condemnation whatever?
- Jesus WAS sinless. If the requirement were for a sinless person to toss the first stone, He could have done so, and should have if the Law were to be upheld.
And there are some things about the story that tell us there is more than meets the eye. Where is the man? If she was caught in the act of adultery, then the man was, too….
How did they catch her in the very act? We’re told they were doing this to tempt Him or have an accusation against Him, which means they’ve planned this somehow — there was some kind of conspiracy.
Why was Jesus writing on the ground, and what was He writing? What is all that about?
We aren’t given answers to all the questions, but the absence of answers makes our Lord’s answer more understandable, when we remember the Old Testament teaching on the death penalty. The Jews were challenging Jesus on the basis of the Old Testament Law. His answer, in essence, was, “Do it lawfully.”
The Lawful Death Penalty
6 At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.
7 The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.
Speculation Warning! The following sentence is a guess (but it fits). I think it is very likely that Jesus was writing these two verses from Deuteronomy 17.
We see here two vital safeguards against abuse of the death penalty. First, more than one witness was required to convict someone of a capital crime. One witness was not enough.
The second safeguard was that the witnesses had to cast the first stones. This protected against careless perjury. You would not take your testimony lightly if you knew you would have to cast the first stone. It personalised the matter. You had to have the courage that comes with absolute certainty to testify against someone in a capital case.
These two requirements were central to Jesus’ response. He required them, if they were going to charge her by the Law, to execute the sentence according to the Law, as well.
So there had to be at least two witnesses against her, and they could not be guilty of the same sin with which they charged her. Who, legally, would cast the first stone?
The Missing Witnesses
Speculation Warning! (again) If this was all a plot against Jesus, then the plan was to catch an adulterer. The easiest way to catch a woman would be for the man to be in on the plot. If so, they wouldn’t charge him — he was a co-conspirator. But nor could he be a witness, because he certainly wouldn’t have been without sin. So if the plan was for one of them to commit adultery, and be “caught,” and then bring the woman before Jesus, that would explain why only the woman was brought.
But everyone who was in on the plot would be guilty. They would all have had a part in bringing about the crime of adultery. None who helped to plan such a conspiracy could claim to be without sin in the matter. And that would explain why they all went out, one by one, under conviction.
Speculation over. A conspiracy like that could explain why there were no witnesses to cast the first stone. It fits the facts as we know them. But it is merely speculation.
What we do know:
- For whatever reason, no one could fill the role of innocent witness, and cast the first stone. There wasn’t even one innocent witness.
- In light of Deuteronomy, we know why Jesus did not condemn her. He knew of her guilt, and told her to sin no more, but He was not a legal witness.
- We know Jesus did not abolish the Old Testament Law on the death penalty — He re-affirmed it by endorsing Deuteronomy 17.
In this intriguing story, so much is implied, but with so much mystery, so many things we aren’t told. The Saviour’s response is often horribly misunderstood. But for the purposes of this study, all we need to know is that His reference to “cast the first stone” was an affirmation of the Old Testament teaching on capital punishment — the fact of capital punishment, and the God-prescribed safeguards.