The woman caught in adultery doesn’t belong in the Bible.

They went each to his own house. but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” John 7:53- 8:11.

Most people are familiar with the story of the woman caught in adultery [the pricope of the adultress]. It tends to get preached a lot and one particular line “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” tends to get misquoted and twisted by pagans and laypeople alike. Still, it is extremely iconic and in many ways serves as a great example of the mercy and love of Jesus.  Despite that, I don’t think this verse should be in the Bible and the entire section should be relegated to a footnote at the bottom of the page. There are lot of reasons for this. For a long time Biblical scholars have recognized the poor textual credentials of the story of the woman caught in adultery. It has nowhere near the same pedigree that other parts of the scriptures it and the evidence against its authenticity is overwhelming.

To give a brief assessment, the earliest writings of the gospel of John we have simply do not contain this story. P66, a papyrus that contains almost the entire gospel of John, including chapters 7-8, and is dated to 175-200CE, does not contain the story. P75, a fragment dated to the early 3rd century and which contains these portions, does not contain the story.  Of the four great unical codices, codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus, both from the fourth century and which are  considered to be the most important biblical manuscripts of the NT extant today, do not contain these verses. codex Alexandrinus, from the fifth century, lacks several leaves in the middle of John. But because of the consistency of the letter size, width of lines, and lines per page, the evidence is conclusive that this manuscript also lacked the pericope adulterae. codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, also from the 5th century, apparently lacked these verses as well [it is similar to Alexandrinus in that some leaves are missing]

We neither find the story in codex Washingtonianus from the 5th century or in codex Borgianus, also from the 5th century.The Diatessaron, a harmony of the gospels written by Tatianin 150-165CE does not contain the story. Origen and Chrystosom, men who wrote commentaries on the text of John, do not include or comment on the story. No Greek Church Father prior to the 9th century comments on the passage [with the possible exception of Dydimus the Blind], and in fact there are hundreds of manuscripts and miniscules which do not contain it. Metzger writes ” It is absent from such early and diverse manuscripts as Papyrus66.75 Aleph B L N T W X Y D Q Y 0141 0211 22 33 124 157 209 788 828 1230 1241 1242 1253 2193 al…In the East the passage is absent from the oldest form of the Syriac version (syrc.s. and the best manuscripts of syrp), as well as from the Sahidic and the sub-Achmimic versions and the older Bohairic manuscripts. Some Armenian manuscripts and the old Georgian version omit it. In the West the passage is absent from the Gothic version and from several Old Latin manuscripts “

Another interesting thing is that this story is not static but rather is found in different places in different manuscripts. Most manuscripts that have it place it in its now traditional location: between John 7:52 and 8:12, but an entire family of manuscripts has the passage at the end of Luke 21, while another family places it at the end of John’s Gospel. We have some manuscripts that place it at the end of Luke or in various places in John 7. Furthermore, for those manuscripts that do have it, we also see that many contain only parts of it, some stopping at John 8:3, or some only having up to John 8:9. Ultimately though it took up permanent residence, in the ninth century, in the middle of the fourth gospel. When we take all this information together, I think its clear that this story has all the earmarks of a pericope that was looking for a home.

That being said I don’t think we can dismiss it outright as not being apostolic. I think we have enough evidence to suppose that it probably did occur. Bruce Metzger writes “At the same time the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity. It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places”, inserted by scribes and others creating the texts. We do have several people alluding to it or to  a story similar to it during the 4th century and possibly earlier, and it is plausible to conclude that it may have been a genuine interaction that Jesus had. But being written in the original Gospel of John by the writer of John? I think that’s highly unlikely.

None of this is new to any biblical scholar, though it may be to the layperson, and that is sort of my point. If this story is not authentically Johannian, why are we preaching it like it is? Why do we elevate it to equal position as the rest of scripture? I would suggest that we excise this story altogether. We have precedent for it. Unless you own a KJV, the Johhanine comma of 1 John 5:7–8 is no longer in our Bibles. Why? Because we realized it was inauthentic and we removed it from our modern translations,generally relegating it to a footnote. We should do the same with this.

I understand that many people have a strong sense of attachment to this story, but sentimentality that is misplaced is no substitute for the truth, though this is the sort of thing that will garner sentimental defenders without textual support. I think if people do preach on it, then they should have the honesty, integrity, and intellectual faculties to recognize that this is an enormous textual variant that is unlikely to be original to the text, and they should tell their congregations that- not quote it as if weren’t. To end with a Daniel Wallace quote  “We have to educate believers. Instead of trying to isolate laypeople from critical scholarship, we need to insulate them.”

6 Responses to “The woman caught in adultery doesn’t belong in the Bible.”

  • Liz

    I love this story. In fact, if I had to choose a favorite story in John… it would be this one. But I also recognize everything you said here is pretty much correct.

    When dealing with textual criticism, though, we have to remember “not original” doesn’t mean it’s some made up fairy tale just randomly inserted for no reason at all. If we believe that the Holy Spirit protected what we have as the Scriptures (which is debatable for some people), then there is a reason that it was still included when they put together the texts. So to say “it doesn’t belong in the Bible” is somewhat misleading and may or may not be accurate.

    For this particular story, I agree, I don’t think we should be preaching on it nor should we draw any hard and fast theology out of it that isn’t corroborated in the rest of Scriptures. But I still love this story and I am very convinced that it show cases Christ’s character. I can’t say whether or not it happened, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. I also think it would be silly to simply delete it and never look at it.

    Oh and in my ESV Bible, it’s included but it’s in brackets with a pretty condemning footnote along the lines of “This is a cute story but not authentic”. It made me giggle because it also mentions not using it as preaching material. I’m sure you’ve read it because you use ESV, don’t you?

  • paperthinhymn

    I do own a ESV and a NASB, which I use as my two main bibles. I just looked at the ESV study notes and it pretty much says what you said- that its not found in all the oldest manuscripts.

    I would suggest that no cardinal truth or doctrinal issue is lost if these verses were deleted; People might object that since scholars are not completely sure that this text is inauthentic, that they need to keep it in the text. And yet that such a policy practiced across the board would wreak havoc on our printed Bibles and would mushroom their size beyond recognizable proportions. In Acts alone, one textual tradition has 8.5% more material than has been traditionally printed in our Bibles, yet very few object to such variants being denied a place in the canon. What is the difference between adding this story and adding that extra 8.5% from the book of Acts?

    The problem isn’t that we have 95% of the scriptures, but that we have 105%. We need to properly sift through and cull what wasn’t written by the writers themselves. If the book of John is written as a tightly woven argument, with everything meeting a crescendo in the resurrection, and John did not write this part, but rather some scribe inserted a couple of hundred of words a couple hundreds of years after the fact, not only is that unfair and dishonest towards John, it shows a lack of respect for the human author.

    If people want to preach on it, that’s fine, they can. They can talk about how even though its not found in any or our earliest texts, that there is evidence that this story is a conflation from two different stories, one circulating in the east and the other circulating in the west about a woman “caught in adultery” and a woman “found with many sins” and how this is a strong tradition that was kept alive in the Church and probably happened and so forth. But preaching it as authentically johhanian? I think that’s clearly a mistake.

  • Liz

    Oh yeah. I agree. It isn’t authentic so we shouldn’t try to pass it off as such.

    I’m guessing you’re referring to the Alexandrian texts when you talk about the book of Acts? I think the key difference is not only are a lot of the Alexandrian texts different, but they contradict what other parts of Scripture say and are more clearly edited. They’re only really found in a small region and used by a small sect; in this case… I really think majority wins out and makes it clear what is and is not part of the original text.

  • paperthinhymn

    I was thinking specifically of Codex Bezae, which has 10% of so more content than other of our earlier codex’s, and which interestingly enough is the earliest manuscript which includes the pericope of the adulteress. I don’t think these two facts are unrelated/

  • Liz

    Hmm… it only contains part of acts? Or do you mean that in total it contains 10% more content, not 10% more content of Acts?

  • paperthinhymn

    Bezae itself contains an extra 10% content in the book of Acts specifically. That being said, though, Codex Bezae is well known for being an odd and highly idiosyncratic manuscript, being a reading that omits words, sentemces, and even whole incidents altogether. When it’s taken by itself without support from any of the rest of the Greek manuscript tradition or from ancient translations, it is generally ignored – which also which explains why the majority of sources do not even note any variants that it has.


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