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The Pericope of the Adulteress – John 7:53-8:11: Is it Authentic?



The Pericope of the Adulteress – John 7:53-8:11: Is it authentic?

When reading through the Gospel of John, as the end of chapter 7 is reached, readers of modern translations will be confronted with a statement like “John 7.53-8:11 is not found in the earliest and best manuscripts”. In other words, the editors of these modern translations are indicating a degree of doubt as to the authenticity of this passage known as the pericope adulterae.

The text of this passage is as follows:

They went each to his own house, 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”[1]


This post will provide a short summary of the evidence for the claim that this passage was not originally contained in the Bible but is a later insertion.


Philip Comfort’s New Testament Text and Translation Commentary pages 286-288 will be the starting point of this discussion.

Comfort outlines the case against the pericope adulterae being original as follows:

It is not included in the first four centuries of Greek manuscripts
Most of the early church fathers do not reference this passage
Whilst it is included in a manuscript from roughly 400 AD it then does not appear in any Greek manuscript until the 9th century
In later manuscripts the passage appears in numerous places including after Luke 21:38; 24:53; John 7:36 and 7:52 and also at the end of John
Where this passage did appear in later Greek manuscripts it was often marked in such a way as to indicate doubt on the part of the scribe who placed it there.
The Greek vocabulary in this passage is not like that found in the rest of John
The passage interrupts the flow of the overall passage where Jesus shows himself to be the living water and then the light of the world (water and light were both used as part of the Jewish practice at the time of the feast in question and Jesus’ references to these two things would naturally sit together in the context of the festival)
The resumptive phrase in John 8:12 where Jesus spoke again to “them” would best suit the Pharisees in the passage proceeding the pericope.[2]


A couple of these 8 reasons will be slightly expanded on in the remainder of this post.


Regarding the external (manuscript) evidence for this passage, Ehrman and Metzger note that

“The old Syriac… and the Arabic form of Tatian’s Diatesseron betray no knowledge of the passage, nor is it contained in the best manuscripts of the Peshitta. Likewise, the old Coptic churches did not include it in their Bible, for the Sahidic, the sub-Achmimic, and the older Boharic manuscripts lack it… Even more significant is the fact that no Greek father for 1,000 years after Christ refers to the passage as belonging to the fourth Gospel, including even those who, like Origen, Chrysostom and Nonnus… dealt with the Gospel verse by verse”[3]

Ehrman’s statement that there is no Greek Father who cites the verse for the first 1,000 years after Christ needs to be compared to that of Köstenberger who cites Didymus the Blind who died in 398 AD.[4] Despite this, the wording of Didymus’ citation is far from an exact match to the text found within our Bible.

“It is related in some gospels that a woman was condemned by the Jews because of a sin and was taken to the customary place of stoning, in order that she might be stoned. We are told that when the Saviour caught sight of her and saw that they were ready to stone her, he said to those who wanted to throw stones at her: ‘Let the one who has not sinned, lift a stone and throw it. If someone is certain that he has not sinned, let him take a stone and hit her.’ And no one dared to do so. When they examined themselves and recognized that they too bore responsibility for certain actions, they did not dare (to stone) her.”[5]

Furthermore, note the fact that it is stated that in some gospels (plural). These are not necessarily the same as the canonical gospels that we have today especially when Eusebius is said to have attributed this passage to the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews (dated to the early second century AD).[6] This early reference may indicate that this is an early tradition possibly dating back to Jesus himself. Whether this event actually happened is however beyond the scope of this post.


The external (manuscript) evidence for the text in question not being genuine is also added to by its omission from two further Greek manuscripts where a gap is left at between 7:52 and 8:12. These two manuscripts date from the ninth century however and the space is perhaps indicative of a deliberate choice by the scribes to reject it as authentic[7]


The fact that this text also has moved around the Bible is compounded by the number of textual variants found within the 12 verses themselves. These two factors have led some scholars to suggest that this text is “an unstable manuscript tradition”[8] If the text were authentic to John’s Gospel we would expect to see it appearing in one place only and not moving around the gospel and into Luke.


The lack of this passage from the Greek evidence should not be taken to mean that no ancient author cites this passage as belonging to the Gospel of John. Indeed Bernard notes:

“The Latin evidence in its favour is considerable. The section appears in several O.L. texts, e.g. b e (sæc. v.) and ff2 (sæc. vii.), as well as in Jerome’s Vulgate… Augustine (de conj. adult. ii. 6) accounts for its omission from some texts, by hinting that the words of Jesus which it records might seem too lenient.[9]

Metzger points out that despite the Latin evidence, it is omitted even here in some of the Old Latin texts.[10]


In summary, there is good evidence to suggest that the pericope of the adulteress does not belong in the canon of the Bible.


Lest anyone think that this is a minority view, a few of the authors that I have read on this issue will be cited below:


…it has been understood by textual scholars for centuries to be out of place. Our oldest manuscripts of John do not contain this text, and it is conspicuously absent not only from the early eastern Greek texts and versions, such as the Syriac and Coptic, but also no eastern Church Father commenting on John makes any mention of the story during the first nine centuries of the Christian era. In the west during the first three centuries the situation was not much different, though by the fourth and fifth centuries the story found its way into Codex Bezae and into a number of later Greek and old Latin manuscripts. Yet even some of these manuscripts contain sigla indicating the doubtful nature of the pericope’s placement. While the earliest western Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian do not mentionthe pericope, it is found in the works of Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome.[11]

The section (περικοπέ) of the Fourth Gospel which contains this incident is contained in many late manuscripts and versions, but it cannot be regarded as Johannine or as part of the Gospel text.[12]

The textual evidence makes it impossible to hold that this section is an authentic part of the Gospel. It is not attested in the oldest manuscripts, and when it does make its appearance it is sometimes found in other positions, either after verse 36, or after verse 44, or at the end of this Gospel, or after Luke 31:38. It seems clear enough that those scribes who felt it too important to be lost were not at all sure where to attach it. And if they could not agree on the right place for it, they could not agree on the true text for it either. The manuscripts that have it do not agree closely. The very large number of variants indicates that the textual history of this pericope is different from that of the fourth Gospel. In addition to the textual difficulty many find stylistic criteria against the story.[13]

So conservative a textual scholar as Scrivener says that “on all intelligent principles of mere criticism the passage must needs be abandoned: and such is the conclusion arrived at by all the critical editors.” A. T. Robertson concurs by saying: “It is clear that it is not a genuine part of the Gospel of John.”1[14]

This passage was doubtless not an original part of the Gospel of John, and for that reason TEV places it in brackets. Several other translations also do so, or else place the entire passage in a marginal note. It is not found in the earlier and better Greek manuscripts, it differs in style and vocabulary from the rest of John’s Gospel, and it interrupts the sequence of 7:52 and 8:12 and following.[15]

As is widely recognized, the status of the pericope of the adulterous woman in 7:53–8:11 as an original part of John’s Gospel is highly in doubt. Virtually all translations (for good reasons, as will be seen) place the passage in square brackets, indicating probable noninclusion in the original Gospel.[16]

Despite the best efforts of Zane Hodges to prove that this narrative was originally part of John’s Gospel, the evidence is against him, and modern English versions are right to rule it off from the rest of the text (niv) or to relegate it to a footnote (rsv)[17]

It is universally agreed by textual critics of the Greek NT that this passage was not part of the Fourth Gospel in its original form. [18]

It is very unlikely that this attractive story was an original part of the Fourth Gospel. It is not found in the earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts. Nevertheless, it has what Professor Metzger describes as ‘all the earmarks of historical veracity’.[19]

The first question is whether the story of the adulteress was part of the original Gospel according to John or whether it was inserted at a later period. The answer to this question is clearly that it was a later insertion. [20]

Contemporary textual critics almost unanimously agree that this famous pericope does not form part of what John originally wrote[21]

The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming.[22]

Omitted by all the earliest manuscripts, this passage is generally agreed to be a later addition to the Fourth Gospel. Although it may be a true story, as many scholars think, it should not be read as part of the context in John.[23]

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jn 7:53–8:11). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society. (Italics are mine)
[2] Comfort, Philip W. (2008). New Testament Text and Commentary (266-268). Tyndale House
[3] Ehrman, Bart D; Metzger, Bruce M. (2005). The Text of the New Testament – Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (4th Ed) (319). Oxford University Press. New York; Oxford
[4] Köstenberger, A. J. (2004). John (p. 247). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
[5] Klauck, H.-J. (2003). Apocryphal gospels: an introduction (p. 41). London; New York: T&T Clark.
[6] Klauck, H.-J. (2003). Apocryphal gospels: an introduction (p. 38). London; New York: T&T Clark.
[7]Bernard, J. H. (1929). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel according to St. John. (A. H. McNeile, Ed.) (Vol. 2, p. 715). New York: C. Scribner’ Sons.
[8] Köstenberger, A. J. (2004). John (p. 247). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
[9] Bernard, J. H. (1929). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel according to St. John. (A. H. McNeile, Ed.) (Vol. 2, pp. 715–716). New York: C. Scribner’ Sons.
[10] Metzger, B. M., United Bible Societies. (1994). A textual commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition a companion volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th rev. ed.) (p. 188). London; New York: United Bible Societies.
[11] Borchert, G. L. (1996). John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, pp. 369–370). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
[12] Bernard, J. H. (1929). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel according to St. John. (A. H. McNeile, Ed.) (Vol. 2, p. 715). New York: C. Scribner’ Sons.
[13] Morris, L. (1995). The Gospel according to John (pp. 778–779). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[14] Tenney, M. C. (1976). John: The Gospel of Belief (pp. 137–138). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[15] Newman, B. M., & Nida, E. A. (1993). A handbook on the Gospel of John (p. 257). New York: United Bible Societies.
[16] Köstenberger, A. J. (2004). John (p. 245). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
[17] Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 333). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.
[18] Beasley-Murray, G. R. (2002). John (Vol. 36, p. 143). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
[19] Kruse, C. G. (2003). John: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 4, p. 197). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
[20] Brown, R. E. (2008). The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29, p. 335). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
[21] Blomberg, Craig L. (2001) The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (140). Inter-Varsity Press
[22] Omanson, R. L., & Metzger, B. M. (2006). A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament: an adaptation of Bruce M. Metzger’s Textual commentary for the needs of translators (p. 183). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.
[23] Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Jn 7:53–8:11). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.


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