Quo Vadis?

A Sermon on the Pericope Adulterae

by Michael Marlowe, 2004

The Quo Vadis story is one of those Legends of the Saints that are well-known to Catholics but practically unknown to Protestants. It is an ancient legend concerning Peter's martyrdom, believed to be from the second century, and preserved in the collection of legends included in the apocryphal Acts of Peter. George Edmundson in The Church in Rome in the First Century (London, 1913) summarizes the legend thus:

His friends, so runs the story, had entreated the Apostle to save his life by leaving the city. Peter at last consented, but on condition that he should go away alone. But when he wished to pass the gate of the city, he saw Christ meeting him. Falling down in adoration he says to Him 'Lord, whither goest Thou?' [Latin, quo vadis?] And Christ replied to him 'I am coming to Rome to be again crucified.' And Peter says to Him 'Lord, wilt Thou again be crucified?' And the Lord said to him 'Even so, I will again be crucified.' Peter said to Him 'Lord, I will return and will follow Thee.' And with these words the Lord ascended into Heaven . . . And Peter, afterwards corning to himself, understood that it was of his own passion that it had been spoken, because that in it the Lord would suffer. The Apostle then returned with joy to meet the death which the Lord had signified that he should die.

Regarding the authenticity of the story Edmundson says, "That it contains a story that is authentic in the sense of being based on events that really occurred is not improbable. The Peter described here is the Peter of the Gospels." Likewise J.B. Lightfoot in his Ordination Addresses and Counsel to Clergy (London, 1890) defended the authenticity of the story: "Why should we not believe it true? ... because it is so subtly true to character and because it is so eminently profound in its significance, we are led to assign to this tradition a weight which the external testimony in its favor would hardly warrant."

In this same manner the authenticity of the Story of the Adulteress has been maintained by some churchmen. Before its insertion into copies of the Gospel of John during the fourth century, this very popular story must have been transmitted in the same way that the Quo Vadis legend was transmitted, and there is nothing which can be said on its behalf which cannot also be said on behalf of the Quo Vadis legend. Yet because it obtained a place in medieval copies of John's Gospel, the Story of the Adulteress eventually attained to the status of Holy Scripture.

A similar case is the insertion of the Story of Susanna into the ancient Greek versions of Daniel. This apocryphal story—which has much in common with the Story of the Adulteress—was very popular among both Jews and Christians in the first century. It is a story about a woman who was accused of adultery by two men who were themselves exposed as sinners by the prophet Daniel. David A. deSilva theorizes that, among the Jews, Susanna was at first a "free-floating Hebrew story" about Daniel that "arose too late" to be included in the Hebrew text of Daniel. But the popularity of the story was such that it eventually was inserted into Greek versions of the book of Daniel in various places: between chapters 12 and 14 in the Septuagint, and at the beginning of the book in Theodotion's version [1] It then came to be regarded as an integral part of the canonical Daniel by many early Christians, and it continues to be regarded as such by Roman Catholics.

John Calvin, a great champion of the sola scriptura principle at the time of the Protestant Reformation, made the following remarks on the Story of the Adulteress in his commentary on John's Gospel:

It is plain enough that this passage was unknown anciently to the Greek Churches; and some conjecture that it has been brought from some other place and inserted here. But as it has always been received by the Latin Churches, and is found in many old Greek manuscripts, and contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit, there is no reason why we should refuse to apply it to our advantage.

Along the same line is the argument of a recent commentator, William Hendriksen. In his Exposition of the Gospel According to John (1953) he writes:

The story fits well into the present context ... Christ as pictured here (7:53-8:11) is entirely in character ... though it cannot now be proven that this story formed an integral part of the Fourth Gospel ... we believe ... that what is here recorded really took place, and contains nothing that is in conflict with the apostolic spirit. Hence instead of removing this section from the Bible it should be retained and used for our benefit. Ministers should not be afraid to base sermons on it!

In this way we go on, preaching as Scripture a passage which has no right to be presented as such, in the full knowledge of the fact that the story is absent from the early manuscripts. This is said to be "for our benefit." Yet the benefits of this passage are very doubtful.

The Story of the Adulteress is one of the most abused passages in all of Scripture. The climactic saying of the passage, "let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone," is the favorite text of those who refuse to repent of their sins and who will not hear a word of correction from Christian brothers. Such an attitude is actually encouraged by preachers who liken sharp criticism of sin to the stones of the Pharisees. What else can a preacher make of this passage in a day such as ours, after all stonings and all meaningful church discipline have ceased? Indeed, stonings had ceased even in the first century, when the right of the Jews to inflict capital punishment was taken away from them by the Roman authorities. It is useless to point out that "Go and sin no more" is tacked onto the end of the story after the impressive and dramatic climax of the story has done its work. This apocryphal story is the central text of our debased "pop Christianity" with its easy-believism and its cheap grace, and it is quite possible that it was added to Scripture in the fourth century with the very same thing in view — the discouragement of all meaningful church discipline.

It was during the fourth century that the Church was established as the official religious institution of the Empire, and was promptly overwhelmed by masses of unregenerate "converts." Many of those who had fallen away under the Diocletian Persecution were seeking readmission. It was during the fourth century that the Donatist controversy raged, in which decisions had to be made concerning the treatment of the traditores who had denied the faith under persecution and who had surrendered their copies of the Bible to be burned. The Donatists said that church leaders who had done this were never again to be trusted, and in general they tried to maintain the strict church discipline of former times, against the liberalizing trends of the fourth century; but in general the church was becoming worldly now, and increasingly lax in maintaining moral discipline. Under the patronage of Constantine the bishops in the larger cities lived like secular princes. Many people who perceived that the broad Church was being seriously corrupted began to organize themselves into fraternities apart, and this was the beginning of the monastic orders — but the Donatists rejected this course and aimed to purify the Church itself. Constantine tried to suppress them by force. They were called schismatics, and even branded as heretics, for trying to enforce church discipline. Augustine, the famous Bishop of Hippo, wrote several treatises against their attempt to purify the Church, and maintained that the Church was rightly a mixture of "wheat and tares." At the beginning of the fifth century the Donatist movement was finally stamped out. This is what was going on in the Church during the time when the Story of the Adulteress was inserted into John's Gospel. As Raymond Brown observes, "It was only when a more liberal penitential practice was firmly established that this story received wide acceptance." [2]

In discussions of the text-critical issue here, one often sees the opinion of Augustine quoted. In a treatise entitled De Adulterinis Conjugiis ("On Adulterous Marriages") written at the beginning of the fifth century, Augustine wrote, "Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord's act of forgiveness toward the adulteress," and this explanation for the absence of the passage from early manuscripts is apparently held to be credible by some. [3] But surely Augustine's explanation is not based upon any real knowledge of the matter. He says, "I suppose" (credo). How could he possibly have any information about the supposed motives of the scribe of Papyrus 66, which predates Augustine's treatise by two centuries? But in any case, Augustine's own motives are clear enough, because in De Adulterinis Conjugiis his purpose is to defend his sacramental view of marriage, in which a marriage bond is held to be indissoluble even after the wife has committed adultery, indeed even if she continues in this sin without repentance. Augustine maintains that the Story of the Adulteress shows that the husband must forgive it. The husband is eternally bound to her, Augustine says, and if he divorces her and marries another, he is an adulterer. The defense of this extravagant teaching is the occasion, then, for his appeal to the Story of the Adulteress, and he calls those who rejected it inimici verae fidei, "enemies of the true faith." It is yet another example of how the story has lent itself to abuse, in support of unbiblical teachings and practices.

The comparison with the Quo Vadis legend is instructive in more ways than one. This old legend about Peter's martyrdom is a testimony to the earlier and far better days of the Church, in the second and third centuries, when the Church was truly a fellowship of the martyrs. As Peter flees from his appointment with the cross Jesus meets him on the road and causes him to remember the words, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." (Mark 8:34) This is the true apostolic spirit. But now we are done with all that, and the church is filled with adultery.

The ministers of Christ and stewards of the Word of God should consider this matter carefully. An adulterated Scripture goes hand-in-hand with an adulterated Church.

1. David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), pp. 235-6. deSilva also observes that "There are many folktales of 'the innocent woman falsely accused' and of 'the young, intelligent judge,'" citing M. Delcor, Le livre de Daniel (Paris: Gabalda, 1971), p. 277. The major difference between Susanna and the Story of the Adulteress is that Susanna was innocent, but it may well be that the "Adulteress" was also innocent in an earlier form of the story. Eusebius, in his Church History, probably refers to such an early form of the story when he relates that Papias (who is said to be a disciple of the Apostle John) "put forth another history concerning a woman accused of many sins before the Lord; and this history is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews" (iii. 39). We can well imagine some Jewish Christian adapting the Jewish folktale to Christian purposes by making Christ fill the role played by Daniel in the Story of Susanna. For the similarities with Susanna in the Greek Daniel see Frederick A. Schilling, "The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress," Anglican Theological Review 37 (1955), pp. 91-106.

2. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), in the Anchor Bible series (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 335.

3. "Adulterous Marriages," translated by Charles T. Huegelmeyer, Book 2, § 7, in The Fathers of the Church: Saint Augustine: Treatises on Marriage and Other Subjects (New York: Catholic University of America Press, 1955), p. 107. The original Latin text of De Adulterinis Conjugiis Book 2 §§ 6 and 7 from the Nuova Biblioteca Agostiniana series reads as follows:

    Quod autem tibi durum videtur, ut post adulterium reconcilietur coniugi coniux, si fides adsit, non erit durum. Cur enim adhuc deputamus adulteros, quos vel baptismate ablutos vel paenitentia credimus esse sanatos? Haec crimina in vetere Dei lege nullis sacrificiis mundabantur, quae Novi Testamenti sanguine sine dubitatione mundantur; et ideo tunc omni modo prohibitum est ab alio contaminatam viro recipere uxorem; quamvis David Saulis filiam, quam pater eiusdem mulieris ab eo separatam dederat alteri, tamquam Novi Testamenti praefigurator sine cunctatione receperit. Nunc autem posteaquam Christus ait adulterae: Nec ego te damnabo; vade, deinceps iam h noli peccare; quis non intellegat debere ignoscere maritum, quod videt ignovisse Dominum amborum, nec se iam debere adulteram dicere, cuius paenitentis crimen divina credit miseratione deletum?

    Sed hoc videlicet infidelium sensus exhorret, ita ut nonnulli modicae fidei vel potius inimici verae fidei, credo, metuentes peccandi impunitatem dari mulieribus suis, illud, quod de adulterae indulgentia Dominus fecit, auferrent de codicibus suis, quasi permissionem peccandi tribuerit qui dixit: Iam deinceps noli peccare, aut ideo non debuerit mulier a medico Deo illius peccati remissione sanari, ne offenderentur insani. Neque enim quibus illud factum Domini displicet, ipsi pudici sunt et eos severos castitas facit; sed potius ex illo sunt hominum numero, quibus Dominus ait: Qui sine peccato est vestrum, prior in eam lapidem iaciat. Nisi quod illi conscientia territi recesserant et temptare Christum atque adulteram persequi destiterunt; isti autem et aegroti medicum reprehendunt et in adulteras adulteri saeviunt: quibus si diceretur, non quod illi audierunt: Qui sine peccato est (quis enim sine peccato?) sed: Qui sine isto peccato est, prior in illam lapidem mittat; tum vero forsitan cogitarent, qui indignabantur, quod adulteram non occiderant i, quanta illis misericordia Dei parceretur, ut adulteri viverent.