Ideas

The First Stone: Jesus, the Accused and Us

Variously called 'Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery', 'Jesus and the Accused', and the 'Pericope Adulterae', this story, found in the Gospel of John, still throws off reflections and refractions today. Jesus' message is stark: "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And the history of the text is unique. IDEAS producer Sean Foley asks: What happens in this story? Where did it come from? And what does it say to us about some of our deepest contemporary dilemmas?

Sean Foley asks: what does the story say to us about some of our deepest dilemmas?

Detail from "Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery" (1621) by Guercino. (Wikipedia)
Listen to the full episode53:59

** This episode originally broadcast on April 18, 2019.

"Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."

The idea contained in this sentence is embedded in our culture. It was spoken by Jesus Christ, but you don't need to have been raised in a Christian household to have heard it or know it. 

The story it comes from — the story of Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery —  is now an integral part of the Western imagination. And for the first few hundred years of Church history, that was pretty much the only place it could be found. 

The story is also known by its Latin name, the Pericope Adulterae. Pericope is derived from the Greek word for 'cutting around'. So in early scriptural terms, this story is literally a 'patch', a piece of text, sewn into what later became the New Testament.

It's found in the Gospel of John, where it started popping up in the 4th and 5th centuries, and seemed to fit well enough that nobody so much as batted an eyelash at it until the dawn of modern, historically-informed scholarship in the nineteenth century. 

At that time, scholars who were invested in establishing a definitive, 'original' scripture, discovered that the story wasn't a part of the earliest known versions of John and argued that it did not belong. Ever since, many who have written books and papers about the Gospel of John have left the story out.

Detail from "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery "(c1600), by Pieter Bruegel the Younger, based on a panel painted in 1565 by his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (Wikipedia)

Jennifer Knust teaches Religious Studies at Duke University, and she has studied this story and its origins extensively. Her book, To Cast the First Stone, co-written with Sweden-based author Tommy Wasserman, traces its transmission throughout the centuries. She believes it belongs fully within the Christian tradition.

"The argument that the story was not in the Gospel of John in its initial form and so therefore should be somehow less important or marginalized from the perspective of Christian proclamation — that doesn't arise until the 19th century. Up until that point, everybody was reading this story as if it were fully in the Gospel of John. So as long as the story is proclaimed, which it has been clearly from the fourth century onwards, people have received it as a Gospel story. It's in the Gospel from the perspective of those who read it or listen to it in church."

So for the Church, and the faithful — even for the broader secular population — it's too late. The story is truly with us; it can't be 'un-heard'. Its tensions, its example of mercy, and its challenge to us remain as powerful as ever. 

That doesn't mean it's not problematic. This story gives no name to the woman at its centre. She becomes something of a pawn in what appears to be a power-play cooked up by the religious authorities, who wanted to challenge Jesus, this mysterious young Jewish teacher. 

From a 21st century secular viewpoint, the story seems an archaic treatment of women. But in some places — particularly in prisons all over the world — these attitudes and conditions still prevail. 

In Malawi, a woman is released from death row, with assistance from the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. She had been sentenced to death for killing her abusive husband. The resentencing court agreed that she did not deserve death. (Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide)

Delphine Lourtau is the Executive Director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. She looks at the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery through the lens of her work, researching the global use of the death penalty, and training lawyers to properly defend the accused: 

"We know almost nothing about this woman. Whatever wrongdoing she might have committed, we need to know a lot more about it than just the bare facts: that some unknown person believes she has committed it and deserves the most severe punishment … Most women on death row [have experienced] injustice and inequality that has affected their entire lives and that has led them to this point. "

Lynch mobs operate that way, and in a sense they look for that first blow, that permission for the rest of them to join in too. And that's what Jesus refused to do — by writing in the sand.- Scott Lewis, SJ

So the story's value isn't simply its appeal to our better judgment. Even in what it leaves out, like the details of a woman's life and circumstances, there are urgent lessons.  

Perhaps the most profound aspect of the Pericope Adulterae is one that is often overlooked. It's not about forgiveness. It's about what makes people accuse others, what makes them desire the death of others, and what is in us that feeds this dark desire. 

Scott Lewis is a Jesuit priest and professor of New Testament at Regis College. He describes both the fear of the woman brought before Jesus, as well as the mood of those who surround her:

"Lynch mobs operate that way, and in a sense they look for that first blow, that permission for the rest of them to join in too. And that's what Jesus refused to do — by writing in the sand … and the very fact that he was able to take command of the situation and not respond in the typical way that they expected showed how much he was a master of the situation, and how much he was a master of human psychology, too."

Nobody knows what Jesus wrote in the sand, although many have theorized about it. Was he writing the sins of all present, as some early Church Fathers suggested? Or a line from Hebrew scripture? Or was it, as Scott Lewis contends, a distracting device, a way of de-escalating the anger of the mob? 

Scott Lewis is a Jesuit priest and professor of New Testament at Regis College at the University of Toronto. 1:08

Perhaps the 'empty space' is the most valuable meaning of the act of writing on the part of Jesus. Jennifer Knust points to one interpretive tradition that appeals to the imagination — one in which whatever Jesus wrote is intentionally not reported: 

"To leave out what Jesus wrote actually invites speculation, because Jesus is himself the Word, right? (John 1:1).  So it's kind of perfect that he doesn't write. [This] invites us to imagine what the logos [the Word] would write, which then invites us to further speculation about what it means to be a follower of Christ."

What it means to be a follower of Christ — what it means to be human — is, in part, our awareness of whether we ourselves are holding stones in our hands, and whether we are willing to drop them rather than throw them.  

 

The Pericope Adulterae 

Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.  

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"

They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them,

"Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."  And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.

When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

She said, "No one, sir."

And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."

John 7:53-8:11, New Revised Standard Version

 

Guests in this episode:

  • Jennifer Knust is a professor of Religious Studies at Duke University, and the co-author, with Tommy Wasserman, of To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story, (Princeton University Press, 2018).
  • Scott Lewis is a Jesuit priest and professor of New Testament at Regis College at the University of Toronto.
  • Delphine Lourtau is Executive Director on the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, at Cornell University.
     

Further reading:



**This episode was produced by Sean Foley.

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