Aemilia Metella interviews the woman trapped in adultery who was taken to Jesus
Tiberias is a new city lying on the shores of Lake Galilee. Its layout and buildings resemble nearly every other Roman town I have visited. This should not be surprising, as it was founded by Herod Antipas and dedicated to his friend, the emperor Tiberias. I pushed through the crowds at the busy markets, passed the hippodrome and pagan temples and up the hill towards the larger houses.
Salome’s meeting with Jesus is well known. As was his confrontation with the religious leaders, and his refusal to play their games. I had heard the story many times and often wondered what happened to the unfortunate woman dismissed as the adulterer. A slave showed me into a cool atrium where a young woman was reading a scroll. She stood and welcomed me.
“My mother is sleeping now,” she said, “and will speak to you later this afternoon. I’m her daughter, Miriam. Is there anything I can help you with while we wait?”
“Some background information on your family will be useful,” I replied.
“My maternal grandfather’s family were simple farmers on the shores of the lake when Herod Antipas built his new city here. The springs that make it famous were on his land. Before this, we thought them useful for nothing more than providing water for the sheep. The water has a strange smell and metal tang, though the sheep never seemed to mind. Grandfather was not as simple as Herod’s men thought. He refused to sell the land cheaply, and it’s still in our possession and provides income for us and is the basis of our wealth. He also provided the stone and stone masons for all the building work throughout the city. Mother was their first daughter, and they named her Salome after Herodias’s daughter.”
“What about your father’s family?”
“They were not so rich, but as large landowners thought of themselves as above mother’s family. That is, apart from when they needed their money. My parents’ marriage was one of convenience and they hadn’t even met until the day of the wedding.”
Miriam continued to tell me about the family’s involvement in Tiberias and their current business dealings until Salome was ready. A slave took me to a cool room at the back of the house, where an elderly lady sat in a chair staring out of the window.
“Good afternoon, Salome, I’m Aemilia Metella and…” I began to say.
“I know who you are, and why you want to talk to me. You may sit.”
I looked around and found a low stool, where I sat looking up at her. When she turned her face to me, I could see her daughter’s likeness and judged that she must have been a beauty in her youth. Her wrinkled face still showed signs of her past glory.
“I’ll answer your questions as frankly as I can. I’m not proud of what I did, but I’ll tell you the truth.”
“Thank you. The story we hear of your meeting with Jesus is told from the men’s point of view, and we don’t hear your voice at all.”
“I don’t think I said much. I was too ashamed, and there was little I could say. My life was changed forever.”
“Most people who met Jesus say that.”
“But often not in the way I mean it, because for me it was a dreadful day. Up to that point, my life was one long hedonistic pleasure, and I thought of little else, except my desires, from the moment I arose to when I went to bed. My parents brought me up for one thing only, that was to marry a man chosen for the benefit of my family, and to produce sons for him. Tell me, Aemilia, have you ever suffered such shame that you can’t breathe? Or been shunned by your family and friends who can’t even bear to say your name? Or locked away for years, seeing no one, not even your children?”
I shook my head, thanking God that I had never suffered in this way.
“That’s what happened after I met Jesus, but it was my fault, and I can’t blame anyone except myself. My husband was much older than I was, and we didn’t care for each other. He liked my money, and I liked the prestige marrying him brought. We spent half the year here and half in Jerusalem, where he liked to spend time with important and influential people. He had a house where he kept his mistress. Everyone knew about it, of course. It was an open secret.
“I was jealous and that mixed with boredom is a lethal combination. I thought if he could do it, so can I. So, I started an affair with a neighbour. At first, it was exciting, and I enjoyed the attention, but then after a couple of months he began demanding money, and I realised I was being blackmailed. On a family trip to the temple, I prayed for a way out, but I didn’t think God would help me because I was such a wicked sinner. So was my husband, but that didn’t seem to matter to anyone else.
“One afternoon, the man asked to see me. I didn’t want to go, but he insisted. We spent the afternoon together, and it was while we were… I’ll be frank… we were having sex, that the door burst open and several men rushed in. There I was naked and stood in front of men who I could tell by their dress were religious Pharisees. They called me all sorts of disgusting names and one slapped me across the face before throwing a cloak around my shoulders. As they dragged me out of his house, I saw my lover laugh when they handed him a purse of coins. After all the money I’d given him, he betrayed me to those men.
“I didn’t know where they were taking me. I thought it might be jail, or worse, the Sanhedrin. The ruling Jewish council. To my surprise, my destination was the temple, and they pushed me through a crowd of people towards a man who was talking to a large group. I did not know who he was, but the crowd was hanging onto his every word. A man knocked my feet out from under me and I fell to the ground in front of this man. I thought if I was going to be punished I would do it on my feet, so I stood up, wrapping the cloak around my nakedness tight.
“The leader of the group was a man who looked like he had swallowed a whole lemon, he pointed to me and with spittle flying, shouted, ˋWe have caught his woman standing here in front of you today, in the very act of adultery. Our law says that the punishment she deserves is to be stoned to death. What do you, teacher, think about that? ˊ
“By this time, I was shaking uncontrollably, thinking that I was sure to die. If this man was a teacher of the law, then he could only agree that I deserved death. Then he did something so unexpected that I thought he must be mad. Without a word, he bent down and with his finger doodled in the dirt. The pharisee kept on about the depths of my depravity and sin, saying the teacher had to agree with my death. This man, who I later knew to be Jesus, stood again and said that if I deserved to die by stoning, then let the man who has never sinned throw the first stone. I closed my eyes, expecting to be hit by a large stone, but they never came. When I opened my eyes, they had all disappeared, and just Jesus and the crowd were there.
“Jesus looked around and asked where my accusers were and whether I stood condemned anymore. I shook my head. He said, ˋI don’t condemn you either. You can go home now and leave your sinful life behind. ˊ Some women who were his disciples gently took my arm and led me home.
“I realised what had happened. That they had used me in an attempt to trick Jesus. I’d never seen him but heard he spoke about love and forgiveness, so if he agreed I should die, he wouldn’t be very forgiving, would he? And if he said I didn’t deserve death, then he would not be a good teacher of the law. The Pharisees were not concerned about me or even about my sin, they just wanted to get one over Jesus. But I guess he was too wise for them. I heard my husband come home and knew that whatever punishment the Pharisees meted out was nothing to what he might do. Then I heard another male voice, one I recognised from earlier. It was Jesus, and he was talking to my husband.
“We left Jerusalem the day later, and I never saw my lover again. My husband didn’t lock me in a room or keep me confined, except socially. None of my friends or family would see me anymore, and I was a social outcast. The worse thing he did was to take my children away so I couldn’t infect them with my sin. It was two years before I saw them again. But at least I wasn’t dead.
“After Jesus was killed, some of his disciples came to Tiberias, including one woman who had helped me. They told me and my husband about Jesus and what he had done, and we became believers. My husband died two years later and I’m sorry for the upset I caused him, which may have contributed to his death. We had a measure of a life together where we could at least be in the same room without arguing. Neither of us returned to Jerusalem because it was too painful for both of us.”
The room was quiet, except for a dog barking outside on the street. I didn’t know what to say. Salome’s story had painful consequences for all her family.
“Thank you, Salome. You said you would be honest, and you have. I can tell that it’s still difficult to talk about this.”
“Yes, I know I have received forgiveness, and I have peace about it now. I prayed for a way out and I got that prayer answered, but not in a way that I expected.
“I promise I will treat your story with the respect that you are due, now as a forgiven person, like us all.”
“As I was told, our sin is great, but the one who forgives is greater.”
This story is taken from the Gospel of John chapter 7 and is commonly called the woman caught, or the woman taken in adultery. She is unnamed, and I have decided to name her Salome. The story fizzes with tension, and there are many unanswered questions. The religious leaders catch the couple in the very act of adultery. Were they in hiding and waiting for the opportune time to break into the room? Where was the man who was also deserving to be stoned? What did Jesus doodle in the dirt? What happened to the woman afterwards?
Tell me, Aemilia, have you ever suffered such shame that you can’t breathe?
Without a word, he bent down and with his finger doodled in the dirt.
Our sin is great, but the one who forgives is greater.
Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany, a historical Biblical fiction novel written from the point of view of Martha of Bethany, a friend of Jesus. The sequel, Return to Caesarea, will be out in early 2023.
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One thought on “An Interview with Salome”
I do really love your Amelia interviews, Susan. Thank you.