Does the Bible contradict itself as it relates to the punishment of adultery? Is it a contradiction that under the Mosaic Law the penalty for such a sin was death (Lev 20:10), while in the New Testament Jesus let a woman who was caught in the act of adultery go away free and uncondemned (Jn. 8:3-11)? Manuscript issue aside, the answer is – no, this would not be an example of a Bible contradiction, but now let’s see why not.
The scribes and the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery (Jn 8:3) and they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do you say?” (vs.4, 5). Immediately we notice that something is very wrong with this picture. According to Leviticus 20:10 both parties who were caught in the act of adultery were to be stoned. The religious leaders left the man and only brought the woman. If they were willing to disobey the Law at that point, one can only wonder if there were not enough witnesses to legally carry out capital punishment. Two or three were needed, only one might have been present, but we’re not told. Furthermore, their sinister intentions are clearly shown in verse six where we read that they were testing Jesus so they might accuse Him (vs.6). If He said, ‘No, don’t stone her’ they would have thought, ‘This man contradicts Moses,’ and if He would have said, ‘stone her’, He could have endorsed the transgression of Roman law, which did not allow the Jewish people to execute anyone under religious law. They were hoping to crush Jesus in between a rock and a hard place.
Jesus’ response was incredible on so many levels. He said, “He who is without sin among you, let Him throw a stone at her first” (vs.7b).
First, it’s important to notice – Jesus did not deny the Law of Moses. He did not invalidate it. He did not say, ‘That Law is archaic and inapplicable’. He simply asked her accusers a question that led them to leave, one by one, beginning with the older ones until no one was left except Jesus and the woman (vs.9).
Second, Jesus upheld the Law. According to the Law of Moses, “whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness. The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people” (Deut. 17:6-7). After everyone was gone, there were no witnesses left to accuse the woman; hence Jesus’ question: “Woman, where are they? Has one condemned you?” (vs.10 ESV). Without witnesses to provide testimony and cast the first stones, no capital punishment could ensue.
Third, the woman received temporal grace. When Jesus asked the woman where her accusers had gone, and if no one was left to condemn her, she responded to the latter question by saying, “No one, Lord” (vs.11a), and He said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (vs.11b). The interaction with Jesus and the woman had the heir of legality surrounding it. Legally, if no one was there to condemn her, in accordance with the Mosaic Law, neither would Jesus. However, Jesus’ admonition suggests that He knew this woman had done wrong and needed to leave behind her sin. So, temporal grace was administered to her in light of the righteous, God-appointed technicalities of Biblical jurisprudence. Ones that had existed long before the event of John 8 happened; hence, there was not contradiction between this New Testament narrative and Old Testament Law.
It’s worth noting that although this woman alluded temporal justice, the only way she could escape eternal justice would be to believe in the One whose words were the impetus for her accusers’ departure. Although we’re not told, we would hope and even expect, especially given the grace that is on display in this passage, that she did believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. And if she did, it’s important to remember that she, along with all law-breakers who have their sins forgiven by God, are not forgiven at the expense of God’s justice – for it was on the cross that Jesus satisfied the justice of God on behalf of all who would believe on Him for the forgiveness of sins.