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.

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

  1. I do not agree that the validity of scripture should be challenged in this way nor do I subscribe to the idea that the story of the adulteress should be dismissed. The fact that some people (feminists, churchians) distort the message to be found there is not justification for editing scripture more to our liking. That particular message contains some very vital teachings, teachings that may well cause some major discomfort for both men and women.

    There are a handful of men’s rights people who also question the validity of the story of the woman at the well and the woman with the perfume. I really believe that this is a dangerous path to go down and speaks more to people’s inability to confront their personal issues then anything else.

    Today we have fems attempting to remove all gendered language from the bible as well as all traces of anything resembling female submission, but we also have men attempting to remove anything that concerns them about potential female rebellion. Needless to say we should all be seeking scripture for the wisdom to be found there, not because we need it to conform to our personal worldview.

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    1. The question isn’t whether we should throw out scripture, but whether the passage in question is scripture. The historical evidence suggests that it is not original. I suspect that it may be a true story that was added later by scribes based on oral tradition, but it was probably not written by Luke or John in their original gospel manuscripts. It is perfectly legitimate to study the original texts to determine whether they are consistent with what the original eyewitnesses wrote.

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      1. There’s nothing wrong with studying the origins of scripture, but clearly Wintery Knight has stated his own agenda by saying he thinks this is important because of, “Christian women, who use this to justify a variety of positions.” He goes on to conclude that this passage is used “so that women are no longer responsible to the Bible’s moral rules and can never be blamed for acting irresponsibly.”

        The fact that scripture either makes one uncomfortable or that it is prone to be misused by others, is not justification or sound cause for questioning the validity of it. It is far more interesting to examine why and what about it makes one uncomfortable.

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        1. No, his point is that not only is the passage not original, but it is being used as justification for a view that the Bible does not teach. Thus, people think they are getting this view from the Bible when the passage in question is not original and should not be given the same weight as scripture in helping us determine who Jesus is and what He would do.

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    1. I’m not answering for Wintery, but my guess is that by pointing out the very conservative nature of DTS’s theological position, he means to show that they would NOT have a tendency to throw away any Scripture that even might be plausibly inerrant and infallible. DTS would tend to err on the side of keeping this passage, all other things being considered. I believe that it strengthens his position when someone from DTS is highly skeptical of the passage. And, I am pretty sure that WK is NOT comparing other seminaries in a negative light with DTS, because he is NOT a fan of fundamentalism (unlike me) nor is he dispensational in his view.

      It is kind of like when he posts a story from the liberal NYT that supports a conservative economic view, or when he posts the quotes of a-theists to show that even they do not believe there are grounds for objective moral values and duties, thus supporting the Christian view. He is going to hostile (to the reported view) sources to bend over backwards and show that he is not using a source biased toward his view. It may be one of the things WK does best. (But, frankly, I like his snark best. :-))

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        1. Yet, ironically, this is the very passage accepted and frequently quoted by theological liberals to try to silence “judgemental” theological conservatives for simply using discernment about things the Bible clearly identifies as sinful, while simultaneously rejecting the rest of scripture which is well supported.

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  2. As you know, when most modern “feminist” Christians quote that story, they invariably omit the part “go and sin no more”.

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  3. How dare you, sir! How dare you question the Bible. #biblicalinerrancy #kingjamesonly

    Just kidding. I first discovered Dan Wallace (and Darrell Bock, another DTS professor and prominent NT scholar) about five years ago when they were interviewed on the John Ankerberg Show in two series, each largely responses to Bart Ehrman l, the Jesus Seminar and Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code. They discussed this passage and other textual variants of the NT. They have both been of primary influence in shaping my thinking about the NT, as well as introducing me to other NT scholars, like Craig Evans and Craig Blomberg.

    Dan refers to the woman caught in adultery as “my favorite New Testament passage that isn’t in the Bible.” If you check the footnotes of just about any modern translation, they will state that this passage, as well as a few others, was not likely in the original texts. I’m surprised when I hear pastors preach on this text and not include this caveat.

    I think calling DTS “ultra-conservative fundamentalist” is a bit hyperbolic, though. I think “theologically conservative” would suffice. That seminary is dispensationalist, but I don’t think they come across as fundies. I highly recommend watching the weekly cultural engagement series “theTable,”hosted by Dr. Bock, on the DTS website. I think it gives a very balanced and well-researched view on various relevant cultural issues.

    Shalom

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  4. There are a couple of typos in my previous comment (e.g. “Bart Ehrman I”–as opposed to his hypothetical son, Bart Ehrman II?), but I don’t see an option to edit.

    insanitybytes22, I don’t think WK is challenging these passages on the basis of how feminists and liberals have used them. He’s simply stating how this particular passage has been appropriated and given too much weight. The passage itself is challenged on the basis of not being found in many manuscripts, particularly the earliest ones, and that it does not match John’s writing style and is placed elsewhere in other manuscripts where it is found.

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    1. It doesn’t say. Would it be proper to assume that you’re pointing out that there was a double standard? As the passage lacks support, we could only speculate on this story. But you’ll get no argument from me on that. There was indeed a double standard in the culture of the time. I don’t think this point was lost on Jesus, as he counted women among his disciples. Jesus was very countercultural and addressed the hypocrisies of his day.

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      1. Yes, there was a double standard in the culture at the time and some countries today still hold to that double standard.

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  5. FWIW, there was an ETC symposium on the passage last year. Here is one blogpost summarizing the event. Note how the various presenters, with the different views of authenticity, feel about the issue of preaching the passage! (Btw, I don’t know if the conference is available in audio/video or transcripted form or not — for those interested enough to hear scholars present different sides of the issue before making up one’s mind [Prov. 18.17].)

    James Snapp, Jr. also has a series of posts reviewing the symposium. A search results page is here. You’ll have to scroll down to the last post on the page, which is the first one the series. Then scroll up to read each successive post. Five posts in all. (The top-most post is not related to the symposium, but it showed up in the search results). Oh, I did find a 6th post in the series – here. Sorry, but I couldn’t figure out how to get all these post links on one page for viewing.

    Incidentally, one might also check out James Snapp’s book on the external evidence for the passage.

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    1. Coincidentally, the book form of the conference papers has just been announced at the ETC blog. And when book it’s published it will likely be the go-to book for scholarly presentations of different views of the passage.

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        1. I myself am only going by the announcement at the ETC blog at this point, so I’d say keep an eye on the comments there to see what discussion it generates. :-)

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  6. The great thing about being a Protestant is that we’re free to follow the best evidence, and we’re not tied to trying to defend the magisterium. :)

    Regardless of how this is used, it should be and will be removed from bibles eventually. All of the major English translations already have some variation of the note “this section is not present in the earliest manuscripts”. From everything I know of bible translation committees, it will be a slow incremental process. Probably the next change will be to note, as here in this article, that it’s not just not in the earliest, but that it appears while close hundreds of years late.

    It shouldn’t be in for the same reason that 3 Peter shouldn’t be in, nor the gospels of Thomas or Mary Magdalene. Thr NT contains first hand eyewitness accounts (either directly written as Mattew Pauline Johannine) or by carefully gathering the firsthand eyewitness testimony (Luke/Act). These are simply too late to be called scripture.

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