Patristic Evidence

Ambrose on John 8:1-11 (375-397 A.D.)

Exerpted from: Ambrose, Epistles 25, 26

Page Index

Last Updated: Feb 19, 2009

Section 1: - Introduction to Saint Ambrose

Section 2: Apologia David altera ("A Second Defense of David"), Ambrose (388 A.D.)
    Introduction: to Apologia David altera - background & date
      English Text: Apologia David altera , Ambrose (388 A.D.)
      Latin Text: Apologia David altera , Ambrose (388 A.D.)

Section 3: Epistle 25 - Ambrose on Jn 8:1-11
Section 4: Epistle 26 - Ambrose on Jn 8:1-11 (continued):

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to Ambrose

Background (source: Wikipedia)

Ambrose was a citizen of Rome, born about 337-340 A.D. in Trier, Germany, into a Christian family. He was the son of a praetorian prefect of Gallia Narbonensis; his mother was a woman of intellect and piety.

After the early death of his father, Ambrose followed his father's career. He was educated in Rome, studying literature, law, and rhetoric. Praetor Anicius Probus first gave him a place in the council and then in about 372 A.D. made him consular prefect of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan, which was then beside Rome the second capital in Italy.

Bishop of Milan

(St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbaran: ) "There was a deep conflict in the diocese of Milan as well as the rest of the Church between the Trinitarians and the Arians. In 374 A.D., Auxentius, bishop of Milan, died, and the Arians challenged the succession.

Ambrose' speech was interrupted by a call "Ambrose for bishop!" which was taken up by others upon which he was univocally elected bishop.

Ambrose was a likely candidate in this situation, because he was known to be faithful to the authentic teaching of the Church, but also acceptable to Arians due to the charity shown in theological matters in this regard.

At first he energetically refused the office. Only by intervention of the emperor he gave in and within a week received baptism and ordination and was duly installed as bishop of Milan.

As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, donating all of his land, making only provision for his sister Marcellina, and committed the care of his family to his brother.

Against the Arians

Although the western Emperor Gratian held orthodox belief in the Nicene creed, the younger Valentinian, who became his colleague in the empire, adhered to the Arian creed.

Two leaders of the Arians, bishops Palladius and Secundianus, confident of numbers, prevailed upon Emperor Gratian to call a general council from all parts of the empire. However, Ambrose feared the consequences and prevailed upon the emperor to have the matter determined by a council of the Western bishops.

Accordingly, a synod composed of 32 bishops was held at Aquileia in the year 381 A.D. . Ambrose was elected president and Palladius, being called upon to defend his opinions, declined. A vote was then taken, when Palladius and Secundianus were deposed from the episcopal office.

Ambrose and the Emperors

In 386 A.D. the emperor and his mother Justina, along with a considerable number of clergy and laity, especially military, professed the Arian faith. They attempted to turn over two churches in Milan to the Arians. Ambrose refused.

His eloquence in defense of the Church reportedly overawed the ministers of Emperor Valentinian, so he was permitted to retire without surrendering the churches. The next day when he was performing divine service, the city prefect came to persuade him to give up at least one church. As he still continued obstinate, the officers of the household were commanded to prepare the Basilica and the Portian churches to perform service upon the arrival of the emperor and his mother at the Easter festival.

The imperial court was displeased with the religious principles of Ambrose, however his aid was soon needed by the Emperor. When Magnus Maximus usurped the supreme power in Gaul, and was meditating a descent upon Italy, Valentinian sent Ambrose to dissuade him from the undertaking, and the embassy was successful.

On a second attempt Ambrose was again employed although he was unsuccessful and Milan was taken. Justina and her son fled; but Ambrose remained at his post.

Against the Pagans

Ambrose was equally zealous in combating the resistance of the upholders of the old state religion to the enactments of Christian emperors. The pagan party was led by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, consul in 391 A.D., who presented to Valentinian II a petition for the restoration of the Altar of Victory to its ancient station in the hall of the Roman Senate, the proper support of seven Vestal Virgins, and other pagan ceremonies.

To this petition Ambrose replied in a letter to Valentinian, arguing that

  • the devoted worshipers of idols had often been forsaken by their deities;
  • that the native valour of the Roman soldiers had gained their victories, and not the pretended influence of pagan priests;
  • that these idolatrous worshipers requested for themselves what they refused to Christians;
  • that voluntary was more honourable than constrained virginity;
  • that as the Christian ministers declined to receive temporal emoluments, they should also be denied to pagan priests;
  • that it was absurd to suppose that God would inflict a famine upon the empire for neglecting to support a religious system contrary to His will as revealed in the Holy Scriptures;
  • that the whole process of nature encouraged innovations, and that all nations had permitted them even in religion;
  • that heathen sacrifices were offensive to Christians;
  • and that it was the duty of a Christian prince to suppress pagan ceremonies.

In the epistles of Symmachus and of Ambrose both the petition and the reply are preserved.

To support the logic of his argument, Ambrose halted the celebration of the Eucharist, essentially holding the Christian community hostage, until Theodosius agreed to abort the investigation without requiring reparations to be made by the bishop.

Many circumstances in the history of Ambrose are characteristic of the general spirit of the times. The chief causes of his victory over his opponents were his great popularity and the reverence paid to the episcopal character at that period. But it must also be noted that he used several indirect means to obtain and support his authority with the people.

He was liberal to the poor; it was his custom to comment severely in his preaching on the public characters of his times; and he introduced popular reforms in the order and manner of public worship.

His spiritual successor, Augustine, whose conversion was helped by Ambrose's sermons, owes more to him than to any writer except Paul.

(exerpted from Wikipedia:

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Introduction to
Apologia David Altera

Introductory Notes:

The work entitled Apologia David altera ("A Second Defense of David) may be one of the earliest citations of John 8:1-11 by Ambrose:

"Ambrose's name has also been attached to writings of considerably less renown, such as... 'A Second Defense of David' (Apologia David altera), which was intended to serve as a companion piece to the Defense of the Prophet David...

- Boniface Ramsey, Ambrose (1997, Routledge), p. 66

Date of Origin:

Apologia prophetae David ad Theodosium Augustum. - A number of these addresses were delivered, it would seem, about a.d. 384, which are also quoted by St. Augustine.

- Translator's Preface, NICENE AND POST-NICENE FATHERS Vol X, Ambrose

Erasmus, the Dutch humanist and theologian (c. 1500), appears to have suspected that this work was not by Ambrose, but recent work has uncovered more evidence for its authenticity.

In this vein, one can examine the 1996 publication, Septuaginta. Libri sacri della diaspora giudaica e dei cristiani. Atti della giornata di studio, 13 maggio 1997, from Annali di scienze religiose.

There, Guiseppe Visoni, in his contributing 1997 article, suggests a date of 388 A.D. as the date of the Apologia prophetae David (the more famous work): It is anyway to be dated between May 387 and August 388, with the Apologia altera (the 2nd Defence) preceding that date. The date for the 2nd work (Altera) is based upon a careful study of sections 12-14, which connects it to Ambrosian literary production.

That research had two main aims: on one hand, it intends to strengthen the thesis of the always discussed Ambrosian authenticity of the Apologia David altera, on the other hand, it wants to test the prevailing tendency within the recent critical studies to relate one or both Ambrose's Apologiae directly to the events which, during the years 388-390, caused disagreement between the Bishop and Theodosius; particularly, the Callinicus' synagogue fire and the so-called Thessalonica slaughter (390).

(see: Guiseppe Visoni, Ambrogio Teodosio Davide. Note sull'Apologia prophetae David e sulla Apologia David altera di sant'Ambrogio, , p. 257).

W. L. Petersen seems to date Ambrose as writing at about 378 A.D.:

"Ambrose of Milan (c. 378 C.E.) knows the passage, quotes snippets of it ("Let him who is without sin..."; the woman is an "adulteress"), but never indicates where he found the story. He provides an important insight into the reception of the episode when he remarks that some were disturbed by it, because Jesus did not condemn the adulteress."

(W.L. Petersen, OUDE EGW SE [KATA]KRINW , John 8:11,
The Protevangelium Iacobi, and the History of the Pericope Adulterae
(book:) Sayings of Jesus: Canonical & Non-Canonical,
Essays in honour of Tjitze Barrda
Ed. Petersen, Vos, Jonge (1997,Brill)

- but Petersen appears to be in significant error on at least two accounts:

(1) 378 A.D. appears only to be the start of Ambrose's famous public career. It is unlikely Ambrose wrote these sermons so early in his career as bishop. The date of the translator of the Schaff edition is probably more accurate (e.g. c. 382 A.D.).

(2) Petersen says Ambrose "never indicates where he found the story."
But this is blatantly false. In Epistle 26 Ambrose plainly says,

"...very famous has been this acquittal of that woman who in the Gospel according to John was brought to Christ accused of adultery. ..."

- Epistle 26: para. 2 (see below)

Clearly Ambrose had no doubt as to where he found the passage, and quotes it unhesitatingly as Holy Scripture to support his arguments (as does his successor and disciple Augustine). There is little doubt that Petersen also knew full well of Ambrose's statement here.

(A review of Petersen's work can be found here:

Petersen on John 8:1-11 <-- Click here.)

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Text (English)
Apologia David Altera

On the other hand, Z. C. Hodges gives the most complete quotation/reference for Ambrose in this work:

"That the passage created sensitivity in very early times is manifest from the comments by Ambrose (ca.397):

'At the same time also the Gospel which has been covered, could produce extraordinary anxiety in the inexperienced, in which you have noticed an adulteress presented to Christ and also dismissed without condemnation
How indeed could Christ err? It is not right that this should come into our mind...'

- Ambrose, Apologia David Altera49

"But obviously it did come into some minds, as Ambrose's cautionary remarks make perfectly plain. In this light it is strange indeed that modern criticism has been reluctant to acknowledge that a perfectly obvious motive existed in antiquity which could tempt toward the excision of a passage viewed by some as scandalous.

To assert that such an excision could not have occurred would be a proposition no one could logically defend. But if it did occur - and at a very early date - then the data of both manuscripts, versions, and Fathers is not at all difficult to understand. "

49. Ambrose, "Apologia David altera" (1.1, 3), in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, vol. 32: S. Ambrosii Opera, Part 2, ed. Carolus Schenkl (Vindobonae: F. Tempsky, 1887), pp 359-60.

- Z. C. Hodges, Problem Passages in the Gospel of John Part 8:
The Woman taken in Adultery (John 7: 53- 8:11) :
The Text,
BSac 136 (1979) pp.318-332

Hodges gives an outside date of 397 A.D., however, this is simply the date of Ambrose's death!
A review of Hodges' work is available here:

Hodges on John 8:1-11 <-- Click here.

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Text (Latin)
Apologia David Altera

Full Latin Text:


Caput I

Fortasse plerosque psalmi titulus offenderit, quem audistis legi; quod venerit ad David Nathan propheta, cum intravit ad Bethsabee: simulque etiam non mediocrem scrupalum movere potuit imperitis Evangelii lectio (Joan.VIII, 11), quae decursa est, in quo advertistis adulteram Christo oblatam, eamdemque sine damnatione dimissam.

Nam profecto si quis ea auribus accipiat otiosis, incentivum erroris incurrit, cum leget sancti viri adulterium, et adulterae absolutionem; humano propemodum divinoque lapsus exemplo, quod et homo putaverit adulterium esse faciendum, et Deus censuerit adulterium non esse damnandum. Lubrica igitur ad lapsum via vel veniae, vel concupiscentiae.

Accedit illud, quod ipsas faces juvenilis lasciviae videtur accendere; quia adulterium suum non erubuerit, non celaverit: sed quadam divini carminis praedicatione vulgarit. Quid ergo tam impudens, tam improvidus sanctus David fuit, ut ipse suum cantaret opprobrium: maxime cum ipse in alio quoque, qui hodie decursus est, psalmo dixerit:

Usquequo peccatores, Domine, usqueque peccatores gloriabuntur?

(Psal. XCIII, 3)

Alios de peccato gloriari prohibet, et ipse etiam sacrato carmine gloriatur. Quomodo igitur ista distinguimus?

Esto tamen, David petulanter erraverit: numquid et Christus erravit, ut putemus eum non rectum habuisse judicium? Bene ergo quasi ad eos David hodie prophetavit dicens:

Intelligite, insipientes, et stulti aliquando sapite (Ibid., 8).

Quomodo enim Christus potuit errare? Fas non est ut hoc veniat in sensus nostros.

Qui plantavit aurem non audit: aut qui finxit oculum, non considerat? Qui corripit gentes, non arguet: qui docet hominem scientiam? (Ibid., 9 et 10)

Christus ergo interrogare culpam, et accusationem justam audire nescivit? Christus petulantiam potuit approbare? Christus qui corripit gentes, arguendam adulteram non putavit? Christus qui novit uniuscujusque cordis interna, et scientiam docet Legis, aut falli potuit errato, aut contra Legis seriem judicare? Et quodomo ipse dixit:

Non veni Legem solvere, sed adimplere? (Matt. V, 17)

Christus qui condemnat occulta, potuit dissimulare vulgata? Christus qui fecit tempora, potest nescire tempora? Qui novit cogitationes hominum vanas, non novit etiam criminosas?

Et ideo satis illis responsum sit, qui cum creatorem negare non possint, negant tamen potentiam creatoris: qui cum sapientiam fateantur, insipientiam asserunt, objeciendo ei imprudentiam futurorum. De quo possemus latius dicere: sed alius propositus nobis videtur esse tractatus. Et licet diversarum series decursa sit lectionum, in eamdem tamen assertionem proficiunt, et maxime psalmi titulus et Evangelica lectio. Sed quamvis conveniat una assertio, tamen juxta ordinem lectionum sit ordo tractatus; et ideo de titulo psalmi prius tractandum videtur.

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Ambrose on John 8:1-11
Epistle 25


The following translations have been taken off the internet and reformatted for ease of reading.

As remarked by Dean Burgon (1886), Ambrose quotes the Pericope de Adultera at least nine times, which he gives (referring to the translation available then) as: (Ambrose:) i. 291, 692, 707, 1367: ii. 668, 894, 1082: iii. 892-3, 896-7.

As one poster in INT.INF remarked: "The references to the pericope extend well beyond the standard verses given in Latin" in most textual critical handbooks. And much can be learned from a more detailed and extensive set of quotations. We can see better the text Ambrose used, and detect instances of paraphrasing, as well as get a deeper insight into the authority and interpretation of the author and his contemporaries.

Ambrose, Epistle 25

[ ¶ 2.] ...But although you knew this, it was not without reason that you have thought fit to make the enquiry. For some there are, although out of the pale of the Church, who will not admit to the divine Mysteries those who have deemed it right to pass sentence of death on any man. Many too abstain of their own accord, and are commended, nor can we ourselves but praise them, although we so far observe the Apostle's rule as not to dare to refuse them Communion.

[ ¶ 3.] You see therefore both what power your commission gives you, and also whither mercy would lead you; you will be excused if you do it, and praised if you do it not. Should you feel unable to do it, and are unwilling to afflict the criminal by the horrors of a dungeon, I shall, as a priest, the more commend you. For it may well be that when the cause is heard, the criminal may be reserved for judgment, who afterwards may ask for pardon for himself, or at any rate may suffer what is called mild confinement in prison. Even heathen are, I know, wont to boast that they have borne back their axes from their provincial government unrestored by blood. And if heathen do this what ought Christians to do?

The Pericope de Adultera (Jn 8:1-11)

[ ¶ 4.] But in all these matters let our Saviour's answer suffice for you:

The Jews apprehended an adultress and brought her to the Saviour (8:3), with the insidious intent that if He were to acquit her He might seem to destroy the law (8:6), though He had said, "I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil the law" ( ), and on the other hand, were He to condemn her, He might seem to be acting against the purpose of His coming.

Wherefore the Lord Jesus, (foreseeing this,) stooped down and wrote upon the earth. (Jn 8:6b)

...And what did He write but that word of the prophet, 'O Earth, Earth, Write these men deposed' (Jer ), which is spoken of Jeconiah in the prophet Jeremiah.

[ ¶ 5.] When the Jews interrupt Him, their names are written in the earth; [but] when the Christians draw near, the names of the faithful are written not on the earth but in heaven. For they who tempt their Father, and heap insult on the Author of salvation, are written on the earth as cast off by their Father.

When the Jews interrupt Him, (Jesus stoops His head, but not having anywhere to lay His head), He rises again, ( about to give sentence,) and says, "Let him that is without sin cast the first stone at her." And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. [ ¶ 6.] When they heard this they began to go out one by one, beginning at the eldest,

(Jn 8:7-9a)

...and this either because they who had lived longest had committed most sins, or because, as being most sagacious, they were the first to comprehend the force of His sentence, and though they had come as the accusers of another's sins, began rather to lament their own.

[ ¶ 7.] So when they departed Jesus was left alone, and ...lifting up His head, He said to the woman, "Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?"
She said, "No man, Lord." And Jesus said unto her, "Neither do I condemn thee, go, and sin no more." (Jn 8:9b-11).

Being the Redemption, He refuses to condemn her, being the Life He restores her, being the Fountain He washes her. And since Jesus, when He stoops down stoops that He may raise up the fallen, He says, as the Absolver of sins, "Neither do I condemn thee."


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Epistle 26

Ambrose, Epistle 26

[ ¶ 1.] Although in my previous letter I have resolved the question which you proposed to me, I will not refuse your request, my son, that I would somewhat more fully state and express my meaning.

[ ¶ 2.] Much agitated has ever been the question, and very famous has been this acquittal of that woman who in the Gospel according to John was brought to Christ accused of adultery.

The stratagem which the equivocating Jews devised was this, that in case of the Lord Jesus acquitting her contrary to the Law, His sentence might be convicted of being at variance with the Law, but if she were to be condemned according to the Law, the Grace of Christ might seem to be made void.

[ ¶ 3.] And still more heated has the discussion become, since the time that bishops have begun to accuse those guilty of the most heinous crimes before the public tribunals, and some even to urge them to the use of the sword and of capital punishment, while others again approve of such kind of accusations and of blood-stained triumphs of the priesthood.

For those men say just the same as did the Jews, that the guilty ought to be punished by the public laws, and therefore that they ought also to be accused by the priests before the public tribunals, who, they assert, ought to be punished according to the laws.

The case is the same, though the number is less, that is to say, the question as to judgment is similar, the odium of the punishment is dissimilar. the Christ would not permit even one woman to be punished according to the Law; they assert that too small a number has been punished.

....But now let us come to the absolution of the woman taken in adultery.

[ ¶ 11.] A woman accused of adultery was brought by the Scribes and Pharisees to the Lord Jesus (Jn 8:3a) with the malicious intent, that, if He was to acquit her, He might seem to annul the Law, if He condemned her, that He might seem to have changed the purpose of His coming, since He came to remit the sins of all men.

To the same issue above He said further on, "I judge no man." (Jn 8:15)

So when they brought her they said, "This woman was taken in adultery, in the very act; now Moses in the Law commanded us that such should be stoned, but what sayest Thou?" (Jn 8:3b-5)

[ ¶ 12.] While they were saying this,

Jesus stooped down and wrote with His finger on the ground. And as they (waited for His answer), He lifted up His head and said, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." (Jn 8:6b-7)

What can be more Divine than this sentence, that he should punish sins who is himself free from sin? For how can we endure one who takes vengeance on guilt in another and excuses it in himself? When a man condemns in another what he commits himself, does he not rather pronounce his own condemnation?

[ ¶ 13.] Thus He spake, and wrote upon the ground. (Jn 8:8)

What then did He write? This: "Thou beholdest the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye." (Matt. 7:3) For lust is like a mote, it is quickly kindled, quickly consumed; the sacrilegious perfidy which led the Jews to deny the Author of their salvation declared the magnitude of their crime.

[ ¶ 14.] He wrote upon the ground with the finger (Jn 8:6b) with which He had written the Law. Sinners names are written in the earth (Num 5), those of the just in heaven, as He said to His disciples, "Rejoice, because your names are written in heaven." (Luke 10:20) And He wrote a second time (Jn 8:8), that you may know that the Jews were condemned by both Testaments.

[ ¶ 15.] When they heard these words they went out one after another, beginning at the eldest, (and sat down thinking upon themselves.) And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. (Jn 8:9b)

It is well said that they went out who chose not to be with Christ. Without is the letter, within are the mysteries. For in the Divine lessons they sought, as it were, after the leaves of trees, and not after the fruit; they lived in the shadow of the Law, and could not discern the Sun of Righteousness.

[ ¶ 16.] (Finally, when they departed) Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. (Jn 8:9b)

Jesus about to remit sin remains alone, as He says Himself, "Behold the hour cometh, yea is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave Me alone; (Jn 16:32a) for it was no messenger, no herald, but the Lord Himself Who saved His people. He remains alone, because in the remission of sins no man can participate with Christ. This is the gift of Christ alone, Who took away the sins of the world. (Jn 1:29) The woman too was counted worthy to be absolved, seeing that, on the departure of the Jews, she remained, alone with Jesus. (Jn 8:9b-10a)

[ ¶ 17.] Then Jesus lifted up His (head), and said to the woman, "Where are those thine accusers, hath no man condemned thee?"

She said, "No man, Lord."

And Jesus said unto her, "Neither do I condemn thee, go, and sin no more." (Jn 8:10-11)

See, O reader, these Divine mysteries, and the mercy of Christ. When the woman is accused, Christ stoops His head, but when the accusers retire He lifts it up again; thus we see that He would have no man condemned, but all absolved.

[ ¶ 18.] By the words, "Hath no man condemned thee?" He quickly overthrows all the quibbles of heretics, who say that Christ knows not the day of judgment.

He Who says, "But to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give", says also in this place, "Hath no man condemned thee?"

How is it that He asks concerning that which He indeed saw? It is for our sakes that He asks, that we might know the woman was not condemned. And such is the way of the human mind, often to enquire concerning that which we know.

The woman too answered, "No man, Lord", which is to say, "Who can condemn when Thou dost not condemn?" Who can punish another under such a condition as Thou hast attached to his sentence?

[ ¶ 19.] The Lord answered her, "Neither do I judge thee."[!] Observe how He has modified His own sentence; that the Jews might have no ground of allegation against Him for the absolution of the woman, but by complaining only draw down a charge upon themselves; for the woman is dismissed not absolved; and this because there was no accuser, not because her innocence was established. How then could they complain, who were the first to abandon the prosecution of the crime, and the execution of the punishment?

[ ¶ 20.] Then He said to her who had gone astray, "Go, and sin no more." He reformed the criminal, He did not absolve the sin. Faults are condemned by a severer sentence, whenever a man hates his own sin, and begins the condemnation of it in himself.

When the criminal is put to death, it is the person rather than the trangression which is punished, but when the transgression is forsaken, the absolution of the person becomes the punishment of the sin.

What is the meaning then of, "Go, and sin no more"? It is this; Since Christ hath redeemed thee, suffer thyself to be corrected by Grace; punishment would not reform but only afflict thee. Farewell, my son, and love me as a son, for I on my part love you as a parent.