Caught in the act (part 2)

I’m not generally one to go in for conspiracy theories. But I smell a rat.

In a story found in the gospel of John, Jesus is sitting in the temple courts, teaching the crowds. The scribes and Pharisees drag a woman before him, accuse her of adultery, and demand to know what he’s going to do about it:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:3-5, NRSV)

What purpose does it serve to shame this woman publicly? Did they have some prior grudge against her? Perhaps. But their primary motive is to put Jesus to the test, to get him to do or say something that will get him in trouble. Jesus has a reputation for being gracious toward sinners; would he dare to contravene the law of Moses? “Moses said we should stone her,” they insist. “So, teacher, what do you say?”

To modern ears, the Law may sound barbaric. But what we’re getting in this story is a distortion of the Law. Yes, adultery was a capital offense, and yes, stoning was sometimes the prescription for capital offenses. But there was no specific commandment to stone adulterers.

And as some scholars have insisted, the standard of evidence in such cases was actually quite stringent. A person couldn’t be found guilty of adultery on the basis of suspicious circumstances (Oh my! Look at the text messages on her phone!). More than one witness, at the same time, had to actually see the couple having intercourse, and there had to be no possibility of misinterpreting what they seeing.

Conspiracy theorists should have their antennae up by now. Adultery was a capital offense for both men and women. If the couple had to be caught in flagrante delicto, then where was the man? Why wasn’t he dragged before Jesus along with the woman? Wouldn’t their point and their intended trap have been served just as well?

We can’t be certain. But it smells like a setup. If Jesus’ opponents needed a ruse to trap him, it would take an inconveniently long time to mount the kind of sting operation needed to legitimately catch someone in the very act of adultery. A more expedient method would be to recruit a man who would conspire with them, and who would then be allowed to escape. And if the woman was an enemy in some way, even better: kill two birds with one stoning.

I imagine they must have congratulated themselves on their cleverness. No need to try to grab Jesus in front of everyone and haul him away on trumped-up charges. Far better to come to him in the guise of seeking his advice as a respected teacher, and give him enough rope to hang himself.

But as we’ll see in Sunday’s post, they weren’t halfway clever enough.