John 8 Bible Commentary

John Lightfoot’s Bible Commentary

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

13. The Pharisees therefore said unto him, Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true.

[Thou bearest record of thyself.] This and the following passages uttered in dispute, whether Christ was the light or no, bring to mind what was wont to be transacted amongst them in their witnessing about the appearance of the new moon. We have it in Rosh Hashanah.

I. It was to be attested before the Sanhedrim by two persons that they saw the new moon. So Christ mentions two witnesses attesting him to be the light, viz. the Father and himself, verse 18.

II. They did not allow the testimony about the new moon, unless from persons known to the Sanhedrim: or if they were unknown, there were those sent along with them from the magistracy of that city where they lived, that should attest their veracity. Compare verses 18, 19: "I bear witness of myself, and ye know me not. My Father also bears witness of me; but ye have not known my Father."

III. One witness is not to be believed in his own cause. So the Pharisees, verse 13, "Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true."

IV. The father and the son, or any sort of relatives, are fit and credible witnesses: verse 18; "I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me."

20. These words spake Jesus in the treasury, as he taught in the temple: and no man laid hands on him; for his hour was not yet come.

[In the treasury.] In the treasury, that is, in the Court of the Women; where he had transacted the matter about the woman taken in adultery. It was called the treasury upon the account of thirteen corban chests placed there. Of which we have spoken in another tract.

25. Then said they unto him, Who art thou? And Jesus saith unto them, Even the same that I said unto you from the beginning.

[The same that I said unto you from the beginning.] I. Amongst the several renderings of this place, this seems the most proper; The same that I said unto you from the beginning. So Genesis 43:18: The money the first time": and verse 20, We came indeed down at the first time to buy food.

The words thus rendered may refer to that full and open profession which our Saviour made of himself before the Sanhedrim, that he was 'the Son of God,' or 'the Messiah,' chapter 5: "Do you ask me who I am? I am the same that I told you from the beginning, when I was summoned to answer before the Sanhedrim."

II. However, I cannot but a little call to mind the common forms of speech used so much in the Jewish schools, the beginning and the end. Where, by the beginning they meant any thing that was chiefly and primarily to be offered and taken notice of: by the end what was secondary, or of less weight.

The question is, whether it were lawful for the priests to sleep in their holy vestments. The end or the secondary question was, whether it was lawful for them to sleep in them. But the beginning, or the thing chiefly and primarily to be discussed, was, whether it was lawful for them to have them on at all but in divine service. Hence the Gemarists, The tradition is, that they must not sleep in them, if you will explain the end [or secondary question]: but let them put them off and fold them up, and lay them under their heads [when they sleep]: this, 'the beginning' [or chief matter in hand] determines: that is, that it is not lawful for the priest so much as to wear his holy garments but when he is in holy service.

"It is a tradition of the Rabbins. If one, in walking near any city, see lights in it, if the greatest number in that city be Cuthites, let him not bless them; if they be most Israelites, let him bless it. They teach 'the beginning,' when they say, Most Cuthites. They teach 'the end,' when they say, Most Israelites." For the chief and principal scruple was, whether they should pronounce a blessing upon those lights when there might be most Cuthites in the city that lighted them up: the lesser scruple was, whether he should bless them if there were most Israelites in that city.

"There is a dispute upon that precept, Leviticus 17:13, If any one kill a beast or bird upon a holy day, the Shammean school saith, Let him dig with an instrument and cover the blood. The school of Hillel saith, Let him not kill at all, if he have not dust ready by him to cover the blood."

The end, or the secondary question, is about covering the blood if a beast should be killed. The beginning, or the principal question, is about killing a beast or a fowl at all upon a holy day, merely for the labour of scraping up dust, if there be none at hand.

There are numberless instances of this kind: and if our Saviour had any respect to this form or mode of speaking, we may suppose what he said was to this purpose: "You ask who I am? The beginning. That is the chief thing to be inquired into, which I now say, viz. That I am the light of the world, the Messiah, the Son of God, &c. But what works I do, what doctrines I teach, and by what authority, this is an inquiry of the second place, in comparison to that first and chief question, who I am."

26. I have many things to say and to judge of you: but he that sent me is true; and I speak to the world those things which I have heard of him.

[But he that sent me is true.] "I have many things to say and judge of you; but he that sent me hath of old said and judged of you; 'and he is true,' and they are true things which he hath said of you." Of this kind are those passages, Isaiah 11:10, "Make the heart of this people fat," &c.; and 29:10, "The Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep," &c.: and from such kind of predictions it is, that Christ concludes this concerning them, verse 21, "Ye shall die in your sins."

33. They answered him, We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?

[We be Abraham's seed, &c.] They were wont to glory of being Abraham's seed beyond all measure. Take one instance of a thousand:

"It is storied of R. Jochanan Ben Matthias, that he said to his son, 'Go out and hire us some labourers.' He went out and hired them for their victuals. When he came home to his father, his father said to him, 'My son, though thou shouldst make feasts for them, as gaudy as the feasts of Solomon, thou wouldst not do enough for them, because they are the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.'" And yet they confess "the merits of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ceased from the days of Hosea the prophet, as saith Rabh; or as Samuel, from the days of Hazael."

But how came they to join this, "We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man?" Is it impossible that one of Abraham's seed should be in bondage? The sense of these two clauses must be distinguished: "We are of the seed of Abraham, who are very fond and tenacious of our liberty; and as far as concerns ourselves, we never were in bondage to any man." The whole nation was infinitely averse to all servitude, neither was it by any means lawful for an Israelite to sell himself into bondage, unless upon the extremest necessity.

"It is not lawful for an Israelite to sell himself for that end merely, that he might treasure up the money, or might trade with it, or buy vessels, or pay a creditor; but barely if he want food and sustenance. Nor may he sell himself, unless when nothing in the world is left, not so much as his clothes, then let him sell himself. And he whom the Sanhedrim sells, or sells himself, must not be sold openly, nor in the public way, as other slaves are sold, but privately."

37. I know that ye are Abraham's seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you.

[But ye seek to kill me.] From this whole period it is manifest that the whole tendency of our Saviour's discourse is to shew the Jews that they are the seed of that serpent that was to bruise the heel of the Messiah: else what could that mean, verse 44, "Ye are of your father the devil," but this, viz. "Ye are the seed of the serpent?"

43. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word.

[Because ye cannot hear my word.] You may here distinguish between the manner of speaking, or phrases used in speech and the matter or thing spoken. Isaiah 11:4; "He shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth." But they could not bear the smart of his rod; they would not therefore understand the phraseology or way of speech he used.

44. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.

[A murderer from the beginning.] For so the Hebrew idiom would render he was a murderer from the days of the creation. And so Christ, in saying this, speaks according to the vulgar opinion, as if Adam fell the very first day of his creation.

[He abode not in the truth.] I. He abode not in the truth: i.e. he did not continue true, but found out the way of lying.

II. He did not persist in the will of God which he had revealed concerning man. For the revealed will of God is called truth; especially his will revealed in the gospel. Now when God had pleased to make known his good will towards the first man, partly fixing him in so honourable and happy a station, partly commanding the angels that they should minister to him for his good, Hebrews 1:14; the devil did not abide in this truth, nor persisted in this will and command of God. For he, envying the honour and happiness of man, took this command of God concerning the angels' ministering to him, in so much scorn and contempt, that, swelling with most envenomed malice against Adam, and infinite pride against God, he chose rather to dethrone himself from his own glory and felicity, than he would bear Adam's continuance in so noble a station, or minister any way to the happiness of it. An angel was incapable of sinning either more or less than by pride or malice.

48. Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?

[Thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil.] But what, I pray you, hath a Samaritan to do with the court of your Temple? For this they say to Christ whiles he was yet standing in the Treasury, or in the Court of the Women, verse 20. If you would admit a Samaritan into the court of the Gentiles, where the Gentiles themselves were allowed to come, it were much, and is indeed very questionable; but who is it would bear such a one standing in the Treasury? Which very thing shews how much this was spoken in rancour and mere malice, they themselves not believing, nay, perfectly knowing, that he was no Samaritan at that time when they called him so. And it is observable, that our Saviour made no return upon that senseless reproach of theirs, because he did not think it worth the answering: he only replies upon them, "that he hath not a devil," that is, that he was not mad.

57. Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?

[Thou art not yet fifty years old.] Apply these words to the time of superannuating the Levites, Numbers 4, and we shall find no need of those knots and difficulties wherewith some have puzzled themselves. Thou art not yet fifty years old, that is, Thou art not yet come to the common years of superannuation: and dost thou talk that "thou hast seen Abraham?"

58. Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.

[Before Abraham was, I am.] They pervert the question. Christ had said, 'Abraham saw my day': on the contrary, they ask him, 'Hast thou seen Abraham?'

This phrase, I am, sometimes is rendered from the single word I. So the Greek interpreters in the Books of Judges and Ruth: for you seldom or never meet with it elsewhere.

Judges 6:18; "I will tarry or sit here." Ibid. chapter 11:27; Wherefore I have not sinned against thee. Ibid. verse 35; For I have opened my mouth. Ibid. verse 37; I and my fellows. Ruth 4:4; I will redeem it.

As to this form of speech, let those that are better skilled in the Greek tongue be the judges.

59. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.

[Then took they up stones, &c.] Would you also murder another prophet in the very court of the Temple, O ye murderous generation? Remember but Zacharias, and surely that might suffice. But whence could they get stones in the court of the Temple? Let the answer be made from something parallel:

"It is storied of Abba Chalpatha, who, going to Rabban Gamaliel at Tiberias, found him sitting at the table of Jochanan the moneychanger, with the Book of Job in his hand Targumized [that is, rendered into the Chaldee tongue], and reading in it. Saith he to him, 'I remember your grandfather Rabban Gamaliel, how he stood upon Gab in the mountain of the Temple, and they brought unto him the Book of Job Targumized. He calls to the architect, saying, Ram him under the foundation.' R. Jose saith, They whelmed him under a heap of clay. Is there any clay in the mountain of the Temple?" Gloss: "There was mortar which they used in building."

It may be noted, by the by, that they were building in the Temple in the days of the first Gamaliel, who sat president in the Sanhedrim about the latter days of our Saviour; which confirms what I already have noted in chapter 2:20; and further teaches us whence they might have stones in readiness; for they were now building, and they might have pieces of stone enough there.