The first stone
During his brief public career, Jesus repeatedly faced mobs. One well-known incident involved a woman whom an enraged mob intended to stone because she had been taken in adultery. John tells us that “the scribes and Pharisees brought unto [Jesus] a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” (John 8:3-11). The story never calls her guilt into question, and adultery was, in fact, contrary to the law. The question is intended as a trap. Will Jesus speak against the law or will he side with a violent mob?
Jesus never excused the woman’s sin, but neither did he see that as the immediate problem. It was the mob, not the woman, who most opposed his teaching. He bent over and wrote something in the dirt with his finger. The Mosaic Law, which he will not violate, was written down. In fact, it was written in stone by the finger of the very being who now stood in their presence.
As its author, Jesus knew that law. What it says about adultery is “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die” (Deuteronomy 22:22), and “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife — with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). Seen from Rome, what stands out in that law is the profound importance it places on marriage and also the absolute absence of any double standard. In the Roman Empire, many people were obsessed with sexual slavery. Wives were expected to forgo adultery, but men, it was assumed, would to have sex with slaves, who amounted to 30 to 40 percent of the population and had no rights, including the right to refuse unwanted sex. This, it was argued, was crucial to getting Roman men to leave other men’s wives alone.
The Mosaic Law set a very different standard, and the main debate between early Christians and Rome was over the meaning of marriage and sex. Jesus was perhaps the greatest champion of women’s rights in history. There is no question that Jesus opposed adultery, but he also saw that the people joined into a mob were not themselves keeping the law precisely. They said the woman was taken in the act, but the man, as guilty as she according to the law, was not brought forward. For reasons they don’t reveal, they have ignored part of the law, narrowing their focus to accuse only the woman.
They have bent the law so that it lets them to feel righteous, holding up a version of the law revised in their own image. It’s worth remembering here that one of the Biblical names for Satan is the Accuser. They feel a hideous delight in accusing the woman. After the mass horrors of the mid-Twentieth Century, Eric Hoffer noted that most of the evil in that time was committed by people who thought they were destroying evil. They identified and accused those who they thought were the source of the trouble, using some standard of goodness as a cudgel against whomever they chose as their enemy. Being offended is a form of cheap righteousness, feeling good by pointing an accusing finger elsewhere.
Jesus said he came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it, and in this situation he judged that the fulfillment of the law would be through balancing justice with mercy. The purpose of the law from the beginning was to rescue sinners from evil rather than to destroy them. So, silently, Jesus wrote in the dirt with his finger. In the silence, the crowd’s thoughts turned inward. When the angry men have had time to wrestle with their private thoughts, he ended his silence and stood up and spoke: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Masterfully, he placed the emphasis on the first stone. Mosaic Law required the informants to cast the first two stones themselves, and putting the emphasis on the first stone isolates each person. After the first stone was thrown, a second would follow quickly and a third even more quickly and then the general hail of hurled stones. It’s easy to join an action underway. Being one of many is easy—we are after all imitative beings deep in our nature.
But the first stone is different. To throw it requires a decision. The act will focus group’s attention on the thrower. Whoever throws the first stone will be alone before the others, assuming responsibility. But people who join crowds are often looking for escape from just such responsibility. The attraction of a crowd is that we feel our power magnified by the mass. Our personal responsibility fades. It’s likely that the leaders of the crowd wanted Jesus to be the one who began whatever followed. But Jesus made it clear that he had no such intention. He will not be organized into the mob or do its bidding.