Personally, I suspect John was like any other writer, in that sometimes he published something only to wish later he had remembered to include something important. In some English translations you will find marginal notes or footnotes indicating that this passage was not in all the manuscript copies of John’s Gospel. Yet no one is going to argue that it is inconsistent with what Jesus taught elsewhere.
The issue is not whether the woman sinned. Nor is the issue that the accusers failed to bring the man who was equally guilty of lying with her; that was just a symptom. The issue is that the accusers were themselves in violation of the Covenant and had no leverage against this woman. Their own infidelity was greater than hers.
We need to remind ourselves that the Covenant of Moses presupposed a tribal feudal society. Everyone lived in their own kinfolks’ armpits, and your cousins knew your private business. Your village was generally your own clan. When outsiders moved into the area, they were gradually pulled into this because it was inherent in the Covenant that you watched out for your neighbors. The word translated as “neighbor” meant in practice your close relative. This was considered a blessing in their society.
With everyone so close to each other socially, the business of adultery was a major threat to shalom. How could you trust your cousin if you thought he was poaching on your wife? This is what moves relatives to murder each other. But even if you lived in Jerusalem where a good portion of the population were not related to each other, the principle remains that shalom leans hard on that same high level of trust, treating everyone as your beloved cousin. It’s not an open society; it’s very tightly closed by virtue of familial concern. How many times was Israel told in the Law and Prophets that your fellow Israelite was your kin?
There, in or near Jerusalem, sometime after the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus was sitting with His disciples. As was sometimes customary among Pharisaical rabbis, a group of elders brought a case to Jesus for judgment. This time it was a very real and literal case, not just a made-up narrative. It was a woman caught in the very act of adultery.
We need not suppose Jesus was doing anything particularly meaningful by ignoring them. The most obvious reason for pretending they weren’t there was to ensure the tension was high before He spoke. Had He not already condemned their materialistic legalism repeatedly? But they pressed Him for a response.
The problem here is that not a single one of the accusers had moral standing to bring a case against her. Clearly they were not guarding shalom. They were guarding the law as they imagined it to be, as if it were too feeble to deliver its own power. In their lives, it was powerless because they weren’t clinging to it at all. They did fail to observe the requirement of bring both parties to adultery to judgment, but that was just a symptom of a far bigger failing. They weren’t keeping the Law in the first place. They were laboring under their own sins, and not one of them was manfully taking up the mantel of shepherd over the people.
Instead, they had constructed a massive edifice of petty, nit-picking rules that they could barely keep up with themselves. It was part of their teaching to worry about that. But in spiritual terms, they had no peace with God. So when Jesus suggested that the one without sin should cast the first stone, this wasn’t to prevent her punishment. It was to execute their own punishments. If there was no community of faith seeking peace with God, then there was nothing to protect by executing the woman.
If anyone had standing to stone her, it was Jesus. I’m willing to bet she understood that on some level. When the men had all left, He asked her if any of her accusers stood against her still. She addressed Him as if He were a valid judge. Jesus then replied that He was not the one accusing her. It wasn’t necessary at this point. He released her to her own conscience and advised her to clean up her life. The implication is that divine justice would come to her one way or another if she didn’t seize this opportunity.
Inherent in this brief scene is the declaration that the Covenant had been so completely vacated by the vassal party that God as sovereign was no longer treating Israel as His chosen covenant community. The people did not want it, apparently. At least, not enough of them wanted it to warrant enforcing the strictest provisions to protect shalom. They had failed and flagrantly violated the requirements repeatedly for so long that there was no shalom left to protect. On the earthly plane, the government of Israel under the Covenant was being dissolved.
So Jesus turned to His disciples and told them that He was the shining glory of God in this world. He was the new government appointed by God to lead whatever “nation” would arise to follow Him. This was the only way to lead people out of darkness. The people of the Covenant of Moses had refused that mission.