There is a claim in many circles of the church that Jesus actively stood against the Old Testament Law on several different occasions, particularly when his disciples picked heads of grain on the Sabbath, when he carried out healing on the Sabbath, and when he stood up against those intent on stoning an adulterous woman. One recent example of this argument is from Greg Boyd, who writes on his ReKnew blog that Christ is seen to have “functionally repudiated a law of the OT” in the third example especially.
This post is intended to address this question raised by Boyd and others: Did Jesus truly stand against, and even totally “refute,” Old Testament laws?
I don’t feel the need to address the Sabbath instances, as Dr. Dave Miller has already discussed them adequately before. What actually troubles me most about Boyd’s claim is his understanding of the episode in John 8:1-11, where a woman is caught in adultery. I’d like to look more closely at how he views this passage’s significance.
“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
This infamous statement spoken by Jesus is widely understood as a supreme act of gracious exoneration. And that it is. But how are we to understand it? Is Jesus truly saying, as Boyd, suggests, that “only people without sin are in a position to execute a sinner”? Is this truly the standard when it comes to biblical Law?
With all of the due respect that I can possibly afford to Dr. Boyd, this is nonsense.
Not only does Scripture not bear this idea out at all, but it is clearly not what Christ was communicating. Yet even if it were, and Boyd’s argument were correct, we would still have to logically conclude that Christ did have the authority to stone an adulteress, since he indeed was a sinless individual (Heb. 4:15). So why did Jesus say “neither do I condemn you” rather than stone her?
Boyd is clearly missing something here. In order to understand what that is, we have to step back a bit in the gospel’s narrative.
While Boyd makes a point of the fact that all the accusers were male—as though this were some purely misogynistic stoning attempt—this isn’t quite the issue. Rather, we know from verse 4 of John chapter 8 that the woman was purported to have been “caught in the act of adultery” (emphasis mine). Thus, there was clearly another person involved, and yet we don’t see this man being included or even mentioned as one of the accused.
“In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women,” they insisted. Yes, but Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 also commanded you to put the adulterer (the male) to death, not just the adulteress (the female). “Both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman.” Where was “the man who lay with the woman”?
These teachers of the law and Pharisees were sinning then and there by deliberately ignoring the command of the Law, even while they were claiming to be drawing directly from it.
John goes on to tell us that the Law was mentioned primarily “to test [Jesus], that they might have some charge to bring against him.” This detail is important to the context as well. Although the death penalty for adultery was a feature of the Mosaic Law, the Jews of Jesus’ time no longer had the jurisdiction to impose capital punishment themselves (John 18:31, Acts 21:27; 25). Thus, rather than being approved by a council of Sanhedrin judges and elders, executions had to be approved by the Romans. From the Talmud, we’re told that the Sanhedrin lost this privilege at least 40 years prior to the Temple’s destruction (Sanhedrin I:18a, 34; II:24b). But historical context suggests that this right was taken away even earlier, from the very beginning of the Roman prefecture in AD 6 when Coponius established the Judean province.
Because of this, if Jesus were to authorize this execution, it would have been understood by the state as a murderous act. Regardless of their feigned zeal concerning the keeping of the Law by executing a guilty person, then, these Pharisees and legal teachers were actually intent on bringing about the death of an innocent person. They were not merely legalists; they were despicable conspirators against Christ.
This gospel’s mention of Jesus’ writing on the ground, as we know, has prompted both normal and novel theories. Personally, I think that Christ was writing out the text of the very Old Testament Law to which they were referring. I’ve heard another theory, too, that he was listing out the names of adulteresses whom these various male accusers had slept with over the years. Whatever it was, they left—not a single accuser to be found.
As the incarnate God, Jesus could have done nothing less than affirm the validity and applicability of his eternal Law. We find Jesus chastising the same type of individuals in Matthew 15, asking why they “break the command of God for the sake of [their] tradition.” And within this same discourse, Christ clearly affirms that “God said” (not the interpreters of God’s message, mind you) to “Honor your father and mother” and that “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” Notice: Jesus doesn’t repudiate this punishment either.
So, did Jesus deny the Law’s force? Hardly. In fact, he affirmed the same thing as Paul, who would write in Romans 1 that the ungodly are plainly aware of “God’s righteous decree that those who do such things [see the long list in Romans 1:29-31) are worthy of death.”
What Christ left the adulteress with was punishment enough for a rebel sinner—a call to a life of repentance! For even though, as Boyd concludes, “Jesus is the center of God’s revelation” and “the one in whom the law is fulfilled,” the message of Jesus is still one of death. How much more profound it is to be crucified with Christ, and to die to sin, than to die at the hands of a Jewish council under the requirements of the Law.