Patristic Evidence

Venerable Bede on John 8:1-11
(c. 700 A.D.)

Exerpt/Review of: M. Atherton, A Place for Mercy,
Some Allegorical Readings of the Woman Taken in Adultery Ciphers in the Sand (2000) pp. #105fwd

Page Index

Prologue: - Introduction to Bede

Excerpt: - Bede on John 8:1-11: from Atherton

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Bede (c. 673-735), the humane Northumbrian monk, historian, biblical scholar and poet, the most learned and prolific writer of Anglo-Saxon England and, indeed, the greatest scholar in Europe of his time.

His famous work, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which survives in over 130 English and continental manuscripts, was widely read and copied throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.
Written in the tradition of Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, its topic, the general history of the church in southern Britain from the Roman empire until his own time - treating in detail the story of the English Church following Pope Gregory's mission in 597 - is a masterly work of art, with a clear rhetorical purpose and an impressive array of documentary and oral sources. It remains to this day a major source for the history of England.

Thematically, Bede's E.H. derives from his biblical commentaries on the Acts, in which he was a pioneer, and from his work on the literal meaning and typological significance of the O.T. history.

In his commentaries and sermons, Bede adapted the patristic writings of Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome, as well as those of the 'Apostle of the English' Pope Gregory the Great.

On the strength of his exegetical works, later writers such as Alcuin, AElfric, Abelard and Dante regarded Bede as one of the Fathers of the Church.

Among his exegetical activities, Bede found time to compose two sets of homilies on the Gospels, to be read aloud at appointed times throughout the ecclesiastical year, either in the monastery church or in the refectory where the monks listened to edifying texts while taking their meals. Again his model was Gregory - in this case, his Forty Gospel Homilies - but Bede showed his originality by choosing to treat pericopes which had not been covered by the missionizing Pope.

These include the sermon for Lent on John 8:1-12, which will be considered in more detail below.


Bede's views can be seen as the product of an eclectic society: on the one hand a shame-based, highly traditional culture with an elaborate legal system based on compensation; on the other hand a Christianized (and in many ways monastically organized) society where chastity was admired and encouraged for it's own sake - even within marriage - but where (at least in Bede's day) punishments for adultery, though severe, were not harsh or brutal. Such an attitude must be borne in mind when considering Bede's Lenten homily on Jn 8:2-12; although the relative leniency of the time is not a sufficient explanation for Bede's exegesis, it remains constantly present as a backdrop to the interpretation he adopts.


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Bede on John 8:1-11

Exerpt/Review of: M. Atherton, A Place for Mercy,
Some Allegorical Readings of the Woman Taken in Adultery

Ciphers in the Sand (2000) pp. #105fwd

The Mount of Olives and Augustine's Oak

In the opening of his homily, Bede makes the following statement:

It is customary for the scriptures to signify the sort of things that are going to be told about later, sometimes by a circumstance of time, sometimes by a circumstance of place, and sometimes by both. So when the evangelist was about to refer to the tempering of the severity of the law by our Redeemer's mercy, he first mentioned that Jesus made his way to the Mount of Olives, and that at daybreak he came again to the temple.

(transl. Martin & Hurst 1991: 245)

As becomes clear later, the predominant message that Bede draws from his pericope - and repeats and develops thorughout his verse-by-verse exposition - is one of mercy. As he says when referring to the Mount of Olives but at the same time implying the whole of his exposition, his theme is 'the height of the Lord's benevolence and mercy'.

The crux of the homily is its comment on Jn 8:4-5: the woman's wicked accusers confront Jesus with a choice of two wrongs, by which, so it seems, he can only condemn himself. Bede presents the dilemma in a highly memorable and influential formulation, a double conditional sentence (i.e., with two if-clauses):

If he also determined that she was to be stoned they would scoff at him inasmuch as he had forgotten the mercy which he was always teaching; if he forbade stoning, they would gnash their teeth at him, and, as they saw it, rightly condemn him as a doer of wicked deeds contrary to the law. 1

(transl. Martin & Hurst)

Bede follows this with the image of a double-bind or 'catch' from which it seems that Jesus cannot escape. "From this side and that', Bede says, 'the scribes and Pharisees spread traps and snares for the Lord, supposing that in judging he would be either unmerciful or unjust' (p. 247). But, as Bede develops the exegesis at v. 7, Jesus 'foresaw their treachery, and as it were passed through the threads of their net', for his solution is both merciful and just: 'Do you want to hear about his restraint as he shows mercy? - "Let one who is without sin among you". Again, do you want to hear about his justice in judging? - "be the first to throw a stone at her".'

Since his pericope ends at v. 12, Bede regards Jesus subsequent speech 'I am the light of the world' as the coherent resolution to the episode. 'Far be it from blind wickedness,' he points out, 'to stand in the way of the Sun of justice to keep him from giving light to the world.'

As well as mercy, therefore, Bede's homily is also about Christ's power; as he writes on vv. 6-10:

It is good that he was bent over when he wrote on the ground [but] upright when he uttered the words of mercy, since through his unity with human infirmity he promised the gift of his benevolence, [but] through the power of his divine might he delivered it to human beings.

(transl. Martin & Hurst, pp. 249-50)

Allegory and typology are at work in this passage, above all in the semiotics of gesture. In particular, there is dialectic of distinctions made between stooping down and standing upright, between the longer action of writing and the single act of speaking, between human infirmity and power, between law and grace, judgment and mercy. Bede is concerned to bring out the full significance of the 'ciphers in the sand'. Writing with the finger represents 'subtlety of discernment' (p. 247); the writing on the ground allows time for a person to contemplate the 'ground' of his or her own heart first; it is also the means of recording the law, like the Ten Commandments written on stone (p. 249). IN addition writing records a promise, here in the 'promise of the gift of his benevolence', which is only delivered through the power of speech (p. 250). By contrast to the activity and record of writing, therefore, there is the act of speech, which theorists of orality have shown is more immediate, more concerned with human action and presence. In Bede, speech represents acts and gestures: acts of accusation, of judgment, of power, and in the end of forgiveness and mercy.

As Bede also makes clear, gestures of bodily movement accompanying the dialogue are a notable feature of the pericope itself, and he highlights Christ's sitting down to teach in v.2 and his twice-repeated actions of stooping down to write and standing up to speak (vv. 6-7,8,10). (Perhaps surprisingly, he makes no mention of the fact that the woman - in her status as the accused - remains standing throughout the encounter.) As Bede remarks earlier in the homily, Christ's sitting to teach represents typologically 'the humility of his incarnation' (p. 246). Similarly, Christ's stooping is associated with humility, but here has both a literal and a figurative meaning: literally he stooped down and looked away to give the tempters the opportunity to leave (p. 248); morally, tha action teaches people that they should first 'subject themselves to a suitably humble examination' before making any public judgments on others (p. 249). IN the passage just quoted, the gesture of bending down closer to the earth is again associated with Christ's unity with human infirmity, whereas his standing to utter the 'words of mercy' reflects his divine power and authority.

At the end of the homily, just before the closing exhortation, as he discusses Jesus' statement 'I am the light of the world', Bede closes the frame, drawing all his ideas together on the significance of setting, time and events in the interpretation of the story of the woman taken in adultery:

Here he clearly taught, not only by what authority he had forgiven the woman's sins, but also what he himself had expressed figuratively by making his way to the Mount of Olives, by coming again at daybreak to the temple, and by writing with his finger on the ground: that he himself is the summit of mercies and the God of all consolation, the herald as well as the bestower of unfaltering light, the source of the law as well as grace.

(transl. Martin & Hurst, pp. 249-50)

In this Lent homily then, we have a monastic sermon on the theme of enlightenment, the written promise of consolation and the spoken word of mercy. Despite its devotional tone, it nevertheless reveals something of Bede the historical writer, attaching psychological significance to the actions of characters and drawing out the wider importance of time and place. For the period in question Bede's homily is the only full and wide-ranging interpretation of the episode of the woman taken in adultery. Given the popularity and wide dissemination of Bede in the mediaeval period, his exegesis is a touchstone for the evaluation of later interpretations. The fact of Christ's mercy towards the woman remains a theme in later exegetes, but none emphasizes it quite as strongly as Bede."

- Atherton, A Place for Mercy

Original Footnotes:

1. Note the use of this passage in the Heliand II. 3856-62:

'The adversaries wished to catch him with words: if he said that they should allow her to live, and save her life, the people of the Jews would say that he contradicted the law of their ancestors, the legal code of the people; if he ordered the crowd to take the girl's life, then they would say that he did not bear in his heart the merciful attitude that the Son of God should have.'

Bede's text was transmitted in the 8th century directly in copies of his homilies, and indirectly in the work of Alcuin. It is interesting that the same text is used by the poet Otfrid of Weissenburg in his mid-9th century Old High German Life of Christ (ch. 17, II. 21-34; cf. Erdmann 1973: 132-33) and by the late 10th and early 11th century Old English homilist AElfric (cf. Supplementary Homily 13, in Pope 1967-68: 506, II. 206-211). The two if-clauses, used in a very similar way by all these writers, essentially prove the strength of Bede's influence.

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