While it’s true that Josephus never mentions Jesus–that the extant references to him have been interpolated, and that except for a few references in the Talmud we have no extra-biblical testimony to his activity, there is a small problem with this assertion: not everything in the New Testament was always in the New Testament. The fact is, one story about Jesus existed independently of the canon for decades in the Western Church and for centuries in the Eastern Church, only to be eventually absorbed by the scriptural tradition as though it had always been there.
Once safely in the canon the history of its intrusion was forgotten in most traditions, so that the rediscovery of that intrusion threatened the claimed uniformity of scriptural origins to the point that many were loathe to admit the possibility of its extraneous provenance. If we may be allowed to keep the reader in suspense for a while, here is a bit of the manuscript history of the account which we will leave unnamed for the moment.
It is absent from the oldest papyri of Egypt or from any Greek vellum manuscript older than the 5th century Bezae Codex, which sets the Latin and Greek side by side. The Old Latin and Vulgate texts seem to have introduced the pericope to the textual tradition, but as the account gradually made its way into the Greek manuscripts considerable confusion is manifest as to the proper place for the story. Some MSS place the account in Luke, some at the end of John or in our chapter seven. Frequently it appears marked with an asterisk or obelisk to indicate its intrusion. One MS leaves a blank space for it and never includes it. The Peshitta plainly announces its absence in the previous tradition. The Orthodox scribes were clearly confident that, in spite of the account’s long standing in the Western tradition, it was extraneous to the original text, and they were at liberty to insert it wherever they deemed most judicious.
What we have then, with the “Pericope” (we will give its real title below), is an originally non-biblical witness of Jesus’ teaching that has pushed its way into the canon of the second millennium and, if it is authentic, it is an originally independent witness to his prophetic activity. We do well to interpret it correctly, if that is possible after two thousand years.
Mishnah Makkoth 1:10 (Danby translation, p.403):
A Sanhedrin that puts one man to death in a week of years is called ‘destructive.’ R. Eliezer b. Azariah says: Or one in even seventy years. R. Tarfon and R. Akiba say: Had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel says: They would even have multiplied the shedders of blood in Israel.
The first rabbi mentioned, Eliezer ben Azariah, is of the second generation of Tannaim, c.80-120 A.D. Rabbis Tarfon and Akiba are of the third generation, about 120-140 A.D, and Rabban Simeon is of the fourth generation, c.140-165 A.D. While Akiba fully engages in the discussions of when and what sort of death penalty is appropriate, these discussions seem to be academic only, for two reasons: 1) the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem had apparently been stripped of authority to issue death penalties; 2) the Pharisees were opposed to capital punishment in general.
As for the first assertion we have two witnesses: Talmud Sanhedrin 41a (“40 years before the destruction of the temple,” i.e., about 30AD) and the New Testament, John 18:31: “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.” The second assertion, as neatly illustrated by Tarfon and Akiba, describes an evolving situation which has early underpinnings in the Apocryphal Book of Suzanna. This intertestamental work reveals a lack of trust in the judicial system promulgated in the Torah: witnesses lie, and innocent people are put to death. Even lecherous priests might conspire to accuse an innocent woman of adultery, and only the interposition of a judge of stellar capabilities could prevent a miscarriage of justice. And in the hands of such capable expositors as Akiba, the tradition of legal precedent passed on orally by the Pharisaic party was quite capable of finding loopholes in the strict Mosaic Law to the point of eliminating the death penalty altogether. If the Pharisees had held sway in the Sanhedrin in 30AD it is likely that the Romans would have had no need to restrict their jurisprudence, but the Sadducees rejected the Oral Law as well as the “Writings” (or “Scriptures”) and the “Prophets,” that is, the entire “Old Testament” except for the Pentateuch, or “Books of Moses.” Accordingly, the Sadducee majority held to the doctrine of capital punishment as promulgated in the Torah, until the Romans restricted their authority. Then the death penalty could only be carried out through lynching at the hands of “Zealots.”
Chances are, the disciples of John the Baptist never set foot on the temple precincts. John was a priest, and a priest’s place was in the temple, but John baptized in the Jordan, a place of constantly flowing or ‘living’ waters, those with the highest degree of ritual purity in the Rabbinic tradition. On a diet of honey and locusts he stood no chance of breaking the biblical dietary laws. The temple itself was not fit for his ministry, having been built after all by a carnal king, whose appointed priests were not guaranteed to be of the proper lineage. Jesus contrasted his own comportment with that of John’s in detailing the difficulty of pleasing their audience at Luke 7:32ff:
32 They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept.
33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil.
34 The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!
John out-Phariseed the Pharisees while Jesus behaved like a closet Sadducee–unlike the Baptists and Pharisees he even refused to fast (Mt 9:14), but the Pharisees spurned them both.
When John was finally beheaded, Jesus took note, and headed for the desert (Mt 14:13), but he would eventually make his way to Jerusalem, and to the temple. The first thing he does is to make a public scene of “cleansing” it. What was his purpose? In all likelihood his intent was to declare the temple clean, sanctified, and acceptable for public use. What John had desanctified, Jesus had re-commissioned, and such an act would not be calculated to put him at odds with Herod or his priests. Moreover it becomes apparent that Jesus intended to make use of the precincts for his own purposes, to launch a private university, so to speak. After having so commandeered the temple grounds, the “scribes and Pharisees” confront him with an adulteress in tow, but before proceeding with the account, let us further review the background.
Jesus differed from the Sadducees in accepting the tripartite scripture: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. He differs from the Pharisees in not accepting their Oral Tradition, which they eventually claimed was promulgated by Moses himself. Like the Pharisees and unlike the Sadducees he believed in an afterlife of rewards and punishment. In fact at one point he confronted the Sadducees on the issue, and beat them on their own terms, using scripture acceptable to them–Genesis–to prove that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, still live (Mt 22:32). The Pharisees were duly impressed.
While Jesus had little use for the Pharisees’ endlessly detailed code of righteousness, and they in turn could view his rejection of their code as no less than a betrayal of the Mosaic Law, he was for them a problematic heretic, but only because they had so much in common, unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees; he was so nearly one of their own that he could not be easily categorized and ostracized. The overall enlightenment of the Pharisees, and their general distaste for violence, is illustrated in the account of Lk 13:31: “The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee.” This was probably not a unique example of concern on the part of Pharisees for Jesus’ safety. Two gospels report the tradition that at Jesus’ trial the witnesses could not agree (Mt 26:60, Mrk 14:59), indicating he was not being entirely railroaded: competent lawyers exposed the witnesses as unreliable, in the Pharisaic legal tradition.
The attitude of the New Testament tradition toward the Pharisees is seen to evolve considerably between the writing of Acts and the later writing of the Gospel of John. At Acts 5:17 Peter and the apostles are arrested by the high priest together with the Sadducees, and are defended by the famous Pharisee, Gamaliel (vss. 35-39). Similarly the Pharisees defend Paul against the high priest and the Sadducees at Acts 23:9. Then at Acts 15:5 we read: “But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” The phrase “Pharisees which believed” speaks of Christian Pharisees: it was the converted Pharisees who caused the now lapsed Pharisee Paul to travel to Jerusalem for advice from the apostles.
And all this time the Christians continued meeting in the synagogues (Acts 13:5), whereas the Gospel of John twice declares that the disciples of Jesus were excluded there from (Jn 9:22, 12:42). So while in Acts the Sadducees are the antagonists and the Pharisees are not only sympathetic to the disciples, but some are disciples, in Matthew the Sadducees and Pharisees are vilified together, and in John the Sadducees are absent: the Pharisees are now the villains. This does not mean that Jesus did not have serious run-ins with the Pharisees, or that none of his denunciations of them are authentic. There must have been as many different reactions on the part of the Pharisees to Jesus’ teaching as there were Pharisees, ranging from conversion to hostility, but in all probability the overall sentiment of the Pharisees to Jesus was similar to that of the Unitarians to Miguel Servitas: it was monstrous tyranny and academic cowardice of Calvin to attack the man, rather than his ideas.
One encounter in particular between Jesus and the Pharisees may well have set the stage for the Pericope, and should be noticed here (Mt 15; cf. Mk 7:8ff):
1 Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying,
2 Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.
3 But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
4 For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.
5 But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me;
6 And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.
And the Tannaim did indeed ascribe precedence of their Oral Law over the written Torah, as per the universal principle, he who interprets the law makes the law.
It was a surpassingly clever challenge they presented to the heretical Galilean rabbi, one sure to expose the naivete of adhering to a rigid interpretation of the written Torah at the expense of their legal tradition. Or so it seemed at the outset.
Usually we treat the source texts in the order of antiquity: first Greek, then Latin or Syriac, and so on. But as far as we know the earliest written version of the Pericope de Adultera was Latin, and so the Latin texts must be given priority–this is an exceptional case.
The Pericope de Adultera
(Clementine / Nova Vulgata / AV)
John 7:53. Et reversi sunt unusquisque in domum suam.
Et reversi sunt unusquisque in domum suam.
And every man went unto his own house.
8:1. Jesus autem perrexit in montem Olivet:
Iesus autem perrexit in montem Oliveti.
Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.
2. et diluculo iterum venit in templum, et omnis populus venit ad eum, et sedens docebat eos.
Diluculo autem iterum venit in templum, et omnis populus veniebat ad eum, et sedens docebat eos.
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.
3. Adducunt autem scribæ et pharisæi mulierem in adulterio deprehensam: et statuerunt eam in medio,
Adducunt autem scribae et pharisaei mulierem in adulterio deprehensam et statuerunt eam in medio.
And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in
4. et dixerunt ei: Magister, hæc mulier modo deprehensa est in adulterio.
et dicunt ei: “Magister, haec mulier manifesto deprehensa est in adulterio.
They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5. In lege autem Moyses mandavit nobis hujus modi lapidare. Tu ergo quid dicis?
In lege autem Moyses mandavit nobis huiusmodi lapidare; tu ergo quid dicis?”
Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6. Hoc autem dicebant tentantes eum, ut possent accusare eum. Jesus autem inclinans se deorsum, digito scribebat in terra.
Hoc autem dicebant tentantes eum, ut possent accusare eum. Iesus autem inclinans se deorsum digito scribebat in terra.
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.
7. Cum ergo perseverarent interrogantes eum, erexit se, et dixit eis : Qui sine peccato est vestrum, primus in illam lapidem mittat.
Cum autem perseverarent interrogantes eum, erexit se et dixit eis: “ Qui sine peccato est vestrum, primus in illam lapidem mittat”;
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.
8. Et iterum se inclinans, scribebat in terra.
et iterum se inclinans scribebat in terra.
And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9. Audientes autem unus post unum exibant, incipientes a senioribus : et remansit solus Jesus, et mulier in medio stans.
Audientes autem unus post unum exibant, incipientes a senioribus, et remansit solus, et mulier in medio stans.
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.
10. Erigens autem se Jesus, dixit ei: Mulier, ubi sunt qui te accusabant? nemo te condemnavit?
Erigens autem se Iesus dixit ei: “Mulier, ubi sunt? Nemo te condemnavit?”
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?
11. Quæ dixit : Nemo, Domine. Dixit autem Jesus : Nec ego te condemnabo : vade, et jam amplius noli peccare.
Quae dixit: “Nemo, Domine.” Dixit autem Iesus: “Nec ego te condemno; vade et amplius iam noli peccare.”
She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
John 7:53: When everyone went home [Vat. Gr. Codex 354: to his place], 8:1 Jesus went up to the Mount of Olives. 2 In the morning he returned to the temple precincts, and all the people gathered to him, so taking his seat he began to teach them [Codex Bezae omits]. 3 Then some scribes and Pharisees brought forward a woman arrested for adultery [Codex Bezae: taken in sin] and stood her in front 4 saying, “Teacher [here Codex Bezae has instead of at v.6 the phrase the priests (!) said this by way of a challenge…]: This woman was arrested in the very act of adultery 5 Now in the law that Moses prescribed for us such culprits are to be stoned. So what is your position on the matter? 6 (They said this by way of a challenge in order to discredit him.) But Jesus was leaning over [as though] tallying [with his finger] on the pavement [literally, ground]. 7 As they kept pressing him for an answer he straightened up and said, “if any one of you has not sinned, he can drop the first stone.” 8 And he leaned over again to mark on the pavement. 9 On hearing this they made their exit one by one, beginning with the most senior, so that he was left alone, with the woman still standing there. 10 When he finally raised up Jesus said, “Lady, where did everybody go?” [Codex Bezae and others: …who accused you?] Has no one passed sentence? 11 She says, “No one, sir..” Jesus says, “Neither will I sentence you. Go and sin no more.”
John 7:53: And when everyone went home 8:1 Jesus went up the Mount of Olives. 2 And at daylight he returned to the temple grounds and the people gathered to him [so he sat down to teach them]. 3 Then some scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery and stood her in front of everyone. 4 They said, “Teacher: this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. 5 In the Torah Moses legislated that those so convicted must be stoned. 6 So what is your opinion on the matter?” [They spoke this by way of a challenge, with an eye to discrediting him.] Jesus was bent over marking on the pavement [with his finger]. 7 And when they persisted in questioning him he straightened up and told them: “Whichever of you is not complicit here can drop the first rock.” 8 And he resumed his stooped position to mark on the pavement. 9 On hearing this young and old made their exit one by one, in utter humiliation, leaving the woman standing there alone. 10 And Jesus straightened up and said to the woman, “Where did everybody [your accusers] go? Did no one sentence you?” 11 She replies, “No one, sir.” Jesus says, “Well I’m not sentencing you either. You’re free to go, but don’t repeat this sin.”
3. We use the verb ‘arrested’ to emphasize the legal nature of the proceedings. Jesus taught ethics from the same Torah that served the Pharisees as a legal code, and this Galilean who had lately taken over the temple precincts in order to teach his version of the Torah–which must all be fulfilled to the last jot and tittle–held nothing but disdain for the Pharisees’ memorized stock of legal precedent, their entire oral Torah. The Pharisees distinguished between state and religion, but not between norms and internalized religion. Jesus did make a distinction.
4. The “priests” of Codex Bezae helps to discredit its version here.
5. The Pharisees can hardly be imagined to be holding rocks in their fists, ready to execute. In all probability the Mishnaic prescription (rather, description) already obtained here: the first witness pushed the condemned from a height to the ground, and if the criminal survived the second witness dropped a large rock on the chest of the condemned from the same height. In any case the execution was to take place without the city. In fact the legal code never prescribes the manner of execution for adultery, nor does Jesus’ dictum coincide with the Mishnaic prescription, but neither Jesus nor the Pharisees have any interest in nitpicking. The Torah dictates that the witnesses cast the first stones in such an execution and it is to the literal biblical injunction that Jesus alludes.
6. It is difficult to imagine Jesus to be writing on the ground with his finger in light of the fact that, as Josephus informs us, the entire temple yard was paved. Dust there would be, even in the temple proper, and whether Jewish or pagan; as we learn from the Apocryphal Epistle of Jeremiah 17:13, the idols of the temples were too impotent to wipe the dust from their own eyes, and the old temple of Solomon could always be counted on to provide enough dust for the trial by ordeal (Num 5:17: ostensibly in the “tabernacle”). But that is a different matter from writing legibly on the floor of the outer courtyard. If he wrote legibly it could hardly be with his finger, but with ink and parchment. And if he merely doodled his apparent distraction would seem poorly acted out unless he were tallying witnesses. Writing supplies were expensive luxuries but not unobtainable, and not necessarily to be eschewed by one who has commandeered the temple precincts to promulgate his doctrine.
“…in order to accuse him…” The Greek is katagorein–source of our word ‘category.’ The Peshitta merely transliterates. While as at v. 10 in Codex Bezae and other manuscripts it can and usually does mean ‘to accuse,’ maybe ‘to expose’ or ‘pigeonhole.’ To expose of what? Of being a closet Sadducee perhaps, or of being less than competent in legal matters–it is difficult to say.
7. “whoever is without sin” –a manifestly nonexistent category, as several OT scriptures proclaim: Pss 14:3, 53:1, 143:2. But what is sin? The Hebrew is h-t-h, like the Aramaic, and like the Greek ‘αμαρτάνω, it means basically to miss the target, to make a mistake. True, the Septuagint distinguishes between moral error and error of marksmanship, but Hebrew and Aramaic do not. Then the dictum is broad enough to be read “whoever never made a mistake” or more particularly, “whoever has not entered the temple precincts while ritually defiled.” And the witnesses had in fact taken evidence the night before. It was still early morning, they had not immersed themselves, and they could not be clean till evening.
“let him be the first” –But only the witnesses are candidates. Therefore the teacher acknowledges or accuses them of the fact that they are all witnesses, as many MSS of v.10 corroborate. So they are all guilty–perhaps he tallied their number as each made his accusation.
Guilty though they might be their antagonist had still abrogated the Mosaic law; they persisted before, why did they not persist now? Teacher, is there then no crime punishable by death? Is Moses to be abandoned? You who say every jot and tittle must be fulfilled? You who reject our legal tradition by which we could surely find a loophole with which to free the accused?
But how could they? He had fully accepted the premise of their accusation and thrown it squarely into their court. How could they reject the law of Moses which they themselves had quoted? They had no intention of stoning the woman–how many times previously had they ignored her behavior? It was no coincidence that they knew where to find a test case to present to the upstart teacher. All this was obvious to the temple preacher and he had called their bluff in one pithy sentence. At the same time he had shifted the burden of guilt on to the accusers, and it was their behavior–not their daily comportment but their evidence gathering of the previous night–that was liable to come under examination. If it were possible to look any sillier the next sentence would surely do it–better to take their losses and run.
8. He won’t stare them down–let them save what face they can or they might resort to more desperate argument. Then again, he may be re-tallying with his peripheral vision–marking off each witness as he leaves, emphasizing that all have incriminated themselves.
10. Not all versions have “your accusers,” but if genuine, the phrase substantiates what is implicit in v.7: that all were witnesses, entrappers, voyeurs, and ritually unclean.
11. He does not exonerate her except from death, which she was never really in danger of. But he frees her of further humiliation, as Joseph intended to do for Mary, and Joseph is called a “just man.” The ‘zeal of Phineas’ is nowhere to be found among Christian or Pharisee.