Do you remember the story about Jesus as defense lawyer for the woman accused of adultery?
What can we learn about criminal law from the story of Jesus and The Adulterous Woman? (It’s in John, Chapter 8 of the New Testament.)
We can learn about what criminal defense lawyers do. And we can learn about the laws of evidence; burdens of proof; and the presumption of innocence.
We can learn about a jury’s right and power to sentence. And we can learn about connecting persuasively with people.
The story of Jesus as defense lawyer is short and entertaining; but filled with wisdom.
The narrative of Jesus as defense lawyer
First, the story from John Chapter 8:
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn He went to the temple complex again, and all the people were coming to Him. He sat down and began to teach them.John 8:1-11 HCSB
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, making her stand in the center. “Teacher,” they said to Him, “this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do You say?” They asked this to trap Him, in order that they might have evidence to accuse Him.Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground with His finger. When they persisted in questioning Him, He stood up and said to them, “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Then He stooped down again and continued writing on the ground. When they heard this, they left one by one, starting with the older men. Only He was left, with the woman in the center. When Jesus stood up, He said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, Lord,” she answered.
“Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
What do criminal defense lawyers do?
In this story of Jesus as defense lawyer, he shows us what criminal defense lawyers do.
We defend the human being, who faces an accusation and punishment, throughout the court process.
In this case the crime was adultery.
And under the laws, the punishment could be death; death by a group throwing stones at you until eventually die. So, death by torture. (And a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own later trial and sentence of death by torture.)
Jesus as defense lawyer
The accused person could testify at that time. (But through much of our later legal history the accused was incompetent to testify. So the person on trial could not testify.}
But even so, an advocate speaking for the defendant gives her voice strength.
Jesus accepts; advocates for an unpopular person
Here, Jesus speaks for her. And he advocates for her life. He accepts the challenge. So here, Jesus as defense lawyer, advocates for a socially condemned person.
And this is the most important thing a criminal defense lawyer does. It is our sacred duty, our sacred honor.
Loyalty: But the advocate for the accused seeks the outcome desired by the accused. And anything else would make us not an advocate: unethical or a failed advocate.
Our tool for achieving that outcome is the law (including the law of evidence and the law of jury power). And we must use our ability to connect with people persuasively.
The laws of evidence
We can trace today’s laws of evidence back to the time and place of Jesus, and even earlier.
Jesus as defense lawyer, knew the laws well.
The laws of Moses required two or more witnesses before sentencing a person to death; and a:
- rule against hearsay,
- right of confrontation, and
- corroboration rule.
One accusing witness was not enough to trigger the death penalty. Deuteronomy 17:6.
Jesus and the crowd were told (“they said to him”). The prosecutors’ claim was that the woman was reported to be “caught in the act.”
But the prosecutors identify no witness; nor produce any witness testimony.
And this made a death penalty illegal under the law at the time.
But the law required at least two witnesses present to testify to a woman’s adultery.
And the law proscribed the death penalty for both the woman and the man. Deuteronomy 22:22 (“If a man is discovered having sexual relations with another man’s wife; both the man who had sex with the woman and the woman must die.”)
But where is the man? How do we know the male (if any) is not among the de facto jury?
After all, the prosecutors do not produce a man who they claim committed adultery with the woman.
Could this be the real meaning of Jesus’ argument?: “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.” So if there was a man who had sex with her, he should come forward and die too.
Was that a challenge to the prosecutors to produce the guilty man?
Many presume the woman’s guilt in the story. But read carefully.
We read what the prosecutors said. “They said to Him, ‘this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery.’”
But that statement is an accusation; just a charge, an unproven claim. So Jesus as the defense lawyer, points that out.
Prosecutors fail to produce evidence to prove claim
Then after the all accusers leave, Jesus asks a legal question: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” With no accusers remaining, he draws our attention to the requirement of eyewitnesses to the crime; before a guilty verdict and sentence.
We can interpret Jesus’ statement: “Neither do I condemn you.” It means that he was not an eyewitness to any criminal act by the woman. So he, too, views her as innocent.
The presumption of innocence remains, unless overcome by actual evidence of guilt.
And an accusation alone is nothing. Jesus as defense lawyer makes this clear.
So this story shows that Jesus gains her acquittal by skillfully using the laws, accepted by the jury.
A jury’s right and power to sentence
Did prosecutors put the woman on trial properly; under the laws at the time? No. The contrary appears more likely (not unlike the Trial of Jesus, later).
And yet, the story illustrates the jury’s traditional right and power to sentence.
Whether a lawful jury trial or not; the accusers urge a death sentence. And the prosecutors urge the crowd to carry it out, right there on the spot.
Jesus as defense lawyer invokes not only the law and its requirements. But he also directly appeals to the de facto jury‘s inherent right, and power, to refuse to convict her.
Jury lenity and jury nullification
Today we have many terms for this jury power including jury lenity and jury nullification.
Jury lenity is the jury’s right to be more lenient than the law requires.
Jury nullification is the jury’s power to deliver a not-guilty verdict; even when it believes the accused technically guilty of violating a law.
Sentencing by Jury
And, this story about Jesus as defense lawyer highlights that the jury traditionally has the power to sentence. Sentencing is a core feature of a true jury trial.
But, the modern practice of removing sentencing power from the jury destroys the right to a real jury trial. The Minnesota jury trial is but a weak, vestigial remainder.
Law or equity?
After Jesus’s argument, the jury walks away. Do they walk away only out of respect for the laws of evidence; or, out of compassion as well?
And when Jesus said: “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her;” What did that mean? Was this not also a plea for compassion and equity?
Moreover, consider his later statement to her: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” That might imply that perhaps she did sin; but either proof was too weak; or both he, the jury, and the accusers had compassion.
If so, his argument was for jury nullification or lenity; as well as an appeal to follow the laws of evidence, and of a fair trial.
Criminal defense lawyers can relate to this experience of Jesus as defense lawyer. We often don’t know. But it is enough that proof beyond a reasonable doubt is lacking. And we want our clients to avoid future accusations regardless.
Even the innocent suffer, from a false accusation.
Prosecutors set up Jesus
The ancient Greeks, Aristotle, spoke of ethos, pathos, and logos as the paths of persuasion. Clearly the ethos of Jesus was also on trial.
“Ethos” is an appeal to ethics. It’s a means of convincing someone of the character or credibility of the persuader – here Jesus.
After all, Jesus had returned there again to teach his gathered students, writing on the ground.
The scribes and the Pharisees then brought a woman before him and his students; accusing her of adultery; demanding her death, “to trap Him, in order that they might have evidence to accuse Him.”
The prosecutors used the poor woman as a pawn in a game designed to destroy the ethos; the credibility of Jesus to his students.
The prosecutors would smear Jesus by association with an accused criminal.
By baiting him to defend her, they hoped to make him complicit in her crime.
Criminal lawyers today well understand this tactic used against Jesus as defense lawyer.
Connecting persuasively with people: Jesus as Defense Lawyer
The description of his behavior shows Jesus’ confidence.
He is a teacher. And the prosecutors interrupt, as he is writing on the ground while instructing his students. They address him with respect. (Ethos goes both directions.) And Jesus listens with respect.
Jesus makes his short argument on her behalf. And then he resumes writing on the ground quietly; waiting for the people for do the right thing.
We see social mirroring. And we see the invocation of shared values and laws.
He is connecting. And Jesus makes good use of his ethos to persuade.
Using logical argument
“Logos” is an appeal to logic – a way of persuading an audience by reason.
Jesus points out the:
- absence of an eyewitness,
- lack of corroboration by two eyewitnesses,
- unlawful hearsay accusation,
- no identified male accused adulterer (“caught in the act?”),
- lack of confrontation of witnesses
— all contrary to law.
These are appeals to logic.
And Jesus shows that the prosecutors fail to prove their claim, under the law. They lack persuasive evidence.
Why should we care?
“Pathos” is an appeal to emotion – a way of convincing an audience of an argument by eliciting an emotional response.
“The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.” We remember the emotional truth.
So Jesus challenges each listener to publicly declare that he is without sin.
And he equates being the first to throw a stone at her; with being the first to publicly claim being without sin. But no honest person can do that.
This point-of-view challenge pierces right to the heart of any human being: Identity.
And it requires us to shift focus away from the accused woman, and to look inside, to search within ourselves instead.
So Jesus correctly asks the jury to question whether the issue is really about them, not the lady accused.
She is not “the other:” They are like her – connected by something in common.
Jesus invites them to be greater than the low, base identity that the prosecutors invite them to assume.
Liberty and love go hand in hand.
The lessons of this story of Jesus as defense lawyer are memorable. And we can all learn from it, regardless of religious belief.
Criminal defense lawyers can learn much from it, too.
Minnesota’s current adultery crime statute
Let’s take a look at Minnesota’s 2023 adultery crime statute. See any similarities?
Subdivision 1. Acts constituting. When a married woman has sexual intercourse with a man other than her husband, whether married or not, both are guilty of adultery and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than one year or to payment of a fine of not more than $3,000, or both.Minnesota Statutes (2019) §609.36 ADULTERY
About the author of Jesus as Defense Lawyer
Thomas C. Gallagher is a Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer; interested in history and the law.
You might also like our:
- The Trial of Jesus: A Criminal Law Perspective, or
- Romeo and Juliet Law: Minnesota Sex Crimes Based On Age.
His law firm, Gallagher Criminal Defense, offices in Uptown Minneapolis.