Arguments Against John 7:53-8:11 That Prove a Man a Fool


It is certainly in vogue to reject portions of Scripture, especially within what might be called “conservative” or “reformed” Christianity. I use quotes because there is nothing conservative or reformed about this practice. By definition this is quintessential progressivism. The defining qualities of conservatism as it pertains to any discipline is that it is averse to change. It seeks to conserve that which has come before it. Additionally, the Reformed Protestant movement was defined by its protest against the Papacy. As it pertains to textual criticism, those that advocate for the modern critical text are quite literally advocating for a text platform that is essentially the Vatican manuscript. So the popular effort of deconstructing the Bible is not only progressive as it seeks to change the text of Scripture based on every new idea, it also establishes its text base from the Vatican manuscript, Codex B. I say this to remind my reader that the apologists for the Critical Text cannot be conservative, and they cannot be Reformed, at least in this area of their theology and practice. It is no surprise then that these same apologists frequently attempt to claim that reconstructionist textual criticism is “conservative” and “it’s what the Reformers would believe if they were alive today!” This is not only unconvincing, but it demonstrates the lack of intellectual integrity of those who make such arguments.

Now, it should be evident that the effort of reconstructing the text of Scripture is a progressive movement, which at face value dismantles much of the credibility of those who seek to defend the critical text. That is to say, that at its premise, those Christians who consider themselves to be orthodox should reject it outright. In this article, I want to further demonstrate the foolishness of this progressive effort by weighing popular arguments against John 7:53-8:11 against what the Pericope Adulterae scholars actually say about the passage.

Show Me the Evidence

Since the chief claim of modern critical text advocates is that the science – or the textual data – supports their claims, I want to begin by providing my reader with what the experts on the Pericope Adulterae actually say. I will use To Cast the First Stone by Dr. Tommy Wasserman and Dr. Jennifer Knust as my source, as that is the most recent and comprehensive look at the current academic consensus on the passage.

“We are therefore left with a conundrum, wanting to know something that cannot be known on the basis of surviving evidence. 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.”

Knust & Wasserman. To Cast the First Stone. 50. Emphasis mine.

The scholarly opinion then, is that by 301AD, the church had this passage in their manuscripts. Codex Vaticanus is dated between 300-325AD, for reference. The most important point to notice from this quote is that the scholars of the Pericope Adulterae plainly state that the textual evidence is simply inconclusive in terms of determining the originality of John 7:53-8:11. At best, the scholars are left in a paradox in which they can see that the church accepted this pericope as a part of John’s Gospel, but do not know if it was originally there or added later. What they can say is that references to the passage are found in the 3rd century text called the Didascalia.

“In the Didascalia, church leaders are reminded to receive the repentant back into the fold in imitation of Jesus, who did not condemn “she who had sinned” when “elders” brought her before Jesus for judgement. Jesus’s 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 on the matter) are identical to what is found in the later Johannine pericope adulterae.”

Ibid. 63

The argument from the papyri is equally thin. P45 (3rd Century), which is a fragmentary copy of John, only retains two pages from John 11. P66 (3rd Century) omits the passage but the scholars note that it is “evident from the scribe’s own attempts at correction, he or she was quite careless when copying” (Ibid. 67). P75 (2nd Century) omits the passage but again the scholars note that the scribe was “preoccupied in communicating the significance of the text over and against an exact fidelity to the exemplar being copied” (Ibid. 68). Dr. Jim Royse notes that, “As a result, the text of this manuscript does not align clearly with any codices of later centuries” (Ibid. 69, footnote 60). The poor quality of these papyri is further demonstrated when compared to other manuscripts using the textual clusters tool on the INTF website. P75 does not share more than 79.1% coherence with any other manuscript, which is lower than the bottom end of what is required to be considered significant in the CBGM. Even so, the scholars conclude that the scribes of P66 and P75 “were wholly unaware of a Johannine pericope adulterae” based on the manuscript witness.

I provided this analysis to my reader for the simple purpose of demonstrating that the textual scholars are unwilling to come to a conclusion on the authenticity of John 7:53-8:11 based on the textual evidence. The official position of the academy is that the story may be a historical fact of history, but the textual evidence is not conclusive to its originality in John and it was likely added at a later date(8). There were manuscripts with it and without it as early as the fourth century, and that is the end of the story as told by textual data.

“It is impossible to pinpoint the moment – or even the century – when the pericope adulterae first became Johannine. Perhaps the writer of the Didascalia knew the passage from John…The lesson of the pericope adulterae as it was circulating in the second and third centuries is not that a foolish interpolator corrupted a previously unspoiled text of John but that sacred texts are preserved by human actors who apply their historically and culturally situated points of view to the texts they copy and interpret…In this sense, the pericope adulterae was always “gospel,” whether or not it was present in the first copies of John.”

Ibid. 95

That is all to say that any person making claims rejecting the authenticity of John on the basis of textual data is out of step with the textual scholars and reaching above their pay grade. What we have from the highest echelon of pericope adulterae scholars is educated speculation when it comes to the originality of this passage to John.


It is evident now that making any sort of conclusive argument against the Pericope Adulterae based on the textual data is a fool’s errand. If the scholars won’t do it, than neither should the theologians, pastors, and apologists of the critical text. To do so is foolish, because only a fool would make such claims based on a handful of shredded papyri. Anybody who attempts to state with certainty that there is any sort of conclusive textual evidence for such a claim has disqualified themselves from honest dialogue. Even if the scholarly consensus is that it the passage is not original to John, it is imperative that we contrast that conclusion with their own words when they say, “We are therefore left with a conundrum, wanting to know something that cannot be known on the basis of surviving evidence.”

In fact, all claims made by the apologists for the critical text should be compared against their foundational statements.

“We do not have now – in any of our critical Greek texts or in any translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it.”

Dan Wallace. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. xii.

“Even if the text of the Gospels could be fixed – and, when viewed at the level of object and material artifact, this goal has never been achieved – the purported meanings of texts also change”

Knust & Wasserman. To Cast the First Stone. 15,16.

Only a fool would take their cues from such a framework. What Dan Wallace has said is an admission that any claim regarding a passage is simply speculation. The authors of To Cast the First Stone affirm the reality that textual scholars cannot make the conclusive claims that are propagated by the apologists for the critical text. The obvious conclusion that all Christians should come to is that faith is not based in extant evidence. Nobody believes that Christ has died for them because somebody made a convincing case for a literal bodily resurrection. In the same way, nobody believes the Bible to be the Word of God because of a tattered manuscript dated 200 years after Christ died.

If there is anything that my critical text friends need to realize, it’s that the champions of the discipline simply do not know what was original, and have no way of knowing. They have said it in their own words – directly and indirectly. So to carry on acting like there is any sort of certain argument against passages like the Pericope Adulterae is to consent to being a fool. What benefit is it to your soul, and to the health of the church, to continue attacking this passage, when the chief scholars themselves admit that no such conclusion is possible based on their methodology? There is no reason I can think of for such an effort. It is a fool’s errand, and as a Christian, there are better and more noble things to do than to strip God’s Word of a passage based on inconclusive extant evidence.

John 7:53-8:11 is Scripture


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:

“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.”

R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015), 1870.

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:

“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”

Knust & Wasserman. To Cast the First Stone. 50. 

Some scholars even recognize the validity of it’s inclusion:

“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”

(Raymond E. Brown. Gospel according to John I-XII, AB 29. 336)

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.

“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.”  

Knust & Wasserman. To Cast the First Stone. 29.

“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”  


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.”  

(Ibid. 21)

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