“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
This morning we are continuing our study of the Fourth Gospel and I want to begin by making a few comments concerning Jesus’ baffling conversation with his male kinsmen in Chapter 7 and then look at the narrative of the woman caught in adultery at the beginning of Chapter 8. These two texts provide us with examples of how theological instruction developed in the Church and especially how theological studies became systematic. Before we go to the Fourth Gospel, let us look here first. In the early medieval university, first in Paris, then Oxford, and then Cambridge, lectures focused on reading and learning the Church’s texts. The most important, indeed, frequently the only texts were the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. The discipline came to be called sacra doctrina. Sacra Doctrina was not first the study of sacred doctrine as in sacred dogma, but first it was the study of the texts of the Old & New Testaments. In the beginning the lectures were simply a matter of reading the text out loud accompanied by interpretations of the narratives and precepts as well as explanations of the syntax, grammar, and the vocabulary of the of St. Jerome’s Vulgate — his translation of the Old & New Testament. Western universities all started out as Bible colleges.
As a taproot is the main root of a living plant that grows deep and vertically downward, forming the center of the plant from which all other subsidiary roots spring, so the Old and the New Testaments form the taproot of Western culture even if most people in the West have forgotten it. Forgetfulness is a deadly wound. I’ve told this story before but it illustrates: I will never forget an undergraduate class in literature when we came upon a poem that referred to one being swallowed up by a great whale. The professor stopped and asked, “What do you think the poet is referencing?” And then from the back of the class a student said, in all seriousness, “Would it be Pinocchio?” I am not making that up and I am not making fun of that person. Maybe he was having one on us. Who knows? But listen to me — we live in a world that is adrift in forgetfulness and that is a fearful and pathetic state of being. A truly common life is impossible for those who carried out to the sea of forgetfulness. In that state of being temporal powers will enforce a “coerced life” while calling it a “common life.” But let us not stray any further and let us get back to the matter at hand.
In addition to the Bible, the writings of the Church Fathers, both Eastern & Western, which were largely explications of Scripture, constituted a second lower tier of important texts. If you, in your mind’s eye, will imagine yourself in Paris or Oxford in a classroom with other students, this is what would be happening: your professor would be reading the Bible of St. Jerome’s Latin and he would be lecturing in Latin while at other times he would be reading one of the Fathers out loud. You and your fellow students would be furiously writing down both the texts and the master’s comments. He would explain the meaning of the words and the sense of the text, but he would have paid special attention to points where the Scriptures presented different and apparently contradictory statements and narratives. But there was no book as such that dealt with these disputed questions. These were the professor’s marginal notations, sentences on the tops and bottoms of the page and in between the sentences of the text that the lecturer would use as his notes. These disputed points and contradictions came to be call “the sentences” (sententis). Peter Abelard’s (1079 – 1142) Yes and No (Sic et Non) is a compilation of the apparent contradictions in the Bible along with possible explanations — not only his explanations, but all the Fathers of the Church he could find who had commented on the issue he was addressing.
After Abelard there was another “Peter,” Peter Lombard (1096 – 1164) who took theological education to a higher viewpoint with his Four Books of Sentences, another collection of contradictory positions and counter-positions on sacred doctrine. Lombard’s Sentences would be well over 1,000 pages in today’s book-world. The Sentences became the text book for theology in the fledgling medieval Universities of Paris (1150), Oxford (1196), and Cambridge (1209), and it continued to be used as the primary textbook up to the seventeenth century. No one, not even Calvin or Luther, could escape the Lombard. The Sentences organized the conflicting theological positions and counter-positions held by Church authorities in four Books. Books I — III dealt with what he called Reality: Book I treats the Trinity, Book II treats of Creation, Book III treats Christ and Virtues. Book IV he called Signs and it treats of the Sacraments. Theological students were required to produce a commentary on Lombard’s Sentences as the lion’s share of the examination process. At the end of the university lectures on The Sentences, which was usually several years, the student could apply to the theological faculty for bachelor status by presenting your own commentary on The Sentences. If the faculty approved your commentary on Lombard you were rewarded the bachelor’s degree. You can purchase Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Sentences from Amazon.
Why do I tell you all this? I tell you this because if you were to read or listen to some people today talk about the “problems of the Bible,” they might give you the impression that low and behold in our enlightened, scientific era the scales have fallen from our eyes and we see the contradictions in Scripture and the Church as no one else has ever seen them thanks to the almighty but always undefined “scientific revolution.” You might get the impression that in our day no one, not even Jesus, eludes the fearless “fact checker.” It would be a good idea for some of these so-called scholars to get down from their high horse and do a little fact checking of their own facts. Some of these scholars are simply not intellectually honest. Some set up straw men problems while giving the impression that the Fathers and the Doctors of the Church have swept ugly truths under the rug, while all along it is the rug of some contemporary so-called scholars that has a mounds of hidden facts underneath. Men like Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas were so intensely attentive to reality they frequently disturbed their students, while our boy-scholars of today have less in common with Lombard and Aquinas and more in common with Pokemon Go because they have constructed an augmented, virtual, reality in which they slay virtual contradictions of their own making. This is what happens when we are adrift in forgetfulness.
Let us get back to our texts and the really real. First please recall the conversation between Jesus and his male kinsmen. They were preparing to go up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles at which time they tried to get Jesus to go up with them and to really pour it on with signs and wonders so as to not only encourage and cement his sagging following, but also to increase his numbers. Jesus tells his male kinsmen that they are soulmates with this world — this world whose horizon is truncated by materialism. But then he goes on to say,
“You go up to the feast. I go not yet up to the feast for my time is not yet come.”
And then we are told that after his kinsmen left him behind, Jesus, about mid-week, went up to the feast secretly. The problem is that the word “yet” is not in most manuscripts. Thus when Jesus tells his kinsmen that he is not going up to the feast when in fact he does go up secretly it sounds as though he has lied to his kinsmen. On the basis of this statement Neoplatonists around the day of Jerome and Augustine charged Jesus with deceiving his kinsmen and it is easy enough to see the logic of their accusation.
In our day and time there a few modern teachers who have asserted that Jesus did lie to his kinsmen and he did so in order to present to us an example of what they call a “good lie,” instructing us that there are times when telling lies may be holy. For example, if you had lived in Germany in the 1930s and if Nazis had come to your door and asked you where the Jews in your neighborhood were living it would be appropriate to lie in order to accomplish the good and save their Jewish neighbors. I reply, first of all that Jesus did not lie to nor did he mislead his kinsmen. Secondly, there is no such good object to be obtained from a lie in this narrative about his kinsmen anyway. And finally, we hardly need an example of our Lord and Savior lying in order to know that we should not have told Nazis where Jews were hiding.
There is a second approach which focuses rightly upon the word “yet.” There would be no problem at all if Jesus said, “I go not yet up to the feast,” since that little word “yet” is a very big qualifier. The word “yet” (oupo) does appear in most manuscripts but it does appear in the oldest ones. St. John Chrysostom held this understanding of the John 7:8.
A third approach others have made in order to understand this phrase is that the words, “I go not up to the feast,” or “I go not up yet to the feast,” in either case, is in the present tense indicative and do not necessarily have to be taken as Jesus’ intention for the future — and that is exactly right. Thus, I submit to you that the meaning would be, “I will not go up to this festival day,” “that is,” as St. Thomas Aquinas says, “not today with you because my time is not come.” I conclude that the second and third approach both make good sense to me and are not mutually exclusive. The fact of the matter is the word “yet” as in “I go not yet up to the feast” is contained in the oldest texts. But even if that were not the case the statement is in the present indicative and that means “I am not going with you at this present time” and that solves the problem. Jesus did not deceive his kinsmen. But one final note: If my explanation does not satisfy your conscience on this matter please come by and let’s spend some time pondering the Word of God, let us make more time for this important issue. We cannot live with easy half-answers that sweep problems under the rug; such half-truths only create bigger problems for us down the road.
Now I will have to end here before we get into the beginning for chapter 8 and the narrative of the woman taken in adultery. This narrative too presents us with what Lombard and Aquinas would have called a “disputed question.” But unlike the problem we have just looked at where the earliest biblical texts support the use of a word that changes the meaning entirely, the story of the woman caught in adultery cannot be found in the earliest text we have. “Why not,” you rightly ask? To compound the problem some newer translations, like for example the Revised English Translation, have taken the astonishing path of removing it from the John chapter 8 and placing it in a footnote. It matters not who these scholars are or what faculties they are members of, they are not the Church and they have no right to take such an action. But we will have to wait till next week to examine the status of the narrative of the woman caught in adultery as well as its precious meaning for the Church. But remember this: forgetfulness will remain our daily bread if we disregard the Bible.