The Adulteress And The Death Penalty -- By: Stephen A. James

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 22:1 (Mar 1979)
Article: The Adulteress And The Death Penalty
Author: Stephen A. James


The Adulteress And The Death Penalty

Stephen A. James*

Several articles have been written by opponents of the death penalty who cite the pericope of the adulteress (John 7:53–8:11) as evidence that the death penalty has been revoked by the authority of Jesus. Examples include Lewis B. Smedes, who believes that readers of the passage “will understand that Jesus refuses to be part of the hangman’s plot not because he is easy on adultery but because he infuses the guilty situation with the law of love for the guilty”;1 Dwight Ericsson, who considers that this incident “actually denies the right to use capital punishment in a particular instance”;2 John Howard Yoder, who writes that this incident

raises two other considerations which profoundly modify the significance of that Code for his day and for ours. First, he raises the issue of the moral authority of the judge and executioner: “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.” Secondly, he applies to this woman’s offense, which is a civil offense, his authority to forgive sin. There is no differentiation between the religious and the civil which says that God may forgive the sinner but justice must still be done;3

and Charles S. Milligan, who regards the death penalty abrogated because of this incident and questions why it is that proponents of capital punishment “ignore this one specific case where Jesus spoke on its applicability.”4

While proponents of capital punishment have not really ignored this passage concerning the adulteress, one must agree with those opponents who charge that proponents have failed to interact significantly and dynamically with the implications of the text for application to the modern controversy concerning capital punishment. Richard H. Bube, for instance, in arguing in favor of capital punishment for murder accepts that “Jesus Himself in His treatment of the woman taken in adultery indicated the negation of the death penalty for that offense,”5 and Charles C. Ryrie similarly argues that while the incident may be used to teach that adultery should not be punished with death, abrogation of the death penalty cannot fairly be extended to the crime of murder.6

I. History Of Interpretation

A survey of prominent interpreters throughout the history of the Christian Church, such as Augustine, Chrysostom, Theodoret, Tertullian, Luther and Cal-

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