Despite the ubiquity of divinely-sanctioned and divinely-orchestrated capital punishment in the Law of Moses and the Hebrew Bible, many insist that Jesus, ever the enlightened reformer, repudiated capital punishment. The argument usually follows one of two lines.
- On the one hand, many progressives believe Jesus opposed capital punishment because he, unlike the God portrayed in the Jewish scriptures, was committed to restorative justice and the rehabilitation of those infected by sin. Jesus believed punitive measures in response to wrongdoing were therefore unjust and harmful. Spurning a religion and culture of vengeance, Jesus ushered in an age of compassion for sinners.
- On the other hand, many conservatives believe Jesus opposed capital punishment (or at least capital punishment under Moses’ Law) because, as he came to make known, everyone deserves to be executed on account of personal sin. Having broken the commandments of God in thought and deed, sin awards death to all people (cf. Romans 1:32, 6:21-23). And so, in accordance with this divine verdict, Jesus suffered the death penalty in place of humanity. Through this voluntary death he satisfied the just punishment and brought to an end the dispensation of Law, replacing it with a dispensation of grace through faith.
Somewhat ironically, both of these views rely heavily on a textually-dubious passage: the pericope adulterae, the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:2-11). There, according to popular interpretation, Jesus stipulates that only the person who has never sinned should participate in the stoning of the adulteress (John 8:7). And yet, when all the woman’s accusers have left on account of their sins, even Jesus, a blameless man, refuses to carry out the sentence of the Law (cf. Deuteronomy 22:22, Leviticus 20:10). By disarming the presumptive enforcers of the Law in this way then, Jesus seemingly hushes the Law’s fury against lawbreakers and subverts the legitimacy of the death penalty.
But is this how we ought to understand the story of the adulterous woman? Does a distaste for capital punishment originate with the historical Jesus? Perhaps not.
Mark 7 and the Jewish Jesus
Before we return to the issue of the woman caught in adultery, a general point.
As scholars have insisted for a number of decades, there is no historical Jesus besides the Jewish Jesus. Attempts to unearth a Jesus radically distinct in outlook from his traditional Galilean kinsmen are simply doomed to fail the test of history. Accordingly, based on the evidence of the earliest sources, Jesus and his closest followers were, much like the Pharisees, Law-observant Jews (cf. Matthew 23:2-3). Jesus’ regular debates with his Jewish contemporaries over matters of correct adherence to the Law belie this fact.¹
Beyond this observation that Jesus was in fact Jewish, there is also evidence that Jesus affirmed the scriptural mandate for capital punishment in Mark 7. As part of a dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus harangues his opponents with these words inspired by Isaiah:
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition… You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)—then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on (Mark 7:8-13, cf. Isaiah 29:13).
Although the morality of judicial execution is not the topic at hand here, Jesus refers to the fatal punishment merited by rebellious sons (cf. Exodus 21:17, Deuteronomy 21:18-21) as the “commandment of God” and the “word of God.” Further, Jesus castigates the Pharisees because they have used man-made traditions such as the Corban’ exemption in order to circumvent their divinely-ordained duty to honor and care for their parents. In so doing, they also cunningly escape their legal compensation for this disobedience: death.
The assumptions Jesus makes in this debate are to be expected of a 1st century Galilean Jew: the Law comes from God; even those commandments which require the use of capital punishment.²
The ones without sin: a reading of John 8:2-11
Notwithstanding Mark 7, the Jesus represented in the pericope adulterae appears to have a more complicated understanding of Moses’ Law. For, as the text is commonly read, Jesus limits those who may punish lawbreakers to those who are “without sin” (ἀναμάρτητος), that is, to those who have never sinned. For all intents and purposes then, only God can judge and condemn in accordance with the Law.
A deft and appealing argument, no doubt, yet no such requirement exists in the Law itself, nor in Jewish tradition.
So what is going on here?
Unlike some interpretations, the one offered below relies on what appears to be the only concrete explanatory material in the text itself: Jesus’ brief words to the crowd: “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”³
A wicked and adulterous generation
The view that Jesus’ words “without sin” implicate all people has, to my mind, led interpreters far off course. Jesus’ challengers here, the scribes and the Pharisees,⁴ are not stand-ins for a corrupt and self-righteous humanity.
Rather, these scribes and Pharisees represent Israel’s religious leadership at a particular time and place. They are members of what Jesus calls a “wicked and adulterous generation” (Mark 8:38, Matthew 16:4, cf. Deuteronomy 1:35, 32:5). They are those who stand condemned not because they have, at one time, sinned, but because, in Jesus’ view, they have abused the authority given them without remorse. For their recalcitrance, they have been rejected by God and are set for destruction at the eschaton (Matthew 23:29-36). Their lot will be in the outer darkness, in Gehenna. Thus, at the time of Jesus, Israel simply had no legitimate leadership, moral, political, or otherwise (cf. Mark 6:34, Matthew 23:24). Moses’ seat, though filled by the scribes and Pharisees, was in reality empty.⁵
To be “without sin” in this context does not, therefore, denote ontological moral purity (e.g. never having sinned). It referred to the righteous, those humbly subject to God’s laws. Clearly there were such people in Israel, people to whom authority would soon be transferred.
- Elizabeth and Zechariah were “righteous before God,” “walking blamelessly in all the commandments” (Luke 1:6).
- Simeon was “righteous and devout” as he awaited the redemption of Israel (Luke 2:25).
- John the Baptizer was a “righteous and holy man” (Mark 6:20).
- The rich young man kept the commandments since he was a youth (Mark 10:20).
- Jesus refers to those Israelites who “need no repentance” (Luke 15:7, cf. Mark 2:17) and assumes many righteous people are present in Israel (Matthew 5:45, 10:14, 13:17).
The Deuteronomistic Historians were not afraid to heap similar kinds of praises upon the Yahwistic kings of Judah’s past. Hezekiah and Josiah, for instance, “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Kings 18:3, 22:2, cf. Genesis 6:9) and turned to God “in accordance with all the Law of Moses (2 Kings 23:25).
There were, therefore, Israelites who could and would administer justice in Israel on God’s behalf. The current ilk of Pharisees and scribes, however, were not those Israelites. How could those condemned by the Law enforce the Law?
Neither do I condemn you
After the sinful generation of scribes and Pharisees depart the scene, Jesus still refuses to sentence the woman for her crime in accordance with the Law: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). Instead, he acknowledges her sin while also forgiving it. Why?
The best answer, so it seems, is that Jesus considered himself to be God’s legal assistant in these last days (cf. Mark 2:10). God had given Jesus authority to release whomever he deemed worthy from the consequences of their sins on the heels of the great judgement. Jesus accomplishes this feat to the chagrin of the Pharisees and scribes on three other occasions.
- In Mark Jesus declares the paralytic man’s sins forgiven and manifests this inward restoration with the restoration of his limbs to working order (Mark 2:1-12).
- In the Lukan source Jesus forgives a sinful woman on account of her great love for him (Luke 7:36-50).⁶
- In a saying of unknown origin Jesus asks God to forgive those involved in his crucifixion (Luke 23:34, cf. Acts 7:60).
As the end of the age drew near, and with no legitimate authority over Israel, God gave emergency relief to those Jews who repented of their sins at the call of his servant, Jesus.⁷ As during a time of crisis, Jesus believed he had been licensed to pronounce divine mercy (and divine wrath) irrespective of the Law’s demands. With the adulterous woman he did just that.
1—When Jesus egregiously departs from the interpretive norms of his contemporaries (e.g. in matters regarding violence, money, and familial piety) he does so usually on eschatological grounds, oftentimes intensifying the Torah commandment in light of imminent corporate judgement (cf. Mark 10:11-12, Matthew 5:21-48, ). Neither the progressive vision (i.e. Jesus rejected the Law in light of his enlightened ethic) nor the conservative vision (i.e. Jesus superseded the Law in light of his impending death for sins) adequately accounts for Jesus’ understanding of the Law.
2—Jesus assumes master’s have corporal authority over their slaves (Mark 12:1-9, Matthew 18:23-35, 24:14-30; 45-51, cf. Exodus 21).
3—Interpretations that depend on the alleged legal malpractice of Jesus’ interlocutors have no real textual warrant. Neither Jesus nor the narrator accuse the Pharisees and scribes of malfeasance (e.g. bringing forward the female offender but not the male offender, eschewing the counsel of a court, Jesus having no authority to give his opinion, etc.). Further, the notion that the mostly-gentile readership of the story could implicitly pick up on intricacies of Moses’ Law strains credulity (cf. Mark 7:4, John 2:6, 4:9, 18:31, 19:40, Luke 2:21, 2:42). Interpretations predicated on what Jesus wrote on the ground seem unworkable.
4—The Johannine writers tend to designate Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews” and the term “scribe” is used nowhere else in the Fourth Gospel. Since “Pharisees and scribes” often occurs in the Synoptic Gospels, most scholars view the pericope adulterae as a Synoptic-type tradition.
5—Given this pessimistic outlook, the days in which human judgement was of use had come to an end (cf. Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37, 1 Corinthians 4:5).
6—Jesus is also remembered as having granted this kind of forgiving power to his friends (John 20:23, Matthew 18:18).
7—This forgiveness was not absolutely guaranteed. Embedded in the phrase “do not sin again” is the threat of punishment if sin continues after repentance and/or mercy (cf. John 5:14, Luke 13:3).