Textual Evidence

on John 8:1-11 (1675)

Exerpted from: John Lightfoot (1602-1675),
A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica,
(downloaded from : Philologos.org)

Page Index

Last Updated: Mar 17, 2009

Section 1: - Modern Introduction
Section 2: Introduction - Lightfoot on John 8:1-11
Section 3: Full Commentary - Lightfoot on John 8:1-11 new!

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It will be remarkable and pardoxical for the 21st century reader to discover that there were brilliant men even a mere 50 years after the creation of the Authorized Version (KJV) of 1611. Yet not entirely unpredictable: The KJV itself was produced by a fellowship of scholars culled from the halls of Oxford and Cambridge, and represented the very best of both English and continental scholarship at that time.

And yet even more can be said: This was an unprecedented period of scholarship, perhaps never to be repeated, because of the unique combination of fresh revival through Protestantism, and the pre-scientific skepticism of later ages. These men were nothing if not transparent and honest in their viewpoints and expression.

What is most astounding of all, is the volume of learning that many of these ancient doctors of Holy Scripture possessed. And in the casual discussion of such difficult textual problems as that of John 8:1-11, we see that these ancient experts held more than the germ of the solution in their very hands.

Here incredibly, Lightfoot actually uncannily predicts the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, 300 and 100 years later, respectively.

Lightfoot's Commentary is unsurpassed to this day, in both the volume of Hebrew background and tradition he extracts from the ancient Jewish historical sources, and his clear and faithful expression of its relevance to the Christian Holy Scriptures.

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Lightfoot on John 8:1-11

Chapter 8

"Expositors, almost with one consent, do note that this story of the woman taken in adultery, was not in some ancient copies; and whiles I am considering upon what accident this should be, there are two little stories in Eusebius that come to mind. The one we have in these words, He [Papias] tells us also another history concerning a woman accused of many crimes before our Lord, which history indeed the Gospel according to the Hebrews makes mention of. All that do cite that story do suppose he means this adulteress. The other story he tells us in his Life of Constantine: he brings in Constantine writing thus to him: "I think good to signify to your prudence, that you would take care that fifty volumes of those Scriptures, whose preparation and use you know so necessary for the church, and which beside may be easily read and carried about, may, by very skilful penmen, be written out in fair parchment."

So indeed the Latin interpreter: but may we not by the word volumes of those Scriptures understand the Gospels compacted into one body by way of harmony? The reason of this conjecture is twofold: partly those Eusebian canons formed into such a kind of harmony; partly because, cap. 37, he tells us that, having finished his work, he sent to the emperor threes and fours: which words if they are not to be understood of the evangelists, sometimes three, sometimes four, (the greater number including the less,) embodied together by such a harmony, I confess I cannot tell what to make of them.

But be it so that it must not be understood of such a harmony; and grant we further that the Latin interpreter hits him right, when he supposes Eusebius to have picked out here and there, according to his pleasure and judgment, some parts of the Holy Scriptures to be transcribed; surely he would never have omitted the evangelists, the noblest and the most profitable part of the New Testament.

If therefore he ascribed this story of the adulteress to the trifler Papias, or at least to the Gospel according to the Hebrews only, without doubt he would never insert it in copies transcribed by him. Hence possibly might arise the omission of it in some copies after Eusebius' times. It is in copies before his age, viz. in Ammonius, Tatianus, &c. "


Verse 1. Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.

[Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.] But whether to the town of Bethany, or to some booth fixed in that mount, is uncertain. For because of the infinite multitude that had swarmed together at those feasts, it is probable many of them had made themselves tents about the city, that they might not be too much straitened within the walls, though they kept within the bounds still of a sabbath day's journey.

"'And thou shalt turn in the morning, and go unto thy tents,' Deuteronomy 16:7. The first night of the feast they were bound to lodge within the city: after that it was lawful for them to abide without the walls; but it must be within the bounds of a sabbath day's journey. Whereas therefore it is said, 'Thou shalt go unto thy tents'; this is the meaning of it. Thou shalt go into thy tents that are without the walls of Jerusalem, but by no means into thine own house."

It is said, chapter 7:53, that "every man went unto his own house"; upon which words let that be a comment that we meet with, After the daily evening sacrifice, the fathers of the Sanhedrim went home.

The eighth day therefore being ended, the history of which we have in chapter 7, the following night was out of the compass of the feast; so that they had done the dancings of which we have spoken before. The evangelist, therefore, does not without cause say that "every man went unto his own house"; for otherwise they must have gone to those dancings, if the next day had not been the sabbath.

Verse 3. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst.

[A woman taken in adultery.] Our Saviour calls the generation an adulterous generation, Matthew 12:39: see also James 4:4, which indeed might be well enough understood in its literal and proper sense.

"From the time that murderers have multiplied amongst us, the beheading of the heifer hath ceased: and since the increase of adultery, the bitter waters have been out of use."

"Since the time that adultery so openly prevailed under the second Temple, the Sanhedrim abrogated that way of trial by the bitter water; grounding it upon what is written, 'I will not visit your daughters when they shall go a whoring, nor your wives when they shall commit adultery.'"

The Gemarists say, That Rabban Jochanan Ben Zacchai was the author of this counsel: he lived at this very time, and was of the Sanhedrim; perhaps present amongst those that set this adulterous woman before Christ. For there is some reason to suppose that the "scribes and Pharisees" here mentioned were no other than the fathers of the Sanhedrim.

Verse 5. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

[That such should be stoned.] Such. Who? what, all adulteresses? or all taken in adultery, in the very act? There is a third qualification still: for the condition of the adulteress is to be considered, whether she was a married woman, or betrothed only.

God punisheth adultery by death, Leviticus 20:10. But the masters of traditions say, that "wherever death is simply mentioned in the law," [that is, where the kind of death is not expressly prescribed,] "there it is to be supposed no other than strangling." Only they except; "a daughter of an Israelite, if she commit adultery after she is married, must be strangled; if only betrothed, she must be stoned. A priest's daughter, if she commit adultery when married, must be stoned; if only betrothed, she must be burnt."

Hence we may conjecture what the condition of this adulteress was: either she was an Israelitess not yet married, but betrothed only; or else she was a priest's daughter, married: rather the former, because they say, "Moses in the law hath commanded us that such should be stoned." See Deuteronomy 22:21. But as to the latter, there is no such command given by Moses.

Verse 6. 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.

[Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground.] Feigning as though he heard them not, had of old crept into some books: and it is plain enough that it did creep in. For when Christ had given proof enough that he took cognizance of the matter propounded to him by those words, "He that is without sin among you," &c., yet did he stoop down again, and write upon the earth.

Many have offered their conjectures why he used this unusual gesture at this time; and, with the reader's leave, let me also offer mine.

I. The matter in hand was, judging a woman taken in adultery: and therefore our Saviour in this matter applies himself conformably to the rule made and provided for the trial of an adulteress by the bitter water, Numbers 5.

II. Among the Jews, this obtained in the trial of a wife suspected: "If any man shall unlawfully lie with another woman, the bitter water shall not try his wife: for it is said, If the husband be guiltless from iniquity, then shall the woman bear her iniquity."

"When the woman hath drunk the bitter water, if she be guilty, her looks turn pale, her eyes swell up, &c. So they turn her out of the Court of the Women; and first her belly swells, then her thigh rots, and she dies. The same hour that she dies, the adulterer also, upon whose account she drank the water, dies too, wherever he is, being equally seized with a swelling in his belly, rottenness in his thigh, or his pudenda. But this is done only upon condition that the husband hath been guiltless himself: for if he have lain with any unlawfully himself, then this water will not try his wife.

"If you follow whoring yourselves, the bitter waters will not try your wives."

You may see by these passages how directly our Saviour levels at the equity of this sentence, willing to bring these accusers of the woman to a just trial first. You may imagine you hear him thus speaking to them: "Ye have brought this adulterous woman to be adjudged by me: I will therefore govern myself according to the rule of trying such by the bitter waters. You say and you believe, according to the common opinion of your nation, that the woman upon whom a jealousy is brought, though she be indeed guilty, yet if the husband that accuseth her be faulty that way himself, she cannot be affected by those waters, nor contract any hurt or danger by them. If the divine judgment proceeded in that method, so will I at this time. Are you that accuse this woman wholly guiltless in the like kind of sin? Whosoever is so, 'let him cast the first stone,' &c. But if you yourselves stand chargeable with the same crimes, then your own applauded tradition, the opinion of your nation, the procedure of divine judgment in the trial of such, may determine in this case, and acquit me from all blame, if I condemn not this woman, when her accusers themselves are to be condemned."

III. It was the office of the priest, when he tried a suspected wife, to stoop down and gather the dust off the floor of the sanctuary; which when he had infused into the water, he was to give the woman to drink: he was to write also in a book the curses or adjurations that were to be pronounced upon her, Numbers 5:17, 23. In like manner our Saviour stoops down; and making the floor itself his book, he writes something in the dust, doubtless against these accusers whom he was resolved to try, in analogy to those curses and adjurations written in a book by the priest, against the woman that was to be tried.

IV. The priest after he had written these curses in a book blots them out with the bitter water, Numbers 5:23. For the matter transacted was doubtful. They do not make the suspected woman drink, unless in a doubtful case.

The question is, Whether the woman was guilty or not? If guilty, behold the curses writ against her: if not guilty, then behold they are blotted out. But Christ was assured, that those whom he was trying were not innocent: so he does not write and blot out, but writes and writes again.

V. He imitates the gesture of the priest, if it be true what the Jews report concerning it, and it is not unlikely, viz. that he first pronounced the curses; then made the woman drink; and after she had drunk, pronounced the same curses again. So Christ first stoops down and writes; then makes them as it were drink, in that searching reflection of his, "He that is without sin among you"; and then stoops down again and writes upon the earth.

Verse 9. 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.

[Being convicted by their own conscience.] Our Saviour had determined to shame these wicked men before the common people: and therefore adds that peculiar force and energy to what he said that they could not stand it out, but with shame and confusion drawing off and retiring, they confess their guilt before the whole crowd. A thing little less than miracle.

Verse 12. Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

[I am the light of the world.] "R. Biba Sangorius saith, Light is the name of the Messiah. As it is written, Light dwells with him," Daniel 2:22. We have the same passage in Bereshith Rabba; saving that the author of these words there is R. Abba Serongianus.

They were wont to adorn their Rabbins and doctors with swelling and magnificent titles of Lights.

"A tradition. His name is not R. Meir, but Nehorai. Why therefore is he called R. Meir? Because he enlightens the eyes of wise men by the traditions. And yet his name is not Nehorai neither, but R. Nehemiah. Why then is he called R. Nehorai? Because he enlightens the eyes of wise men by the traditions." O blessed luminaries without light! Begone, ye shades of night! for "the Sun of righteousness" hath now displayed himself.

- John Lightfoot