Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I've read several recent commentaries on John 8 and all agree that the story of the woman caught in adultery almost certainly wasn't there in the original manuscript. Is it original?

share|improve this question
What if they are wrong in their assumption that it was not in the original manuscripts? And the text was taken as inspired when the canon of the NT was fixed. – Ralph M. Rickenbach Oct 5 '11 at 8:34
After researching this a bit, it's pretty obvious that it wasn't in the original text. Wikipedia has a list of manuscript evidence. – Richard Oct 5 '11 at 11:59
@Soldernal, you might find this article interesting. It doesn't really talk in depth about the acceptance of the text, but you might find it interesting. – Richard Oct 5 '11 at 12:00
@LanceRoberts I'm not certain you have a proper perspective on textual criticism. Based on your first sentence, it sounds like you believe that the sole intent of the text critic is to cast doubt on Biblical inspiration. Not only is this quite the serious accusation, it is also an unfair assessment of many folks who are brothers and sisters in Christ. I take issue not only with your approach, but also your logic. You clearly have no grasp of the process of the textual criticism otherwise these wild accusations would be filtered a bit better. – swasheck Mar 8 '12 at 16:53
A wee shame no one has noted Chris Keith's recent work on this passage. See his survey of previous scholarship in a Currents in Biblical Research article, and his own monograph, The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus (Brill, 2009). – Davïd Mar 31 '14 at 10:44
up vote 15 down vote accepted

The latest argument in Evangelical theological circles is that we should not consider this part of the original gospel.

The ESV Study Bible is a Bible published in the last few years and all of the scholarship and notes comes from a wide swath of evangelical theologians and academics. Its study note on this passage provides a good summary of this view:

7:53–8:11 There is considerable doubt that this story is part of John’s original Gospel, for it is absent from all of the oldest manuscripts. But there is nothing in it unworthy of sound doctrine. It seems best to view the story as something that probably happened during Jesus’ ministry but that was not originally part of what John wrote in his Gospel. Therefore it should not be considered as part of Scripture and should not be used as the basis for building any point of doctrine unless confirmed in Scripture.

I have personally come to subscribe to this point of view.

Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (2039). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

share|improve this answer
What is the rationale for claiming the canon should consist of our best reconstruction of the original documents, rather than the documents as they have been passed down to us? – Bruce Alderman Mar 8 '12 at 17:37
My response to that would be that what has been passed down to us has been necessarily modified for purposes of comprehension, or other theological aims. Did God directly inspire the King James Version, or is it an interpretation of an inspired text? However, at the time, the King James Version made the underlying theology and message of the original texts more accessible to the greater populace. – swasheck Mar 8 '12 at 18:35

Quick Subjective Analysis

Purely from reading the story, there's every reason to accept it as an authentic account of an incident in Jesus' life. Jesus' response to the woman and her accusers is among His cleverest, most merciful and profound moments recorded anywhere. For me, I will never let this story be forgotten.

On the other hand, it doesn't add anything substantive to our understanding of Jesus, His mission, or His character. We already knew that He was merciful toward sinners and able to out-maneuver the arguments of the Jewish religious leaders. The story merely illustrates Jesus' saying:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.—Matthew 7:1-5 (ESV)

Was it part of John's autograph?

Clearly not. According to B. M. Metzger, “the evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming”. In fact, most modern English translations note (as blundin's answer points out of the ESV) that the passage doesn't belong in John. Unlike many problems in textual criticism, it isn't the case that one or two manuscripts leave the passage out. Many manuscripts (especially the earliest and best) don't include it, many of those that do include it mark the passage with asterisks or obeli that indicate it was questioned by the scribe, and other manuscripts place the text in one of five other locations (after John 7:36, after John 21:25, after John 8:12, after Luke 21:38, and after Luke 24:53).

We can't know the complete history of the text, but the usual theory is that scribes wanted to include the story somewhere (and rightfully so) but there was no clear place to put it. So each scribe made an educated guess. Wikipedia points out that the earliest manuscript to include the text in either Latin or Greek is dated to the late 4th or early 5th century. The fourfold gospel (which includes John) was asserted as canonical as early as the 2nd century father Irenaeus, so if the pericope adulterae was not included at that time, it technically wouldn't be canonical.

Should we treat the text as "Inspired"?

When it comes to this passage I feel like we should follow Jesus' advice:

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.”—John 8:7 (ESV)

For that reason, I'm reluctant to cast it out of the umbrella of "inspired".

However, virtually every other word in the New Testament can throw stones at this passage. There are very few passages that can be questioned as inauthentic and none, not even the longer ending of Mark, has as little right to be included in Scripture as this passage. We can feel confident that the text of Matthew 7 is identical to the first autograph written or dictated by the original author. In comparison, John 7:53–8:11 is a fraud. Leaving that story in our Bibles does a massive injustice to every other word, 99%+ of which have been faithfully copied through the centuries.

What harm does this passage do?

I'll let Daniel B. Wallace take this question:

In retrospect, keeping these two pericopae in our Bibles rather than relegating them to the footnotes seems to have been a bomb just waiting to explode. All Ehrman did was to light the fuse. One lesson we must learn from Misquoting Jesus is that those in ministry need to close the gap between the church and the academy. We have to educate believers. Instead of trying to isolate laypeople from critical scholarship, we need to insulate them. They need to be ready for the barrage, because it is coming. The intentional dumbing down of the church for the sake of filling more pews will ultimately lead to defection from Christ. Ehrman is to be thanked for giving us a wake-up call.

This is not to say that everything Ehrman has written in this book is of that ilk. But these three passages are. Again, we need to stress: these texts change no fundamental doctrine, no core belief. Evangelical scholars have athetized them for over a century without disturbing one iota of orthodoxy.

share|improve this answer
+1, This is the best of the answers submitted. Well researched and succinct. – Raphael Rosch Apr 20 '14 at 21:21

Regardless of whether or not this pericope was in the original autographa, it has been condidered canon for so long that to change it's status would not reflect it's historical position. Remember that canon is strictly consensus, and if you include those who've gone before us, it's still majority in.

One other factor to consider is that amongst non-practicing or non-Christians it is generally one of the very few verses of Scripture they know. They may not know John 3:16, they probably don't know "Go and sin no more," but try to mess with "Judge not lest you yourself be judged," and you'll have every secularist, agnostic, and atheist all over your case.

Even then to those not part of the conversation, this passage is thus canon, and there is really no way to remove it.

share|improve this answer

I heard one famous speaker say he didn't preach on this passage ever because it wasn't in one of the [supposed] oldest versions, and in a different place in another.

Now think about that logic.

It was in many, many manuscripts, but because one manuscript didn't have it and another had it misplaced, just because we think they were older, we're now supposed to throw out the rest? That means we didn't have a true Bible for a thousand+ years? I think the greater logic is that God preserved his word, and the majority of texts had these verses in them, so they are valid.

The church agreed that these verses were part of the canon, and it is only the textual critic-driven minority opinion that wants to throw them out.

A quote from wikipedia:

On the other hand, many scholars strongly defend the Johannine authorship of these verses, and present opposing arguments and counter-analysis

And another from Zane Hodges:

If it is not an original part of the Fourth Gospel, its writer would have to be viewed as a skilled Johannine imitator, and its placement in this context as the shrewdest piece of interpolation in literary history!

share|improve this answer
but at which date did it begin appearing in the majority of texts? – swasheck Mar 7 '12 at 22:30
That's not correct. This passage doesn't appear in any manuscripts dated prior to the 5th century. The canon was set by the late 4th century. – Bruce Alderman Mar 8 '12 at 16:24
@LanceRoberts, please cite your sources. "Pretty far back" doesn't count. While Wikipedia isn't necessarily a scholarly source, I understand your inherent mistrust of it. What would you consider an authoritative source? – swasheck Mar 8 '12 at 17:05
@Lance, yes, but they usually defend it due to style analysis, not ancient documentary support. – Bruce Alderman Mar 8 '12 at 17:18
Additionally, Johannine authorship does not = inspired or legitimate something that was clearly added later in the process as necessarily part of the original text. – swasheck Mar 8 '12 at 18:36

Under subjective analysis, you state:

"On the other hand, it doesn't add anything substantive to our understanding of Jesus, His mission, or His character."

I once had a discourse with a Jew who discounted the validity of the Passion because of his insistence that the Second Temple religious authorities were scrupulous in abiding to the Mosaic Law. I doubted that these officials were any different from any other officials, whether secular or religious, when crunch time comes, based on broad rendering of history.

However, this passage shows clear evidence that the Jewish religious authorities were not so scrupulous. Indeed, this incident is reminiscent of vigilante justice and lynching; which is not unknown by highly moralistic societies. And thus the passage speaks of rule of law and against such vigilantism.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.