New TestamentDoes the Woman Caught in Adultery Belong in the Bible? Jesus’ famous act of mercy is missing in many manuscripts, raising questions about its place in the Bible. Tommy WassermanFebruary 8, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level The story of the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 7:53–8:11) is arguably one of the most beloved Jesus stories in the New Testament which includes the familiar quotation, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” However, the story is missing from some ancient manuscripts of John, as noted already by early church fathers like Jerome and Augustine. For this and other reasons, a majority of modern scholars regard the passage as a later insertion, and some even want to remove it altogether from our Bibles. One can imagine the outcry such a radical move could cause. Thus, in his study on early manuscripts and modern translations, Philip Comfort rejected the passage as a non-Johannine interpolation and lamented the habit of printing the tradition at all in editions and translations: “True, the passage has been bracketed, or marked off with single lines … , or set in italics. But there it stands—an obstacle to reading the true narrative of John’s Gospel.”1 Philip Wesley Comfort, Early Manuscripts and Modern Translations of the New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1990), 116. Andreas J. Köstenberger expresses a similar attitude in his commentary on John: “proper conservatism and caution suggests that the passage be omitted from preaching in churches” and it should not be regarded as “part of the Christian canon.”2 Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 248. More recently, Dan Wallace has suggested that the inclusion of the narrative in modern translations reflects “a tradition of timidity,” implying that at least Protestant churches should but did not yet dare to remove the story from the Bible. The story may well go back to a very early tradition about Jesus and a woman accused of many sins To be sure, the story is often marked out in various ways in both scholarly editions and Bible translations, for example, by double brackets and an accompanying footnote explaining that it is missing in the earliest manuscripts, including Papyrus 66, Papyrus 75, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus from the third and fourth centuries, and goes unmentioned by Greek church fathers until the twelfth century. There is indeed a wide scholarly consensus that the story was not originally a part of the Gospel of John, but on the other hand, it may well go back to a very early tradition about Jesus and a woman accused of many sins, which gradually found its way into John. The earliest reference to such a story is found in the Didascalia Apostolorum, a third-century book of instructions on living a Christian life, which survives in Syriac: But if you do not receive him who repents, because you are without mercy, you shall sin against the Lord God. For you do not obey our Savior and our God, to do even as He did with her who had sinned, whom the elders placed before Him, and leaving the judgment in His hands, and departed. But He, the searcher of hearts, asked her and said to her: “Have the elders condemned you, my daughter?” She said to him: “Nay Lord.” And He said unto her: “Go, neither do I condemn you.” In this then let our Savior and King and God, be to you a standard, O bishops, and imitate Him.3Did. apost. 7; transl. by Arthur Vööbus Eusebius (c. 260–c. 340) in his church history attributes a similar story to Papias of Hierapolis (c. 60–130) and the now lost Gospel of the Hebrews. Further, Didymus the Blind (c. 313–398) says he found the story “in certain gospels,” a reference which likely suggests he did not know the passage from John, but from a different gospel. Codex Bezae (c. 400 AD) showing a later dash mark in the left margin at the start of John 7:53 (f. 133v) The earliest manuscript evidence for the passage in John is the Greek-Latin Codex Bezae (c. 400 AD) which contains the story in its traditional place both in Greek and Latin on facing pages. Interestingly, later annotators have marked out the story in the margins, probably because it was treated separately in the liturgy. We know that in the assigned reading for Pentecost in the Byzantine liturgy, a lesson is read from John 7:37–8:12, but our story is skipped, likely because it was not present in the manuscripts when the lesson was first constructed. On the other hand, the story was assigned as a lesson at a later stage to celebrate the Feast of Saint Pelagia of Antioch and various other “sinner saints” such as Mary of Egypt, Theodora of Alexandria, and Eudokia of Heliopolis. It is probably no coincidence that the story first turns up in a Greek-Latin manuscript, because it apparently became established much earlier in the Latin West even though it clearly originated in Greek. Indeed, the story was assigned a chapter in Latin manuscripts at an early stage, probably in the early third century. The Latin church father Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–397) knew it from the traditional place in John and cited it in different writings but in varying textual form. Perhaps this was because he translated the story himself from one or several Greek manuscripts. Ambrose’s contemporaries Jerome and Augustine were familiar with the Johannine story as well, but both acknowledged that it was not in every copy. When Jerome cited the passage in an argument against the Pelagians, he mentioned that he found it “in many copies of the Gospel of John,” and therefore not in all of them. When he completed his new Latin translation of the Gospels (as part of the Vulgate) several decades earlier, he had chosen to include the story in John. In doing so, he guaranteed its abiding presence in the Latin Christian tradition. The story was also incorporated in the Roman liturgy perhaps some time in the fifth century. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: Augustine, who cited the passage about a dozen times, was also aware of its absence in some manuscripts. He even proposed an explanation why the story could have been omitted, suggesting that “men of slight faith” deleted it because they were afraid that their wives might commit adultery after hearing about the woman (On Adulterous Marriages 7.6). A few modern scholars who defend the story as original to the Gospel of John have argued along similar lines, that scribes may have excluded the pericope because Jesus is too lenient toward the sinner. However, this is highly unlikely, because scribes and scholars were trained never to delete, even when they doubted the authenticity of a given passage, and, besides, there was a long and widespread affection for stories about adulterous women across the ancient world (as reflected in other passages in the New Testament). There was a long and widespread affection for stories about adulterous women across the ancient world. Although the story is not preserved in any surviving Greek gospel manuscript before the eighth century, apart from Codex Bezae, there are still other traces of the story in the East too. For example, two ivory pyxides, likely Coptic in origin, are certain attestations of the story in an Egyptian setting. These two boxes depict the forgiven adulteress among other scenes from the life of Jesus. In a sixth-century Syriac chronicle there is reference to a Gospel manuscript, likely in Greek, in the possession of Bishop Mara (d. 532 AD), which had a “chapter” peculiar to the Gospel of John, but that this chapter was not found in other copies. Then follows a version of John 8:2–11. There is much to suggest that the story had been assigned its own “chapter” (kephalaion) in Greek gospel manuscripts no later than the fifth century. Unlike our modern chapters, this particular system of “Old Greek chapters” marks out the highlights in each of the four gospels with a focus on Jesus’ miracles and teachings. Thus, the first kephalaion in John was placed at John 2:1 (the wedding in Cana). Most extant Byzantine manuscripts contain eighteen chapters in John, but some add a nineteenth chapter—the story of the adulteress—as chapter ten. The story of the woman caught in adultery in Minuscule 1 (12th c.) is located at the end of the manuscript with a long, explanatory note about it. INTF In several important medieval manuscripts that represent a family of manuscripts (known as Family 1), at the end of John 7 where one expects to find our story there is instead a critical note to inform the reader concerning “the kephalaion concerning the adulteress,” that it is not found in most manuscripts, nor mentioned by the divine fathers John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Theodore of Mopsuestia and the rest. This ancient scribe or editor, probably working in the fifth century, decided to relocate the story to the end of John, where it is found in this family of manuscripts. By this time, then, the popular story had already been inserted into John and even assigned its own chapter in some manuscripts but was omitted or relocated in others. Today, the large majority of surviving Greek manuscripts of John include the story. It is read in the Byzantine liturgy and thus accepted as inspired by the Greek Orthodox Church. It is part of the canonical Vulgate used by the Catholic Church, and it is present in virtually all Protestant Bible versions albeit often marked with brackets and footnotes. On the other hand, it is clear that the story was interpolated into the Gospel of John at an early point in a climate of Gospel book production in which the story was regarded as “gospel.” Incidentally, from the concluding verse of the Fourth Gospel we learn that many stories about things that Jesus did were in circulation, some of which had not yet been written down (John 21:25), but genuine “gospel stories” all the same I presume. So, should the beloved story of the Woman Caught in Adultery be read in our churches? Yes, I think so. The story has the earmarks of a genuine gospel story albeit not original to John.Notes1 Philip Wesley Comfort, Early Manuscripts and Modern Translations of the New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1990), 116.2 Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 248. 3Did. apost. 7; transl. by Arthur Vööbus Tommy Wasserman Tommy Wasserman (PhD, Lund University) is Professor of Biblical Studies at Ansgar Teologiske Høgskole in Kristiansand, Norway and the General Editor of TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism. His most recent book is To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story with Jennifer Knust.