A reader writes:
In raising John 7:53-8:11, the story of Jesus stopping the stoning of the adulteress, you highlight a biblical passage that brings to light the contradictions of Evangelical, or more broadly Christianist, ideology. As obsessed as they are with sexual purity and reading the Bible as primarily a rulebook, they are also obsessed with the issue of biblical inerrancy and literal readings of text.
But in John 7:53-8:11, we have Jesus – God incarnate among men – rejecting both the biblical laws of sexual purity and the right of legitimate earthly authority to condemn, judge, and kill. To accept the inerrancy, authority, and literal truth of the Bible, one must accept that in this passage, Jesus expressly stood against rigid sexual legalism and capital punishment. So it's telling that it has become widely accepted in the Evangelical/Christianist right that this one particular passage of the Bible is not actually inerrant, and maybe isn't literally true at all.
Bible translations aimed mainly at Evangelicals generally include a note before the passage, such as the New International Version's "[The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.]" Christianist supporters of Old Testament sexual purity, or the death penalty, routinely argue that John 7:53-8:11 is not an authentic part of the Bible at all, probably never happened, and cannot be regarded as revelation. The "Jesus didn't really stop an execution" argument is widespread among Christianists, both Protestants and Catholics.
For most Christianists, this is literally the only passage of the Bible that is not held to be the perfect revelation of God's word. Scholars have found that many portions of the New Testament changed significantly in the first decades after their writing; "earliest manuscripts" and "other ancient witnesses" do not agree on large swaths of the Gospels. Yet for this one passage, and not any other, Evangelicals embrace postmodern critical theory to write Jesus' mercy out of the Bible.
The story of the woman accused of adultery has always struck me. First, it is rather certain that the text is a later addition to the Gospel of John. In the manuscript tradition, it is found at several points in the narrative or missing altogether. Second, however, is that I've become convinced by other scholars (especially Leticia Guardiola-Sáenz) that calling this unnamed woman an adulteress condemns her without evidence. We have the word of a crowd of men concerned more with trapping Jesus than justice. Thus, her partner in this purported crime never appears in the narrative. What proof do we have that the accusation leveled against her is true?
To me, it seems far more likely that the narrative is not primarily about Jesus forgiving a sinner, but Jesus practicing justice for a woman unjustly accused. She was nearly crushed by the machinations of religion imbued with power and overly concerned with the sexual mores of the time. Jesus notices this exploitation of power and saves this woman not from her sinfulness but from a system that would condemn her without pondering her humanity, without consider that she too was created in the image of God.
In fact, this may speak more directly to our times than a Jesus who forgives even the sinner. This is about Jesus confronting the crushing injustice of a religious and political system that has chosen power over grace, that chooses to protect itself instead of protecting the most vulnerable in their midst.