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The Story of the Story of the Adulterous Woman

February 25, 2019

The account of the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus is a well-known textual variant and problem.  Eventually obtaining a place in the Gospel of John (7:53—8:11) in the vast majority of manuscripts of the middle ages, it is typically judged by NT textual critics to be an insertion initiated at some point, and so not a part of the authentic or “original” text of GJohn.[i]  Now Jennifer Knust and Tommy Wasserman have produced a milestone work on the passage that covers an unrivalled breadth of evidence and issues, analysing not only the text-critical data (in great detail) but also the references to the passage in ancient commentaries, sermons, and letters, as well as its use in Christian liturgy and art:   To Cast the First Stone:  The Transmission of a Gospel Story (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).

The passage appears in no extant Greek manuscript of the Gospel of John before the fifth century Codex Bezae (a Latin/Greek bi-lengual manuscript of the Gospels and Acts).  It may have been inserted into the GJohn as early as sometime in the third century, but direct evidence for this is lacking.[ii]  Some have argued that the text is original to GJohn but was omitted due to the supposed embarrassment of an account of Jesus letting an adulterous woman go free.  But in detailed and meticulous analysis (esp. chapters 1-4) Knust and Wasserman show that this is (to put it mildly) most improbable.  As they note, ancient copyists copied what was before them, and didn’t act typically as editors.  Moreover, if there was a variation-unit, the typical copyist action was to include a variant rather than omit it.  So, on this basis alone, insertion of the Pericope Adulterae is much more probable than its omission.  But they show there is even more evidence to support this.

Indeed, once early Christians were aware of the story, and whether they knew it as a part of the GJohn or from some other source (e.g., some early writers ascribe it to the Gospel of the Hebrews), they took to the story enthusiastically, typically seeing it as a powerful lesson in Christian mercy.  Far from embarrassed about the story, it was prized, whether or not it was thought to be part of the GJohn.

In chapters 5-6, Knust and Wasserman trace the differing history of the passage in the Christian East and West.  Their judgement is that the passage may well have entered the textual stream of the GJohn in a Greek manuscript, perhaps as early as the third century, but that it was in the West and in Latin manuscripts that the passage began to obtain a secure and increasingly accepted place where it is traditionally known.

Chapters 7-8 survey meticulously the liturgical uses of the passage, and early Christian scholarly views about it, and also the references to the passage in the medieval liturgy and sermons.  One conclusion from this is how the liturgical use of the passage came earlier in the Latin West than in the Greek East, but that, in the end, the liturgical usefulness of the passage overcame any initial doubts about it.  Liturgy, in short, had a significant role in the passage securing such a firm place in the traditional text of GJohn.

As Knust and Wasserman acknowledge, however, it is still not entirely clear why the passage was so successfully incorporated into the text of the GJohn, although their study goes farther than any other in offering some clues and suggestions.  But, certainly, the evidence presented in this book confirms the view that a surprising textual fluidity continued to characterize the transmission of some NT writings much later than sometimes supposed.  Actually, as Knust and Wasserman repeatedly note, the earliest extant evidence reflects a generally careful and conscientious copying of the NT writings, surprisingly, perhaps even a more careful copying, with less of a readiness to accommodate insertions, than in the Byzantine period![iii]

This handsomely produced and amazingly broadly researched volume is now the “go-to” book on the passage.


[i] See, e.g., Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (Stuttgart:  Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 187-89.  The latest edition (28th) of the Nestle-Aland Greek text of the NT follows the previous pattern of retaining the account in the traditional place in GJohn, but within double brackets, signalling that, though part of the traditional text of GJohn, it is not “original”.  Other recent editions of the Greek NT, specifically The Greek New Testament, SBL Edition, ed. Michael W. Holmes (Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), and The Greek New Testament, ed. Dirk Jongkind (Cambridge/Wheaton IL:  Cambridge University Press/Crossway, 2017) choose to place the text in the textual apparatus.  For a survey on scholarship on the passage, see Chris Keith, “Recent and Previous Research on the Pericope Adulterae (John 7.53—8.11),” Currents in Biblical Research 6 (2008): 377-404

[ii] Chris Keith, The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus, NTTSD 38 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), proposed that it was added then to show that Jesus was able to write.

[iii] On the early transmission of the GJohn, see now Lonnie D. Bell, The Early Textual Transmission of John:  Stability and Fluidity in Its Second and Third Century Greek Manuscripts, NTTSD 54 (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

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  1. Erich von Abele permalink

    Personally, I wasn’t sure whether to buy this book until I could see if my areas of greater interest are discussed in it. Though Larry Hurtado’s overview indicated so, the Barnes and Noble site provides the full Table of Contents, which is helpful for more details. I see that chapters 7 and 8 do seem to probe my area of interest, Christian culture in the Patristic/Early Medieval era.

  2. Paul permalink

    So would it be correct to say that while the story is not an authentic part of John’s Gospel it is an authentic account of something that happened?

    • It’s historically fair to judge that the passage was inserted into GJohn (usually as what we know as 7:53–8:11, but in some manuscripts at other locations, and in a few inserted instead in GLuke), and so not an original part of GJohn. “An authentic account”? Most scholars have judged by references to some such story very early that its warrants are good, and that it is an example of a larger body of Jesus-tradition circulating in early Christianity. As GJohn itself says (21:25), there was a larger pool of such tradition wider than what is contained in our four Gospels.

      • Sean permalink

        Just in case anyone wants to read more about this “larger body of Jesus-tradition” (i.e. agrapha) of which the pericope is likely an example, Professor David Barton – the Anglican NT scholar – wrote excellently on this topic in his book, ‘Holy Writings, Sacred Text: Canon in Early Christianity’. Its very accessible for the interested reader.

  3. Equal time for a defense of the pericope adulterae, please: a case for the genuineness of John 7:53-8:11 can be found in my book A Fresh Analysis of John 7:53-8:11. Available as a Kindle e-book at Amazon at and free as a digital file from me, on request.

    James Snapp Jr.

    • Sure, James. Noted. Also to be cited: David Alan Black and Jacob N. Cerone, eds., The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), which includes contributors arguing for and against the authenticity of the passage.

  4. Erich von Abele permalink

    “The passage appears in no extant Greek manuscript of the Gospel of John before the fifth century Codex Bezae…”

    Do any Greek manuscripts before the 5th century have the entirety of the remainder of GJohn (not counting 8:1-11) ?

    • Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus (both 4th century) have the entirety of GJohn, but don’t have the pericope of the adulteress.
      Probably earlier still (3rd century) P66 has much/most of GJohn, with some pages missing, and includes 6.35–14.26, but no pericope adulteress. Likewise P75 (3rd century) has most of the first 14 chapters of GJohn but lacks this pericope.

      • Erich von Abele permalink

        Thank you for the information. I wanted to make sure one couldn’t try to argue that the pericope’s absence wasn’t just due to normally incomplete mss. One *could* still try to argue that, but it would be flimsy at best to do so.

  5. Bill permalink

    “…it was prized, whether or not it was thought to be part of the GJohn.” Not the major focus of your post, but can we say this definitively? Is there a clear reference to PA by an ancient author who ‘prized’ it in some way while also noting that it was from a source other than GJohn? The Didymus reference to ‘certain Gospels’ seems a bit ambiguous, though Knust/Wasserman to their credit address ‘certain Gospels’ in great detail. They conclude that the expression means certain ‘other’ Gospel books, meaning ‘Gospels’ other than the fourfold Gospel. But the phrase appears to be unique within Didymus and I’m not sure others will agree with this conclusion.

    • As noted by Knust/Wasswerman, Eusebius seems to connect the pericope with the Gospel of the Hebrews, and Origen may have also. But they treated it as edifying and useable.

      • Bill permalink

        Assuming Origen refers to PA, the evidence for his specific source is unclear or perhaps somewhat divided, no? Not sure how the Eusebius reference informs us that he found it either particularly ‘edifying’ or ‘useable.’ Seems like it makes more sense to conclude only that there’s no indication he was opposed to it. But again this isn’t the main focus of your helpful post.

  6. Michael Koncsics permalink

    A practical question. Let’s say you’re teaching through GJohn in a classroom setting (as I do with High School students) or in a series of sermons. With the evidence stacked against it as being Johanine, would you still include it? And if so, how?

    • Teaching the Gospel of John would (in my view) include attention to this major variant (one of the two most sizable variants in the NT). I’d indicate that it isn’t considered an original passage of GJohn per text-critical evidence, but it has been part of GJohn for most Christians through most of Christian history. As to preaching from it, well, for what it’s worth, early Christians preached and exhorted on the basis of the story, even though they didn’t consider it part of GJohn. They considered it an authentic tradition. Your choice in the end.

  7. Thanks for this review! Does the book cover any theories as to the original source of the pericope adulterae prior to Codex Bezae? I thought Bart Ehrman had posited something about a sermon from an early church father, but I can’t find a source on that. I also saw something from one of Dan Wallace’s students, positing the Didascalia as a potential source. Does the book dive into these possibilities? Thanks!

    • The Knust/Wasserman volume notes allusions to a STORY about an adulterous woman in some early Christian writers, but it’s not clear that they were citing a written account, and even less clear that they may have known it as part of GJohn.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Thanks Larry. How do Knust and Wasserman evaluate the speculation that the pericope adulterae might have entered the Latin gospel tradition via the Diatesseron? We know that, although the pericope does not appear to have been included in Tatian’s original, it was present in the Old Latin Diatessaron, most likely created in the late 2nd or early 3rd century CE. It stood there after the account of Nicodemus’s night time visit; hence equivalent to John 3. So either the Latin Diatessaron translators found it in an existing Latin version of one of the separate Gospels; or, more likely added it from a non-canonical source (maybe the Gospel of the Hebrews?). Hence, perhaps through liturgical use, into the Latin gospels; and then via diglot manuscripts into the Greek?

      • Tom: They discuss the question of the Diatessaron and other matters. I’ll let you read the book and judge for yourself how well they handle them.

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