A Woman Accused?
<What follows is a fictionalized account of John 7:53-8:11. As this is a text whose inclusion in the gospel of John is in dispute, I may be permitted a bit more freedom in fictionalizing it. That said, I am attempting to write a “docudrama” that reflects reliable information and good scholarship regarding background details of the text. May this story inspire and inform you, gentle reader.>
“Let him enter,” Caiaphas growled, clearly annoyed at being interrupted. He’d been chewing out Obed for statements he’d made at the last Sanhedrin meeting. Under the heel of the Roman sandal, even the appearance of unity among those who govern was worth more than individual ambitions. Obed was something of a blockhead, slow to come around to Caiaphas’ point of view.
The young slave entered sheepishly, entirely intimidated by the lavish surroundings of the high priest’s home. He gaped, open his mouth, and shut it again, a youth entirely out of his element, unsure of protocol. Yet something utterly concerned him, wary Caiaphas could see that. “What is it boy?” the high priest interrogated him gruffly.
“Ah… if you please, sir, I have a message for master Obed only,” the words barely escaped his clenched teeth.
Obed stood and started to say, “I’ll talk to him in the hall,” but Caiaphas waved him back into his seat without a word being said.
“There are no secrets in my house!” Caiaphas raged. “You will speak aloud what you came to say in private, then get out.”
The slave - Obed could not recall his name - swallowed and looked at his master. Obed granted a miniscule nod, then the slave began.
“Mistress Martha was… discovered… to have been in her… bed with another man… this morning.”
Though the heat of the Judean morning was already pressing in, the slave boy trembled as a cold chill gripped his spine. He feared the wrath of his master and the garrulous priest.
“SHE WHAT?!!” Obed exploded. This time he did rise to his feet and charged the slave. Grasping both his slender shoulders, Obed shook the boy. “Adultery? My wife? How DARE you…!”
Obed released the slave, then slapped him hard across his face. “How dare you speak thus of your mistress?!”
Shrill with anger and embarrassment, Obed repeated the accusation, then raised his hand to strike the boy again, but Caiaphas’ voice boomed throughout the marbled hall, stopping him.
“OBED! Obed, you FOOL! Contain your anger! This whelp only brings the news, he is not the object of your wrath. Now release him and SIT DOWN!”
Control asserted itself in trembling hands and Obed found his knees very weak. Somehow he willed his body to return to his seat. A tear escaped each eye so Obed clenched his eyelids down to cut off a further flow.
Caiaphas regarded the Pharisee with a look as close to compassion as his cold heart allowed. He waited silently for Obed’s self-control to resume. Then he turned to the slave.
“Who was found with her?” he demanded of the boy.
“That’s the… uh… Master Salmon, sir.”
At this revelation rage returned to Obed and stirred his passions anew. He leapt to his feet and cried, “Salmon the Sadducee? My friend Salmon?”
The slave wished for any duty other than the one he was now discharging. He’d never felt more in danger at any time in his service with Master Obed. His stomach threatened to burst up into his throat.
Caiaphas took the revelation with quiet contemplation, ignoring Obed’s feverish anger, his zealous curses on Salmon. To the slave he said, “Go, boy. Await us in the hall. We may have more questions to ask.”
When the young, frightened slave did not move, Caiaphas spat, “Go now! Have no fear of your master’s wrath! Go!”
The boy bolted and was let out of the room by the guards.
Obed threw himself back into his chair and went silent, holding his head in his hands. “What am I to do?” he moaned. “I am cuckolded in my own house. Shame has come upon me.”
The old man reached across the space between the chairs and wrenched Obed’s hand away from his face.
“Console yourself with this my friend,” he said. “We cannot drag the vile sinners into the square to stone them both, as the Law demands. The Romans hold for themselves the right to kill criminals. But… but we can keep your shame private and use this information to manipulate that fool Salmon. He has been guided to disaster by following his animal urges. He has become clay in our hands.”
Obed’s thoughts were far away, Caiaphas’ words fell unheard. “I shall have to give her a writ of divorcement. I shall put that vile woman into the street!”
“Hush,” Caiaphas hissed. “You will do no such thing. Their indiscretion is of no use to us if it becomes public knowledge. No, this must be contained in your household until such time as the woman or the information have a prime usefulness to us.”
“But, I…” Obed began to object.
“Silence, I tell you!” the high priest demanded. “After these sinners have served a divine purpose, you shall drink your fill of revenge. Until then, we must contain your shame, hide your dark secret. Salmon shall serve us for a time and that alone will be a joyous revenge for you. Keep your wife in her chamber. Keep her silent. We have only a little time to make wine of these grapes.”
When Obed opened his mouth to protest, Caiaphas waved it off. To the guard at the door he called, “Send in the boy! Have Salmon brought here quietly, but with all speed!”
The day following these secret revelations found Jesus back in the TEMPLE. Again, a crowd gathered around Him.
Caiaphas was with his father-in-law, Annas, when the temple guard brought him the report.
“Though the sun rides alone in the sky, the day is not yet heated. The crowd will number many people,” Annas observed.
“Why must He always show up on feast days,” Caiaphas muttered. “Always making trouble when the city is full of pilgrims come to celebrate the festivals.”
“You may be thankful it is during the Feast of Tabernacles and not the Passover. Jerusalem is not a swollen with people on this day as then.”
“Thanks be to Adonai,” Caiaphas observed without sounding thankful at all.
“And,” Annas began, “it is an opportunity to go forward with the plan you told me about.”
A light appeared in Caiaphas’ eyes. “Yes. Yes, it is” he said slowly. To the guard awaiting orders, he said, “Go to the home of Obed. Bring him and his wife here with speed and with the utmost secrecy. Go now.”
The guard hurried out, forgetting to bow, so great was his haste.
Caiaphas, Obed, and Annas circled Martha, who had been forced to kneel before them. The burdens of shame and fear would have borne her there on their own had she not been compelled to the floor by the brutish guard. She shuddered from unrestrained weeping. Between sobs, she pleaded for her life.
“Your life was forfeit when you joined yourself wantonly with Salmon, you harlot,” Caiaphas hissed. “Now you will receive in your flesh the penalty proscribed for your sins.”
“Please, mercy!” Martha cried.
“The only mercy we can offer you is a chance to redeem your soul from the devil,” Annas said in a tone that sounded superficially caring.
“What… what can you mean?” she queried.
“I mean, child, you have committed a grave sin, one from which only a righteous death can spare you the LORD’s burning judgment,” Annas intoned.
Caiaphas glared at Obed who struggled to contain his feelings. He already mourned Martha, the struggle to keep silent and do as he was instructed might yet prove too great for his resolve.
“You will be stoned, as the Law of Moses demands. However, if you accept your sentence with silence, we will all pray for you to be received into Abraham’s Bosom rather than suffer hell fire. This is your last choice in life; receive the judgment of the law and redeem your soul or defy the LORD and lose it. Either way, you shall die.”
Martha looked steadfastly into the eyes of her husband, searching for any trace of human compassion, any sign of the love they once shared.
“Husband, is there no mercy? Is it not enough for me to be divorced and disgraced, left destitute in the street?”
Before Obed could answer, Caiaphas bellowed, “SPEAK NOT OF MERCY, HARLOT! Escaping damnation is all the mercy you shall receive and be grateful to receive that!”
Obed had to turn away from her rather than lose his composure.
Her husband’s back to her, Martha lost all hope. “I am resigned to my fate. I will receive it in silence.”
“Swear it!” Caiaphas demanded.
“By the gates of the temple, I will make no protest, raise no cry, speak nothing,” Martha said resignedly.
Caiaphas was satisfied with that answer. He spoke to Annas, “We must be careful to give every impression she has just been discovered. This robe is too fine a garment for an adulteress.”
To a nearby servant he commanded, “Bring forth a bed’s sheet.” It was at hand, as this moment had been carefully planned.
Annas said to the guard, “Caiaphas speaks truthfully. Remove her robe and sandals!”
Clutching and tearing, the guard savagely removed Martha’s robe and sandals, taking care to be rough and cruel. As she promised, Martha endured this indignity with small whimpers and cries.
Throwing the sheet to her, Caiaphas bade Martha to wrap herself in that. Careful not to rise from the floor, she wound the sheet around her nakedness, seeking any modesty she could.
Pretending to appraise her, Caiaphas motioned to his wife’s servant who had been prepared for her role. He said, “This face of tears is not appropriate to the bedroom wiles of this adulteress. Let her face be painted in the harlot’s way! Let her receive perfume and spices in her hair!”
The servant woman knelt beside Martha and applied some of her lady’s face paints, lining Martha’s eyes, coloring her lips and cheeks. A perfumed oil was rubbed on her bare shoulders and pinches of fragrant spice scattered over her tousled loose hair. The slave stood and depart, tears in her eyes.
Caiaphas approved. “The very picture of a loose woman!”
To the youthful priest, Shallum, and the sly-looking teacher of the law, Dothan, he now turned. “You two. You have your instructions. Accompany this guard. Drag this harlot through the streets and present her to the miracle-working Nazarene. Remember your lines and your duty.”
Annas knelt next to Martha. “You remember your oath, woman. It will be well with your soul.”
Martha only nodded.
She was hauled roughly to her feet by the guard and escorted out the door by Dothan and Shallum.
When he heard the door close again, Obed turned and gazed upon the spot he last saw his wife alive. “What have I done?” he whispered.
Annas stood and turned to Obed. Jabbing a finger in his chest, the former high priest said, “Your duty. You have done your duty. Keep to it, man.”
Turning to Caiaphas, Annas said, “Now we shall receive Salmon and extract his servitude in return for our silence.”
Outside, they heard Shallum and Dothan’s voice call out, “ADULTERESS! Shame on the wanton woman caught in adultery!”
By this means a trap was set for Jesus of Nazareth. In the middle of the trap was a woman caught in the act of adultery. The Nazarene carpenter’s teaching was interrupted when the guard, the temple lawyer, and the Pharisaic priest entered the temple shouting, “ADULTERESS! Shame on the wanton woman caught in adultery!” This calling out continued as they wound through the crowd milling in the women’s court.
When they reached the feet of Jesus, the guard threw Martha down before Him. The crowd gave way, making a rough circle around the preacher and the condemned woman.
The lawyer spoke. “Teacher,” he said in a deferential voice, “this woman has been caught in the very act of adultery.” He hauled Martha back to her feet. “The Law of Moses commands us to stone such women. What do you say?”
Having vision beyond sight, a gift from His Father, Jesus knew in an instant what was really happening. They must be truly desperate, he thought, to have contrived this obvious and ham-handed trap.
Jesus walked slowly around the woman, disheveled, poorly made up, and clad only in a sheet. As he examined the scene Jesus thought to Himself, It is unlikely in the extreme that a woman could just happen to have been caught in an adulterous act at the very moment Jesus was teaching in the temple. It’s too convenient. Everyone else must surely see this.
Out of the corner of His eye, Jesus saw the guard distributing stones to the members of the crowd standing closest by. Hands that were previously empty now held a stone or two.
It’s more likely the whole thing is a set-up by the religious leaders. This woman has committed adultery, but not today. They want us to assume she has just been caught.
Of course, a sex crime makes the whole thing more salacious. They have crafted her appearance to excite the feelings of the people. They intend to arouse emotions, get these people in a murderous mood.
This is a trap, Jesus decided. The jaws of the trap are the two bad choices. The legalistic choice is for me to call for her stoning. They will run right to the Romans who hold exclusive rights to capital punishment. Pilate will have me arrested by the Romans and tried for serious violations of their laws.
I would prefer the gracious choice, to spare her. This will get me in trouble with the pious people crowded around me, as they will make sure the people want to see the Law of Moses upheld. They may even be hoping for a riot.
Jesus repressed a smile as it would send the wrong message to those watching Him, but He imagined they probably thought they had Jesus right where they wanted Him. Recognizing a trap is the first step to avoiding it, and Jesus knew exactly how He would avoid it.
I will choose a third option, one that will avoid making trouble for anyone, He decided.
First, I will avoid making any comment about the woman’s guilt. I won’t even point out the legal errors her accusers have made. The Law of Moses requires two witnesses to establish any contention as the truth. In this case, no witnesses have been offered. We have only the hypocrites’ accusation.
Second, the Law demands both partners to be brought before the community to be stoned. The fact that the woman was brought alone is a violation of the Law. Undoubtedly, they have done this to protect the identities of her lover and her husband; they are members of the Sanhedrin.
Jesus spoke none of these thoughts aloud. Instead, He stooped over and began writing in the dust with His finger. He paid the crowd no heed, but did not need to see their faces to sense their surprise at this action.
The teacher of the Law recovered his wits sooner than the rest. Being of a carnal mind, he immediately suspected Jesus as stalling for time. He said, “Teacher, we are all awaiting your decision. Shall this adulteress be stoned or not? What would you do with her?”
At the lawyer’s urging, the Pharisees in the crowd also joined in demands for His opinion. In their turns they resorted to pleading, demanding, and even threats, should Jesus not answer them immediately.
Jesus was immune to all their appeals. He continued writing words in the dust. Writing in a circle around the woman, He wrote a list of sins. People stopped urging Him on as they took notice of the words Jesus wrote. All kinds of sins appeared in the dirt, some common, some less so. Some of the sins were deemed more serious than others.
Before completing the circle, Jesus interrupted His list-making, stood, and announced, “You want my opinion? Let the person who has never sinned cast the first stone.” He gestured to the words He’d written on the ground and met every eye with a determined stare.
The teacher of the Law was stunned. While the conscious part of his mind knew that sinlessness was never a requirement for one to participate in an execution by stoning, he felt paralyzed by self-accusation. Several of the sins written in the dust were ones he had committed. Sadly, several times. He knew in that instant, he had no justification to throw the stones in his hands.
To leave the matter was entirely in their hands, Jesus stooped again and returned to His writing in the dust between Him and the woman. He ignored all of them, continuing to compose His list of all the things that grieve the heart of God.
The people crowded nearer to see the circle of sin, to read the words Jesus wrote. I know this is the right path, Jesus thought, but I can’t help but feel this is taking a desperate chance with this woman’s life.
In a moment of rare honesty, the people saw themselves in those words. Suddenly, the woman’s guilt no longer mattered. In each heart their own guilt took center stage, and they knew themselves to be unworthy of casting the first stone. Jesus felt relief to sense this.
Rocks fell from limp fingers. Jesus listened to them thud against the ground.
Eyes that once blazed with fury or morbid curiosity were now blank with confusion or downcast with shame.
One by one the would-be rioters shuffled away from the scene, stunned by the ugliness of their own sins and sure of their unworthiness to be executioners.
I refused to take the responsibility for this woman’s life, Jesus thought as he drew the word HATE in the dust. I put the responsibility for deciding the woman’s fate squarely on the shoulders of the hypocrites and the people. Thanks be to the LORD, they have done the right thing!
After all her accusers had left, Jesus stood to face the woman. Without the public looking over His shoulder, Jesus was free to deal with the woman in the way that seemed best to Him.
With His tongue in cheek, dripping with irony, Jesus asked her, “Where are your accusers? Is there anyone left who condemns you?”
Resigned to death but now given her life back again, Martha was stunned. Her mind swam with the apparent unreality of all that had happened to her. She had only enough clarity, enough mental resolve to answer, “No, Lord.”
At last, Jesus allowed Himself a smile. A disaster and a death had been averted. “I agree with them. I also refuse to condemn you. Go now, but do not return to your life of sin,” He commanded her strongly.
Martha could only nod at Jesus, grateful tears falling from her eyes. She knew she had got off with a pardon this time, but she was not to test God’s patience by repeating her sin. As Jesus and His disciples walked away, she resolved to give to God the life she had just received.
The historical truth of this story is this:
Jesus honored grace and law when He refused to condemn the woman.
The eternal principle is that the best ethical decisions honor both grace and law, love and holiness. This is the highest standard of righteousness.
An application to our lives involves a statement I’ve made often in Bible studies: “When someone asks you to choose ‘either…or,’ choose ‘both…and’ instead.” This is the choice many people want to force on us. So much of modern culture and media involves both extreme views on an issue clamoring for us to choose them.
We should follow Jesus’ example and take a third option. Jesus avoided the easy way of aligning Himself with a party. He refused to take either of the sides offered Him. In the gospels we see Jesus do this time and time again. The religious leaders sought to trap Jesus in His words and were foiled repeatedly. This is not just Jesus being clever, it is Jesus setting an example for us to follow. His example is to be creative in keeping the commands to love and obey God. In so doing, we follow the highest possible standard.
Zondervan Bible Commentary, One-volume Illustrated Edition, John, David J. Ellis.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, John, Merrill C. Tenney.