The “Woman Taken in Adultery” and Mary

Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Polenov


It is annoying how I can remember things incorrectly. I attended a church youth group back when I was a young teenager because my best friend did (65 years ago!). Somewhere in there I heard the story of the “Woman Taken in Adultery” and came away vaguely believing she was Mary Magdalene because of the seven devils thing…surely one of the devils was adultery… and that she was also the “Sinning Woman with Ointment” because of the weeping…Made sense to me.

Then one day, maybe 30 years ago, I tried to look up the “Woman Taken in Adultery” story and searched through my Mary Magdalene books. Nothing. Next, I pulled out my Harper’s Bible Dictionary (pre-google) and eventually found the story listed under “Women.” I was shocked to find that the “woman taken in adultery” was not Mary Magdalene but was another anonymous woman. [i]  I went back to reread the adulteress story.

And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him 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 stones: but what sayest though? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus…said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone at her…And they which heard it being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last; and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus…saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more. John 8: 3-11

Then, serendipitously, a few years later, I read a new book at the time, The Unauthorized Version by Robin Lane Foxx[ii] who said this:

At John 8:1-11, however, we are faced with a famous addition which is not the authors. In our Bibles nowadays, we read Jesus’s moving defense of the adulterous woman who was about to be stoned for her sins…The episode is missing from the surviving fourth-century codices which underpin the rest of the New Testament text; it is not known in an early papyrus or any quotation by an early Christian author, although the subject was relevant to so much which they discussed. Its style is universally held to differ from the rest of the fourth Gospel, and in its present place it interrupts the flow of the text . . . The story itself is old . . .

I was again a bit annoyed to find that a story like that could just have been “added later”. I began to get a hint of what I was up against in my very naïve search… but, naively undeterred, I went on looking for the other Mary, Mary mother of Jesus. Over time, though, a new idea began to surface…connecting the Woman taken in Adultery story with this passage in Matthew.

Now the birth of Jesus…was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child…Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. (Matthew 1:18-19)

Mary could well be John’s fictionalized adulteress woman! We are to understand from the gospel of Matthew that Mary could have been prosecuted…i.e., stoned, for her pregnant condition. Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s point of view and from a more Jewish point of view. [iii] Joseph was understood to be a superior man for not turning her over to be stoned and make an “example” of her…but he would still put her “away privily.” We can overlook the “fact” that it took an “angel of the Lord” to tell him not to even do that.

Matthew indicates that Joseph had authority over her: i.e., they were betrothed but not officially married yet. She may still have been living at home because she was visibly pregnant when he came to fetch her…or just check on her. The stoning rule comes from the Old Testament/Torah. We are told that Joseph did not consummate the marriage which neatly bypasses the virgin’s ordeal of the “wedding night.” If a young virgin on her wedding night does not leave behind the “tokens of her virginity” [iv] on the sheets which were ceremoniously collected by her parents…if the sign was not there, her parents cannot justify her…and…

Deuteronomy 22:21 (KJV)…Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house…

That passage is where the stoning comes in. A damsel is a twelve-year-old girl…according to Mark 5:42…at the official accepted age of puberty…the age one has to start worrying about her getting pregnant[v]…The other ruling in Deuteronomy is about betrothed virgins, specifically:

Deuteronomy 22  “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her; then the man only that lay with her shall die…

If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her…

“A damsel that is a virgin.” Even 12-year-olds living in her father’s house had to prove her virginity. There must have been a lot of attacks on young girls…in the field and in the city. All this is because girls and damsels in particular were the property of their father. Marriages were contracts between the father and the groom’s family or the groom himself, if not a virgin himself. The accepted age of betrothal can very. If a damsel, her marriage may wait until she is 16. If the damsel wasn’t a virgin, though, she was damaged goods. Period. A betrothal year was part of the marriage contract. The couple are legally married but not formally married and usually not living together…because to be honest, a betrothal year when the girl is a damsel…beginning her “flowers” or menstrual cycle…was a good age for a betrothal year before marriage, because to be honest, the year was used for a trial for the young woman, to make sure she was not pregnant before she and her “espoused” came together with the marriage celebration. Josephus, the contemporary Jewish historian I quote a lot in my blog, also said that the “Essen,” a contemporary communal (misogynist) priestly sect living in the desert, had a time of trial for their future wives:

They do not absolutely deny the fitness of marriage, and the succession of man thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behaviour of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man…However, they try their spouses for three years; and if they find that they have their natural purgations[vi] thrice, as trials that they are likely to be fruitful, they then actually marry them. But they do not accompany with their wives when they are with child, as a demonstration that they do not marry out of regard to pleasure, but for the sake of posterity…And these are the customs of this order of Essens. (Wars of the Jews II.X.1, 13)

Every part of a girl or woman’s bodily functions were scrutinized, and rules were made. For Mary to be found to be pregnant in the betrothal year made her legally an adulteress and subject to death by stoning…if the culprit wasn’t Joseph. In both the story in Matthew and the Woman Taken in Adultery story in John, the offending man is not on trial: The woman in John was taken in the “very act” so the man could have been apprehended also…but he is not part of the story at all… because…it is not a real event story. The Pharisees who actually rule on issues and make laws are being used in the story to make a point…so that Jesus can be on record as giving an answer. Should this particular woman be stoned? Should Jesus’ mother have been stoned? Mary must still have a “reputation, to that very day, fifty plus years after the life of Jesus when John was written.

So, legally, there are three paths we could take from here. 1. Mary was a betrothed damsel living at home when she became pregnant…stone her…or was attacked in a field…don’t stone her.  2. Mary, as a damsel, went to live with Joseph for the betrothal year…because Joseph was perhaps older and considered to be a righteous man, and could therefore be trusted with her…but he was the father of her child. 3. Mary was unbeknownst to her, pregnant when she was betrothed to Joseph, father known or unknown. (This is my theory. “Joseph, whoever he was, took her on when her first betrothed was executed, and it was thought she was still a virgin.)

Now, this is a new thought for me…just realized as I was writing this…that Joseph himself got his betrothed pregnant… or perhaps accosted her in a field so that she had to marry him. Two and three above happened often enough that it was winked at. (See The Virgin Orphans on Trial)

But there is more…

Adultery in the Gospels

The sin of adultery was given a lot of space in the gospels…even to changing the order of the Ten Commandments…

Honor thy father and thy mother…Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:12-14) 

Mark, the earliest written gospel went so far as to have Jesus say:

Thou knowest the commandments, do not commit adultery. Do not kill. (Mark 10:19, Luke 18: 19-20)

“Honor thy father and mother” is last on his list.

But more to the point, Jesus was remembered as having taught that divorcing your wife made an adulteress of her. He was very strict on the subject, perhaps because of what happened to his own mother and therefore to him because of her. An early designation for Jesus in Mark[vii] was “son of Mary,” which could mean that he did not have a legitimate father making him illegitimate. Here are some of the gospel passages on what Jesus…or at least the authors of the gospels…thought about adultery.

Mark 7:21 & Matthew 15:19 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders…

Matthew 5:31-32, 19:9 & Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

Matthew 5:27-28 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery; But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart….

Jesus was strict, yes, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years after Jesus died and the gospel writers, forty to sixty years after Jesus died (ca 70-100 A.D) were writing to assure new converts that Jesus was STILL going to be resurrected and would still install the Kingdom. A lot of Paul’s letters dealt with keeping people in line until it could happen. (See my posting on A Cult of the “Widow of her Virginity) While Jesus was trying to keep existing marriages together until the Kingdom came and new rules would be installed, Paul thought the whole marriage thing was a hindrance and a bother.

1 Corinthians 7 (NIV) What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

Why add the “Adultery” story later?

Here is one reason that I came up with…I’m sure there are others…

As the gospels began making the rounds to the few families of the early followers still alive or their children who were told the stories…and to Gentiles who didn’t, showing the very mother of Jesus as an adulteress who had to be justified by angels was both necessary and problematic. You wouldn’t just make up a story like that. The gospels do, however, show a rift between mother and son: “Who is my mother…” But by the time that Jesus is starting to be honored as some form of the divine, women, especially, wanted to venerate his mother. The more divine Jesus became…and especially outside of Judea/Palestine in cultures that honored goddesses, the more Mary was venerated as the mother of the King/Messiah who will return. Luke, writing to Gentiles said this:

Luke 11:27 And it came to pass, as he spake those things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou has sucked. But he said, Yea, rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.

So…Jesus had to be shown to soften his views on adultery/women/and his mother. So, the last gospel written and even in a late version of it, “John” included the Woman taken in Adultery story. Women were after all, the primary support for Jesus while he was alive and for Paul out on the trail and for other disciples starting churches in well-to-do women’s homes, as well. It is not accidental that the more Jesus became a Son of God, the more his mother Mary became the only one who could intercede with him…just like a king and his queen mother. (See Bathsheba, Queen Mother from Consort to Queen Mother)

And Adonijah the son of Haggith came to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon. And she said, Comest thou peaceably? And he said Peaceably…I ask one petition of thee, deny me not. And she said unto him, Say on. And he said, Speak, I pray thee, unto Solomon the king…and give me Abishag the Shunammite to wife. And Bathsheba said, Well; I will speak for thee unto the king. Bathsheba therefore went into king Solomon…And the king rose up to meet her, and bowed himself unto her, and sat down on his throne, and caused a seat to be set for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right hand. Then she said, I desire one small petition of thee; I pray thee, say me not nay. And the king said unto her, Ask on, my mother; for I will not say thee nay…. I Kings 2:12-20

While we know Mary’s name, we do not know the name of her father or her father’s House…at the time of writing she is basically left almost as anonymous as the unnamed Woman Taken in Adultery. And we do not know…to this very day…the man who was the father of her child…though many of us smitten with the mystery have taken our best shot.

[i] While the wave of feminist New Testament scholars in the 70s and 8os had begun chipping away at Mary Magdalene’s “prostitute” image, they pretty much left the “sweet” Mary alone.

[ii] The Unauthorized Version, Truth and Fiction in the Bible by Robin Lane Fox, Alfred A. Knopf, NY 1992. Now if you “google” it a lot comes up on the passage…not so much back in he 90s.

[iii] Matthew uses the term “king” 96 times and “kingdom” 57 times. I did a word search on the Book of Matthew on, Bible King James Version…Also, I have left out of this page all thoughts on the other way women were put on trial for Adultery, the Trial by Bitter Water. I cover that in a blog post.

[iv] The Jewish Women’s Archive on “Adultery” …

The procedure for a claim of non-virginity is as follows: initially, the man accuses his maiden wife, at the court, of not being a virgin, his claim being based on the fact that he did not find her hymen intact and that upon investigation it was found that she had sexual relations with another man, and he has witnesses to testify to that. The bet din investigates their testimony and if it is found to be correct, the girl is stoned. If the father brings witnesses who demonstrate that the witnesses of the husband are lying, the false witnesses are stoned, and the husband is flogged and must give one hundred sela to the father. If the husband subsequently brings witnesses that demonstrate that the father’s witnesses were lying, those witnesses and the girl are stoned (ibid. 3:6). If she is a bogeret at the time of his accusation, even though he provides witnesses that she had sexual relations while she was a na’ara, he is exempt from both the flogging and the fine. If, however, his claim was found to be true, even though she is now a bogeret, she is stoned because she committed adultery while she was a na’ara (ibid. 3:7).   

The girl must be in her six-month period of maidenhood (na’arut).  the bogeret over the age of twelve years and six months or six months beyond sprouting two pubic hairs after the age of twelve, is not eligible to receive a fine (ibid.1:8).This judgment must take place in front of the court of twenty-three because if his claim is proven to be true, the girl is liable to a death sentence. Issues of rape and seduction need only a court of three because it is a monetary issue (ibid. 3:3). Rambam, Hilkhot Na’arah Betulah…

[v] See Chapter on the Abuse of the Virgins Trial on how a girl before the age of puberty can still be called a “virgin” when she technically wasn’t. There is even a way to be a “virgin mother.”

[vi] I’m not sure about what Josephus meant by the girl’s purgation’s trial lasting 3 years to see if she “would be fruitful.” One would think that three “months” was meant. (But then, she could have been monitored to see if she might have had three babies…fruitful.) But either way, girls and wives were seen as unclean during menstruation as in many cultures. The word “flowers” was used in the Old Testament.

[vii] Mark 6:3 Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses and of Juda, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.