Pericope Adulterae

Pericope is a Greek word meaning a selection of verses that form a coherent unit or thought. In other words a pericope is a passage. The Pericope Adulterae is a fancy Latin way of referring to the familiar passage in John 7:53-8:11 in which Jesus confronts a group of men intent on stoning a woman caught committing adultery.

53 Then they all went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the groupand said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.Now what do you say?”They were using this question as a trap,in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stoneat her.”Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,”Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 7;53-8-11)

Christ and fhe Adulterous Woman

Christ and fhe Adulterous Woman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The reason that the Pericope Adulterae gets a a Latin title is that many scholars and textual critics believe that this passage is a later addition to the Gospel of John. The vocabulary does not seem to be Johannine and many of the earliest Greek manuscripts do not have this passage, although the Latin manuscripts contain it and there some writings from the early Church Fathers which refer to the story. A few manuscripts have the Pericope Adulterae in the Gospel of Luke. It seems to be a better fit there with Luke’s special concern for the outcast and downtrodden.

Despite the controversy concerning the Pericope Adulterae, no authority either ancient or modern questions whether it actually belongs somewhere in the Gospel and the ancient Fathers were unanimous in  believing it to be a true story from the like of Jesus. No modern translation omits the passage although many place it in brackets to indicate the uncertainty about the passage. The creators of the Conservative Bible Project intend to omit the Pericope Adulterae because it is used by liberals.

Increasingly many Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, are reciting, teaching and popularizing the Pericope de Adultera (Latin for “the passage of the adulterous woman”), set forth at from John 7:53-8:11. In the story a mob surrounds a woman to stone her for adultery, and ask Jesus what they should do. Jesus is describing as writing in the ground, and eventually beseeches those who have not sinned to cast the first stone. The crowd then disperses, beginning with the eldest first.

The movie The Passion of Christ includes flashbacks to a scene based on this passage; Bartleby’s quotations include its famous line, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”; and sermons are increasingly based on it. Arguments against the death penalty often cite this passage.

Amid this scholarship, why is the emphasis on this passage increasing? The answer lies in its liberal message: do not criticize or punish immoral conduct unless you are perfect yourself. Liberals cite this passage to oppose the death penalty, a misuse that has been criticized. But one need not be perfect before he can recognize wrongdoing in himself. The Mosaic laws clearly state death as a punishment for sin. So the argument that an individual must be perfect is not relevant. The God-ordained government has the responsibility for punishment. Civilized society may not depend on stoning to deter immoral crimes, but it does depend on retribution enforced by people who are themselves sinners.

They do cite the legitimate textual reasons for omitting the passage, but I get the impression that the matter wouldn’t come up at all if the “liberals” weren’t using the passage. It seems likely that their main reason for omitting the passage is out of political or ideological considerations. This is simply not acceptable. You cannot rewrite the Bible to suit a particular political or social agenda. This procedure is not exegesis, studying the text to learn its meaning, but eisegesis, forcing one’s own interpretation onto the text.

As it happens, the “liberals’ misunderstand the meaning of the passage. Jesus is not advocating moral relativism, but compassion in judgement. He forgives the woman for her sin, he does not say that she has not sinned and he instructs the woman to sin no more, not to go back to her life of sin. The idea is, I think, that while we should condemn the sin, the Pharisees were right to arrest the woman, under the Law of Moses, but judgement must be tempered with compassion and an acknowledgement that we too are sinners.

I should add, by the way, that Jesus’s actions were in line with the rabbinical teaching of his time, especially among the Pharisees, who generally advocated a more liberal interpretation of the Law, as opposed to the Sadducees who believe in a more literal application of the Law.

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One Response to “Pericope Adulterae”

  1. Justin Hoffer Says:

    While mobs would sometimes carry out illegal justice in Ancient Israel (which is essentially what is described in the passage), only the Sanhedrin where actually allowed to sentence someone to death for a crime. This meant that the Sanhedrin rarely saw cases involving lesser sins, and the death penalty was almost exclusively only applied to murderers. Lower courts would typically impose fines for such crimes.

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