There was a woman caught in the act of adultery. The scribes and Pharisees brought her to Jesus and asked him what should be done. Jesus, after pausing to write something on the ground with his finger, replied, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”
He then said to the woman, “Go, and sin no more.”
Astounding. Subversive. Wise. Unbiblical.
Wait. What? Unbiblical?
That story as we find it in John’s Good News account probably didn’t happen at all. Maybe a piece of it did. Possibly. There’s always a chance.
We really should just cast it away. I certainly would not mind. It’s really just in the way.
(Keep in mind, none of this is new information. No esoteric revelations here. This has been known for quite a long time. I’m simply packaging the information here in order to lay the foundation for some questions on the Scriptures, in particular to those who maybe haven’t explored these avenues of New Testament studies. And if you are a believer in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, I hope you’ll pay keen attention and take a little challenge.)
The story of the woman caught in adultery, known as the Pericope Adulterae, was not a part of John’s gospel initially. We know at least that much. Here are some points to consider:
- The earliest manuscripts, which include two very important papyri in P66 and P75, do not include the story. The first manuscript to have the passage shows up in the Fifth or Sixth Century.
- When the story is included in later manuscripts, the placement is inconsistent. Some have the story where we generally find it, after vii.52. Others have it at the end of John’s gospel entirely. Still others have it in Luke’s gospel, after xxi.38.
- References in the Early Fathers to a story (sometimes referencing the Gospel) about a woman who had sinned and Jesus saying something along the lines of “Go, for neither do I condemn you.” vary widely. Some say she confessed herself, others have her not being condemned by the leaders, others leave out the whole “Let him without sin…” statement, and so forth.
- The passage (Jo. vii.53-viii.11) disrupts the flow of the narrative. If you start reading back at, say, vii.1, and read through viii.30, but skip over the adultery passage starting at vii.53, you understand a little better what Jesus says. Not only that, but you get a more accurate portrayal of what Jesus said. (At least, that’s my conclusion, though I’m essentially agreeing with others far more accredited than me.)
[At best the passage is a compilation of several apocryphal stories circulating in the early centuries. That's not unheard of.]1 At some point a scribe inserted a version of the story into a later manuscript (maybe in the margin, maybe into a gap he saw). But the story does not belong there. The story never did.
I believe the footnote for this passage in the New English Translation makes the point far better than I ever could:
This entire section, 7:53-8:11, traditionally known as the pericope adulterae, is not contained in the earliest and best mss and was almost certainly not an original part of the Gospel of John. Among modern commentators and textual critics, it is a foregone conclusion that the section is not original but represents a later addition to the text of the Gospel. B. M. Metzger summarizes: “the evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming” (TCGNT 187).2
The passage is not Scripture. But that conclusion is not the point of this post. The fact is most readers of the Bible knew that already; or at least they’ve had that information at their fingertips. I have not come across a New Testament translation that does not have this passage bracketed or at least contain a notation of some kind. The footnotes usually include the point that the earliest (or some) manuscripts do not contain the passage.
But before I get to the heart of it, I think we need to talk briefly about why the passage shows up in our Bibles. Daniel Wallace, professor of NT studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and all around New Testament Greek and manuscript history freak, said that
modern translations’ inclusion of the famous narrative . . . [was] the result of “a tradition of timidity.”3
I recently heard Peter Williams, in a debate with Bart Ehrman wherein they discussed this passage briefly, rightly point out the spurious story was not going to be excluded from modern translations because publishers would sell less Bibles.4 Both Wallace and Williams (as well as Ehrman, I should add) are spot on.
While the strongest and earliest manuscripts do not contain the passage, the Textus Receptus (TR) does. The TR, put together in the early Sixteenth Century, is the basis for the King James Version. Because of the relationship the TR has with the KJV, the TR tends to be the exemplar for what’s known as the Majority Text. As the name indicates, the Majority Text refers to how the Greek text looks in the majority of the manuscripts we have discovered so far. The story exists in this manuscript group.
Anyone holding strictly to the Majority Text (whether that’s specifically the Textus Receptus or not) or even to one of the Majority Text translations (which you find in the King James Only community) have serious textual critical problems to deal with. As I do not have the space and time on this post to discuss the issues, I would welcome you to read a quality article. Wallace wrote a piece that’s on bible.org: The Majority Text and the Original Text: Are They Identical? In essence, Majority Text’ers do not have much of a leg to stand on when declaring the Majority Text is better than looking critically into all the manuscript evidence and seeing the significance of the earlier manuscripts. Back to the NET footnote on this passage:
. . . Therefore the [external] evidence could be summarized by saying that almost all early mss of the Alexandrian texttype omit the pericope, while most mss of the Western and Byzantine texttype include it. But it must be remembered that “Western mss” here refers only to D, a single witness (as far as Greek mss are concerned). Thus it can be seen that practically all of the earliest and best mss extant omit the pericope; it is found only in mss of secondary importance.5
For the sake of clarity, I am not saying we should only be looking at the earliest manuscripts as opposed to using only the majority text, or what the majority of the manuscripts display. I would be in danger if I were to stand firmly on either side. We must use all available resources and be critical of the text, no matter what section we might be focused on at that time. My second year Greek professor years back, Dr. Coombs, used the majority text predominantly, and almost exclusively in our class; I still used the UBS almost exclusively in the class so I could catch the differences (Greek is an oral language, very nice). Dr. Coombs, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on a comparison between the critical and majority texts (ended up being two volumes). He was very influential in my grasping so early the importance of looking at the full body of evidence.
KJV onlyists tend to be intolerant about this sort of thing, and raise a lot of objections with the differences. I have a KJV on my bookshelf; who doesn’t. The footnote there says
Although Jn. 7:53-8:11 is not found in some ancient manuscripts, the immediate context, beginning with Christ’s declaration, “I am the light of the world,” (8:12) seems clearly to have its occassion in the conviction wrought in the hearts of the Pharisees as recorded in 8:9, and also helps to explain the Pharisees’ words in 8:41. It is therefore to be considered a genuine part of the Gospel. (emphasis mine)
The footnote did not indicate what those “some ancient manuscripts” are and their immense historical significance. The note seemingly ignores the historical record, emphasizing the bias of the interpretation over and against the evidence. The note did not mention how the story as found in the Textus Receptus did not show up in the manuscript records until relatively late in history, as well as how much the story varies in different manuscripts.
Here’s a quick sidebar on footnotes. I truly wonder how many Bible readers check the footnotes. Not comparing my text here to Scripture, but did you happen to check out footnote 1 above? I placed a sentence in brackets and gave it a notation. If you had read the notation (which, I guess, you can still do when you’re done with the article) you would have learned a little tid-bitty about me. While I can’t track it, I’m wondering how many folks saw the brackets and the footnote and scrolled down to see what that was about.
And here’s where we get to the heart of this post. After going through the probably very disjointed discussion above, here’s why I believe it matters so much whether or not we continue to include this passage in our Bibles, and especially have this passage taught from the pulpits or Sunday School classes. From a Christianity Today article in 2008:
Wallace said pastors have a responsibility to communicate the truth of this text to their congregations. “We need to be as thoroughly biblical as we can be … [There] is a huge amount of ignorance that we’re catering to in the Christian public.
“A person hearing these words should recognize that they have no authority as authentic words of Jesus,” he said. Christians who are reading the story, he said, should give it the same authority as any other unsubstantiated early Christian teaching about Jesus.6
The words of the Pericope “have no authority as authentic words of Jesus.” The average church attender, the average Christian listening to their preacher, has (at minimum) the subconscious expectation that the words presented in our Bibles are the inspired words of our Lord, and the messages brought forth from the pulpits using our Bibles are conveying the inspired words of God.
My hope is that future publications of the Bible exclude the text and leave a footnote, instead of the other way around. A perfect example is what the NET, NIV, NLT, and others have done with Jo. v.3-4: omit the text entirely. The KJV and NKJV still display the text. Problem is, like the Pericope Adulterae, this is a later addition. Looking at and comparing the textual apparatus for Jo. v.34 and Jo. vii.53-viii.11, it looks quite likely that there is more support for omitting the Pericope than the disturbed water verse. Another great example is the famous (or, rather, infamous) trinity clause in 1 Jo. v.7. That is another later addition that is omitted from virtually all translations except the KJV. We can and should do the same for this very famous story of a woman caught in adultery and loved on by Jesus, admittedly a favorite of so many devout followers of Christ. Omit the verses, leave a footnote, and educate the readers. Educate the congregation on the Scriptures.
Let’s say I was in Tanzania, a member of a team translating John’s Gospel into Bende. The translation team is supposed to be creating a text of the Gospel to give to the Bende people so they can have at least part of the Word of God. But even if they only have part, that part is supposed to be the Word of God. From what the translation team has told the people, from what other missionaries who have interacted with the people have stressed: the Bible is the Word of God. How can we then give them the Word of God when a part of it is most certainly not? How can we expect them to accept all the words contained in this Gospel as inspired by God when we don’t believe that ourselves? Nix the can: How dare we? (The we there would be translators and publishers, not necessarily everyone.)
I can think of a few reasons why someone might say the passage should stay in the text.
- They believe the passage is authentic, original to John, and inspired. If that is the case, then I’d love to see a presentation of the evidence and the argument.
- They believe the passage is authentic, the story is real, but not necessarily a part of the original text. This would fall more in the realm of oral tradition that told a true story but was simply not written down. Later on someone decided to write it down and include the passage within a Gospel. I would be fine with this point except (a) there would need to be a successful argument for the genuine story that is supposed to be included, and (b) I’m not so sure folks who embrace the doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility would be so open to that idea.
- They believe the passage is not authentic but contains valuable teachings and wisdom. I can understand that, but if it’s not Scripture then it’s not Scripture, right? There are wonderful jewels found in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and many other much larger texts. Why not include those in the Bible?
- They believe the passage is not authentic, and not Scripture, but should remain in the text for the historical, educational value gained by discussing the textual criticism involved. This would be great but is far too idealistic. The expectation would be that preachers and teachers would give a thorough explanation of what is going on with the text here, of the history involved. I’m not seeing it happen on a large scale.
While I’d rather the passage disappear from the main body of the text, #4 above may be the most viable option in the meantime. I believe #2 would be great if someone could surmise and construct the genuine story and supply the support for why the Pericope most likely happened during the ministry of Jesus. I believe both can be done.
Philip Comfort, however, can’t seem to comfort me with his downtrodden, pessimistic conclusion.
Having said all this, it is very disappointing to realize that most English readers of the NT will see none of the connections [between the text before Jo. vii.53 and after viii.11] because the pericope of the adulteress is still printed in the text between John 7:52 and 8:12. True, the passage has been bracketed, or marked off with single lines . . . or set in italics. But there it stands—an obstacle to reading the true narrative of John’s Gospel. Even worse, its presence in the text misrepresents the testimony of the earliest MSS, especially the papyri.7
In summary, I believe the story of the woman caught in adultery is most definitely not original to John’s Gospel. Whether the story actually happened or not is up for discussion and examination, and hopefully soon someone or some team can come up with a viable solution. Given that, I believe our modern translations from this point should omit the passage and insert a notation, just like other spurious passages, for example Jo. v.3-4 and (dare I say it) the ending of Mark. (Psst. I believe the shorter text, ending when the women run afraid from the tomb, is the real ending.) The inclusion of the passage in the main body of the text does more harm than good at the moment.
2 If you’re interested in looking into the NET footnote further many more details involved in the debate on the passage), here’s the direct link.
3 Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Is ‘Let Him Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone’ Biblical?” Christianity Today, 4/23/2008 web only: link here.
4 Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley, 1/3/2009: “Misquoting Jesus: Do we have the original writings of the New Testament?” Link here is to the actual broadcast. Click only if you’re ready to listen.
5 Here’s the direct link.
6 Zylstra, “Let Him Who is Without Sin…” Christianity Today: link here.
7 Philip Wesley Comfort, Early Manuscripts & Modern Translations of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990), 116.