In my Bible (NIV), the story of the woman caught in adultery is in italics with a footnote that says, “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.”
If this story isn’t in the earliest manuscripts, does that mean it shouldn’t be in the Bible?
Layers of Composition
That’s a good and important question that requires us to think about how the Bible was composed, how it developed and what that means for its inspiration.
Some have imagined that the Bible descended from heaven through the authors in complete and perfect blocks called “original autographs.” They believe these original autographs were without error and that any discrepancies we see in the Bible are copyist’s typos or later glosses that snuck into the text from a scribe’s marginal notes.
This way of thinking about the Bible shows a lack of understanding about the complex layers of composition that grow into the final form of each book. It fails to appreciate the long distillation of some texts through an oral tradition prior to the first dab of ink from an author’s quill. And it minimizes the reality and, dare I say, the inspiration of the various editions and their redactors (scribal editors) over the course of centuries.
It begs the question: which Bible was inspired? Incomplete and imaginary first editions that exist nowhere? No. What we have is the Bible in its final form (warts and all), received by the people of God as authoritative in their communities and in their lives to this day. The inspiration of Scripture is not found in extinct manuscripts but in the encounter of the text we now read the Spirit of Christ who unveils and illumines, and the hearts of those who trust God to speak his word to them through it.
In other words, the Bible has a long history that predates first editions and then expands upon them by the breath of the Spirit, the work of scribes, and the reception of God’s people. John 7:52-8:11 is a good example.
John 7:52-8:11 Interpolation
I will offer my answer at the outset, then explain my process. Despite questions re: earlier manuscripts or different placements, I take this story in John 8:1-11 to represent an authentic gospel tradition and its final placement as doubly inspired.
Most good modern commentaries address the reasons why scholars don’t believe this story was in the first editions of John’s Gospel. Craig Keener’s two-volume commentary on John and David Bentley Hart’s The New Testament: A Translation are two of the main sources I’ll refer to in what follows.
Keener says that most commentators see this story as an “interpolation” (meaning a passage inserted into the text after the fact—a later addition). Why do we believe this?
- Textual history: This story is not found in any of the earliest manuscripts of John. While 1,495 Greek manuscripts do include the pericope adulterae (the Latin name for this story), most of these are only found in Bibles from 400 AD or later. Our earliest manuscripts of John (prior to 400 AD) omit them—that’s 267 manuscripts from the earliest period of NT development.
- Ancient commentaries: The story is not discussed in any of the early Greek commentaries, including major works by John Chrysostom of Antioch and Cyril of Alexandria. It’s just not in the Bibles they were using.
- Greek Language: The vocabulary and grammar don’t appear to be Johannine. That is, the way John speaks in the rest of the gospel is very different than in this section. Let’s not get too technical here, but for example, John’s way of talking often sounds like this: “Jesus goes there and he says to them, and they say to him, and they go up and they cross over, and Philip says.” They sound a lot like my favorite aunts telling a dramatic story—“So, I says to her…” The fancy word for that kind of verb is the “historical present,” meaning that John is writing about past events as if they are happening right now and we’re right there with him as eyewitnesses!
But in this story, the author shifts to a very different type of speech: Lots of “having sat down, having been caught, having set her in the midst, having stooped (2x), having heard, having been convicted, etc.” Those are called “nominative verbs.” The difference is actually quite jarring—closer to Luke’s style, which might be why some (but less) manuscripts chose to put this event in the good doctor’s Gospel.
Nevertheless, I would argue that we have very good reasons to believe this story is part of the authentic gospel tradition. The issue isn’t whether the story is true. Of course it is! It’s just a question of where and when and why it came to rest in this section of John. Why do I believe that? Walk with me…
We see evidence that this story was preserved from early on either as an oral tradition or in other Christian writings that we only retain today through secondary citations:
- Papias (circa AD 110) refers to a story of Jesus and a woman “accused of many sins,” found in a now-extinct gospel called the Gospel of the Hebrews. While this Gospel didn’t make it into the New Testament, the first Christians accepted it as valuable background/supplementary material that they seemed to trust. And no wonder if it included this story!
- The Syriac book, Didascalia Apostolorum, a Christian manual from the mid-200s, includes an exhortation to bishops to be merciful, saying, “for you do not obey our Savior and our God, to do as He also did with her that had sinned, whom the elders set before Him, and leaving the judgment in His hands, departed. But He, the searcher of hearts, asked her and said to her, ‘Have the elders condemned thee, my daughter?’ She said to Him, ‘No, Lord.’ And He said unto her, ‘Go your way; neither do I condemn thee.’ In Him therefore, our Savior and King and God, be your pattern, O bishops.” So here we have a direct reference to the story within a generation or two of John’s Gospel.
- In the Western Church, Jerome’s Latin Vulgate does include it. This Latin edition of the Bible (from 383 AD) was based on earlier Greek manuscripts that are now missing.
- Augustine of Hippo (early 5th century) uses the story extensively in his writings.
- Leo the Great (an important Pope from mid-5th century) cites it in his Sermon 62.
Added or Deleted?
- So was this story added or was it deleted? And why? St. Augustine guessed that it was deleted and gives his opinion on why:
- “Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given inpunity 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.”
- Maybe. Or maybe this breathtaking story was preserved on the sidelines, waiting patiently for its place in John’s Gospel. David Bentley Hart (in the footnotes of his NT translation, p. 188), puts it this way:
It seems the story was something of a freely floating tradition, perhaps with very deep roots in Christian memory, one that was not originally firmly associated with any particular Gospel text, but that was inserted in various versions of Luke or John because it was too beautiful and illuminating of Christ’s ministry and person to be left out of the church’s lectionary cycle (and hence out of Scripture.
Once the church resolved that this pericope deserved a place in John’s Gospel, why here? That decision was in itself so striking that I cannot help but regard it as evidence of divine inspiration. Here is what I see:
1. John 7 & Jeremiah 13: Feast of Tabernacles / Spring of Living Water / Writing in the Dust
John chapters 7 to 9 comprise one narrative that occurs during the Feast of Tabernacles, which included a “water libation ceremony,” when priests drew water from the Pool of Siloam (see John 9) and marched it up to the Temple altar to a lot of fanfare. At least part of the symbolism anticipated the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through the Messiah.
During that feast, Jesus says (in chapter 7),
37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
That is, Jesus is using their feast to make a direct Messianic claim. Those listening recognize what he is implying (verse 40-43) and his opponents dig in their heals to reject him outright (verses 44-49). Bear that in mind: Jerusalem’s spiritual leadership has just rejected Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Spring of the Spirit’s living waters.
The very next paragraph tells the story of the woman caught in adultery. The major feature of that story is what? I think it is Jesus stooping and writing in the dust. What is the link from John 7’s Messianic spring into this story? Jeremiah 17. Check this out:
13 Lord, you are the hope of Israel;
all who forsake you will be put to shame.
Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust
because they have forsaken the Lord,
the spring of living water.
Whoever set this beautiful gem in its setting found a perfect match!
As if this weren’t sufficient, two secondary considerations present themselves.
2. Bracketed by Stones: 8:5 / 8:59
Chapter 8 begins and ends with religious blood-thirst expressed in the Temple establishment’s penchant for picking up stones, whether literal or figurative (of accusation/condemnation). While the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees act as if the woman is on trial, in fact, they have put Jesus on trial (to trap and accuse him – vs. 6).
Jesus’ shrewd response neither denies nor affirms Moses’ Law concerning stoning adulterers, but rather, extends a higher and, in fact, more Davidic (think Messiah) response to the Law, which is mercy. Their own Psalter proclaims God’s unfailing mercy for King David the adulterer. He exults in this mercy throughout his confession (Psalm 51) and in many of his hymns of praise (Psalm 103, 117-118).
But that only defers the violent ire of his haters briefly, because by the end of chapter 8, Jesus uses the divine name, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (verse 58), they pick up stones to kill him. He’s able to slip away then but only delays his execution until his final Passover Feast.
3. Deliverance / Shelter
Finally, a minor point but perhaps important in its symbolism. The Feast of Tabernacles (or Shelters) recalls Israel’s speedy deliverance into the wilderness where God became their shelter. During those 40 years, God dwelled among his people, signified by the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant rested. But the people themselves also lived in tabernacles/tents/shelters which, by the time of this feast, became memorials of God’s shelter during their wanderings.
I only mention this to remind readers that John 1:14 says that “the Word became flesh and tabernacled (pitched a tent – DBH) among us for a while.”
At the very least, we can infer parallels (intentional or not): just as God delivered Israel, tabernacled with them and became their shelter, now Jesus is re-enacting that history for this adulterous woman. He delivers her from condemnation, becomes her shelter from a hailstorm of stones, and offers the same forgiveness and salvation he came to offer his adulterous covenant people.
All that to say, no, this story was likely not in the first editions of John’s Gospel.
But yes, it is almost certainly an authentic part of the Jesus tradition.
And finally, recognizing that, the church placed this stray gem perfectly within its setting, from where it radiates our beautiful gospel to this day.