Did Jesus Save the Life of an Adulteress?

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A fresh look at the text and at the historical evidence yields a version of the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery that turns out to be surprisingly different from the way it is usually portrayed.

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We all know the scene well. We have seen it in all the Jesus movies. An angry mob, led by old, male Jewish religious leaders, drags along a half-naked, young woman, barely wrapped in a bedsheet, and toss her to the ground at Jesus’ feet. In their hands they hold the stones ready to hurl them at her at any moment. In their eyes we see fury and the joyful anticipation of bringing a sinner to justice with their very own hands. However, at the last moment, the woman is saved from death by the words that Jesus spoke: “Whoever among you is without sin, let him cast the first stone” (John 8:7).

A clip from the 1977 television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Robert Powell starred in the role of Jesus. The adulterous woman was played by Claudia Cardinale.

But did this story, as we know it, actually happen? I doubt it. My doubts are not the usual doubts of a critical scholar, however. It is true that many biblical scholars today would deny this story ever happened, but that is because they deny the historical reliability of the Gospels as a whole. But this is not the kind of skepticism I mean.

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This early cinematic depiction of the Woman Caught in Adultery is from the silent film “Intolerance” (1916).

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Comments 1

  1. JP Staff Writer

    Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary quietly after discovering her (supposedly) illicit pregnancy (Matt. 1:19) is a good example of the author’s contention that divorce is a more historically plausible scenario in cases of adultery than stoning. Thank you, Baltes, for this illuminating new take on a story we all thought we knew so well.

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  • Guido Baltes

    Guido Baltes

    Dr. Guido Baltes is a lecturer of New Testament Studies at MBS Bible Seminary (Marburg, Germany) and at the department of Theology at the University of Marburg. He is an ordained minister of the Evangelical Church of Germany. After finishing his theological studies at the…
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