In the last few months I have seen comments in social media that the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John (chapter 4) was an adulteress. It’s more assumed than argued. Although this is a possibility, there is no evidence in the chapter that remotely suggests that this woman has left her husband for another man. In fact, Jesus’ compassionate response to her points in another direction.
It strikes me that those who take it that the Samaritan women is an adulteress are suffering from a Western bias. We must remember that for those who lived in the ancient world the average life expectancy was quite low – 30-40 years – once a person got beyond childhood. Further, the death rate for rural workers was higher than those in the urban centres because they were exposed to greater risks. All this points to the woman at the well as being a tragic figure worthy of our compassion.
In a recently published essay, I work my way through the options for the woman’s marital status. Below is an extract of that essay. The number one lesson I would like my readers to take from this is that this Samaritan woman would have had little control over her life circumstances. Certainly if a woman lost, through death or debilitating disease, a male to represent her (called a tutor), then she was left on her own with few options. She was marginalised and could considered a prostitute because she had to make her own living arrangements. Women in the first century lived in a social world that often saw them vulnerable to social disgrace through no fault of their own. Jesus was sensitive and responsive to this systematic failure to protect the vulnerable and his interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well demonstrates this in high relief.
From Lyn Kidson, “The Woman at the Well, Jesus, and Prejudice in Samaria (John 4:3 –43),” in The Impact of Jesus of Nazareth: Historical, Theological and Pastoral Perspectives, vol. 1 Historical and Theological Studies, Peter Bolt and James Harrison eds. (North Ryde, NSW: SCD Press, 2020), 289–306.
For more on marriage in the Bible see Marriage, the Bible, and Social Change
Beginning from Page 293
[p.293] Jesus asks the woman for a drink (John 4:7). Thus follows an explanation by the woman and the narrator about the social relations between Samaritans and Jews (John 4:9). The conversation which follows between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is unexpected and by rights should never have happened. In the midst of their conversation about water Jesus said to the Samaritan woman,
‘Go, call your husband and come here’. The woman answered and said, ‘I have no husband’. Jesus said to her, ‘You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly’ (John 4:16–18).
The revelation about this woman’s life has left many scholars perplexed. First, I would like to consider the five marriages that this woman is said to have had. Then after this I will consider her last relationship.
C.K. Barrett, in his commentary on John, notes that the Rabbis did not approve of more than three marriages although “any number were legally admissible” citing the Talmud, b. Niddah 64a. But this reference takes place in a discussion about patterns in menstruation [p.294] and appears as an insertion. Elsewhere in the Babylonian Talmud there is a more enlightening discussion. In the earlier b. Yevamot 64a–65b the problem being dealt with is infertility. A man may divorce his wife after ten years if no children are born. She is entitled to have her ketubba handed to her and to remarry (64a). In Rabbinic law the ketubba is an endowment pledge by the husband to his wife if he divorces her or she is widowed. It is said that a woman should not remarry more than twice if her husbands have died (b. Yev. 64b). In b. Yevamot 65a a woman that has been divorced twice because of infertility “may marry a third man only if [the husband] has children”. The question being discussed here is in relation to her ketubba. The next question is if she marries a fourth time and has children. She cannot reclaim her ketubba because her third husband may insist that her marriage to her fourth husband be annulled making her children illegitimate. It is “assumed that she has now been restored to health”. In b. Yevamot 64b it is said that a woman may not remarry after the death of the second husband because either there is a disease in her womb that causes a man to die or her ill luck has resulted in her husband’s accidental death. However, “Rabbi. R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said: She may be married to a third, but she may not be married to a fourth” so there was disagreement about the number of times a woman may remarry if her husbands had perished either through accident or disease (b. Yev. 64b).
As we can see in this discussion, there is a certain prejudice surrounding an ill-fated woman. Even if her betrothed husband has died in an agricultural accident, this still counts against a woman’s reputation. However, Michael Satlow describes the Rabbis’ discussion on marriage as an attempt to negotiate between an ideal and an “engagement in an impossibly conflicted reality”. Further, the discussion taking place among Jewish scholars in Babylon may not reflect the social realities of Palestine in the first century. Death in early adulthood was common enough and many people were remarried. In relation to the rural context we could propose [p. 295] a number of possible scenarios for the woman at the well.
Firstly, as a young bride she may have been married to a man living with his family. Compounds with extended families working their land were common. It was expected that if a woman’s husband died she would leave her children with her husband’s family and return to her family of origin. However, it was possible for a woman to marry within her husband’s family to keep her and her children together. This is not a levirate marriage where the brother of the deceased took his brother’s wife if they were childless, although, this could also be a possibility.
It could also be that she was divorced because of infertility. It is unlikely that she has had five husbands each divorcing her for infertility after ten years as the Rabbis prescribe. She could have possibly been divorced for adultery, leaving one husband for another. It is hard to imagine this as a possibility for all five husbands.
There is a possibility that she has been widowed five times. If her husbands were agricultural workers then they would have been dependent on productive seasons for work. Even a landowning family might struggle to provide all the nutrition that the household members needed to survive in lean times. Further, as the Talmud depicts agricultural accidents could happen, such as falling out of a date palm (b. Yev. 64b). Agricultural work was and is dangerous. Death could come through being gored by an ox, through eating poisonous foodstuffs from foraging, accidents such as falling down a well, a range of infectious diseases and parasites, or septicaemia from an infected wound.
It is impossible to postulate which scenario is in mind here in John. [p.296] The Rabbis’ discussions speak of either the widow or the divorcee, but not a combination of life’s misfortunes. While it may seem extreme it was not impossible for Rabbi Gamaliel to imagine a woman widowed three times wanting to marry a fourth time. The picture that emerges in John 4 is one of poverty and tragic circumstances. While the Roman ideal was that a woman would be married once, realistically women remarried to survive. It appears that in Jewish society there was no equivalent ideal and women were expected to remarry if their husbands died or divorced them. Even so there was a limit to how many husbands a woman might respectably have. However, this would not be an impediment to the Samaritan woman marrying a sixth time. We come now to consider the arrangement depicted in the gospel: “the man you are with is not your husband”.
[p.297] While the first marriage of a girl would be accompanied by a formal handing over, a wedding, and a dowry, the second marriage of a woman received little fanfare. The couple started cohabitating. The Tosephta advised a man to marry a second time on the Thursday so he may have the Sabbath to enjoy his bride before returning to work. Otherwise he would be married one day and at work the next. The woman could possibly have the consent of her legal guardian, but this was not always the case. Since men usually married later than women, fathers usually died before mothers, if they made it through their child bearing years. Depending on the number of years a woman was married before she was [p.298] widowed, a woman could find herself without a father when she remarried. This might even be the case at her first marriage. There are a number of marriage contracts where either the mother of the bride or the bride herself is doing the contracting. In the case of a second marriage a woman would bring her dowry with her. If it was not substantial she would not need a contract to protect her rights to her property. In this case an unwritten marriage would then ensue. This has been called an informal marriage and was in essence a de-facto marriage based on the verbal agreement of the spouses.
We are now in a position to ask why the Samaritan woman and Jesus consider her not to be married to the man she is currently with. There could be a number of impediments to marriage, even an unwritten one. We will consider these now.
[p.299] Fourthly, she may be cohabitating with a freedman. This is a good point at which to consider the economic possibilities lying behind the depiction of the Samaritan woman. I am assuming that her dowry or her ketubba has been depleted through her multiple marriages. A strategy for survival was for the widow to cohabitate with a privileged slave or freedman. However, this is unlikely in a rural setting. She could of course be living with a farmer’s freedman. In this case he is hiring himself out as a day labourer. He would therefore be poor. Judging by the disciples’ reaction upon seeing her, we can surmise that she looked poor. Their reaction demonstrates the common prejudice against the poor as we saw in Welborn’s discussion [at the beginning of the essay]. Since she is not in a contracted marriage, either written or unwritten, then the man she is with is not obliged to provide for her. She is therefore dressed in either coarse, dark coloured clothes worn by the poor or perhaps she is still in her worn clothes from her last marriage. Most likely she would be barefooted.
[There is another possibility not included here.]
[p.300] This is not a picture of forbidden love. It is a picture of people at the economic extremity trying to survive. I would like to speculate that there were relationships like this throughout Palestine. …. Economically it was beneficial for the two individuals we have pictured to live together. [p.301] Hired labourers were often paid in kind. [Her man’s] work would feed them both. Either she or he may have had a cloak to keep warm at night. Important for our scenario here is our conjectured village. If the village was indeed without a baker, then a woman who possessed a millstone would be exceedingly advantageous. The ability to grind one’s own grain was an important factor in providing enough nutrition for a family. The picture I am suggesting is one of two people thrown together by necessity; neither believes they are cohabitating with an ideal partner but together they are surviving. Their life together is made possible by living in a small village with others, who may be also social misfits. The woman’s story is known to her neighbours, who are impressed that Jesus somehow knew of the intricate story of widowhood, divorce, and compromise this Samaritan woman has had to live through (John 4:28–29, 42).
The whole essay is found in, Peter Bolt and James Harrison eds., The Impact of Jesus of Nazareth: Historical, Theological and Pastoral Perspectives, vol. 1 Historical and Theological Studies. North Ryde, NSW: SCD Press, 2020.
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Endnotes (numbers do not relate to original footnote numbers).
 Keener, The Gospel of John 605–608; Morris, The Gospel According to John, 234–235.
 Strack, Das Evangelium Nach Markus, Lukas Und Johannes Und Die Apostelgeschichte, 2. 437; Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 235: “the Rabbis did not approve of more than three marriages” but this is not quite the case.
 Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 202.
 ‘Come and Hear™: An Educational Forum for the Examination of Religious Truth and Religious Tolerance’, <http://www.come-and-hear.com/yebamoth/yebamoth_65.html> [accessed July 2018].
 ‘Come and Hear™’.
 ‘Come and Hear™’.
 Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity,262–264 esp. 263.
 Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 264–265.
 Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 183.
 Dar, Landscape and Pattern, 80–81; 85–87.
 This might be the case if her husband was living with his family, Huebner, The Family in Roman Egypt, 34–35, 43–45, 51, 99–103.
 Huebner, The Family in Roman Egypt, 42–43, 53, 103: census returns in Egypt show unwed brothers and cousins living with married relatives.
 Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 186–189.
 Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 19.
 Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, 34, 44–52.
 Gored by an ox (Exod. 21:28–32); foraging, Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, 18, 52–54; Poisonous wild fruit (2 Kgs 4:38–41); falling down a well, Peled, ‘The Social Texture of the Baqa Well’, 815, cf. Jer. 38:6; also accidental death by being struck with a loose axe head (Deut. 19:5); infections (Deut. 28:27); infectious diseases (Lev. 26:16; Deut. 28:22; 2 Sam. 24:15); dysentery? (2 Chr. 21:18; Amos 4:10); parasites (Acts 12:23); wounds (2 Kgs 8:29; Ps. 38:5; Isa. 1:6; Jer. 6:7; Luke 10:34), potential for septicaemia, Botero and Pérez, ‘The History of Sepsis from Ancient Egypt to the XIX Century, Sepsis—An Ongoing and Significant Challenge’.
 Venour, ‘The Roman Widow: A Social Study’, 62.
 Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 182.
 Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 183.
 Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 183–184.
 Llewelyn, ‘Paul’s Advice on Marriage and the Changing Understanding of Marriage in Antiquity’, 2.
 Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 185.
 Wolff, Written and Unwritten Marriage, 60; Llewelyn, ‘Paul’s Advice on Marriage and the Changing Understanding of Marriage in Antiquity’, 1–18.
 Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 201–202; Mueller, ‘Strategies for Survival: Widows in the Context of Their Social Relationships’, 198–199, 202–205: Roman law formally recognised the concubine and this arrangement was distinct from marriage.
 Wolff, Written and Unwritten Marriage, 28, 81–83.
 Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 193; Safrai, The Economy of Roman Palestine, 334–336: slaves and free working on estates.
 Schottroff, Lydia’s Impatient Sisters, 92–95: see the discussion on the precariousness economic position of women widowed more than once.
 Mueller, ‘Strategies for Survival’, 300–301.
 Mueller, ‘Strategies for Survival’, 282–299: those in the “lower classes” mixed socially and children from their relationships, though illegitimate were not stigmatized; Mouritsen, ‘The Families of Roman Slaves and Freedmen’, 137: freedmen frequently stayed with their household of origin.
 Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, 199: perhaps we should see the disciples’ reaction based on twin prejudices; a prejudice against Samaritan women and the notion among Jews that impurity was linked to poverty.
 Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, 60, 72–73: provision of clothes was a part of a marriage contract; quality and colour of clothes, 76–78; 81–82, 86–88; Pummer, ‘Samaritan Marriage Contracts and Deeds of Divorce’, 538: note that in Samaritan marriage contracts it was the husband’s duty to provide clothes for his wife.
 Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, 63–64, 65–66, 75–76: it was expected that a husband would provide shoes for a wife but these were not as durable as sandals.
 Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 352–358: Jeremias paints a checked picture of Jewish and Samaritan relations. Herod the Great had married a Samaritan woman, perhaps to ease the tensions between them.
 Safrai, The Economy of Roman Palestine, 358–365; 371–373: it is possible the women owned a house with a small plot of land or the couple rented a room in a house; Huebner, The Family in Roman Egypt, 39, 97–99. A widow could also have life tenure of her husband’s property if she did not remarry. However, tenure would only be possible if her husband had inherited his property.
 Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, 37–38.
 Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, 71.
 Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, 32, 34: purchasing bread from a baker was not ideal. It exposed a person to fluctuating supply so that one lacked food security and also it was not as nutritious and filling as home baked bread.
 Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, 39, 52–53, 112: “malnutrition meant that poor people were also more prone to diseases”. However, grinding grain consumed a significant proportion of the day.
 Safrai, The Economy of Roman Palestine, 71.
Thanks for this, Dr. Kidson! I appreciate how thoroughly you’ve covered this and your conclusion focusing on compassion; seems so “Jesus-like!”
Is there anything significant about the time she is visiting the well? I’ve heard it said that because it’s in the middle of the day, she is some sort of village outcast.
I suggest in my essay that her presence at the well is at a strange hour of the day, but this might indicate more about her economic status than her status among the other women. If she was poor and lived only with “the man” she would be forced to do many of the household tasks on her own, this may have led to a delay in collecting the water.
As Lynn Cohick says:
“Many expositors focus on the woman’s presence at the well at noon as a signal that she is a social outcast. But this conclusion is not based on any parallel description or implication within the Greco-Roman world that moral women went to the village at certain times and degenerate women visited at other times. . . . From the story’s standpoint, it makes sense that Jesus is thirsty at noon, as opposed to, for example, 7:30 in the morning.”
“Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 123.
This quote comes from Marg Mowczko’s article, which I highly recommend,
I have been enraptured with this story between Jesus and the woman at the well ever since I chose this exchange as the focus of my paper I wrote in a Communications class in college over 40 years ago. It rocked my world then and has ever since. To note: there is so much MORE to this story that an entire BOOK could be written about it in relation to social justice, diversity and inclusion, cultural mores, pride and prejudice, the Greatest commandment, so-called evangelism technique, the ‘mission of the church,’ incarnational outreach, being missional, and more.
A single mind-blowing approach that one could take with this story…from a graduate in Communications approach: get a piece a paper, draw a line down the middle of it and write these two phrases as headings at the top of these two columns ‘Black Letters’ and ‘Red Letters’ (yes, this is referring to those old ‘Red-letter editions’ of the New Testament). Simply proceed to write all of Jesus’ words on one side of the paper and all of the details, backstory, disciples’ words/thoughts, Samaritan woman’s words and all the Samaritan villager’s thoughts/reactions/words on the other side. Ask yourself this singular question — as you start to analyze each column of words, what plane of existential essence does each column of words draw from? (consider the difference between Truth and truth).
Once you get to the end, then ask yourself, ‘Who gets it?’ and more importantly ‘Why’? And then ask yourself, could the ‘message’ of this singular story be THE golden thread woven through time to explain how God works universally and eternally through the human condition that was introduced to us when John’s pen first wrote his opening biographical words to describe the Greatest Person who has ever lived with his infamous koine greek ‘Logos’ that is better translated as “In the beginning was the Rational Discourse…”?
Thank you Bruce for this very thoughtful and reflective response. I agree that it would be helpful to take a communication approach to their conversation. A bit like you, I once had to give a talk on how to have spiritual conversations, and I chose the Samaritan woman and Jesus’ conversation as my central Scripture. Ever since I’ve been quite enthralled with this story too.