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Do we read the story of the woman caught in adultery aright, I wonder? It is often supposed that the scribes and Pharisees were testing our Lord, in the sense of seeing whether He would follow the path of Law or of gentleness, so that they could accuse Him of neglecting one or the other. Again, it is also generally supposed that the words ‘he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’ are meant as a warning not to condemn others while having sins on one’s own conscience. I don’t deny either of these interpretations, but I wonder if they give the principal meaning of the dialogue.

Surely, the trap that the scribes and Pharisees had in mind was that if Christ told them not to stone the woman then He would, as everyone recognises, be seeming to deny the authority of the old Law, and that if He told them to stone her, then He would be seeming to usurp an authority that the Romans had reserved to themselves, that of capital punishment. I don’t know of any evidence that giving commands to stone adulterers was contrary to the popular picture of the Messiah, and would have therefore caused anyone to stop believing in Christ; even though such a command would have been incongruous with the work He had come to do, as perhaps the Pharisees half-understood. On the other hand, anyone who openly pronounced a sentence of death on another person would surely have been brought to the attention of the Roman authorities promptly.

If this is the test, then it throws light on our Lord’s reply: ‘‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’ One might be inclined to say: ‘Either the scribes and Pharisees had judicial authority or they didn’t; if they did, then they should have carried out the sentence of the Mosaic Law even if they were themselves sinful; and if they didn’t, they were not the proper people to carry it out, however perfect they were.’

But perhaps Christ’s words are meant to address this very question, of whether the scribes did have judicial authority to order an execution or not. As far as appearances went, they did not: the temporal sword, in 1st century Judaea, was clearly in the hands of the Romans, however much the Jews might dislike the fact. There was no realistic prospect of their wresting it from Roman hands, nor was it clear that the Romans were doing anything to them that would make such an effort lawful, even had it not been hopeless. Only one thing, therefore, could have justified someone’s taking the temporal sword to himself: the kind of surpassing excellence that Aristotle speculates about in Book III of the Politics:

When therefore it comes about that there is either a whole family or even some one individual that differs from the other citizens in virtue so greatly that his virtue exceeds that of all the others, then it is just for this family to be the royal family or this individual king, and sovereign over all matters. … It remains therefore, and this seems to be the natural course, for all to obey such a man gladly, so that men of this sort may be kings in the cities for all time.

If any of the scribes or Pharisees had surpassed all other men in this way, then he could have justly set aside the dominion of the Romans, and thrown the first stone. But seeing that none of them did so excel, it was just that they should continue to bear the Roman yoke.

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