Who is the woman caught in adultery?

The Gospel’s account of the woman caught in adultery is, perhaps, the beginning of an epic story of conversion and sanctity.  But we can only surmise why the evangelists were reluctant to identify the woman here and later in the Gospels.

In the Gospel of John, malicious scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus an unnamed woman caught in adultery.  They intend to put Jesus to the test.  As a man of mercy, would He set Himself against the Mosaic Law?  Jesus remains silent, scribbles in the dirt (reminiscent of Jeremiah’s scribbling the sins of the Israelites and the finger of the Lord inscribing the stone tablet with His Ten Commandments).

Then Jesus challenges them:  “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7)  The men disperse in shame, including in all likelihood her cruel partner in crime. After their departure, Jesus asks, “Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”

Curiously, Saint John does not report any penitential resolve on the part of the woman.  Although Jesus also does not condemn her, neither does He absolve her of the sin.  His parting words are, “Go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

These are enigmatic omissions and leave the story open-ended.  The account seems incomplete.  So we might piece together a credible narrative for the woman throughout the Gospels.

Shortly after the account of the adulterous woman, Mary Magdalene (arguably) appears as the unnamed interloper early in the ministry of Jesus.  A Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner.  A “woman of the city, who was a sinner” brings an alabaster flask of ointment, bedews His feet with her tears of repentance, reverences Him, and anoints His feet.

Jesus uses the occasion to grant her absolution for her sins: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7:47-49)

Saint Luke does not name the woman here.  But immediately afterward, Luke identifies Mary Magdalene as a new disciple:

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out. (Luke 8: 1-3)

Luke continues to follow the journey of Jesus to “a certain town,” probably Bethany.  Jesus spends time with two sisters identified as “Mary and Martha,” giving occasion to the familiar,   “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things. . . .Mary has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:41-42)  But Mary is not identified here as the “Magdalene.”


Nevertheless, based on the testimony of Saint John, it is reasonable to conclude that Martha’s sister is indeed the “sinner” who “loved much” in repentance and anointed the Lord’s feet:  “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.” (John 11:1-2)

The argument that Mary, the sister of Martha is the “sinner” who anointed the feet of Jesus is further supported by a repetition of the anointing immediately preceding the Passion.  The family trio, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, serve Jesus and His Apostles supper.  And, despite the greedy objections of Judas, “Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair.” (John 12:3)  This time the anointing was not so much an act of reparation, but an act of love in character of the one who “loved much.”

It is likely the same Mary, identified as “Mary Magdalene,” who joined (and learned from) the mother of Jesus at the foot of the Cross:  “But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” (John 19:25 RSV)

And Mary Magdalene was the first of the disciples to encounter the risen Christ.  Even her weeping is in character with her first appearance as the then-anonymous repentant sinner at the feet of Jesus.

After Mary Magdalene leads Peter and the Apostles to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, the Apostles depart for their homes.  Mary stays behind, persevering in her grief, leading to one of the most beautiful and tender scenes in the Gospels:

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. . . .she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  Jesus said to her, “Mary.”  She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabo’ni!” (which means Teacher).  (John 20:11-16 RSV)

It is indeed reasonable to hold that Mary Magdalene accompanied Jesus for most of His public life, from the depths of her sin and despair, to the heights of sanctity and joy.  Her example demonstrates the horror of slavery to sin, the beauty and tenderness that comes with repentance, the cost of discipleship, and the reward of perseverance in faith and love.  And she provides hope for sinners tempted to despair.

But why would the evangelists neglect to identify her by name?  Perhaps they were gentlemen, seeing no need to risk the sin of detraction. Or maybe they graciously wanted us to discover for ourselves, in meditation on the Gospels, the magnificent story of this great saint, the woman caught in adultery.

Of course, one’s man interpretation is another man’s rationalization.  Argue an alternative narrative, if you will, but argue with the charity of Saint Mary Magdalene.

*Image: The Repentant Magdalen by Philippe de Champaigne, 1648 [Museum of Fine Arts, Houston]

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.