“Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” John 8: 1-11 2475
We are continuing with our study of the Gospel of John. In the year Martin Luther died, 1546, there was a hail storm in Flanders so heavy and frightening that people remembered it for generations. In Italy waves of devouring locusts gorged themselves in the grain fields which resulted in a shortage bread. On April 1, that year, 1546, the Council of Trent — a council of Roman Catholic Bishops, called by Pope Paul III — voted 35 to 17, deciding specifically to make no special declaration concerning this passage, popularly known as The Woman taken in Adultery. John’s gospel, like the other three gospels, “with all their parts” were affirmed, as received, to be the sacred and canonical scriptures of the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church. The reason the council took this public action was because Protestants were casting doubt not only upon the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and finally some of the most belligerent reformers were undermining the Bible itself.
That various Reformers were undermining the Bible comes as a surprise to many Protestants since most people think that the battle line of the Reformation was faithfulness to the Bible. Some would even say that the Reformers attempted to turn the Bible into a paper pope. But that is not true. The real battle line for the Reformation was the question of private belief versus the magisterium of the Church. The magisterium, the teaching office, the dogmas of the Apostolic Church, were those beliefs and practices received in the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church. But the Bible stood above the councils in authority, thus naming the received canon of the New Testament texts was not only illogical but also unnecessary because there was a sensus fidelium, a consensus of the faithful, in the Church concerning the books of the New Testament.
But the Reformation elevated private judgment over the magisterium of the Church and over the historic consensus of the faithful. For example, Martin Luther attempted to remove from the New Testament canon the books of James, Jude, Hebrews and the Revelation. Luther had not turned the Bible into paper pope, since he considered his own private judgment to be superior, not only to the pope in Rome, but superior as well to the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and finally superior to the Bible. So the Council of Trent took this movement seriously, dealing first with the most authoritative and essential texts for the Church, namely the Bible, and for the first time in council named the canonical books of the Old and New Testament.
Why am I telling you all this? Here’s why: Like I said last week, if you were to read or listen to some very prejudiced “biblical scholars” today talk about the “problems of the Bible,” you may get the impression that we, having escaped the “Dark Ages,” see the contradictions in Scripture and the Church as no one else has ever seen them in history. But the very opposite is the case as I pointed out last week. At the fountain head of the western university in Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge, what we would call the core curriculum, was the Old and New Testaments, in which intense classroom attention was paid particularly to what came to be called disputed questions which were the problematics of the Bible. The first books of theology were written to answer these disputed questions.
This passage is another example of a disputed question and it is indeed a difficult passage for a number of reasons. First, it is fair to ask if the narrative of Woman taken in Adultery is an original part of the Fourth Gospel? Secondly, is the narrative of the Woman taken in Adultery an authentic tradition of Jesus’ life story? Did it really happen? And thirdly, what is the meaning of the narrative of the Woman taken in Adultery? I will give short answers to each question and expand somewhat on each one, but not exhaustively. Truth is our goal. And like I said last week if anyone is troubled and you need to speak more at length please make time to come by the parish church so that we may reason together. Here are the short answers:
First, “Is this narrative of the Woman taken in Adultery an original part of the Fourth Gospel?” The answer is probably not, but maybe.
The second question, “Is this narrative an authentic tradition of Jesus’ life story and thus is it Holy Scripture?” The answer is yes it is canonical and binding upon the faithful to be believed and to be lived out existentially in our life together.
Thirdly, the meaning of this narrative is especially difficult because it puts a premium on forgiveness as well as the conscious and intentional repudiation of the condemnation of the guilty person in the most radical way one can imagine which is that the woman is absolved by our Lord without an obvious act of contrition or repentance on her part. So there are the issues.
I am not going to take you through every wormhole of controversy and I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to, but I will say that the main problem with the narrative of the Woman taken in Adultery is that there are very few examples of it showing up in John 8 till the 300s. Why?
There are several possibilities: First of all, maybe it was not an original part of the Fourth Gospel. A second possibility is that it was originally part of John’s gospel, but it was removed for some reason. A third possibility is that it was a free floating narrative, neither a part of the synoptics nor a part of John originally, but truly a narrative of the apostolic Church. By the way the fact of its brevity does not work against the third possibility since brevity does not militate against canonicity which is exemplified in other NT books like John’s second and third epistle both of which are under 300 words.
Whether or not the narrative is an original part of John’s gospel I’m not sure. The narrative shows up in other places in the Bible prior the 300s. But St. Augustine and his mentor St. Ambrose both preached on the story and they were both aware that it had dropped out of view in the distant past. St. Augustine explained its absence from older copies of John by saying that, “Certain person of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith,” fearing that the story granted permission to sin, “removed it from their manuscripts.” It was certainly the case that some influential priests like Tertullian, who lived 200 years before Augustine, taught the extreme and unbiblical view that the after baptism, the sins of adultery, apostasy, and murder were unforgivable. That was the chief reason why Constantine put off his baptism till he was on his death bed; he was terrified to be baptized lest he sin and forever be separated from Christ and his Church. The Bishop of Rome, Callixtus, strongly disagreed with Tertullian and issued an edict to other bishops and priests that Christians who were guilty of apostasy, murder, and adultery, who were repentant and desired God’s forgiveness, may be forgiven by their priests and received into the full communion of the Church. Tertullian rejected the edict and joined a weird cult on the fringes of the Church because they agreed with him. But eventually he left that cult and started his own sect called the Tertullianites and sadly he died outside the Church. About 150 years later, St. Augustine himself received the remnant of that cult into the Catholic Church after they rejected Tertullian’s heresy. Augustine’s explanation of how the narrative of the Woman taken in Adultery was suppressed by heretics makes sense.
Now lets look at the meaning of the story:
And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
The Teachers of Israel said to Jesus, “Should we obey the revealed word of God and stone this woman or not? What do you say?” This whole matter is whether or not Jesus is greater than the Law of God. Jesus violated the Law of the Sabbath, he violated the Law purification at meals, he interrupted animal sacrifice when he drove the money changers out of the temple, he said that his body was the only Temple that mattered anymore, he said that he would give eternal life to anyone who believed him, blasphemy according to the Teachers of Israel and here they bring before him a woman caught in the very act of adultery to show to everyone that Jesus was turning Israel’s world upside down. The Teachers of Israel understand Jesus quite well, they just don’t believe in him. When they said he was making himself equal to God, they were right. He is God. And the real issue in this narrative is that they understood that Jesus understood himself to be the Shepherd of Love bestowing mercy upon the lost sheep of of Israel: they knew — and this is important — they knew exactly how he would respond to this woman and they knew his response would set his love against the Law of Moses. After Jesus provided the Teachers of Israel with an out — their own sins — they walked away, their mission accomplished, and he was left with the woman.
“When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”
The most important words of course are those of Jesus:
“And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”
There is no condoning of adultery here. But there is love. One can only imagine the fear that gripped this woman at the awful violence that was about to befall her. It is hard to believe that anyone under those circumstances could have any rational thought at all — only an inexpressible gratitude at the mercy showed by our Lord. Jesus declares to her, “neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more,” which is perfect forgiveness and freedom to return to her home and stop sinning. It is impossible for me to imagine this woman retuning to her old way of life. It is very easy to imagine that she gratefully followed Jesus for the rest of her life.
Though it is difficult to affirm that the narrative was an original part of the Fourth Gospel, it is by the Church own declaration, an authentic and original part of the Apostolic faith in Jesus Christ and it really happened. St. Augustine’s reasons for its early disappearance ring true. Nevertheless, the narrative of the Woman taken in Adultery did not fade into oblivion like so many other texts. Even when it was suppressed by faithless men, there was the stamp of the sensus fidelium, the sense of the Faithful, who were aroused to pity and holiness by our Lord’s example. The People of God clung unfailingly to Jesus’ faith and life examples, and thus the Church in her real life penetrated far deeper than the theologians, to right judgment and to the right application of truth and mercy to daily life. Furthermore, as it stands, positioned as the first eleven verses of John chapter 8, the narrative of The Woman taken in Adultery fits that place just fine. It is as though the woman herself has come home and found a resting place. The Church cannot deal with sin or sinners which includes us all except through Jesus the Shepherd of Love.