It may surprise you but the wonderful story of the Woman Caught in Adultery set before us today is not included anywhere in the most ancient manuscripts of the Gospels. It only appears in written form from the fourth century onwards. Despite this the scholars tell us that it is a much older story and was known by Christians from the earliest times
Of course, the Apostles when telling the story of Jesus did not write anything down in the early years of the Church, mostly they preached without notes. They spoke from the heart, telling the people what had happened and especially what they themselves had witnessed. As the Church expanded, however, it became necessary to write things down for those Christian communities which had no access to an Apostle or one of their followers. The people in far-flung Christian communities wanted to hear what Jesus said and did and so had to rely on accounts written down by other Christians who had heard the Apostles preach.
Much later on these written accounts were compiled and put together by the Evangelists in coherent and ordered accounts of the life of Jesus. These Gospels were then copied as faithfully as possible and distributed to all the congregations of Christians spread across the empire.
The question remains why this account of the woman caught in adultery was omitted from the texts of the early written Gospels. There is, fortunately, an explanation. In the ancient world, especially in Greece, there were many pagan temples and a lot of Christians were converts from paganism. A feature of many of these pagan temples was prostitution. Temples dedicated to Aphrodite or Venus across the empire had former slave girls involved in fertility rites which included sexual intercourse.
Naturally enough, the newly converted Christians wanted to separate themselves from their former pagan religion and in accordance with Christ's teaching they placed consecrated virginity and fidelity in marriage as very high on the list of Christian virtues. Anything involving adultery was absolutely shunned. In the story given to us today it was probably thought by those early Christians that Christ was being overly lenient on the adulterous woman.
The fact that he doesn’t condemn her sin would probably have been seen by those first Christians as somehow showing tolerance towards her behaviour. But of course, the words, ‘Go away and don’t sin anymore’ cannot actually be seen as acceptance of her actions by Jesus. He takes it for granted that she has sinned and bestows on her forgiveness but warns her not to fall into sin again. As time passed, and particularly after the Emperor Constantine closed down all those temples dedicated to fertility, the text of this story gradually worked its way back into the canon of scripture.
Another aspect of the story which modern readers find curious is that it was only the woman who was brought before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees who wanted Jesus to order her death by stoning. We are left wondering where the man is. Actually, if you were to strictly follow the law which is found in Deuteronomy 22:22 both the man and the woman should have been stoned.
Clearly the Pharisees were being partial; they weren’t really interested in the guilt of the man or the woman but were using her as a pawn in their plot to catch Jesus out. They are more interested in bringing him down. They know that if Jesus did not strictly apply the law he would fall out with the faithful Jewish believers, but if he did follow the law then he would incur the wrath of the Romans who reserved to themselves the death penalty.
It was a classic Catch-22 situation, whatever Jesus did he was going to fall foul of one group or another. But Jesus does not fall into their trap. When he invites only the one without sin to cast the first stone, they each look inwards at their own actions and gradually slope off beginning with the eldest who were presumably the wisest and most introspective. By doodling on the ground Jesus gives them the time they need each to search his own heart and come to the conclusion that they are all of them sinners in one way or another. By doodling on the ground Jesus does not look them in the eye. He does not judge them but gives each one the space he needs to come to his own decision in the matter.
Of course, this whole story is about Jesus showing compassion to this poor woman, and indeed, even to her accusers. Jesus is the ultimate judge and Lord of All. He is the one before whom all of us will be judged. But his judgement will be a compassionate one. He is not lenient; for him a sin is a sin and he calls sin out without equivocation. But he is a forgiving God who understands our human weaknesses and who wants to bestow his love and mercy on us. On our part what we need to do is to admit our faults and implore his mercy.
We Catholics have the wonderful Sacrament of Reconciliation precisely for this purpose. We are able to speak to the priest as we would speak to Christ and through the priest receive the compassion and healing that Our Lord imparts to us. Our own Penitential Service for Lent will be on Wednesday of Holy Week in St Mary Magdalen’s Church. Please do come along and make use of this wonderful healing and saving sacrament.
In the first reading, the Prophet Isaiah recalls the Exodus and the journey through the desert of Sinai and reminds us how God gave his people water to drink. The water is, of course, a symbol of our salvation. Isaiah is reminding us that what God wants above everything else is to give us salvation. He wants to save us from our sins and to heal our bodies and our souls. His constant wish is that we should turn to him in love and implore his mercy. There is no better time to do this than in this holy season of Lent which is above all a time for repentance, forgiveness and salvation.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket