Many are familiar with the adulterous woman dragged before Jesus at the temple by the pharisees and scribes (John 8). When the pharisees asked if the woman should be stoned according to the law of Moses (v 5), Jesus replied, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (v 7).
Then Jesus wrote on the ground. It is not known what He wrote, but some suspect it listed the sins of those in the crowd and it diffused the situation.
Then John makes this interesting statement. He says the purpose of this confrontation was so the Pharisees “might have grounds for accusing Him” (v 6). But we are not clear at this point what these accusations involved.
Though the account seems straight forward, there may have been another reason for this confrontation and it had little to do with judging the adulterous woman.
The real reason for the confrontation
That reason involved Jesus’ mother Mary and the suspicion Jesus was illegitimate. If Jesus had commented on this adulterous woman, the pharisees may have used this as an opportunity to drag Mary into the conversation, accused her of illicit sex, and made the case Jesus was illegitimate.
In Jewish culture, this would seriously discredit Jesus’ ministry. Based on Exodus 20: 4-5 which reads the iniquity of the parents would be passed down on the children for three to four generations, many Jews believed the sins of parents transferred to the children. If Mary was a fornicator, Jesus was guilty by association.
We know from the Biblical account Joseph was engaged to Mary. When Joseph returned to Nazareth for the wedding, he was shocked to find Mary pregnant – having conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Initially, Joseph intended to send Mary away, but that changed after an angel spoke to Joseph via a dream telling him of Mary’s divine conception and encouraging Joseph to marry her (Mathew 1:18-25).
Though Joseph went through with the wedding, the wags of the village had their calculators and some were suspicious.
But a few things muddied the waters. First Joseph continued on with the wedding. Normally, the husband would be horribly offended and things would only get worse from there.
We also know Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) for three months (Luke 1:39-56). Finally there was the census requiring Joseph to return to his home town — Bethlehem – where Jesus was eventually born.
Don’t kid yourself, those with suspicions would have known Joseph was not around when Mary conceived.
We see a hint of this in Mark 6:3:
“Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” (NASV)
The people of Nazareth referred to Jesus as the son of Mary, not the son of Joseph. Traditionally, whether the father was dead or alive, the child is referred to as the son of the father.
With this rumour as a backdrop, the Pharisees may have secretly plotted to use the adulterous woman as a pretext for exposing Mary’s perceived sin, but Jesus gave them no opportunity.
Now at this point this theory may seem a bit of a stretch, and certainly some would disagree. However, as we study the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees, which followed immediately after (vs 13-59), we see their accusations finally exposed.
1. Where is your father?
The first one occurs in v 16-19, when Jesus said that He testifies of His Father — God. The Pharisees responded.
“So they were saying to him, ‘Where is your father?'” (v 19).
The phrasing of this verse tells us this accusation was thrown at Jesus several times, by more than one person.
I think we have to picture the situation as it was occurring. It was a confrontation. On one side you had Jesus and His disciples and opposing them a group of angry Pharisees and scribes aggressively trying to discredit Jesus .
While Jesus was speaking, a number of pharisees were interrupting, perhaps even shouting, “Where is your father?” Oddly, the Pharisees didn’t ask ‘who Jesus’ father was’ but rather ‘where he was.’
This suggests the pharisees already had their suspicions on who fathered Jesus.
2. We are not born of fornication
A few minutes later when Jesus questioned the pharisee’ lineage as descendants of Abraham, because of their failure to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Pharisees countered with, “We are not born of fornication” v 41.
An odd answer and one that could appear as a personal attack on Jesus and not a defence of their lineage.
But again these two accusations are indirect at best.
3. The last accusation
But as the conversation heated up, the pharisees quit dancing around the issue and finally blurted out exactly what they were thinking.
“Do we not say rightly that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?,” they railed (v 48 NASV).
This would not be the last time they accused Jesus of being demon possessed (see Mathew 12:22-32).
But what is new here is the accusation Jesus was a Samaritan.
The Samaritans were people of mixed lineage – half Jew and half Gentile.
During the Assyrian captivity, the Assyrian king had displaced many of the Jews living in Samaria and replaced them with Gentiles from other parts of his empire. These foreigners intermarried with the Jews still living in Samaria and the Assyrian King even sent a Jewish priest to help re-establish the worship of Jehovah (2 Kings 7:26-28).
When the Jews finally returned to Israel during the Babylonian rule, they came in direct conflict with the Samaritans firmly entrenched in the area who tried to stop the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 6:1-4). Rebuffed, the Samaritans eventually built their own temple, and considered themselves the true children of Jehovah.
This drove a wedge between the two groups and the Jews despised the Samaritans.
Both Mary and Joseph were full-blooded Jews, so what would be the basis of the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus was half Jew, half Gentile?
It doesn’t take much to read between the lines — the Pharisees were not only accusing Mary of fornication, but were now saying she had committed the act with a Gentile man or perhaps a Samaritan — and the statement “do we not say rightly” tells us they were not joking, they were dead serious about this accusation.
Affect on the disciples
The last piece of evidence rests with an innocent comment made by the disciples who were at Jesus’ side through this intense confrontation. They would not have missed the insinuations the Pharisees were making about Mary in their effort to discredit Jesus, who in the Jewish mind would be equally guilty of His mother’s sin.
As Jesus and the disciples walked out of the temple, they came upon a blind man sitting by the door begging for money and immediately the disciples blurt out:
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (John 9:2 NASV)
Jesus answered neither and said it was so God’s work could be manifest in the man and then Jesus healed the blind man (v 1-41).