The Testimony of John

Chapter 8

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 5 February 2015; Revised 20 April 2015


Textual Note: John 7:53–8:11

The text of John 7:53 through 8:11 is not found in the earliest authorities. Also, several MSS have the narrative in other places in John and one has it in Luke. Modern Greek texts have varied in their inclusion of the story. The NA-21 Text included the story without brackets. The NA-25 Text completely removed it, but it is restored in the NA-28 Text without brackets. Modern Bible versions generally include a marginal note or footnote explaining the MS background.

CJB Note: "Most scholars believe that 7:53–8:11 is not from the pen of Yochanan. Many are of the opinion that it is a true story about Yeshua written by another of his talmidim."

NASB note: "Later MSS add the story of the adulterous woman, numbering it as John 7:53–8:11."

NIV note: "The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53–8:11. A few manuscripts include, these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36; John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53."

NKJV note: "7:53 The words 'And everyone' through 'sin no more' (8:11) are bracketed by NU-Text as not original. They are present in over 900 manuscripts."

The story of the adulteress is found in a few early noteworthy authorities (Didascalia, Apostolic Constitutions, and the Vulgate). In addition, many MSS, including Codex Vaticanus (4th cent.), contain "umlauts," double dots in the text to indicate omitted material, and other MSS have "lacunae," an abnormally long space in pages where the story would have been. For a detailed discussion of the MS evidence see The Pericope de Adultera by Wieland Willker. One scholar puts the total count of MSS and lectionaries containing the pericope as 1,863 (Willker 5). See also the Table of Variant Readings prepared by David Robert Palmer (2014) for specific MS differences within each verse. A list of New Testament Greek MS abbreviations and their dates may be found here.

Bruce Metzger comments, “the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity. It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts in various places. Most copyists apparently thought that it would interrupt John's narrative least if were inserted after 7:52” (188). Eusebius in his Church History (Book III, 39:16) perhaps provides a clue as to the origin of the narrative when he quotes Papias (A.D. 125) saying, "He also notes another story about a woman, who has been accused of many sins before the Lord, which the Gospel according to the Hebrews contains."

In the apostolic narratives the only story of a woman guilty of "many sins" appears in the account of Yeshua's visit to the house of a Pharisee (Luke 7:36-37, 47). The woman of the following story is accused of only one sin. The "Gospel according to the Hebrews" was apparently written in Hebrew but did not survive (Eusebius, Church History, Book III, 25:5). It is possible the adulterous woman story originally appeared in the "Gospel According to the Hebrews" and was added to the book of John because the original MS had been lost. This thesis seems supported by the fact that the narrative contains some distinctive words:

(1) There are four words that appear only here in the Besekh, autophōros, ("in the act," v. 4), katagraphō ("write," v. 6), anamartētos ("without sin," v. 7), and katakuptō, ("bend down," v. 8).

(2) There are four words common to the Synoptic Narratives that appear only in the book of John in this story: Oros tōn Eliaōn ("Mount of Olives," v. 1), grammateis ("scribes," v. 3), presbuterōn ("elders," v. 9), and katakrinō ("condemn," v. 10, 11).

(3) There are three other uncommon words: orthros ("dawn," v. 2) appears elsewhere only in Luke's writings (Luke 24:1; Acts 5:21); kuptō (bend down, v. 6) appears elsewhere only in Mark 1:7; and anakuptō ("stand," v. 7 and 10) appears elsewhere only in Luke 13:11 and 21:28.

However, the categorical declaration by many scholars that the story of the adulteress was not in the original book of John or that the wording of the story is not "characteristically Johannine" is a subjective assumption typical of literary critics. It's just as possible that the story was originally penned by John and the comment of Papias has no bearing on this matter. Uncommon words appear in other parts of the book of John, such as "my time" (2:4), "moneychangers" (2:14), "whip" (2:15), "Samaritan" (4:9), "share" (4:9), "cattle" (4:12), "whether" (7:17), "Jerusalemites" (7:25) and "treasury" (8:20). The incidence of rare words by itself cannot conclusively disprove John's authorship.

Among the earliest quotations on the narrative are from two eminent Church Fathers. Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate, wrote (c. 415) "in the Gospel according to John in many manuscripts, both Greek and Latin, is found the story of the adulterous woman who was accused before the Lord" (quoted in Willker 10). Augustine (d. 430 A.D.) offered an explanation of why many MSS are without the narrative: "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 their manuscripts the Lord's act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if he who had said, 'Sin no more,' had granted permission to sin" (De Adulterinis Conjugiis II 6, 7, quoted by Willker 10).

The famous British Bible scholar F.J.A. Hort sought to rebut Augustine's statement by saying, "This theory fails to explain why the three preliminary verses (7:53-8:2), so important as apparently descriptive of the time and place at which all the discourse of chapter 8 were spoken, should have been omitted with the rest" (quoted in Metzger 189). The choice of where to cut may appear to be arbitrary, but the account clearly begins at 7:53. Augustine's statement is not a personal opinion, but based on some sort of evidence. To prove he was wrong would require equivalent documentary evidence and his comment reveals much about the editing practices of copyists.

Supporting Augustine's explanation is the fact that some earlier church fathers, as Tertullian (c. 200-220), did not believe that adultery could be forgiven (Willker 13-14). So, it is just as reasonable to say that the verses 7:53-8:2 were included because they are essential to establishing the setting of the story as following the conclusion of Sukkot. Thus, the entire passage draws attention to the illegality of the accusers' actions and the Sanhedrin's legalistic judging of Yeshua in chapter seven and chapter eight.

Copyright © 2015 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.