A Closer Look at the Pericope Adulterae (The Woman Caught in Adultery)

Open up an ESV to John 7:53 – 8:11, and you will find the entire section in brackets with the comment, “THE EARLIEST MANUSCRIPTS DO NOT INCLUDE 7:53 – 8:11.” What is taking place here? This story of the woman caught in adultery, also known as the pericope adulterae, is well beloved in Christian circles; is this saying it’s not true? Not necessarily, but it is indicating that likely does not belong in the text. In fact, Dan Wallace has even often called it, “My favorite passage that is not in the Bible.”[1] The question of whether it belongs in the Bible and whether it is true are two separate questions, which we will look at below.

This passage is one of two major variants found in the manuscript tradition, the other being the longer ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). Since this is a well known passage, with a less generally well known textual history among the average reader of the Bible, I want to take a closer look to understand just why it is that it gets bracketed off in translations like the ESV. To do this, we will look at manuscript evidence, patristic (church fathers) evidence, and internal evidence.

If you are unfamiliar with textual differences, it may be helpful to read my previous post as a companion to this one.

Manuscript Evidence

The manuscript evidence leans heavily against this passage being authentic to the Gospel according to John. Bruce Metzger summarizes the situation:

The account is lacking in the best Greek manuscripts: it is absent from P66, P75, א, B, L, N, T, W, X, Δ, Θ, Ψ, 33, 157, 565, 1241, and fam. 1424. Codices A and C are defective at this point, but it is highly probable that neither contained the section as there would not have been space enough on the missing leaves to include it along with the rest of the text. The Old Syriac (Syrs,c) and the Arabic form of Tatian’s Diatessaron betray no knowledge of the passage, nor is it contained in the early manuscripts of the Peshitta. Likewise, the old Coptic Churches did not include in their Bible, for the Sahidic, the sub-Achmimic, and the older Bohairic manuscripts lack it. Some Armenian manuscripts as well as the Old Georgian version omit it. In the West, the passage is absent from the Gothic version and from several Old Latin manuscripts (a, f, l*, q).[2] 

Now I know a lot of that just looks like a bunch of letters, but those letters and numbers each represent a manuscript. Before moving on, and to establish some context, here is the estimated century of each Greek manuscript: P66 (3rd); P75 (3rd); א (IV); B (4th); L (8th/9th); N (6th); T (5th); W(4th/5th); X (10th); Δ (9th); Θ (9th); Ψ (9th/10th), 33 (9th), 157 (12th), 565 (9th), 1241 (12th), and fam. 1424 (9th/10th). 

These are quite significant manuscripts to be lacking the passage. Four of them in particular, when in agreement, form a very solid witness to the text: P66, P75, א (Codex Sinaiticus), and B (Codex Vaticanus). Dan Wallace says, “When P66, P75, Sinaiticus, and Vaticanus agree, their combined testimony is overwhelmingly strong that a particular reading is not authentic.”[3] As regards the early translations of the New Testament, Wallace further adds. “Of the three most important early versions of the New Testament (Coptic, Latin, Syriac), two of them lack the story in their earliest and best witnesses. The Latin alone has the story in its best early witnesses.”[4] There is a large amount of agreement in the earliest stage among both Greek manuscripts and the translations, with Latin being the primary outlier.

Not only is the passage absent from these early and significant witnesses, the pericope also occurs at different points in John, and even very occasionally in Luke. Metzger again writes,

The earliest Greek manuscript known to contain the passage is Codex Bezae, of the fifth century, which is joined by several Old Latin manuscripts (aur, c, f, f2, j, rl). The pericope is obviously a piece of floating tradition that circulated in certain parts of the Western Church. It was subsequently inserted into various manuscripts at various places. Most scribes thought that it would interrupt John’s narrative least if it were inserted after 7.52 (D, E, F, G, H, K, M, S, U, Γ, Λ, Π, 28, 579, 700, and 1579). Others placed it after 7.36 (MS. 225) or after 21:24 (fam. 1, 1076, 1570, 1582). The revision of the Old Georgian version, made in the eleventh century by George the Athonite, contains the passage after 7.44. The scribe of an ancestor of fam. 13 inserted it in another Gospel altogether, after Luke 21.38. Significantly, in many of the manuscripts that contain the passage, it is marked with an obelus (S) or an asterisk (E, M, Λ), indicating that though the scribes of these manuscripts included the account, they were aware that it lacked satisfactory credentials.[5]

Again, lots of letters and numbers indicating manuscripts. Here are the dates for the primary Greek manuscripts in support of the traditional placement after John 7:52: D (5th), E (6th), F (9th), G (9th), H (6th), K (9th), M (9th), S (10th), U (9th), Γ (10th), Λ (9th), Π (9th), 28 (11th), 579 (13th), 700 (11th), and 1579 (11th). 

This lack of stability in the text is further evidence that the pericope adulterae was not written by John. Further, the fact that the earliest manuscript to include the passage is Codex Bezae (D) is noteworthy since it is known as the foremost representative of the Western text-type, which is known to be a “freer” text-type, thus D tends to have quite singular readings within it. The Western text-type is also what is representative of the Old Latin, which is where the passage is primarily found.

In the interest of fairness, I want to also note that there are an additional 13 fragmentary Greek manuscripts of John that date from the 2nd – 4th centuries that we are unable to consider since the passage in question has not survived in those specific manuscripts. It is possible that these could have contained the pericope adulterae, but we simply do not know since those portions of the text have not survived. 

Patristic Evidence

In the Greek speaking world, no church father until Euthymius Zigabenus in the early 12th century explicitly mentioned the pericope adulterae as belonging to John.[6] Considering how far removed that is from the original time of writing and how many Greek speaking church fathers referenced John, this would seem to indicate ignorance of this passage in the texts of John that they possessed. 

Now while Greek writers did not link the story to John’s Gospel, this does not mean there was ignorance of the story in general. Papias (c. 60 – c. 130) likely knew of the story when he referenced a woman “who was accused of many sins before the Lord,” though he said it was found in the Gospel according to the Hebrews.[7] The Didascalia, a third century Syriac text, cites a portion of the story.[8] Didymus the Blind (c. 313 – 398), a Greek speaking theologian from Alexandria, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes, recounts the pericope of the woman caught in adultery and says it is found “in certain gospels.”[9] The testimony of Jerome says that it was found in many Greek and Latin manuscripts.[10] One final citation of note is Augustine (354 – 430), who made a rather serious accusation: “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.”[11]

At first blush, the patristic evidence seems to clash with the manuscript evidence, while Augustine’s citation could lead to the conclusion that the passage had been excised from the manuscripts. If this were so on a widespread basis, then that would lead to the conclusion that the early manuscripts lacking the passage are indicative of this practice. Something of a counter to this is to keep in mind that both Jerome and Augustine were Latin speakers and part of the Western church, which is where extant manuscripts containing the pericope adulterae are associated, and where the story seemed to be more prevalent. Further, that some removed the passage in no way indicates most did; the general agreement between the Greek and old translations points to too much consistency unless there was a rather widespread practice of removing the passage, which seems dubious.

From the Greek speaking perspective, Papias indicates he is aware of the passage in an apocryphal work known as the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Didymus, another noteworthy Greek speaker, is not precise enough for us to know whether he was referring to the Gospel of John or some other work, such as the Gospel according to the  Hebrews. Notable Greek writers, such as Origen (c. 184 – c. 253), John Chrysostom (c. 347 – c. 407), and Nonnus of Panopolis (4th/5th century), dealt with the Gospel of John verse by verse and make no reference to the pericope,[12] which is quite significant and shows that the Greek texts they worked from almost certainly lacked the passage.

Internal Evidence

On the internal evidence of the text, it is noted that the language and style found in the pericope are non-Johannine, meaning they are not reflective of the type of language used throughout the rest of the Gospel.[13] Wallace says, “Intrinsically, the vocabulary, syntax, and style look far more like Luke than they do John. There is almost nothing in these twelve verses that has a Johannine flavor.”[14] This tends to make it stand out all the more as an insertion due to its unique nature. 

In addition to demonstrating stylistic differences, many also note that it interrupts the flow of the passage in John. Here is the text so that you may judge for yourself:

7:45 The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” 46 The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” 47 The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? 48 Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? 49 But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” 50 Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, 51 “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” 52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”… 8:12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 

Conclusion

So what are we to do with the passage? Should we continue to use it or not? I want to first consider two points:

  1. We are concerned with whether John actually wrote the specific passage, not whether it is true; those are two separate issues. On the weight of the extant manuscript evidence, the internal evidence, and the near-total silence of Greek speaking church fathers on linking it to John, the scales would appear to be largely tipped in favor of viewing the whole of the pericope to be an interpolation. If John did not write it, then it is not Scripture, regardless of whether it is true.
  1. It is possible that the pericope adulterae reflects a genuine extra-biblical tradition regarding Jesus that perhaps circulated in oral form or in a separate written form. The fact that it seems to have been known from an early date would seem to lend support to this. Metzger is bold enough to say that, “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 manuscripts at various places.”[15] It’s possible that this is overstating the case, but it is not an unreasonable conclusion. 

With these considerations, in mind, I would contend that the historical veracity is secondary to the textual reliability. When we look at the text, we want to know what John actually wrote. If he did not write this, which the evidence largely indicates, then it should not be included in the text. If we regard Scripture to be what John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, actually wrote, then this passage would fall outside the scope of Scripture.

Does that then imply that we should never reference the story again? Not necessarily; it has a place rooted very much in church tradition that is still important. I would, however, caution against building a doctrine specifically based off of this passage. Because it is textually suspect, and potentially historically suspect, it should be handled with caution. Again, due to its long history, it need not be disregarded, but its status should be kept in mind.

While I conclude that the pericope adulterae is best considered to be outside the scope of Scripture, not all reach the same conclusion, especially in light of the testimony of people such as Jerome and Augustine. I do want to make clear that, while I argue that doctrine should not be built on this passage alone, no doctrine is impacted by its absence. If you do not have these verses, does Jesus still forgive sinners? Of course; that is not dependent on this passage at all. 

So next time you open up your Bible and see those brackets, you should be more familiar with what is meant by the earliest manuscripts not containing 7:53 – 8:11.


[1] Daniel B. Wallace, “My Favorite Passage That’s Not in the Bible,” bible.org. https://bible.org/article/my-favorite-passage-thats-not-bible

[2]  Bruce M. Metzger & Bart D. Ehrmann, The Text of the New Testament: It’s Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 319-320.

[3] Wallace, “My Favorite Passage That’s Not in the Bible.”

[4] Ibid.

[5]  Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 320.

[6] Ibid. 319.

[7]  Hist. Eccl.  3.39.16.

[8]  Didascalia Apostolorum 7.

[9]  Didymus, Comm. Eccl. 223.6b-13a. Translation found in Bart D. Ehrman, “Jesus and the Adulteress,” NTS 34 (1988): 24-44.

[10]  Jerome, Adversus Pelagianos 2.17.

[11]  Augustine, De Adulterinis Conjugiis 2.6–7.

[12]  Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 320.

[13]  Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (German Bible Society, 1994), 188. 

[14] Wallace, “My Favorite Passage That’s Not in the Bible.”

[15]  Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 188.

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