Did Jesus Abolish the Death Penalty in John 8?

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.

John 8:3-11

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.

  1. The passage is not really about the death penalty, so we should be careful about reading too much about the death penalty into it.
  2. 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?
  3. Jesus came to fulfill the Law.  Why would He send away a guilty person (under the Law) without any punishment or condemnation whatever?
  4. 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

Deuteronomy 17:6-7

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.

Next:  Did Jesus Abolish the Death Penalty in the Sermon on the Mount?

Related:  “I Wasn’t Planning an Execution by Stoning”

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in Rightly Dividing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Did Jesus Abolish the Death Penalty in John 8?

  1. My understanding is that the Jews no longer had the right to execute – that it was only the right of the Romans, and perhaps the test was to get Jesus to be speaking in violation of Roman law – SPECULATION.

    I’ve always had the question as to where the man was if she was indeed caught in the act, which means both were to be executed!

    Jesus writing – that has also been something that intrigued me. Did he write “where’s the man?” or something to that effect? Or, I like your idea better – “do it lawfully.”

    The main thing many miss, is that even though the woman was not found guilty by those who brought her there, Jesus still said for her to “go and sin no more.”

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, Glenn. You are right that the Romans reserved the power of life and death to themselves. That didn’t stop the Jews in Stephen’s case, of course. So I agree with you that this was probably very similar to the tribute question — wanting to either get our Lord in trouble with the Romans for advocating non-Roman capital punishment, or be able to accuse Him before the people of disregarding the Law. We don’t know, because it doesn’t say, and we don’t have the direct hint that we had on the tribute question, of Pharisees and Herodians coming together, which made it obvious.

      There have been a lot of theories as to what Jesus wrote — listing their sins, etc. My theory fits with His words and the whole scenario. But it is just speculation.

      Yes, Jesus said He did not legally condemn her, but He most certainly condemned her actions morally. Sadly, some will say twist this passage to tell us that it means we are to no longer morally condemn sinful actions unless we ourselves are sinless. Watch this space on that one.

  2. Jon,

    I wondered what Jesus wrote in the dust, then as I read Jeremiah 17:13 ‘O LORD, the hope of Israel, All who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, Because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the LORD.’ Matthew Henry’s commentary states “Those that depart from thee (so some read it) shall be written in the earth. They shall soon be blotted out, as that is which is written in the dust.”
    I thought maybe he was writing names of the religious, Christ rejecting Scribes and Pharisees who were trying to accuse Him. Just another ‘view’ to throw out there..

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Lyn, that’s one of many ideas, and one of the better ones. It has an Old Testament connection, which fits the patterns of Jesus’ dealings with them. The thing that makes me doubt it is that there’s nothing in the text of John to point to that, while the Deuteronomy passage fits with what we ARE told. I think if it had been Jeremiah, we probably would have been told what it was. But that’s just a “probably” — your suggestion may well be correct.

      If we needed to know, the Lord would have told us, of course. If the Lord didn’t want us to think about it, we wouldn’t have been told about the writing. If it were needed to understand this passage, we would have been told what it is. One of those interesting things in the Scripture where the Lord reminds us to be humble by telling us just enough to make us know we don’t know everything. 🙂

  3. ukfred says:

    Hi Jon

    I had always thought that to catch someone in the act of adultery, one had to catch their partner too. I’m pleased that I was not whistling in the wind with that thought. But every time I read this part of John’s Gospel, I always think too of the story of Zaccheus. When Zaccheus, like just about everyone else we read about in the gospels, came face to face with Jesus, he was changed from a cheating thief to an honest tax collector. I like to speculate that this woman did change too.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Fred, there’s some basis for that hope. When Jesus asked if “no man” condemned her, she could have said, “None.” By saying, “No man,” she may have been saying that only God condemned her, or that she knew she stood condemned before Jesus and that He was more than just a man. She may also have been acknowledging self-condemnation.

      Certainly, His “Go and sin no more” condemned her actions. But it seems very gentle, as if He knew she would not. By contrast, in John 5:14, we see, “Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.” That comes with a strict warning, something our Lord didn’t find necessary to add with this woman.

      I think this woman repented, and became a true follower of Jesus. If she was known to John and the other disciples, perhaps that is why so little detail is here. And perhaps that is why this account is in John’s Gospel, and not the others. John’s account was almost certainly written much later — she may have still been alive when the others were written, but with the Lord by the time John wrote.

      But as you said, this is all speculation.

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