The following is from Father Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary on The Gospel Of St John, written in late 16th-early 17th century.
Joh 8:1 And Jesus went unto mount Olivet.
On the last day of the Feast Jesus had taught in the temple, and confuted the Pharisees, while they, after their wont, returned home to a sumptuous banquet. But no one showed hospitality to Jesus for fear of the rulers and Pharisees. He went therefore probably to Gethsemane, to continue there all night in prayer (see Joh_18:1-2, and Mat_26:36). Food was either secretly sent Him by Martha from Bethany, or bought by the disciples at Jerusalem. He selected this spot as His nightly refuge, or rather His place of prayer, six months before His death, and used to retire there to pray by night (see Mat_26:36). The Mount of Olives was a type of Christ’s sorrow, when He there prayed for the pardon of sinners: as the feast of tabernacles signified that He and His people are but strangers and pilgrims here, on their way to their heavenly country, travelling from the wealthy and splendid city Jerusalem, to the mountain of heavenly refreshment.
Joh 8:2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple: and all the people came to him. And sitting down he taught them.
He gave the night to prayer, the day to teaching, setting an example to apostolic men, as S. Paul, S. Francis Xavier, and others.
Joh 8:3 And the scribes and Pharisees bring unto him a woman taken in adultery: and they set her in the midst,
Joh 8:4 And said to him: Master, this woman was even now taken in adultery.
Joh 8:5 Now Moses in the law commanded us to stone such a one. But what sayest thou?
But the Scribes and Pharisees brought unto Him a woman taken in adultery, &c. Now Moses in the Law commanded us that such should be stoned. This story is not found in the Greek Fathers, but as it is found in the Vulgate and thus approved by the Council of Trent, Cornelius à Lapide regards it as canonical.
Here note that the Mosaic law ordered adulteresses to be killed. But the rulers ordered them to be stoned, according to the Rabbinical tradition. For the Law ordered a betrothed woman should be stoned, if she had committed adultery, and thence the Scribes extended this punishment to an adulterous wife. But the punishment of stoning (Lev_20:10) is to be extended to all the cases mentioned in that chapter. (See also Eze_16:38-40.) And this is clear from the History of Susanna, where, by the law of requital, her false accusers were stoned. This was also the punishment of adulteresses in many heathen nations. (See notes on Gen_38:24, and Num. v. ad fin.)
Joh 8:6 And this they said tempting him, that they might accuse him. But Jesus bowing himself down, wrote with his finger on the ground.
Ver. 6.—This they said, tempting Him, that they might have to accuse Him, as being opposed to the law, if He said that she was not to be stoned, but as cruel and harsh if He said otherwise. But they rather supposed He would not order her to be stoned, “in order to keep up His appearance of gentleness, and not to lose the favour of the people.” So Rupertus, Bede, and S. Augustine, who says, “They saw that He was very gentle; they said therefore among themselves, If He rules that she be let go, He will not observe that righteousness which the Law enjoins. But not to lose His (character for) gentleness, by which He has already won the love of the people, He will say that she ought to be released. And we shall hence find occasion to accuse Him. But the Lord in His answer both observed justice, and did not forego His gentleness.” They thought to accuse Him of violating the law by her acquittal, and would say to Him, says S. Augustine, “Thou art an enemy of the law, thou judgest contrary to Moses, or rather against Him who gave the law. Thou art guilty of death, and must be stoned together with her.”
But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground. To turn away His face, not so much from the adulteress as from her accusers, as if to say, “Why do ye bring her before Me, who am not a civil judge, but the physician and Saviour of sinners?” So S. Augustine. Some Greek MSS. add μὴ πζοσποιούμενος, not attending to them and their accusations. Though Toletus and others translate, “not pretending, but really writing on the ground.” Either meaning is suitable.
(2.) Christ refers to Jer 17:1. “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond,” and as S. Augustine, S. Jerome and others say more fittingly on verse 13, “They that depart from thee, shall be written in the earth.” Jeremiah has here painted you, 0 Scribes, to the life. Ye accuse this adulteress, but ye have committed greater sins than hers; ye deserve punishment rather than she doth; ye deserve to be stoned more than she does, even to be cast into hell. For your sins of rebellion, unbelief, obstinacy, and persecution against Me are indelible, written as it were with a pen of iron, and the point of a diamond, because ye have forsaken the Lord and turned your back upon Him, therefore has He in His turn turned His back upon you.” (See Jer 18:17.) Ye have neglected heavenly, and followed after worldly goods, and therefore ye will speedily pass away with them, just as that which is written in the earth soon comes to nothing by a breath of wind, and by the foot passing over it. Ye have departed from God, and therefore ye will not be written in Heaven, but on the earth, yea in its very centre, in hell itself. (See S Augustine Lib. iv. de. Consen. Evang., cap. 10.) And S. Ambrose (Ep. lxxvi. ad Studitem) says, “He wrote on the ground, for sinners are written on the earth, the just in heaven.” Symbolically, S. Augustine (as above) gives two other reasons. (1.) To show that He worked miracles on earth, for, though God, He humbled Himself to become man, for miracles are signs which are wrought on earth. (2.) To point out that the time had now come for His law to be written on the fruitful earth, not on barren stones. (3.) He adds here (Tract. xxxiii.) a third reason, that it was to signify that it was He who had written the old law on tables of stone, but that the new law was to be written on the productive earth. But what did Christ write? He could not in the paved court of the temple cut out the shape of the letters, but merely delineate them with His finger. But He seems to have marked out something to put them to shame, or to expose their sin. For He added, in explanation of what He had done, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” S. Jerome even says that He wrote the mortal sins of the Scribes and of all men (Lib. ii. Contra Pelag.), S. Ambrose (Ep. lvi.) that He wrote Jer 22:29; and (Epist. lxxix.) that He wrote among other words, Thou seest the mote in thy brother’s eye, but seest not the beam in thine own. Others think that He wrote “Mene, Mene” (Dan 5:25). But nothing certain can be stated.
Joh 8:7 When therefore they continued asking him, he lifted up himself and said to them: He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
When therefore they continued asking Him. Because they did not see clearly what He had written, or pretended they did not. They therefore urge Him to reply explicitly to their captious question, believing that He could not escape from the horns of a dilemma by going against the law if He acquitted the woman or against His own compassion, were He to condemn her.
He lifted up Himself and said, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. Ye Scribes and Pharisees have committed greater sins than this woman, as your conscience testifies; do not therefore so rigidly and importunately urge her condemnation, but rather have pity for her, as sinners for a sinner, as guilty for a guilty one, as criminals for a criminal. For otherwise, if ye condemn her, ye ought to condemn yourselves; if ye wish to stone her, ye yourselves ought to be stoned, nay more, to be burned. Observe Christ’s prudence. He maintains the law in conceding that an adulteress was guilty of death, but adds that the Scribes should not so pertinaciously urge her death, but rather have compassion on her, since outwardly professing sanctity, but inwardly conscious of greater sins, they should wish indulgence to be shown to themselves both by God and man. So S. Augustine. “Ye have heard, Let the law be fulfilled, let the adulteress be stoned. But in punishing her must the law be fulfilled by those who deserve punishment?” And again, “Jesus said not, Let her not be stoned; lest He should seem to speak against the law. But be it far from Him to say, Let her be stoned; for He came not to destroy that which He had formed, but to save that which had perished. What then answered He? ‘He who is without sin of you,’ &c 0 answer of wisdom! How did He make them look unto themselves! They brought charges against others, they did not carefully search out themselves within.” “What more divine,” says S. Ambrose, “than that saying, that He should punish sin who is Himself devoid of it? For how couldest thou endure one who punishes another’s sin, and defends his own? For does he not condemn himself the more, who condemns in another what he himself commits?”
But thou wilt say Christ here seems to do away with the use of tribunals of justice, and their strictness. But I answer, Christ launched not this sentence against judges, but only against the Scribes, who as private persons contended that Christ should take on Himself to judge the adulteress, and condemn her according to law. This He refused to do, and having been sent to save, and not to condemn sinners, He retorted it upon themselves, as follows; “If ye are not judges, and yet are so desirous of punishing this adultery, take it upon yourselves, stone the adulteress, if ye are so pure and holy as not to have committed adultery, or any other sin;” for if the Scribes had condemned her to be stoned, Jesus would not have freed her from the punishment she justly deserved. Moreover, it is the judge’s duty to condemn a criminal, when convicted, though conscious that he is himself guilty of the same or a similar offence. And yet, if guilty himself it is unseemly in him to condemn another for a like offence.
Christ then in these words quietly advises judges to lead innocent lives themselves. As a moral rule, Christ teaches us that we ought to judge ourselves before we judge others. S. Gregory (Moral. Lib. 13. cap. iv.) gives the reason. “For he who judges not himself in the first place, knows not how to pass right judgment on another. For his own conscience supplies no rule to go by. These Scribes then are summoned first to look within, and find out their own faults, before reproving others.” On which head there are well known proverbs. “First prune thy own vineyards,” &c.
Joh 8:8 And again stooping down, he wrote on the ground.
And again stooping down He wrote on the ground. Both to inspire them with shame, and also to give the Scribes time to withdraw creditably. So S. Jerome (Lib. ii contra Pelag.), and Bede, who adds, “He saw that they were staggered, and would be more likely to retire at once than to put any more questions.”
Joh 8:9 But they hearing this, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest. And Jesus alone remained, and the woman standing in the midst.
Ver. 9.—But on hearing this they went out one by one. Some Greek copies add, “Convicted by their own conscience,” as being adulterers, or even worse. For what Jesus said was true, and ought to strike home to them. And hence S. Augustine says (Epist. liv.), “Methinks that even the husband himself who had been wronged, would on hearing these words have shrunk back from his desire for punishment.”
Went out. “By their very withdrawal,” says S. Augustine, “confessing that they were guilty of like offences. For they were smitten with a keen sense of justice on looking within, and finding themselves guilty.” They feared also lest Christ should proceed still further to expose their crimes.
Beginning at the eldest. As being more inveterate sinners, like the false accusers of Susanna, or because they first felt the force of His words. As says S. Ambrose, “They first felt the strength of His answer, which they could not reply to, and being quicker of apprehension, they were the first to go away.”
And He was left alone, &c. “Two were left,” says S. Augustine, “misery and commiseration;” deep calling upon deep, the depth of her misery on the depth of His compassion. But she fled not, as having experienced His grace, and hoping for more.
Joh 8:10 Then Jesus lifting up himself, said to her: Woman, where are they that accused thee? Hath no man condemned thee?
Then Jesus lifting up Himself, &c. Lifting up on her His eyes of gentleness, as He had repulsed His adversaries with the words of righteousness, as saith S. Augustine. He spoke to her, (1.) to show that He had driven away her accusers, and that she could acknowledge what Jesus had, in His mercy, done for her, and ask pardon from Him of her sin. (2.) That He might the more readily absolve her, because her accusers had withdrawn their charge, and had fled away, as doubting the justice of their cause.
Joh 8:11 Who said: No man, Lord. And Jesus said: Neither will I condemn thee. Go, and now sin no more.
Ver. 11.—She said, No man, Lord, &c. I who am alone free from all sin, and appointed by God to judge the world, might most justly condemn thee. But I do not, because I came not to judge, but to save the world. Thus S. Ambrose; “See how He moderated His answer, so that the Jews could not accuse him for acquitting her; but rather throw it back on themselves, if they chose to complain. For she is dismissed, not absolved; inasmuch as no one accused her, she was not acquitted as innocent. Why then should they complain who had already withdrawn from prosecuting the charge and from enforcing the punishment? Moreover Christ by these words absolved the woman not only in open court before the people, but in the court of heaven, before God, as is plain from what He subjoins. Go, as being certain that I have forgiven thy adultery. As He said to the Magdalene, “Go in peace” (Luke 7:50). But Christ says not that openly, but secretly; lest the Pharisees should have something to carp at. Christ therefore inspired in her secret sorrow for her sins and an act of contrition, and then pardoned her sins, condoning her sin and its punishment together. “He condemns not,” says S. Ambrose, “as being our Redemption, but reproves her as our life, and cleanses her as our fountain.” And Euthymius, “Such an exposure and shame before so many adversaries was a sufficient punishment, more especially when He knew that she was heartily penitent.” So Jansen and others.
And sin no more. Returning as a dog to its vomit. For thou wilt thus in thy ingratitude sin more grievously, and wilt defile thy soul; and though I do not condemn thee, yet will I certainly condemn thee in the day of judgment. Hear S. Augustine. “What means, I will not condemn thee? Dost Thou, 0 Lord, favour sin? Assuredly not; for listen to what follows, Go and sin no more. The Lord therefore condemned the sin, but not the person. For else He would have said, Go and live as thou wilt, being sure of my forgiveness.” To which Bede adds, “Since He is pitiful and tender He forgives the past; but as just, and loving justice, He forbids her sin any more.”