The story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11 is generally regarded as inauthentic and uninspired.

D. A. Carson says the following in his commentary on this passage (p.333):

These verses . . . are absent from virtually all early Greek manuscripts that have come down to us, representing great diversity of textual traditions. The most notable exception is the Western unical D, known for its independence in numerous other places.

In other words, Western uncial D is the oldest manuscript containing the story of the woman caught in adultery. Can someone enlighten me on this? What is "Western unical D" and how "notable" is this exception? How old is this manuscript? How complete is it? How reliable is it generally considered to be?


2 Answers 2


"Western uncial D" is better known as Codex Bezae. It contains both a Greek and a Latin version of the gospels and acts, and is around 80% complete. In John it is missing the first three chapters. It is usually dated to the 5th century, which is very early. Nonetheless, it is not considered very reliable as it has a large number of unusual readings. Metzger writes:

"No known manuscript has so many and such remarkable variations from what is usually taken to be the normal New Testament text. Codex Bezae’s special characteristics are the free addition (and occasional omission) of words, sentences, and even incidents."

Specifically if your interest is in the Pericope Adulterae as it relates to Bezae, several things are worth noting. First, we have several papyri of John which are much older than Bezae (3rd century) and do not contain it. Second, although Bezae is our earliest Greek text of John containing it, we know that the story was circulating substantially earlier than Bezae was written because it is referred to in several other texts (the Didascalia Apostolorum in the early 3rd century, the writings of Didymus the Blind in the mid 4th century, and possibly in the lost writings of Papias in the early 2nd century). Didymus says it appeared in "several gospels" while Papias attributed a similar story to the Gospel of the Hebrews (see this post). So, there were definitely copies of John in the 4th century which contained the Pericope Adulterae, even though we don't have any of them. Nonetheless, the scribes copying Vaticanus and Sinaiticus in the early to mid 4th century (from even earlier texts!) did not consider the Pericope Adulterae to be original. On the whole, the evidence seems to suggest that the story itself dates to the 2nd century or earlier, but that it was not originally part of John but instead the current text may have originated in a non-canonical gospel or an early gospel harmony. See this answer for more.


Here is the actual digital photograph of the uncial itself. The hash mark (to the left in the margin) is where the "Pericope Adulterae" actually begins in the text, and please note as a matter of passing interest that there are no marginalia or corrections by other editors. In other words, the copyist(s) for the Codex Bezae had written the uncial including the "Pericope Adulterae" as though it were actually an original aspect of the gospel narrative.

According to Holmes in his work, The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), the earliest documentation of the "Pericope Adulterae" are found from the Second Century AD. That is, in the 4th fragment of Papias (dated to the Second Century AD) there is the "Pericope Adulterae" almost cited verbatim as it would subsequently appear in Codex Bezae some 200-300 years later.

In other words, the oral tradition received by Papias and documented in his fragments in the Second Century are parallel to the "Pericope Adulterae" and documented in the Codex Bezae in the Fourth/Fifth Century. The problem is that the 4th fragment of Papias made no association of the "Pericope Adulterae" to the Fourth Gospel, or to any other gospel for that matter.

In summary, the Apostle Paul quotes the Lord Jesus (Acts 20:35) for which there is no gospel record, and which therefore shows that even the Apostle Paul had received an oral tradition to the effect that Jesus had once said, "It is better to give than to receive" (that is, Paul acknowledged to his listeners that he was aware that Jesus had once stated that phrase during his earthly ministry). In that vein, the "Pericope Adulterae" appears to have been another such oral tradition among Christians that first appeared in writing by Papias in the Second Century. Later, copyists in the Fourth/Fifth century (Codex Bezae), and of course others later, have tried to shoehorn this "orphan" account from oral tradition into various places within the Fourth Gospel (but with a preponderance of preference at John 7:53-8:11). Why the gospel of John? Holmes cites in The Apostolic Fathers that Papias was associated with those who had been associated with the Apostle John (Polycarp, et al.), and thus the inference to the Apostle John.

  • 1
    Could you clarify what you mean by "almost cited verbatim"? I thought the fragment of Papias (as quoted by Eusebias) was very brief and contains no actual quotations of the PA: "Papias also put forth another history concerning a woman accused of many sins before the Lord; and this history is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews." There's no way we can determine from that whether Papias's version of the story closely agreed with the one in Bezae.
    – Noah
    Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 17:05
  • @NoahSnyder - Eusebius was referring to fragment #3. You can view fragment #4 by clicking here, and then "look inside" to Page 741. The parallels are VERBATIM.
    – Joseph
    Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 19:42
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    Please click here for page 741, and then here for page 742. Please note that ONLY the italicized words comprise about 50% of "verbatim text" as is found in John 7:53ff. Thus I had said that Papias "almost cited verbatim" the Pericope Adulterae in the Second Century AD.
    – Joseph
    Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 0:46
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    Thanks for the images! As explained in the introduction (see the footnote) this reconstruction is formed by comparing Eusebius's and Agapius's stories to the extant versions (the canonical one, the version in the Didascalia, and the version in Didymus) to speculatively reconstruct a best guess for the version that Papias may have known. It's pretty speculative though, and there's certainly no way to know the actual words that Papias used even if this reconstruction is roughly right.
    – Noah
    Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 1:21
  • 2
    Interesting. I highly recommend Holmes's book. On the odd pages he provides the English translations, and on the even pages the language concerned (Greek, Latin, etc.), so that readers can see what the Apostolic Fathers wrote during the First and Second centuries.
    – Joseph
    Commented Jun 13, 2013 at 1:34

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