John 7:53-8:11


JOHN 7:53 – 8:11

Taylor E. Terzek


The Pericopae Adulterae has been an item of extensive study and analysis among modern New Testament scholars. Surrounded by conspiracy and vast amounts of research, the story is gaining attention beyond the scholastic community. The Pericopae Adulterae centers its dispute on the passage of the woman brought before Jesus who was guilty of adultery, found in John 7:53-8:11. In short, the passage appears to be an interpolation, which challenges the historicity and relevance of the canonized passage. Analysis of this claim will be viewed by addressing the history of the manuscript evidence, as well as any mention by the church fathers in reference to the woman caught in adultery.


Several venerated scholars have compiled manuscript data, and the consensus is clear: the Pericopae Adulterae is not found in the early major manuscripts of John. “There can be no question that the story is not found in many of the very oldest documents.”[1] Hodges recognizes that the eldest manuscript data creates the greatest acceptance of validity, and his use of “many,” as opposed to “all early manuscripts” or “every early manuscript,” would most certainly be contested by the general view of modern scholars. Willker’s emphasis does not pull any punches in referencing the true condition of the early evidences: “The earliest external evidence shows no knowledge of the pericope in John.”[2] Falconer agrees, “It is omitted by the oldest representatives of every kind of evidence (manuscripts, versions, fathers).”[3] Bruce M. Metzger collectively shows the Greek manuscript evidence against the pericope:

It is absent from such early and diverse manuscripts as P66,67K B L N T W X Y D Θ Ψ 053 0141 0211 22 33 124 157 209 565 788 828 1230 1241 1242 1253 2193 al Codices A and C are defective in this part of John, but it is highly probable that neither contained the pericope, for careful measurement discloses that there would not have been space enough on the missing leaves to include the section along with the rest of the text.[4]

To provide some weighted perspective, Kostenberger remarks quite objectively that his dismissal of the narrative was in large part due to “the absence of this pericope from all pre-fifth-century AD manuscripts.”[5] Further, Kostenberger in his A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters seems unwilling to even waste his or his reader’s time with the issue. He simply, by brute list, addresses the negative weight of the issue, completely exempting the pericope as a viable canonized narrative, and ends his mentioning by stating, “the pericope adulterae… was in all probability not part of the gospel John wrote.”[6] His borderline apathetic presentation of the conspiracy truly shows itself in his complete negation of its exposition as he scrutinizes each verse, chapter, and section in succession; he simply jumps from John 7:52 to 8:12 with only a footnote marking the pericope’s void. It appears that the debate is over for Kostenberger, and it is a landslide victory. Furthermore, he is not alone in this scholastic hiatus, content with hoarded research, formulated hypotheses, and widespread pats-on-the-back from befriended scholars, Hodges observes that “there exists today a strong scholarly consensus that [the pericopae adulterae] formed no part of the original text of John’s Gospel.”[7] Carson, although seemingly slightly more impressionable on the matter, makes the passage one that “modern English versions are right to rule it off from the rest of the text (NIV) or to relegate it to a footnote (RSV).”[8] Following suit, Carson does not proclaim the pericope as unrightfully placed without also attributing his reasoning to its absence in the Greek manuscripts.[9] Despite Zane C. Hodges’ attempt to alleviate the depreciatory manuscript data,[10] Carson says it best: “the evidence is against him.”[11] If the conspiracy solely hinged on the major Greek manuscript data, there would be very little else to say, but one must also take into account any reference made by the early church fathers.


The external evidences of the church fathers hardly resolve the issue of the pericope’s historical authenticity, which was left virtually hopeless in exclusive analysis of the major Greek texts. Almost in identical silence, in correlation with the manuscripts, “In the east, no Greek father mentions the passage for one thousand years.”[12] Not only is that practically unexplainable for one who argues the passage as authentic and relevant, but it is almost impossible to extraneously reconcile it as a canonical passage. Kostenberger and Carson both pile-on the silence of the church fathers as another non-traversable fact diminishing the narrative’s historical reliability.[13]

But, all is not lost. If the story indeed exists today (as it does), then there must be some place of origination, and more importantly, convincing evidence must lay hidden somewhere. The solid evidence begins by being traced backed to the western church fathers: “Ambrose (d. 397), Pacian of Barcelona (c. 350), Ambrosiaster (d. c. 350) and Augustine (d. 430).”[14] Burge even reveals that Jerome (d. 419) mentions that he indeed found the story in the Gospel of John in several codices.[15] Those are not foreign names to the early Christian church, and may be the first hint of substantive historical evidence for the narrative. Possibly more constructive is the mention in the Didascalia Apostolorum (2.24) that dates around the third century.[16] In the portion urging bishops to honor and exhort those who repent of their sins, the story of the woman caught in adultery is used to reinforce the expectation as Christ-like imitation. “But he, the searcher of hearts, asked her and said to her, ‘Have the elders condemned you, my daughter?’ She said to him, ‘No, Lord.’ And he said to her, ‘Go your way. Neither do I condemn you.’”[17]


In hopes that the research presents valid conclusions, what is to be said of the relevance and authenticity of this story? Seeing that the account was most likely excluded from the majority of early valued manuscripts, is the passage insignificant? In practical Christianity today, can a pastor impart valid exegesis, meaningful lessons, and an applicable Christology from the Pericopae Adulterae? The answer lies in whether the event in all and any actuality took place in the life of Jesus. In reality, if the Pharisees brought that woman to Jesus, and Jesus did indeed speak those words to that woman, then historically it is valid and can be applied and analyzed accordingly. “Throughout the history of the church it has been held that, whoever wrote it, this little story is authentic.”[18] Despite the quarrel over authorship and placement, Morris notes that the church viewed the story as accurate. Metzger states that, “the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity.”[19] Harrison, though a little quick and extravagant in his conclusions, writes that due to the atmosphere of the unexpected originality to Jesus’ words, “we can hardly doubt the historicity of the event.”[20] How can this be?

Oral Tradition

An important method of narrative transposition in Judaism and the early church was that of ‘oral tradition.’ Unlike modern culture, where history is preserved with the pen, the culture during the Biblical eras used oral tradition to pass along history. This is the best possible explanation to the early circulation and the later inclusion of the text, and certainly gives some weight (at least) to the authenticity of the narrative. Gary M. Burge speaks to this hypothesis, “It is most likely that the text is authentic in the sense that it originated from the oral tradition that supplied our gospels with their raw materials.”[21] The deduced idea of oral tradition as means of the pericope’s inclusion stems from Papias.

Papias and Eusebius

“Many are of the opinion that the story has come down through Papias, who was interested in gathering and setting forth illustrative material of our Lord’s life.”[22] Ehrman also tells of Papias and his inclination towards oral tradition.[23] He goes into extensive analysis of Papias and Eusebius, and provides valuable concepts to attempt and put the puzzle together. Most notably, he agrees that Papias was inclined to have heard the passage audibly and not through a written source. In addition, Burge notes that Eusebius (d. 340) wrote of Papias’ knowledge of the story. “Papias knew a story of a woman who was maliciously accused before Jesus concerning her sins… while the description is incomplete, the story is generally taken to be that of our Johannine pericope.”[24] Papias living relatively around the life of Christ, and in sync with some of Jesus’ disciples, pins high value to his witness.

Observing the beneficial evidences that lie outside of the Greek manuscripts, oral tradition provides the method by which the story burrowed itself into tangible history. In specific regards to the woman caught in adultery, we find an oral tradition that successfully correlates to a major Johannine gospel theme: Jesus and the law. The Oral tradition united with the “legal” context surrounding John 7-8 may reveal the reason for this pericope’s accepted interpolation and placement. Moreover, given the culture’s respect of oral tradition, this in no way belittles the narratives accuracy, but it in fact strengthens its legitimacy.

Codex Bezae

This popularized idea of agraphons, unwritten sayings of Jesus preserved by the oral tradition, is not singularized to the Pericopae Adulterae. The first entry of the pericope into an early “uncial MS” was in Codex Bezae.[25] Bezae was a manuscript known for its inclusion of Jesus’ known agraphons, as well as other negations and additions foreign to major Greek manuscripts. Metzger makes the claim that “no known manuscript has so many and such remarkable variations from what is usually taken to be the normal NT text. Codex Bezae’s special characteristic is the free addition (and occasional omission) of words, sentences, and even incidents.”[26] One can see that this does not provide the strongest claim for the passage’s authenticity, but the authenticity of the passage lies within the oral tradition already examined. If oral tradition holds its ground, the passage’s mentioning in major manuscripts only strengthens its rooted proposition. The sole purpose of the Bezae analysis is to point to a paradigmatic parallel of the Pericopae Adulterae also found in the Codex Bezae. Burge writes of the interesting nature of this fact:

“At Luke 6:5 Bezae inserts a well-known agraphon (unwritten or lost saying) of Jesus after a pronouncement story centered on Jesus breaking the Sabbath. Again it is an illustrative story of a man who demonstrates the full effect this teaching about the law may have. Does this parallel the insertion we have examined in John? Is it a stray authentic story culled from a reservoir of sayings to serve the needs of discipline in the early Church? If so, then we have a substantial parallel from the same codex explaining the phenomenon of our story.”[27]

The intention in presenting the Luke 6:5 parallel is to express the permissible process by which an authentic agraphon came to exist in modern versions of the Scriptures. Supposed additions and exemptions of scripture naturally leads to discussion of canon regulations; the viable options: 1) either one holds to the one view, propagated by Irenaeus, that “canonical authority rests in the books of the Bible themselves – e.g., [the] gospels and epistles penned by inspired authoritative authors”[28] and by reason the passage cannot be included in the canon, or 2) one holds the view that edification of the church and utilization of the Holy Spirit are the prerequisites to proper canonical authority, thus the passage can remain rooted in the Scriptures.

Ethical Background

This begs the question: Why the prior exemption? If the hypothesis stands that the pericope was a known agraphon of Jesus, what withheld the church fathers in the East from openly speaking of the event? A simple and quite possible remedy comes into view by analyzing the ethical culture at the time of the passage’s supposed disappearance. “Ethical perfection and penance clearly hallmarks the patristic era,” and a story whereby Jesus forgives a guilty and unethical woman would not have received popular church support. [29] Moreover, the sin of adultery, coupled with murder and apostasy, is noted as unforgivable in the early church.[30] As unsettling as that may be, it assuredly provides rationale to the Pericopae Adulterae’s exemption and later inclusion once sexuality was redeemed by Christian culture.

Authorship and Placement

Authorship provides a valuable piece of analysis to the pericope debate, because if John did indeed scribe the passage, than its placement becomes clearer and its authority becomes stronger. However, the scholars once again seem to be of one accord: that the narrative is not penned by John, and henceforth rightfully excluded from his gospel. Metzger summarizes the general consensus, that “the evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming.”[31] Carson and Kostenberger both throw out any possibility of John the Apostle as the original scribe to the pericope in that “[there is] a conspicuous absence of standard Johannine vocabulary”[32] as well as “numerous expressions and constructs”[33] foreign to John. Although both Charles P. Baylis[34] and Allison A. Trites[35] attempt to counter these accusations with thematic contextualized evidence in favor of Johannine authorship, the vocabulary appears to be decisive in the eyes of the scholars. Furthermore, the placement of the passage abruptly interrupts the flow of the narrative. In John 7, before the pericope’s insertion, and John 8, after the insertion, Jesus is found at the feast of Tabernacles. Therefore, the narrative runs a steady current without the unusually placed side-note of the Pericopae Adulterae.


It is obvious that the passage is less evidenced in manuscript data and the church father’s recognition than initially assumed, but the historicity of the event seemingly clings to a small thread called ‘oral tradition.’ Herein lays the debacle: in modern thought, the only means by which one trusts an historic account is by palpable manuscript records, but this passage relies on the validity of its oral transmission. Analysis of the evidential perspective of the 4th and 5th century church may prove why their struggle to embrace the legitimacy of this agraphon, in stern contrast to today, was so non-negotiable. Simply, the small and late remnant of manuscript data coupled with early oral support indeed gives some historic explanation, but conclusions are presumably preferential in the present scholastic community. As to whether it should be canonized: in short, no. The evidence leads it away from Johannine scribing, and the canon ought to be reserved for divinely inspired authors of authority. Just because an item of Christology is outside the canon, does not devoid the study of its worth and potential truth claims. The Christian community should hold dear its strict regulations on canonical authority, and use the Pericopae Adulterae as an example of that standard. In sum, the passage should be removed from its unsupported prominent position in the Scriptures, and well noted according to its historical authentication by use of footnote and proper notification. There is no need for the event to be harshly expelled from the life of the historical Jesus, only meticulously put into its rightful place as it has traveled through history. In turn, the sanctity of the Scriptures and the historicity of the church will be strengthened and protected.


Baylis, Charles P. “The woman caught in adultery : a test of Jesus as the greater prophet.” Bibliotheca Sacra 146, no. 582 (April 1, 1989): 171-184.

Burge, Gary M. “A specific problem in the New Testament text and canon : the woman caught in adultery.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 27, no. 2 (June 1, 1984): 141-148.

Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Leicester, England: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991.

Ehrman, Bart D. “Jesus and the adulteress.” New Testament Studies 34, no. 1 (January 1, 1988): 24-44.

Harrison, Everett Falconer. “The Son of God among the sons of men. 8, Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.” Bibliotheca Sacra 103, no. 412 (October 1, 1946): 431-439.

Hodges, Zane Clark. “The woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11): the text.” Bibliotheca Sacra 136, no. 544 (October 1, 1979): 318-332.

Kelly, John Norman Davidson. Early Christian doctrines. Harper and Row, 1978.

Köstenberger, Andreas J. A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009.

Lindars, Barnabas. The Gospel of John. London: HarperCollins Distribution Services, 1972.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary On the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

________ The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Pub Co, 1971.

Trites, Allison A. “Woman taken in adultery.” Bibliotheca Sacra 131, no. 522 (April 1, 1974): 137-146.

Willker, Wieland. “A Textual Commentary On the Greek Gospels: Vol. 4b The Pericope de Adultera: John 7:53-8:11.” TCG 2012.…wie/TCG/index.html (accessed March 6, 2012).

[1] Zane Clark Hodges, “The Woman Taken in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11): The Text.” Bibliotheca Sacra 136, no. 544 (1979): p. 318.

[2] Wieland Willker, A Textual Commentary On the Greek Gospels: Vol. 4b The Pericope de Adultera: John 7:53-8:11, (2012; TCG), 26,…wie/TCG/index.pdf

[3] Harrison, Everett Falconer. 1946. “The Son of God Among the Sons of Men. 8, Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery.” Bibliotheca Sacra 103, no. 412: p. 431.

[4] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary On the Greek New Testament, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1971), p. 219-220.

[5] Andreas J. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009), p. 148.

[6] Ibid., 148.

[7] Hodges, The Woman Taken in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11): The Text, 318.

[8] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), p. 333.

[9] Ibid., 333.

[10] Hodges, The Woman Taken in Adultery, 323-324. – Hodges’ hope of sanctifying the imbalanced manuscript evidence is grounded on the idea of an “ultimate parent source” that leads him to say “it is therefore not at all out of the question to suggest that all four [of these oldest Greek witnesses] may ultimately be derived from a single parental exemplar which lies far back in the stream of transmission.” He explains his frustration, “It is one of the chief fallacies of modern textual criticism that the surviving Greek manuscript evidence is sometimes treated as if it were truly representative of what did — or did not — exist among the non-surviving texts which have long since perished.”

[11] Carson, The Gospel According to John, 333.

[12] Burge, Specific Problem in the New Testament Text and Canon, 142.

[13] Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters, 148. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 333. – D.A. Carson notes that “All the early church Fathers omit this narrative: in commenting on John, they pass immediately from 7:52 to 8:12.”

[14] Burge, Specific Problem in the New Testament Text and Canon, 143.

[15] Ibid., 143.

[16] Ibid.,, 143. – “The Didascalia Apostolorum was a third-century Church order written originally in Greek but now surviving complete only in Syriac. The Greek text is generally reconstructed from the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions that embodied it. For the Greek text and a German translation of the Syriac see U. Becker, Jesus und die Ehebrecherin. Untersuchungen zur Text- und Überlieferungsgeschichte von Joh 7,53-8,11 (BZNW 28; Berlin: Töpelmann, 126).”

[17] Ibid., 143. – Lindars, The Gospel of John 306-307, gives the English text of the section.

[18] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Pub Co, 1971), p. 882.

[19] Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 220.

[20] Harrison, Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, 432.

[21] Burge, Specific Problem in the New Testament Text and Canon, 145.

[22] Harrison, Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, 431.

[23] Bart D. Ehrman, “Jesus and the adulteress.” New Testament Studies 34, no. 1, 1988: 29.

[24] Burge, Specific Problem in the New Testament Text and Canon, 143. For further study, one can find Eusebius’ quotation in his church history (III, 39), “He [Papias] also notes another story about a woman, who has been accused of many sins before the Lord, which the Gospel according to the Hebrews contains.” Notice the wording of “many sins” rather than the guilty woman of just one sin as depicted in the current gospel. Ehrman notes that the mention of the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” in no way concludes the book as the source of Papias’ acquisition of the narrative.

[25] Ibid., 145.

[26] Β. M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (London: Oxford, 1968), p. 50.

[27] Burge, Specific Problem in the New Testament Text and Canon, 145.

[28] Ibid.,148.

[29] Burge, Specific Problem in the New Testament Text and Canon, 146.

[30] Kelly, John Norman Davidson. 1978. Early Christian doctrines. Harper and Row, 1978. 217-219.

[31] Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 219.

[32] Kostenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters, 148.

[33] Carson, The Gospel According to John, 333. – D.A. Carson goes onto to express how the passage’s diversity of placement and inconsistent appearances strip John of authorship, and consequently, the story of any canonical right.

[34] Baylis, Charles P. 1989. “The woman caught in adultery: a test of Jesus as the greater prophet.” Bibliotheca Sacra 146, no. 582: 171-184.

[35] Trites, Allison A. 1974. “Woman taken in adultery.” Bibliotheca Sacra 131, no. 522: 137-146. Trites places the woman caught in adultery as a valid aid to John’s narrative given the thematic flow. Despite the text’s authority, Trites sees the incident as a fitting peak to the plot of Jesus’ witness as the Son of God to the Jews and the world. She pleads the case that the Pericope Adulterae matches the whole of the “Great controversy” between Jesus and the world, “one finds precisely the same type of controversy language, imagery and terminology which is to be observed in the rest of John 1-12. (144)” She develops her point in John’s primary use of “legal words” (e.g., κατηγορβϊν , “to charge” and κατάκριναν, “to condemn”) (144). Her conclusion is better noted in her own words, “whatever may be the textual problems associated with this passage… there is no overriding contextual problem. (145)”.


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