Monday, December 9, 2013

Thoughts on the Pericope Adulterae

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565)
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Wikipedia)
One of the most touching stories found in the New Testament is the Pericope Adulterae. It tells of the woman caught in adultery but set free when Jesus’s pointed statement “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” brings her accusers to shame. The passage is generally referenced as John 7:53-8:11, although there is a long and varied historical debate about its authenticity and proper placement in the canon.

Ever since my childhood, I’ve been fascinated by the story, not just because it shows Jesus’s incredible finesse in theological debate, but also because it was shrouded in mystery. What was it that Jesus wrote on the ground? Until a few months ago, I’d never even bothered to guess, but an Old Testament story about God writing made me notice a possible connection.

Belshazzar's Feast (1635)
by Rembrandt (Wikipedia)
In Daniel 5, King Belshazzar sees the handwriting on the wall, and the Jewish exile Daniel interprets it as his coming doom. The four words מְנֵא (menê') twice, תְּקֵל (teqal), and פְּרֵס (peras) served as a short hand way of spelling out the Babylonian king’s doom. Note especially v.27 (ESV): “Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting.” That makes a fitting judgment on a king who had used the temple vessels for his wild partying, but also is applicable to these men who dragged the adulteress to Jesus.

Many scholars have noted that, in first century Judea, there was essentially a wife-swapping epidemic brought about by ramped adultery and no-fault divorces followed by remarriage. Jesus preached against these practices in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:27-32). It doesn’t take too much effort to speculate that some of the men in the lynch mob had committed adultery. Some might have, justifying it through the loop holes in the Mosaic Law that Jesus closed up. At any rate, not one of them could claim to be sinless, and they knew it.

When Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7, ESV), He was issuing a challenge to the accusers. He was asking whose life, when weighed, could truly measure up to God’s standards of righteousness. Convicted by their own consciences, the men walked away. They knew that, if they were honest, they’d fare no better against the scales of justice than the accused woman. Maybe even no better than King Belshazzar himself. They’d seen the handwriting on the wall, so to speak. There was no alternative but to quickly repent of their self-righteous attitude and walk away thoroughly humbled.

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