A narration place between the revelations and the consequent controversies in chapters 7 and 8 of the gospel of John. This story of the woman caught in adultery seems to be thematically out of place. However, a deeper reading of this narration reveals that the purpose of the story is to link both revelations (chapters 7 and 8 of the gospel of John) to each other.
The event is taking place in the temple. This official religious context is very relevant. The preceding context of the narration is the teaching on ‘living water’ given in the circumstance of the feast of tabernacles. In the immediately following context which is the continuation of the feast of tents, we have the teaching on the ‘light of the world.’
The woman who was caught in adultery is brought by the Scribes and Pharisees. “To be caught” in adultery means to be caught in the act of sexual intercourse. The man who is involved might have escaped. Besides the husband, there must be two witnesses (Deut 19: 15) among those who bring her to Jesus. When it is proved through two witnesses, the accused is stoned to death. The witnesses are the first ones to throw the stones. Capital punishment was given to those who were proved to be adulterous – the betrothed women or married women (Lev 20: 10; Deut 22: 21; Ezek 36: 38-40).
Why did they bring the woman to Jesus? Is it because they had conducted the trial and wanted Jesus to determine the punishment? This is doubtful because the trial usually ends with the judgement and the determination of the punishment. The question of Jesus “has not any one condemned you?” has no relevance if this is true. The evangelist tells us that they had the intention of trapping Jesus to find something to accuse him of. The question they asked Jesus was as tricky as the one Pharisees asked about tax according to gospel of Mark 12: 13-17. If Jesus agreed with them they could complain to the Romans. If he did not agree with them, they could accuse him of going against Jewish law. Jesus did not answer directly and thus avoid a legal dispute.
What did Jesus really intent to communicate through this? The answer will clarify also the relationship between this story and the teachings on water and light.
The Pharisees and Scribes are acting with the fervour of Phinehas of the Old Testament (Num 25: 6-18), who is a figure that is exemplified in the late Judaism (1Mac 2: 26). These people might have been fired up by the same zeal. Jesus, however, understands the dishonesty implied in their zeal for the letter of the law. What they demand is an indignant enforcement of the law. And Jesus demands, on the other side, that the case be lawful and they must be honest. They are not giving any importance to the heart of the woman. They are looking only at the appearance and thereby neglecting the purpose and spirit of the law. Jesus sees the heart of the woman and that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus understands that the woman is being used by them as a medium to find accusation against him. In fact she is a victim rather than an accused.
The words of Jesus: “let him who is without sin be the first to cast a stone on her” should not be taken as a demand of sinlessness for a judge to be able to make judgment on others. Rather, Jesus is asking to base their case on honesty because in this case, the husband might have arranged to have his wife caught in adultery with all the necessary witnesses without having tried to help her to become faithful through peaceful means. These Scribes and Pharisees are not even asking whether the woman is repentant or not. So Jesus is able to see her heart and her inner status is much more innocent than the inner situation of those who are eager to condemn her. This point is really clear when all of them go away without casting a stone on the woman. Jesus was slanting, probably, on the legal provision made available by Exodus 23: 1-3 – “you shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.”