Is the story of the woman being stoned for adultery in John 7-8 authentic?

Here’s the leading conservative New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace to explain.

Excerpt:

One hundred and forty years ago, conservative biblical scholar and Dean of Canterbury, Henry Alford, advocated a new translation to replace the King James Bible. One of his reasons was the inferior textual basis of the KJV. Alford argued that “a translator of Holy Scripture must be…ready to sacrifice the choicest text, and the plainest proof of doctrine, if the words are not those of what he is constrained in his conscience to receive as God’s testimony.” He was speaking about the Trinitarian formula found in the KJV rendering of 1 John 5:7–8. Twenty years later, two Cambridge scholars came to the firm conclusion that John 7:53–8:11 also was not part of the original text of scripture. But Westcott and Hort’s view has not had nearly the impact that Alford’s did.

For a long time, biblical scholars have recognized the poor textual credentials of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11). The evidence against its authenticity is overwhelming: The earliest manuscripts with substantial portions of John’s Gospel (P66 and P75) lack these verses. They skip from John 7:52to 8:12. The oldest large codices of the Bible also lack these verses: codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, both from the fourth century, are normally considered to be the most important biblical manuscripts of the NT extant today. Neither of them has 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 Rescriptusalso from the fifth century, apparently lacked these verses as well (it is similar to Alexandrinus in that some leaves are missing). The earliest extant manuscript to have these verses is codex Bezae, an eccentric text once in the possession of Theodore Beza. He gave this manuscript to the University of Cambridge in 1581 as a gift, telling the school that he was confident that the scholars there would be able to figure out its significance. He washed his hands of the document. Bezae is indeed the most eccentric NT manuscript extant today, yet it is the chief representative of the Western text-type (the text-form that became dominant in Rome and the Latin West).

When P66, P75, Sinaiticus, and Vaticanus agree, their combined testimony is overwhelmingly strong that a particular reading is not authentic. But it is not only the early Greek manuscripts that lack this text. The great majority of Greek manuscripts through the first eight centuries lack this pericope. And except for Bezae (or codex D), virtually all of the most important Greek witnesses through the first eight centuries do not have the verses. Of the three most important early versions of the New Testament (Coptic, Latin, Syriac), two of them lack the story in their earliest and best witnesses. The Latin alone has the story in its best early witnesses.

Even patristic writers seemed to overlook this text. Bruce Metzger, arguably the greatest textual critic of the twentieth century, argued that “No Greek Church Father prior to Euthymius Zigabenus (twelfth century) comments on the passage, and Euthymius declares that the accurate copies of the Gospel do not contain it” (Textual Commentary, 2nd ed., loc. cit.).

It is an important point to note that although the story of the woman caught in adultery is found in most of our printed Bibles today, the evidence suggests that the majority of Bibles during the first eight centuries of the Christian faith did not contain the story. Externally, most scholars would say that the evidence for it not being an authentic part of John’s Gospel is rock solid.

But textual criticism is not based on external evidence alone; there is also the internal evidence to consider. This is comprised of two parts: intrinsic evidence has to do with what an author is likely to have written;transcriptional evidence has to do with how and why a scribe would have changed the text.

Intrinsically, the vocabulary, syntax, and style look far more like Luke than they do John. There is almost nothing in these twelve verses that has a Johannine flavor. And transcriptionally, scribes were almost always prone to add material rather than omit it—especially a big block of text such as this, rich in its description of Jesus’ mercy. One of the remarkable things about this passage, in fact, is that it is found in multiple locations. 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. Other manuscripts place it at the end of Luke or in various places in John 7.

The pericope adulterae has all the earmarks of a pericope that was looking for a home. It took up permanent residence, in the ninth century, in the middle of the fourth gospel.

Wallace teaches at the ultra-conservative fundamentalist Dallas Theological Seminary, and is the foremost evangelical manuscript expert in the world.

Why is this important? I think it is important because this story is very prominent for a great many Christians, especially Christian women, who use this to justify a variety of positions that are inconsistent with the rest of the Bible. These Christians do not like the idea of anyone being judged and so they are naturally inclined to blow this disputed passage into an entire theology that repudiates making moral judgments on such things as capital punishment. In fact, in another post, I was accused of being the equivalent of one of the people who wanted to stone the woman taken for adultery because I oppose fornication and single motherhood. That’s how far this has gone, where some Christians, especially Christian feminists, have leveraged this passage to redefine the Bible so that women are no longer responsible to the Bible’s moral rules and can never be blamed for acting irresponsibly.

26 thoughts on “Is the story of the woman being stoned for adultery in John 7-8 authentic?”

  1. Problem: he’s ignoring that the text was around from very early on, and is mentioned in records we’ve still got, apparently in favor of those very few records we do have.

    It wasn’t “added,” there’s mention of the ‘woman of many sins’ who’s told to ‘sin no more’ from the first century. It’s just that the Bible got better organized and standardized, and a rather heavy foot got put down on creative editing. Saint Jerome, rather rightly known for his knowledge of the gospels, even weighed in on if some versions of a woman “caught in sin” was the same as those of the woman “caught in adultery,” stated that they were, and that it was in part because they were fond in the same place in different versions.

    This is part of WHY they started getting into standardized versions, because folks kept playing telephone.

    Saint Augustine even complained about it being removed thus:
    “…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 the manuscripts the Lord’s act of forgiveness toward the adulterous,as if He who had said, ‘sin no more’ had granted permission to sin…”

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    1. The problem is that it also shows up in places in various families in Luke’s gospel.
      Probably it is a fragment of one of those “many accounts” that Luke was talking about and it just floated around in a manuscript package like the Shepherd of Hermas. We dont really know anything except there is an 800 year gap between the time John’s gospel appears and the appears.

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      1. You seem to be missing the rather well-known scholar complaining about people removing it before 400AD, which would also explain why we have some old copies without it.

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        1. What?! If it doesnt appear in John before 800, and only appears in one of two places in Luke before that and is absent in earlier texts of that one, it definitely makes the pericope suspect as to being original, especially if we do not have it appearing elsewhere alone.

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          1. *points over at the link* In Greek. And scanned so anyone can see it.

            Combined with people from that time complaining about others removing it, it showing up in several other languages (including the first compiled Bible) and it being alluded to just like many other episodes from Jesus’ life, the only thing suspect here is your desperation to be able to edit chunks out of the Bible.

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          2. Apparently you didn’t read the article, or the caption under the picture: it’s the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments in the picture. Reading article in their entirety is recommended.

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          1. You want to edit the Bible based on a maybe and not having a Greek copy, even though we’ve got mentions from the time to show the story is Biblical and even have saints complaining about people who removed it because it made them uncomfortable?

            Guess that makes my case better than I ever could.

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          2. jakecole, I think you are on the right track here. The best theory regarding the PA (Pericope Adulterae) will provide plausible explanations for ALL of what we find in both manuscript and patristic (early Church fathers) history.

            What we have are primarily the following: 1.) No record in the earliest manuscripts (prior to approx. 300 A.D.) of the PA, 2.) Some later manuscripts (generally post 300 A.D) that variously either include the PA in John’s gospel in its common position at the beginning of chapter 8, tacked on at the end of John’s gospel as though an afterthought, or included in Luke’s gospel, usually following 21:38, with a few not including the PA in its common position in John, but leaving an empty space there indicating knowledge of something that was often included there but which carried sufficient doubt in the mind of the copyists that it was not included, 3.) References by some early Church fathers to the bare story itself, although not specifically attributing to John’s gospel (or any of the others for that matter).

            The theory that I have encountered that seems to offer the broadest plausible explanation for ALL of these phenomena is that the PA is actually an isolated piece of oral communication (possibly a sermon or didactic teaching point) from John the Apostle, but one that he had not included in the gospel that he wrote. It was one of those many “unrecorded things” that Jesus did that John refers to in his gospel in 21:25. It is quite possible that this oral account was encountered and recorded by Luke either first hand, or via his research from reliable intermediate sources. This would explain the fact that early scribes were uncertain as to exactly how to handle the episode. It seems that although there was a general consensus that the story itself was a genuine account of something that took place in the life of Christ as recounted by an eyewitness, it was unresolved as to whether it should be included in the writing of the one who recounted the story (the apostle John) or in the writing of the one who preserved the story (Luke). The plausible dilemma they faced was which was more proper? Tie it to its source (John) by tying it in some way to the gospel that he penned even though he himself chose not to include it in the original, or tie it to the one who preserved it (Luke) even though John was its real source and Luke also had chosen not to include it in his gospel. The second problem that faced those scribe who decided that it should be included somewhere was exactly where in either gospel it should be inserted. This would tend to explain the multiple approaches (beginning of John 8, end of Luke 21) that arose concerning the placement of the PA into the gospels. Later scribes who were aware of this earlier “judgment call” on the part of the previous copyists, but who disagreed with them either left it out entirely, or did so leaving a blank space where the earlier copyists had placed it to indicate their disagreement with a previous manuscript. Further, the fact that various early Church fathers mention the story does not bear on its originality to the actual and original text of the gospels. They show knowledge of the story itself, but seemingly as an independently circulating account, though one recognized as coming from a credible source (John) though none names John’s gospel as the conduit through which the story had come. There is even some evidence that one of the very earliest Church fathers, Papias (circa 130 A.D.) was the mover and shaker behind the move to incorporate the story into the gospel texts in order to prevent its loss as an independently circulating, bare story, unattached and thus easily forgotten.

            So, in short, at this point in my understanding of the PA, I see it as a valid piece of authentic oral tradition that was recorded and preserved originally OUTSIDE THE NT, but which nevertheless carries with it didactic clout, although not on the level with the rest of the NT text. It is a unique item and should not be used as an excuse to raise tradition to the same level of scripture.

            My two cents. JMG

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  2. I’ve understood for some time that the text was in question. Indeed, the text itself is problematic. If the woman was “caught in the act” as they said, where was the man? By Jewish law, both were supposed to be stoned.

    Regardless of its authenticity, though, Jesus did NOT excuse the act. He said, “Go and sin no more.” His “Neither do I condemn you” was NOT “I’m not going to say what you did was wrong”, it was, “I’m not going to carry out the penalty assigned by God to a theocratic government.” If, on the other hand, the opposition is right and Jesus was abrogating the Old Testament law, then Jesus was classifying Himself as “the least in heaven” (Matt 5:19), and not in any sort of good way.

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    1. It is not infrequently pointed out that, given the lack of the man she was caught with, the men probably were ones she’d committed adultery with; that’s why they wanted someone else to punish her, and why Jesus’ point about him who is without sin casting the first stone was so effective.

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  3. Jesus actually said to kill her. It was the Pharisees who didn’t have the guts to do it. The reason why the Pharisees backed down is unclear, but it was probably because they did not have any guiltless witnesses (See Deuteronomy 17:7), and perhaps also because the Romans prohibited the Jews from carrying out executions (See John 18:31).

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  4. “Wallace teaches at the ultra-conservative fundamentalist Dallas Theological Seminary”

    As a DTS student, I find this comment intriguing. What is it that makes DTS an “ultra-conservative fundamentalist” seminary?

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  5. One of the problems with including the passage in Bibles is that it interrupts an important point John is making. Because of that interruption, many people (probably the vast majority) overlook the significance of John 8:12. In that passage (8:12), Jesus probably is claiming to be the Messianic child of Isaiah 9. He’s affirming his Davidic ancestry and Bethlehem birthplace, in response to the comments in John 7:42. Here we have Jesus himself applying one of the greatest Christmas prophecies to himself in agreement with the infancy narratives. That contradicts what many critics claim about how Jesus’ adult life supposedly is inconsistent with the narratives about his childhood. Yet, the vast majority of readers of John’s gospel probably miss what’s happening in John 8:12 because of the interruption in 7:53-8:11. For further discussion of this issue, see here.

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  6. As a reader of the ETC (Evangelical Textual Criticism) blog – and at the risk of being a boot-licker ;-) – may I say that I find Rev. Snapp’s expertise in TC very thought-provoking. His pains-taking research into (and defense of) Mark 16.9-20 is well known to those interested in investigating NT textual variants. And, although I haven’t had the opportunity to read through many of the studies at his web sites yet (more for my to-do list), I do appreciate the fact that his comments (at the ETC blog, for example) show him to be very thorough and concerned with going where the evidence points. His TC studies — those I have read — are definitely worth the read.

    (I’d love to read either a comment from him about the recent WK posting regarding the Pericope Adulterae here or a separate study of his on the subject at his site (where I couldn’t find any such). Unfortunately, for those delving into the PA textual issue, Maurice Robinson’s paper on the PA MSS is not available for free online.)

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