Should ‘Let He Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone’ Be in the Bible?

The story in John where Jesus says, "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" has sparked a lot of debate. Here's what the passage says and why scholars argue about leaving it in the Bible.

Contributing Writer
Updated May 12, 2022
Should ‘Let He Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone’ Be in the Bible?

Since John 7:53-8:11 can only be dated to the fifth century, the inclusion of this text in the Gospel of John is questionable. Yet, one does find it there, set within brackets to indicate the uncertainty of Bible scholars about whether this was a real episode during Christ’s ministry or not. If the text cannot be attributed to the Apostle John with full confidence, should “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” be in the Bible?

What Is the Meaning of 'Let He Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone'?

The relevant scene from John’s gospel depicts a story in which Christ rescued a woman caught in adultery. Some Pharisees sought to stone the woman, but Jesus challenged them, the woman’s life was saved, and the religious leaders left the scene. Christ did not condemn the woman but he told her “go now and leave your life of sin.”

Immediately prior to this scene, Jesus had told his brothers to go to Judea where he himself could not go lest he be arrested. But Jesus followed them in disguise and heard many opinions about who he was.

Some said he was a “good man” while others said he was “leading the people astray” (John 7:12). Eventually, Jesus stood up and spoke against the religious leaders, who sent officers to arrest him, but they were too astounded by Jesus’ teaching to do their job.

If John 7:53-8:11 (also known as the Pericope Adulterae) was left out of the gospel, this scene in Judea would be followed immediately by Christ teaching “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Without the story of the adulteress, John 7:52 flows nicely into John 8:12.

What Are Some Objections to the 'He Who Is Without Sin' Passage Being in the Bible?

John Piper provides a summary of scholarly reasons for not including the story of the adulteress in the Bible:

1. There is that flow mentioned above. John 7:53-8:11 seems to interfere with it.

2. The earliest known manuscripts to include the PA only date back to the fifth century, more than 400 years after Jesus’ death. In some parts of the world, the passage was not preached for another 500 years.

3. It is not consistently located in this part of John’s gospel, and in some translations has even turned up in the Gospel of Luke.

4. The style is not consistent with the writings of John.

Did John Write the Verse 'Let He Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone'?

W. Hall Harris III contrasted the descriptive methods of the Synoptic Gospels with John’s reflective style. “We are carefully guided to see the events of Jesus’ life not as John saw them when they happened but as he now sees them.”

One often thinks of the fourth gospel as the most intimate portrayal, which is fitting since John is known as the beloved disciple.

Mark’s gospel is economical and “fast-paced.” Matthew and Luke, however, were educated men whose professions required a systematic and detailed approach. John’s language is distinct from theirs.

The range of vocabulary appearing in his gospel was more limited than the others, and “many words used in [John 7:53-8:11] are used nowhere else in John’s gospel.”

So far, there are many reasons to suggest that one should not consider John 7:53-8:11 as Scripture. There is value in the story, however, whether it is true in the literal sense or not.

The Purpose of Position

Whether one argues for or against its inclusion in the Bible, why keep the PA in its current position? In spite of arguments that this is not John’s style of writing, the content fits the context.

Jesus has been talking about the law. The Pharisees called for Jesus to be arrested; they wanted him killed. Nicodemus cried out “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (John 7:51).

This is precisely what happened to the woman Jesus rescued from stoning: she was judged and about to be convicted without a proper hearing.

In John 8:15-18, Jesus declared to the Pharisees “you judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.”

This is crucial: there was a procedure to follow. The Pharisees were disregarding their own law where the woman is concerned, and Paul later testified “to every man who receives circumcision, [...] he is under obligation to keep the whole Law” (Galatians 5:3).

Jesus emphasized the preeminence of his word over what he describes as “your law” (John 8:17). This was not his law.

The PA illustrates that the Pharisees’ laws were not God’s laws; their hearts were distant from God, who wants us to pursue justice and mercy, and to be humble before him (Micah 6:8).

The Value of a Story

Piper is not convinced that one should read John 7:53-8:11 as reportage, but worthwhile points emerge from discussing it. The Messiah drew out inconsistencies between the Pharisees’ religion and God’s law.

They invoked the law incorrectly by trying to punish the woman by herself, without the man she has been found sleeping with, and they were going to kill her without a trial. “They were using her, and using the law, to get rid of this troublemaker,” argues Piper.

God’s law was not given to Israel as a weapon for justifying personal agenda but as a blueprint for glorifying the Lord, to give directions for living life as holy people set apart for God, and as a guide for loving one another well.

In the PA and the verses which surround it, Jesus challenges the Pharisees’ understanding of the commandments God gave to his people through Moses.

When he said, “The Law is fulfilled in one word: Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” Jesus did not change the law. He fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17).

“Righteousness and justice should be founded on a gracious spirit, and if it’s not, what you get is the heartlessness and hypocrisy of Pharisaism.”

Once the Pharisees were gone and the woman was safe, Christ told the woman “neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

He told her to start again. Reject sin, take this second chance, this grace and mercy of God through Christ, to repent and uphold the law to God’s glory and for her own good.

Is it True?

Maybe there was no woman caught in adultery and maybe there was, but as John Piper says, “this is the pervasive message of the New Testament. Jesus exalted himself above the Law. He wrote it! Jesus altered some of its sanctions. He pointed to its main goal of Christ-exalting love. And he reestablished righteousness on the basis of an experience of grace.”

One might have heard the PA described as a possible composite of stories in which Jesus demonstrated this pattern of love and grace in order to exalt God.

John wrote, “There are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

Perhaps something similar to the PA happened during Jesus’ ministry, maybe multiple times, and this short passage distills several of them into one event.

If so, then the value of the Pericope Adulterae towards illustrating the tenderness and mercy of Jesus is richer than one can even imagine.

Should This Story be Cut from the Bible?

Bible scholars cannot authenticate this episode per se, but their willingness to evaluate it against such rigorous standards of textual criticism is reassuring.

After all, by these same standards, textual critics are willing to stand behind the veracity of the rest of Scripture.

The PA is a catalyst for deep discussion about Jesus’ character and the manner in which every person comes to him — with our sins exposed to God.

We can be confident that the same systematic, empirical study, which has led us to set aside these few sentences in John’s gospel for discussion about textual authenticity has been applied to the rest of God’s Word and has not found his Word wanting.

For further reading:

How Can We ‘Go and Sin No More’?

What Is Adultery?

What Are the Synoptic Gospels?

Does God See All Sins as Equal to One Another?

What Does it Mean to ‘Love Your Enemies’?

How Can We Trust the Bible We Have Today?

What Does it Mean That the Bible Is God-Breathed?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Tuba Acik

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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