The Woman Caught in Adultery: Why We Aren’t Preaching It

The Woman Caught in Adultery: Why We Aren’t Preaching It

The Woman Caught in Adultery

As we arrive at the end of John 7 in our sermon series, we find a story that, in the ESV it is set apart through [[double brackets]] and an editorial note: “The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11”, to which there is attached a footnote: “Some manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11; others add the passage here or after 7:36 or after 21:25 or after Luke 21:38, with variations in the text.”  This is an excellent, though terse, account of the situation.

Should We Preach It?

One wonders, however, why the editors include the passage at all, if they are persuaded that it is not original to the text of John.  And that raises a more pressing issue:  Should the shepherds of Christ’s church preach this text?  Paul told the Ephesian elders to shepherd the flock that God had placed in their care by doing as he had done, viz, not failing to declare “the whole counsel of God” to them (Acts 20:27).

  • Is this passage a part of that “whole counsel of God”, so that, should we skip it, we might be derelict in our duty to you, Christ’s sheep?
  • Or is this passage a spurious addition, so that, were we to preach it, we would be proclaiming as the word of God what is, in fact, not the word of God? — something equally dangerous (Rev. 22:18-19)

How Such a Decision is Made

How shall Tim and I come to a conclusion on this matter?  First, you should know that we had already, individually, when the matter came up, come to the conclusion we have, viz., that the text is not part of the Scriptures.  And our position is in the mainstream of scholarship.  But what sort of things go into such a decision?

First, we have to look at the copies of the scriptures that have come down to us.  The New King James includes a footnote, indicating that over 900 manuscripts include the story.  Indeed, but what that note does not tell the reader, is that only one of those manuscripts which include it predates the 8th century AD.  And the one that does (Codex Bezae (D) – 5th or 6th century) is known for  its free wording and additive tendencies.

Quantity or Antiquity?

So, we have a plethora of manuscripts including the story, but an older set of manuscripts that do not include it.  In our opinion, all things being equal, as you weigh quantity versus antiquity, older manuscripts should be assumed to be closer to the original.  Just as in the game “telephone”, the closer you are to the first whisperer, the more likely you are to have the original word.  Since these manuscripts are transcribed by hand, transcription errors are obviously going to creep into the text.  No scribe is perfect.  And once an error enters a manuscript, it will ‘infect’ every manuscript copied from it.  Unless, that is, the next scribe knew better and ‘corrected’ the text, which did happen.

Common Scribal Mistakes and Other Factors

Much study has gone into the tendencies and common errors that scribes make.  For instance, if the same word occurs on two different lines, the scribes eyes might skip the material between them, accidentally.  We try to understand ‘why’ or ‘how’ a variation in the text might have taken place.  We also examine the context, and linguistic tendencies of the biblical author to see if one reading is more likely than another.

What is the manuscript evidence for the Woman Caught in Adultery?

In the case of the ‘Woman Caught in Adultery’, we find one relatively early (5th or 6th century) but questionable manuscript that contains the story here between John 7 and 8.  After that, we do not see the text in a major Greek manuscript until the 8th century).  It is not included in p75 (125-225 AD), א or Sinaiticus (330-360 AD), B or Vaticanus (300-325 AD), nor in L, N, T, W, Χ, Δ, θ , Ψ (and a host of minuscules).  While the pages which might have included it are missing in Codices A and C, there is insufficient space to include the pericope within the missing pages.   So, despite the fact that it is in virtually every medieval manuscript, it is very clearly missing from early manuscripts.  The manuscript evidence decidedly is against the story being included in the text.

Did the Early Church Fathers Know the Story of the woman caught in adultery?

We can also get a sense of what the biblical text looked like by examining quotations by the early church fathers.  This is trickier, because the fathers were not always careful or precise in their citations.  But in the case of the Woman Caught in Adultery, we find no evidence that the story is known at all in the eastern church (with one possible exception) until the 8th century.  In the west, it is probably not known to Tertullian (155-240 AD) and Cyprian of Carthage (200-285 AD).  I say this, because when they are giving judicial directions with regard to adultery, they make no mention of this obviously relevant text.  But the story becomes fairly widespread among the church fathers in the West, beginning in the 4th century.  And once Jerome included it in the Vulgate (having reservations about its authenticity, but bowing to its popularity, much as the editors of most modern translations have), it became canon for the Roman Catholic Church.

The story’s unstable placement

In addition to its late inclusion, there is the fact that when the story is included, it is by no means always included here.  It’s generally in John or Luke, but it has a very unstable placement in the manuscript tradition.  If you are interested, I’ve included a chart of its location by manuscript.  This chart is taken from Chris Keith, The Initial Location of the Pericope Adulterae in Fourfold Tradition, Novum Testamentum 51 (2009), 213.


Location of the Story

Date of Manuscript (earliest)

Majority of MSS, earliest of which are: Vulgate; Codex D; Old Latin e ff 2 j aur r1John 7:53-8:11384 AD
f 1; Armenian MSSEnd of John9th/10th century
Georgian MSS; Tbilisi Institute H 1741; St Catherine’s 16; Vatican Library 1After John 7:44Late 9th century
115 476 1349 et al.After John 8:1210th-11th century
1333 correctorBetween Luke and John11th century (mss, not corrector)
f13After Luke 21:3811th century
196 240 244 et al.After John 8:12a12th century
225 1128After John 7:3612th century
284 second correctorAfter John 10:3613th century (mss, not corrector)
981After John 8:2013th century
286After John 8:131432 AD
2691After John 8:14a15th century

Vocabulary and Style

Reading through in the Greek, not only does it break the flow of the narrative (a phenomenon observable in English translation), but to the Greek reader, the grammatical style also changes.  It’s subtle, and in and of itself, this would not be very conclusive, since any author might vary his style.  But when added to the textual evidence against the story, and the instability of the story (in terms of where to put it), it seems pretty obvious to us that the story is not a part of the Gospel of John, and is almost certainly not from the pen of John, at all.  It doesn’t belong to Luke, either.  It’s origin may lay in a non-canonical ‘Gospel to the Hebrews’.  But it does not belong to a book of the New Testament.

But what if it really happened?

Whether or not the event ‘happened’ is irrelevant.  I’m confident that many stories of Jesus’ ministry circulated in the years after his ascension.  If everything Jesus did were written down, the world could not contain the books (John 21:25).  What matters is that the Spirit brought to remembrance and guided the telling of what happened (John 14:25-26; 2 Pet 1:20-21; 2 Tim 3:16-17) in the Word of God for Christ’s Sheep.  As none of the genuine, canonical gospel-accounts included this story, whether or not it occurred, we cannot trust the account of its occurrence as something God intended for our edification.  It does not belong to God’s Word once for all delivered to the saints.  We are aware of the valiant attempts of Zane Hodges and others to defend the pericope, but we have concluded that the text does not belong in the canon.  Therefore, it will have no place in the pulpit of Living Hope.

I want to know more …

If you are interested in pursuing the matter further, I can point you to (and perhaps provide) many resources dealing with text-critical method in general, as well as commentaries and journal articles detailing the evidence.  Just catch me at church or give me a call.

-Pastor Clark


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