(Jn. 7:53-8:11) Does this belong in the Bible?

CLAIM: Many evangelical scholars do not believe that this section of John—sometimes called the pericope adulterae—belongs in the Bible. Most good translations usually demarcate this section with a footnote that says: “Early MSS do not contain this section.” Is this section of John canonical, or should we remove it from our Bible? Let’s consider a number of the arguments in this debate.

ARGUMENT #1: There is unique language in this passage.

Scholars argue that this section of John has language that doesn’t match the rest of John’s gospel. NT scholar Andreas Kostenberger explains, “Fourteen out of eighty-two words used in this pericope (or 17 percent) are unique to John.”[1]

However, arguments from language are subjective, especially when we realize that John might have used slightly different language here, because he is explaining a new concept. Specifically, adultery isn’t used anywhere else in the gospel of John. Therefore, it makes sense that new language would be used here (For a critique of this approach to validating authorship, see our earlier article defending the Authorship of the Pastoral Epistles). In fact, Kostenberger himself admits that this argument from language is not that persuasive, and in fact, there could be good reasons for John using unique words here.[2]

ARGUMENT #2: This section interrupts the natural flow of thought.

Some NT scholars argue that this section about adultery seems to interrupt the context of Jesus debating with the religious leaders. However, James Montgomery Boice actually argues just the opposite. Without this little pericope, Boice argues, the text would go from 7:52 to 8:12, which he calls “abrupt and unnatural.”[3] He also notes that this story seems to fit the pattern of John. A story is laid out, and then Jesus tells a sermon on it. This story also makes sense of Jesus’ comments about judging in 7:24 (“Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment”) and 8:15 (“You judge according to the flesh; I am not judging anyone”).

ARGUMENT #3: This section is absent from all of the earliest manuscripts.

This is perhaps the strongest argument against this section being canonical. Kostenberger explains, “The entire twelve verses of the pericope adulterae are completely absent from all of the oldest manuscripts of the Gospel of John.”[4] D.A. Carson adds, “All the early church Fathers omit this narrative: in commenting on John, they pass immediately from 7:52 to 8:12.”[5] How can we claim that this section of John is canonical with such concrete textual evidence? Let’s consider multiple counterarguments:

First, some early manuscripts leave a space in the papyri where this story would have gone. Boice writes, “Two manuscripts leave a blank space where it would have come.”[6] Other early manuscripts place this story in other places in John or in the gospel of Luke. Boice writes, “Some early manuscripts attach it at other places, such as at the end of the gospel or after Luke 21:38.”[7] Carson writes, “Although most of the manuscripts that include the story place it here (i.e. at 7:53-8:11), some place it instead after Luke 21:38, and other witnesses variously place it after John 7:44, John 7:36 or John 21:25.”[8] This may corroborate Augustine’s theory (cited below): this account was clipped out and was just floating around the manuscripts.

Second, early Christian writers mention this story as authentic. Let’s consider each:

Papias (AD 110). Eusebius claims that Papias mentioned this story. Papias referred to a very early story “about a woman falsely accused before the Lord of many sins.”[9] Of course, no other account like this occurs in the rest of the NT.

The Didascalia (3rd century). The Didascalia was written as early as our earliest manuscripts. Chris Keith writes, “The author of the Didascalia recalls PA [pericope adulterae] while instructing bishops regarding the forgiveness of sinners.”[10]

Ambrose (4th century). Ambrose writes, “In the same way also the Gospel lesson which has been read, may have caused no small offense to the unskilled, in which you have noticed that an adulteress was brought to Christ and dismissed without condemnation… Did Christ err that He did not judge righteously? It is not right that such a thought should come to our minds.”[11]

Augustine (4th century). Augustine believed that some scribes purged this section, because it might encourage infidelity in marriage! He writes, “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.”[12]

Jerome (AD 400). Jerome claimed to have many thousands of documents at his disposal, and he “unquestioningly included it in the Latin Vulgate.”[13] Jerome writes, “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.”[14]

Third, there is good motive for this story to have been removed—especially when we consider the mentality of the church fathers. Boice writes, “There is an excellent reason why the story may have been omitted in the early manuscripts. In a context with an immoral paganism, it is easy to see how the story might have been used by enemies of the Gospel to suggest that Christ condoned fornication. Indeed, this is the reason for its omission given by both Augustine and Ambrose in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.”[15]

This ancient theory from Augustine and Ambrose garners credibility when we read through the writings of the early church fathers. For example, Tertullian (AD 200) was scandalized that this story was Scripture, claiming that it “favors adulterers.”[16] Hermas (early 2nd century) writes that “there is but one repentance”[17] for those who commit adultery. With this incredibly hostile attitude toward adulterers in the early church, it’s easy to see why there would be a considerable motive in purging Jesus’ words in John 8. For these reasons, we hold that this passage is legitimately Scripture.

[1] Kostenberger, Andreas J. John: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2004. 245.

[2] Kostenberger, Andreas J. John: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2004. 246.

[3] Boice, James Montgomery. The Gospel of John: Volume 2 (5:1-8:59). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1980. 308.

[4] Kostenberger actually cites Peterson (1997: 191-221) here. Kostenberger, Andreas J. John: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2004. 247.

[5] Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991. 333.

[6] Boice, James Montgomery. The Gospel of John: Volume 2 (5:1-8:59). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1980. 307.

[7] Boice, James Montgomery. The Gospel of John: Volume 2 (5:1-8:59). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1980. 307.

[8] Carson continues: “The diversity of placement confirms the inauthenticity of the verses.” However, I don’t see how this follows. Instead, it’s possible that scribes knew that this was authentic, but didn’t know where to place it. Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991. 333.

[9] Cited in Eusebius Historia Ecclesiastica 3.39.

[10] Keith, Chris. The Pericope Adulterae: The Gospel of John and the Literacy of Jesus. Brill NV, The Netherlands: Hotei Publishing, 209. 212.

[11] Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Academia Litterarum Vindobonensis, Volume xxxii. 359-360.

[12] De Adulterinis Conjugiis 2:6-7. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Academia Litterarum Vindobonensis, Volume xxxxi. 387.

[13] Boice, James Montgomery. The Gospel of John: Volume 2 (5:1-8:59). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1980. 308.

[14] Migne. Patrologiae Cursus Completus. Series Latina, Volume. 23, col. 579.

[15] Boice, James Montgomery. The Gospel of John: Volume 2 (5:1-8:59). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1980. 308.

[16] Tertullian writes, “But I would yield my ground to you, if the scripture of the Shepherd, which is the only one which favours adulterers, had deserved to find a place in the Divine canon.” Tertullian On Modesty. Chapter 10: “Repentance More Competent to Heathens Than to Christians.”

[17] Hermas writes, “If the husband do not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented. But not frequently. For there is but one repentance to the servants of God.” Hermas. Fourth Commandment: “On Putting One’s Wife Away for Adultery.” Chapter 1. Line 167-168.