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“Now in the Law, Moses commanded that such [women] be stoned. You therefore, what do you say?”


Now in the Law, Moses commanded that women like her be stoned to death. What about you? What do you have to say about this matter?”


The fact that they asked Jesus this question seems (at first sight) to indicate a high level of respect. They would only ask Him this if He were a judge, or a leader in the community who could act as a judge over such cases and thus give a ruling that would authorize the death penalty (which Roman law did not allow them to carry out). The only other reason to ask this question would be to trick Him into saying something they could use against Him.


Several sexual offenses received the death penalty according to the Mosaic law, but the only case which would apply to this situation and for which stoning was specifically mentioned was that of a who was woman betrothed to a man but violated that pledge by having sex with another man before the wedding day. Both of them were to be stoned (Dt 22:23-24). The man was stoned for taking another man’s “wife” and she was stoned for being in a populated area and not crying out for help, thus it was assumed she was a willing participant.

Was stoning the normal form of enforcing the death penalty?  I believe it was, although Bible scholars are divided on this point.

Because Deuteronomy 22:24 is specific and other references to the death penalty for various sexual crimes are general, many think this woman was betrothed to be married. While I see their point, I don’t think we can make that case conclusively. The main idea is that she was caught in the act of committing a crime and they saw this as an opportunity to trap Jesus.


According to Ray Vanderlaan, stoning was a very regulated event. Someone who was accused of a crime was caught, bound and brought to one of the leaders of the city who could act as a judge. The witnesses made their cases and there had to be two or more witnesses in order for the perpetrator to be convicted. If the judge determined the person was worthy of death, he would give the word and then the group would proceed, to a cliff or steep ravine outside the city, or to the top of the city wall. The perpetrator was thrown over the edge, still bound, and the key witnesses were the first to throw a stone. Each person got one stone. It could be as big or small as they wished, but only one. If they missed, they missed; they did not get another chance. After the key witnesses had each thrown one stone, then any secondary witnessed would also throw one stone, and finally the entire male population of the community that was convinced by the evidence participated by throwing a stone.

I said earlier that Roman law did not let them carry out stonings. But we do not know how strictly they enforced that law. It is possible that in places far away from the capital city of Jerusalem, the people had occasionally gotten away with stoning someone and the Romans in that area had looked the other way. In Jn 8:59 and Jn 10:31 we see how quickly the Jews had decided that they wanted to stone Jesus and were in the process of trying to make that happen. Their actions show one of two things: either they were so intent on doing this that they did not care if they got in trouble from the Romans, or that far away from the capital city the Romans let them get away with killing each other. However, in the capital city, the Romans would have enforced the restriction and not allowed this woman to be stoned according to Jewish law.


The fact that the Scribes and Pharisees brought Jesus the guilty woman but not the guilty man shouts for the attention of everyone who reads this account, regardless of the culture or era in which they live. However, for a Jew of Jesus’ time, it would indicate that the religious leaders were not really trying to follow the Law themselves because the Law calls for both of them to be stoned if it were a woman who was betrothed. The onlookers that day knew this was intended as a trap and the way the religious leaders were going about it made them look desperate. And most readers would know it too without John stating it, but in vs. 6 he clearly states that it was a trap so there would be no question in anyone’s mind. The religious leaders had a situation presented to them that they could not pass up because they thought it was sure to give them ammunition against Jesus, regardless of what He did or said. They thought they had found something that would present Jesus with a lose-lose situation. It did not matter to them that they themselves had not taken a hard stand against such sexual sin but were known to be lax on this issue. And it did not matter to them that the Romans would not allow them to carry out the death penalty for anything at all, making this a mute question. All that mattered to them was the opportunity to make Jesus look bad and gain ammunition they could use in their attacks against Him.

It would be considered a loss if Jesus came down on the side of severe punishment, and that for a couple reasons. Only Rome had the power to put someone to death, so for Jesus to say that she deserved the death penalty would be an act of usurpation against the power of Rome. Also the culture had become very lax about matters of sexual sin, being influenced by the lifestyle of foreigners such as the Romans. Thus Jesus would have lost popular support if he said the woman deserved the death penalty.

It would have been considered a loss for Jesus to go against Moses. It would have given His opponents opportunity to “prove” He was not the Messiah because the Messiah was prophesied to be a prophet like Moses (Dt 18:18). Never mind that they were not following the Law completely either, but, since none of them were claiming to be the Messiah, their hypocrisy was considered justified. The Pharisees would never choose the kindness of God over His holiness, so they saw the compassionate side of Jesus as a weakness. And the kindness of Jesus was the crux of the matter. They wondered if He might be so kindhearted as to go against the Law of Moses in order to show kindness.