Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Was the Story of the Woman Caught in Adultery Really a Later Addition to the Gospel of John?

This Sunday's Gospel reading is taken from John 8. There we read the famous story about the woman caught in adultery.

There is a famous textual issue involved with this episode. Specifically, many scholars do not think the story was originally part of the Fourth Gospel.

Why? Well, there are a number of reasons, which I'll explain in a moment. Chief among them though is this: the story is not found in the earliest manuscripts we have of the Fourth Gospel.

Of course, to sum up a rather complicated issue briefly, from a Catholic perspective, what is recognized as "inspired" is the final form of the text as it has been received by the Church. This means that the story of John 8 is seen as inspired whether it was originally part of the Gospel or whether it was added later. In other words, if the story was added later, Catholic teaching would still hold that this occurred under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Yet the textual critical question is still a fascinating one. Since many will be studying this passage in preparation for Sunday's liturgy, I thought I'd sum up the debate about this passage here.

In fact--while I have no problem with the possibility that the story may in fact be a later insertion (again, Catholic teaching would have no real issue with that scenario)--I'm not so sure the evidence for that being the case is as entirely convincing as it is sometimes made out to be.

Perhaps I'm just letting my contrarian nature get the best of me, but the more I've examined this issue--which many make out to be "settled"--the more skeptical I've become regarding the "majority consensus".

Arguments for Seeing the Story as an Insertion

There are four major reasons the story is said to be best seen as a later addition to the Gospel.

First, there is the textual evidence, that is, its absence in the earliest manuscripts. This is cited by many as conclusive proof that the story was added to the Gospel.[1]

Second, scholars point out that the story uses non-Johannine vocabulary (e.g., “scribes” in John 8:3).[2]

Third, the brief nature of the story is said to be un-Johannine in style, reflecting a more "Synoptic" feel.

Fourth, it is said to interrupt the flow of the narrative. Specifically, the Feast of Tabernacles imagery that is introduced in John 7:1-2 continues in John 8:12–9:7. Scholars point out that the story can easily be lifted out of the narrative without disturbing the "flow".

It should be mentioned, however, that even many scholars who see the story as a secondary addition to the Gospel still believe that it relates a historical memory of Jesus [3].

Re-Examining the Textual Evidence

Notwithstanding what we have said above, there are legitimate reasons to doubt that the story is a later insertion. There are in fact a minority of scholars who have insisted that the "evidence" in favor of this view is not entirely convincing.[4] They raise the following concerns. 

First, the textual evidence is hardly "proof positive". When scholars speak of the story not appearing in the "earliest manuscripts" what they essentially have in mind are only four manuscripts. Two of these are papyri that date to third century (P66 and P75) and two are codices that date to fourth century (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus).

We really ought to ask then whether these manuscripts give us the whole picture. Given the dearth of manuscripts from this time it is not entirely wise to rule out the possibility that other manuscripts may have included it. The fact that the four manuscripts we have omit this story may just be a historical accident.

But is there any reason to think that the Gospel did circulate with the story? Well, actually, yes. 

Didymus the Blind, a fourth century writer, refers to the story. Clearly then there is evidence that it was circulating at this time somehow.[5]

Codex Vaticanus.
Note the diacritical mark on the left. 
More striking though is this: one of the four manuscripts that omits the story, Vaticanus, actually has a diacritical mark where the story ought to appear! (See the picture to the right).

It seems most likely that this indicates that there was an understanding that something significant was going on here in the text--and this appears right in the very place where the story should appear!

This is telling. It suggests that the copyist knew something was left out. It is hard not to see here a recognition that the story was knowingly omitted.

More explicit is the great scholar of the early Church, Jerome, who, writing in the fourth century, says it was in fact in the Gospel according to John.

But, you may be saying, this still seems implausible: why on earth would the story be intentionally left out?

Especially notable is Augustine's testimony. The famous bishop of Hippo is not only aware that the story was left out,he tells us that this was done on purpose! Specifically, Augustine tells us that some feared the story might lead people to believe that Jesus was permissive of adultery.[6]

This would make a lot of sense out of why it is absent from many manuscripts (and the diacritical marks in Vaticanus!).

So the textual evidence is not as cut and dry as perhaps it might appear.

Other Issues 

In addition, we mention that scholars have also poked holes in the other arguments used to argue against the story's authenticity.

For one thing, the argument that appeals to non-Johannine vocabulary in the story as evidence that was produced by a separate hand is a bit tenuous. John 6 also uses a good bit of language found nowhere else in the Gospel but no one thinks that chapter was added later![7]

Moreover, the argument that the brevity of the story is un-Johannine is debatable—see the short story in John 4:46–54.

Finally, the argument that the story should be seen as a later addition because it seems to interrupt the flow of the narrative is also not without problems. Frankly, I think this is the weakest of all the arguments against the story's authenticity. Clearly other passages could be excised from the narrative without harming the overall structure of the narrative (e.g., the Last Supper Discourse), yet clearly they were original to the Gospel!

In the end, I agree with scholars who complain that arguments against the story's authenticity are too often accepted uncritically. The story may very well be a later addition, but I don't think the evidence compels one to that conclusion (despite the strong rhetoric that may be employed to make the case).


[1] Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (New York: United Bible Societies, 1971), 219: “the evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming.” C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John (London: SPCK, 1962), 490: “It is certain that this narrative is not an original part of the gospel.” Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 882: “The textual evidence makes it impossible to hold that this section is an authentic part of the Gospel.”

[2] See, e.g., J. Ramsey Michaels, John (Good News Commentaries; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984); Harold Riesenfeld, The Gospel Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), 95. Norman Perrin, The Kingdom of God and the Teachings of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 131, asserts that one-sixth of the words occur nowhere else in John.

[3] Morris, John, 883: “Throughout the history of the church it has been held that, whoever wrote it, this little story is authentic.” Metzger, Textual Commentary, 220: “. . . the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity.”

[4] See Zane C. Hodges, “Problem Passages in the Gospel of John, Part 8: The Woman Taken in Adultery (John 7:53–8:11): The Text,” BSac 136 (1979): 318–32; John Paul Heil, “The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress (John 7,53–8,11) Reconsidered,” Biblica (1991): 182–91; idem, “A Rejoinder to ‘Reconsidering ‘The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress Reconsidered,” Église et théologie 25 (1994): 361–66.

[5] See Bart Ehrman, “Jesus and the Adultress,” NTS 34 (1988): 24–44.

[6] “. . . 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.” (Augustine, Adulterous Marriages, 2, 7).

[7] See Heil, “The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress (John 7,53–8,11) Reconsidered,” accessible here:


Anonymous said...

This is a rather odd question I feel. I've been thrilled by your readings and insights (and lectures, and books...), and this one is no exception. But, one thing that has always nagged me is this: when it comes to issues like the one here (or, in the 'fourth cup' analysis), how beholden are you to 'critical consensus'? I like that Augustine and Iraneus acknowledges the woman caught in adultery. However, in the 'fourth cup' analysis I don't believe (although I hope I'm wrong) that the fathers saw this or (and I really may be wrong on this) that other critical modern scholars are convinced by it. I think this ties into the observations you make in this post: under what authority do we travel when we offer these observations? Or, maybe better stated, before we profess these things (or, pass them on to others), is there (or, should there be) an authorial threshold that should be met? Everything conjecturial is not equally plausible is my concern and how do we 'rate' these things? I really enjoy all these posts (a daily reader). I understand as to this post that the 'canonicity'(?) may be the answer. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

Richard said...

After reading the this account in John 8 go back to the Old Testament and read Jeremiah 17:13. This is Jesus' way of condemning those who came to condemn. Is your name written in the "dirt" (earth) or is it written in the Lambs Book of Life?