Some manuscripts of John (8:1-11) record an incident in which some Torah scholars and Pharisees approached Yeshua with a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery.
The penalty for adultery under Torah law is death. However, most followers of Yeshua already know that at the end of this story, Yeshua allows the woman to go free. How is this possible? Did Yeshua abrogate the law against adultery?
The wise sages of the Sanhedrin recognized that God’s strict word must be mitigated by God’s love and mercy whenever possible. Just as God always had mercy on Israel, so too, the courts exercised mercy whenever possible. For that reason, the Pharisees of the Sanhedrin normally tried to avoid issuing a death sentence. “A Sanhedrin which executed a person once in seven years was called murderous” (Mishnah). The judges of Israel, however, could not arbitrarily set aside the Torah on the basis that they felt pity for the accused. Instead, being good lawyers, they sought legal loopholes.
In most cases, the legal loophole they used involved disqualifying the witnesses. The Torah says that every allegation must be established by two eyewitnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). In the absence of credible eyewitnesses, the court dropped the case, even if the person’s guilt seemed obvious. The court automatically disqualified a relative of the accused, an enemy of the accused, or anyone with a shady reputation. Maimonides explains that a qualified witness also had to have a clean mind and a clean conscience:
The wicked are unacceptable as witnesses according to Scriptural Law, as [Exodus 23:1] states: “Do not join hands with a wicked person to be a corrupt witness.” The Oral Tradition interprets this as meaning: “Do not allow a wicked person to serve as a witness.” (Hilkhot Edut)
The judges attempted to disqualify the testimony even of qualified witnesses through vigorous cross-examination. In the apocryphal thirteenth chapter of Daniel, the prophet exonerated a woman falsely accused of adultery by disqualifying the witnesses through cross-examination.
Rabbi Yeshua employed a similar approach. Rather than attempt to defend the woman (who was guilty) or bend the Torah (which does not bend), He disqualified the witnesses. He said, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” According to the Torah, the eyewitnesses testifying in a capital case had to cast the first stones:
The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 17:7)
By asking for the people without sin to cast the first stone, the Master was saying, “If you are a qualified witness, carry out your Torah duty.” The Master’s words struck at the conscience of each man, perhaps supernaturally. No one wanted to be executioner; each felt the weight of his own sins. “They began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court” (John 8:9).
Without witnesses, there could be no trial; the Torah required that the woman go free. Yeshua asked her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”
Through a legal technicality, He freed her from the punishment of the Torah, but He did it within the boundaries of the Torah. Like the sages and Torah lawyers of His day, He averted the death penalty by disqualifying the witnesses. The only difference was that Rabbi Yeshua did it without investigation or cross-examination. He let each man’s own heart and conscience disqualify him.
Contrary to the opinion that this story shows how our Master disregarded the Torah in favor of a new order of love and grace, He actually used the commandments of the Torah to save the woman. The commandments regarding witnesses are part of the Torah, too.
By disqualifying the witnesses and releasing the woman, Rabbi Yeshua escaped His opponents’ clever trap. Nevertheless, He expressed genuine compassion for the woman as well. When He sent her away, He told her, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more” (John 8:11). He used the Torah to save her and then placed the Torah of His love before her as a pathway to turn her life to the Father.