In view of our own turbulence here of late, this is an apposite text.
This text is not in the earliest copies of the Gospels. The fifth century Codex Bazae Cantabrigiensis which reflects the western tradition has it. Papias says it was found in the Gospel According to the Hebrews, which is, of course,apocryphal. This means that most of my usual Patristic authorities have exactly nothing to say on it, and what there is comes entirely from the Latin tradition. St Augustine explains why he thought the church authorities had not been keen on the text:
. . . certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord’s act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if He who had said ‘sin no more’ had granted permission to sin.” (Augustine,Adulterous Marriages, 2, 7)
Most textual authorities concur that wherever it came from, it was not part of the Johannine text originally – but wherever it came from, the Church held, and holds it to be authentic – but Augustine is right, it caused – and causes – real problems to some, as nowhere does Jesus ask her to repent, and nowhere does she confess her sins; those who insist both these are necessary parts of the story get round the problems Augustine described by making it more palatable to themselves; but the text says what it says, not what eisegesists wish it said. So, let us trun, after this explanatory note, to see what Augustine, Jerome and Bede have to say. As I am dealing with just three texts (the Augustine one just cited, and Jerome’s Against the Pelagians, and Bede’s Homilies on the Gospel) I will simple add the authority in brackets after each extract, rather than proceed in my usual way.
The Mount of Olives designates the height of the Lord’s mercy – since it is olive oil which is used in anointing (Augustine, Bede).
Augustine gets round the problems by suggesting that the woman was a prostitute who had been procured by the Pharisees to test Jesus. Their purpose was to trick him into either agreeing to uphold the Law, which he said he did, in which case they would have said ‘What has become of your forgiving sins?’, or to forgive her, in which case they would have said ‘what has become of your coming to fulfil the Law?’ They were hoping here that he, too, would become a transgressor of the Law, in which case they could have stoned him along with the woman. But Christ wonderfully combined justice with mercy and gentleness; they set a snare by the light of their human wisdom and in their pride and folly failed to see that the Light of the world knows all things.
Jesus, who came not to condemn sinners but to be with them and to walk among them that they might be saved, was no hanging judge, and he turned away – for he is sickened by their hypocrisy – and will now test its depths. Are they so blinded by their own sense of righteousness that they will fail to see their own sin? (Augustine)
Jerome thinks Jesus is writing the sins of the accusers on the ground, citing Jeremiah 17:13 –
“Those who depart from Me
Shall be written in the earth,
Augustine, while not citing the same passage, agrees with the sense of what Jerome wrote. Bede sees in it an allusion to the writing of the ten commandments on stone, which were designed to subdue the inmost hearts of a hard-hearted and defiant people. Augustine sees in Christ’s gesture a sign of Grace – sowing it in the earth and not on rocks.
Augustine sees the words of Jesus as a test for the accusers, and had they condemned her, he thinks Jesus would have said ‘The judgment you judge with shall be pronounced on you’ (Mt. 7:2) This is the voice of the justice of God – it is God, not sinners who punish sinners – the law will be carried out, but not by those who transgress it. As we judge, we too shall be judged, and Bede says we must beware of condemning sins to which we are not inclined – but remember always those to which we are inclined. For all their pride, the accusers here do not fall into that sin. Before the Light of the World and the Only Just Judge, they perceive their own sins and leave one by one.
Augustine makes reference to the fact that the law of the day in his time treated women who committed adultery more harshly than men, and that husbands rejected the idea they should be subject to the penalties which applied to women; but in Christ all are one and there is one standard – His.
Augustine, like Bede, notes she does not deny the allegation or attempt to excuse herself. He sees in her comment ‘no one’ an implicit act of confession, which prompts Christ’s mercy. The sin, but not the sinner is condemned.