(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 Köstenberger explains, “Fourteen out of eighty-two words used in this pericope (or 17 percent) are unique to John.”[1] However, a number of counterarguments can be made:

First, these 12 verses are a very small sample size to create a legitimate argument from either language or style. Those who affirm Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles argue on these exact same grounds. Only in that case, the sample size is far larger (13 chapters), while this is only 12 verses (see our earlier article defending the Authorship of the Pastoral Epistles).

Second, John likely introduced new vocabulary because he was addressing a new subject—namely, adultery. Since adultery is nowhere else mentioned in John, we should expect new language to be used.

Third, arguments from language, style, and vocabulary work both ways. For instance, John 8:6 uses almost identical language as earlier in the account:

(Jn. 8:6) They were saying this, testing Him.

(Jn. 6:6) This He was saying to test him.

Those who appeal to this argument need to claim that the anonymous author was attempting to copy John’s style as a guise for fitting it into the greater biography. However, this is creates mutually competing claims: Is the anonymous author so skilled that he copied John’s style, or was he so sloppy that he introduced a new style? Indeed, Köstenberger himself states, “Word statistics should not be accorded definitive status in the present argument.”[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, the text would go from 7:52 to 8:12, which Boice calls “abrupt and unnatural.”[3] He also notes that this story seems to fit the pattern of John: That is, an event is recorded, and then, it is followed by a sermon from Jesus. This story makes sense of Jesus’ earlier and later 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 the strongest argument against this section being canonical. Köstenberger 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) that 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. Though Morris rejects the inspiration of this text, he writes, “Many authorities agree that it is referred to by Papias.”[10]

The Didascalia (3rd century). Chris Keith writes, “The author of the Didascalia recalls PA [pericope adulterae] while instructing bishops regarding the forgiveness of sinners.”[11]

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.”[12]

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.”[13]

Jerome (AD 400). Jerome claimed to have many thousands of documents at his disposal, and he “unquestioningly included it in the Latin Vulgate.”[14] 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.”[15]

Third, there is a 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.”[16] Borchert agrees, “In the centuries following the ministry of Jesus, the early church developed strict rules of discipline. Not until the fourth century with the passing of the persecutions and the easing of the patterns of reinstatement following sin was the church in the west more open to less stringent means of penance. In the earlier periods, when the church was forced by outside social pressures to maintain a self-protective stance, grace and forgiveness often were subject to legalistic interpretations, just as in the times when the Jewish rabbis felt threats from Syria or Rome. In such a time as this, fearful Christian men could easily have interpreted this text as giving their wives too much latitude in dealing with inappropriate behavior.”[17] Likewise, even though Morris rejects the inspiration of this text, he writes, “It is not mentioned very often in early days. The reason probably is that in a day when the punishment for sexual sin was very severe among the Christians this story was thought to be too easily misinterpreted as countenancing unchastity. When ecclesiastical discipline was somewhat relaxed the story was circulated more widely and with a greater measure of official sanction.”[18]

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.”[19] Hermas (early 2nd century) writes that “there is but one repentance”[20] for those who commit adultery. With such a 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.

Fourth, this text has strong internal evidence for being historical. First, it passes the criterion of embarrassment, because it isn’t likely that a later author would record Jesus siding with an adulteress—especially in a culture that was both misogynistic and unforgiving toward adultery. Second, it passes the criterion of coherence, because it fits with the typical approach of Jesus’ opponents trying to skewer him on the horns of a false dilemma (cf. Mt. 22:15-22). Third, it contains unexplained details, such as Jesus writing in the dirt (Jn. 8:6, 8). What was Jesus writing? We don’t know! The author never explains this detail. This bears the hallmarks of eyewitness testimony. Thus, while textual scholar Bruce Metzger rejected this text as canonical, he did affirm that it contains “all the earmarks of historical veracity.”[21] Morris,[22] Kruse[23] and Tenney[24] all deny that this text is canonical, but they affirm that it is at the very least historical.

Conclusion

We agree with Borchert that this text is “fully canonical”[25] and “divinely inspired” and “fully authoritative for life,”[26] even if the placement of the account is confusing. In his words, it is a “text looking for a context.”[27]

[1] Andreas Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), p.245.

[2] To be clear, however, Köstenberger argues that “Johannine style characteristics” are lacking from this section, which he considers good internal evidence against this being authentic. Andreas Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), p.246.

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

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

[5] D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), p.333.

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

[7] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John: Volume 2 (5:1-8:59) (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980), p.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.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), p.333.

[9] Cited in Eusebius Historia Ecclesiastica 3.39.

[10] Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 779.

[11] Chris Keith, The Pericope Adulterae: The Gospel of John and the Literacy of Jesus (Brill NV, The Netherlands: Hotei Publishing), p.212.

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

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

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

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

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

[17] Gerald L. Borchert, John 1-11, vol. 25A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 376.

[18] Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 779.

[19] 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.”

[20] 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.

[21] Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the New Testament (German Bible Society, 1994), p.188.

[22] See his footnote citing Tenney affirmatively. Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 779.

[23] Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 4, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 197.

[24] Merrill C. Tenney, “John,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: John and Acts, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 89.

[25] Gerald L. Borchert, John 1-11, vol. 25A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 369.

[26] Gerald L. Borchert, John 1-11, vol. 25A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 376.

[27] Though, interestingly, Borchert believes that Luke authored this text—not John.