John 7:53-8:11, called the Pericope Adulterae, is an excellent example of how the determinations of textual scholars can directly impact the people of God. This passage in particular is also a perfect text to demonstrate how textual interpretation can spoil the people of God with misinformation. I was young in my faith the first time I heard that this passage was “not originally in Scripture” from a John Piper sermon. From that point on, I heard many people repeat the lines such as, “It is my favorite passage in the Bible that’s not Scripture,” and “I wouldn’t preach this text.” The arguments I considered most compelling were that the passage was a “floating tradition” and that “the earliest manuscripts do not contain this passage,” and that the “church fathers do not quote this passage.” Based on the information I was given by pastors that I trusted, I felt justified in simply skipping over the passage as I read through the Gospel of John. The note in the Reformation Study Bible reads this way:
R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015), 1870.
“These verses are not present in some Greek manuscripts, and in others they appear at different locations, such as after 7:36 or elsewhere in John, or even in Luke. This diversity makes it uncertain that this incident with the adulterous woman and her accusers appeared at this or any point in John’s original document, but its presentation of Jesus is consistent with the rest of the Gospels and it may preserve an authentic tradition of an event in Jesus’ life.”
When I abandoned the modern critical text and began to do my own research, I was dismayed to find that many of the claims made by pastors I previously trusted were either incorrect, or based on higher critical principles. This made me realize how deeply rooted the axioms of modern textual criticism were in the mainstream evangelical Calvinist world. In this article, I am not attempting to “prove” the authenticity of the Pericope Adulterae (7:53-8:11), but to demonstrate how easily a passage can be removed from Scripture, and how easily it is for a theory to become a fact to the people of God. Before I answer some of the claims against this passage, I’d like to survey some scholarly perspectives on the verse:
Knust & Wasserman. To Cast the First Stone. 50.
“Still, of this we can be sure: By the fourth century, two different Gospels of John were circulating, one with the pericope adulterae and one without it”
Some scholars even recognize the validity of it’s inclusion:
(Raymond E. Brown. Gospel according to John I-XII, AB 29. 336)
“Present in the Vulgate, preserved in the “received text of the Byzantine Church,” and incorporated in the King James Version of the Bible, this story is still widely and appropriately accepted as Scripture”
More importantly, the scholars recognize what is commonly avoided within Christian circles – that the text-critical axioms do have a meaningful impact on the church’s perspective of Scripture. The Pericope Adulterae is the perfect example of this.
Knust & Wasserman. To Cast the First Stone. 29.
“As these many editions also show, however, textual traditions can and do change, and in significant ways. Advances in textual criticism brought material changes to the text(s) printed in these various editions, altering both texts and the attitudes towards them. Even so, the older forms of text continued to circulate alongside these various textual “improvements,” and there are noticeable differences among these many critical editions, at both the textual and paratextual level.”
“The gradual but but now “traditional” placement of the pericope adulterae in brackets, in an appendix, or in a critical apparatus – as well as the continued rejection of such editorial (mis)placements – encapsulates fundamental theological divides about the degree to which faith ought to be confirmed by science and science by faith, and does so within the material text of the New Testament.”(Ibid., 17).
So it seems that the modern scholars are in tune with the shifting theological perspectives that removing a passage such as John 7:53-8:11 brings. Now let’s examine some of the common claims made by pastors, study Bibles, and commentaries, and see if these claims support removing the passage from Holy Scripture. Again, this is not a “proof” for the passage, but a demonstration that sometimes popular opinions are founded on thin evidence.
Answering Common Objections Made by Pastors, Study Bibles, and Critics
The Pericope Adulterae is Not a “Floating Tradition”
The most common claim, and possibly the most misleading, is that the Pericope Adulterae is a “floating tradition.” Though this argument is popular, it is not one that is responsibly supported by the extant manuscript data. The phenomenon of this story “floating” doesn’t occur in any of the early manuscripts that have the passage, and the manuscripts that contain the Pericope Adulterae in a different location do not occur until much later, and only in a handful of manuscripts. Until the 9th century, this passage is supported in only in one location – John 7:53-8:11. In other words, the “floating” tradition of the Pericope Adulterae is not a phenomenon that occurs in most manuscripts of John, and the tiny amount of manuscripts it does “float” in are late. So if the method of choice for authenticating Scripture is textual criticism, the evidence simply doesn’t support a “floating tradition” until the passage is well established. If one wants to continue making this claim, they should revise it to say, “This passage floats in several later manuscripts, but is overwhelmingly testified to being at John 7:53.” I hardly think this is a good reason to eject this passage from the text.
The Manuscript Evidence Does Not Prove it Inauthentic
The second common claim is that “the earliest manuscripts do not contain this passage.” In the first place, it does exist in Codex Bezae (400AD), which is an early manuscript. Even though the manuscript is generally thought of as not useful for creating Greek texts, its existence in the text itself is enough to demonstrate that manuscripts had it. Appealing to several early manuscripts is not a meaningful argument because a passage being excluded from these “earliest” manuscripts in no way demonstrates that the passage was not there to begin with, simply that whatever exemplar(s) were used didn’t have the passage. The only thing the early extant manuscripts demonstrate is that the exemplar(s) didn’t have the passage, and says nothing about the originality of the verse. Further, the verdict is still out as to where the most influential of these early codices came from, especially two of the Great Uncials which are appealed to so often as authoritative.
“The fact that there are no extant Greek manuscripts with texts that are particularly close to the text of Codex Sinaiticus weighs against any theory of lasting influence. The specific context(s) of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus…cannot be established”(Ibid 190,191).
If the whole manuscript tradition is inspected, John 7:53-8:11 is found in 1,476 manuscripts. Since we do not know where the earliest manuscripts came from that do not have the passage, they do not seem like a stable guide, if we are using them to remove passages from Scripture. The ejection of this passage from Holy Scripture hardly seems warranted if we take into consideration that early manuscripts had the passage. One could be skeptical if they wish to put a lot of weight in several early manuscripts, but that doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to argue against the passage.
The Early Church Was Well Aware of the Passage
The third common claim is that “none of the ancient fathers mention this passage,” which is picked up by most people from DA Carson. If the goal is to demonstrate its existence in the early church, there are more than enough references to it to show that the early church knew about it. Take for example the Didascalia, a third century book of church order.
“In the Didascalia, church leaders are reminded to receive the repentant back into the fold in imitation of of Jesus, who did not condemn “she who had sinned” when “elders” brought her before Jesus for judgement. Jesus’ saying, “Go, neither do I condemn you” is quoted, and the circumstances of the episode (men bring a sinning woman before Jesus and ask his opinion about the matter) are identical to what is found in the later Pericope Adulterae…The Didascalia is definitely referencing the Pericope Adulterae…”(Ibid. 63).
Further, the early latin writers considered it authentic:
“Latin writers like Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine understood it to be fully Johannine”Ibid,11.
Even in the 16th century, Erasmus concluded the same:
“Erasmus reviewed much of the same evidence known to scholars today…Even so, he decided, the story is likely to be Johannine: known to Papias, worthy of the gospel, sanctioned by the church, especially well received in Latin.”
If the reason people make this claim is to show that the “church didn’t know about this passage for 1,000 years,” it falls flat on its face. I will include several more ancient references to the passage at the end of this article. Even scholars such as Chris Keith admit the passage was early, and located at John 7:53.
“Ambrose is particularly significant for the present discussion because he is the first Christian writer to remark upon Jesus’ acts of writing in PA, the main subject of this thesis. In a letter dated between 385–387 CE, he claims that PA is located in GJohn, and also remarks that the story is, by his time, quite familiar in Christian communities. In Epistle 68 (26), he writes, ‘Numerous times the question [regarding bishops’ involvement in secular courts, specifically concerning capital punishment] has been raised, and well known, too, is the acquittal of the woman who in the Gospel according to John was brought to Christ, accused of adultery.’33 It is clear, then, that Ambrose knows PA in GJohn, and further evidence makes it probable that Ambrose read PA at John 7.53–8.11.”Keith, Chris. Jesus Began to Write: Literacy, the Pericope Adulterae, and the Gospel of John. PhD. University of Edinburgh. 2008. P. 119.
The fact is, that the early church knew of this passage, and knew that manuscripts were circulating with and without it. The problem is not the evidence, dear Christian.
So it seems that the passage in question is not a “floating tradition,” is found in one extant early manuscript, and is referenced by early church fathers. If the goal is to defend the text of Holy Scripture, why adopt an interpretive lens that tries to disprove the authenticity of variant passages? It does not seem like an appropriate perspective, in any case. This further highlights the fact that the axioms of modern textual criticism consider the Scriptures corrupt until proven pure. The point of this article is not to “prove” the Pericope Adulterae original based on evidence, but to demonstrate the importance of our own interpretive lens and heart.
An important question we should ask ourselves here is, “What reason do I have to question every passage of Scripture simply because somebody says so?” I argue that it is not our job to act as critics of the Holy Scriptures. It is not well advised to be one of the few who reject this passage, especially considering the claims against it are thinly supported and even outright misleading. If the reason you reject this passage is due to it being a “floating tradition” or because “the early church didn’t know about it,” I encourage you to reconsider your position. There is no good reason, based on the claims against this passage, to reject it.
“We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship”Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy
Appendix: Early References to the Pericope Adulterae
“Why delay ye, O Novatians, to ask eye for eye, tooth for tooth, to demand life for life, to renew once more the practice of circumcision and the sabbath? Put to death the thief. Stone the petulant. Choose not to read in the Gospel that the Lord spared even the adulteress who confessed, when none had condemned her;”Against the Treatise of the Novatians – 4th Century
“The acquittal of the woman who, in the Gospel of John, was brought to Christ accused of adultery, is very famous”Ambrose, Epistle 26 – 4th Century
“In the Gospel according to John, there is found, in many of the Greek, as well as the Latin copies, the story of the adulteress who was accused before the Lord”Jerome, Against the Pelagians 2:17 – 4th Century
“Certain persons of little faith or rather enemies of the true faith fearing I suppose less their wives should be given impunity in sinning removed from their manuscripts the lord’s act of forgiveness to the adulteress. As if he who had said, “sin no more” had granted permission to sin.”Augustine of Hippo – 4th-5th Century