For years I’ve had a question mark in my mind over John 8:1-11 with its beautiful and inspiring story of Christ’s merciful treatment of the woman taken in adultery. The question mark came after encountering the evidence of scholars that this passage does not occur in the earliest existing New Testament manuscripts and appears to be a late addition. Sigh. Was one of my favorite accounts in the scriptures just a fabrication from an overzealous monk adding some inspiring fake Gospel news? Ouch, that’s disappointing! That has been a large question mark I’ve carried for some time, but without bothering to dig deeper.
I think many Christians, after reading short assessments from scholars or from those claiming to speak for the scholars, might walk away thinking that this passage doesn’t belong in the Bible and simply didn’t occur. It would be unfortunate to let the reasonable question marks around this passage result in complete rejection of the account or in establish of an “anti-testimony” that John 8 is a complete fabrication of late date without roots in original Christianity. It would be even more unfortunate for people to unlearn the rich teachings in that passage. It’s something that many people do, unfortunately, when they face reasonable question marks about many things in the scriptures, from the Bible to the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, Book of Moses, and so forth, there are challenges, but often helpful answers that we failed to search and find. In fact, the details are more complicated than the simple “late forgery, toss it out” assessment, and there are good reasons to accept
the story as a genuine part of early Christianity, even if different ancient versions had somewhat different details and even if would best be in a different manuscript than the Gospel of John.
Interestingly, this week I had two unexpected encounters with information that helped me shrink the question mark around John 8. One came while digging into some issues related to the Book of Abraham. I was glancing at one of the handful of books (OK, suitcase or two full of books) that I brought with me to China, a book on the writings of the earliest Christian writers outside of the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers: Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd
ed., translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer (Grand Rapids, MI:
Baker Book House, 1989), where I noticed that pages 308-311 discuss the story of the
woman taken in adultery. You might be able to see most of the relevant section at Google Books if you look at two versions of The Apostolic Fathers: version one and version two. Or just buy the book — it offers precious insights into early Christianity (also available on Kindle). After reading a few chapters from those early Christian writers, you’ll never fall for the argument that “Mormon teachings on keeping commandments instead of relying on grace alone is a tragic departure from historical Christianity.” But I digress.
Holmes presents some fragments of text related to the writings of Papias, an early Christian bishop whose main work was written around 130 A.D. From several of the fragments it is clear that he was familiar with some version of the story of the woman taken in adultery. Holmes observes that there seem to be “at least
two independent stories about Jesus and a sinful woman in circulation
among Christians in the first two centuries of the church, and that the
traditional form found in many New Testament manuscripts may well
represent a conflation of two independent, shorter, earlier versions of
the incident.” Here Holmes cites Bart Ehrman, “Jesus and the
Adulteress,” New Testament Studies 34 (1988): 24-44.
surviving fragments conveying statements from Papias provide mixed evidence
as to which of the two similar versions he knew. However, Holmes suggests
that it was probably a form of the story paraphrased in a Greek
document from Syria, the Didascalia Apostolorum, which mentions
elders bringing a woman who had sinned before the elders, who turned
judgment over to Christ and departed. Jesus turns to her and asks, “Have
the elders condemned you, my daughter?” “Nay, Lord.” “Go, neither do I
condemn you.” But Papias in Fragment 23 is also credited with
knowing a scene more similar to John 8 with a trial scene and
conversation with Jewish leaders, though it’s not clear that the
fragment properly reflects what Papias said or whether someone else has assumed that Papias was citing the more extensive
version from later manuscripts. In any case, there are question marks
about the details and the authorship, but good evidence that basic
features of the story were known among early Christians at a very early
late, even if the earliest New Testament manuscripts fail to capture it.
No need to not be inspired and moved by this account of the Lord’s love
and mercy, in my opinion.
Then this morning I was pleased to see the story of the woman taken in adultery was the issue of the latest work of scholarship published in The Interpreter. Before sharing insights from that article, I’d like to first state that I am amazed that Daniel Peterson’s bootstrap project, The Interpreter
Foundation, has been able to keep publishing useful, original,
peer-reviewed content every single week for years, contrary to relatively pessimistic forecasts of his detractors. Congratulations, Brother Peterson!
The latest addition at The Interpreter is Steven T. Densley, Jr., “Procedural Violations in the Trial of the Woman Taken in Adultery,”
Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 32 (2019): 53-76. Here is the abstract:
story in John 8 of the woman taken in adultery is sometimes used to
argue that Jesus was lenient toward sin and that we should be too.
However, when placed in its broader context, we can see the story is not
one in which Christ shows indifference or contempt for the law, but
rather utmost respect for it.
Densley’s article focuses on the implications of the
text in terms of what it says about the law and process of justice.
However, he recognizes that this passage in John 8:1-11, known as the
Pericope Adulterae, is disputed and is viewed by many scholars as a late
addition to the Gospel of John. He summarizes some related scholarship in two footnotes, which I think are surprisingly detailed and helpful. Here they are:
6. See e.g., Scott J. Kaczorowski, “The Pericope of
the Woman Caught in Adultery: An Inspired Text Inserted into an
Inspired Text?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 61/2 (2018): 321–337; Brown, Gospel According to John,
91–96. Metzger and Ehrman note: “The earliest Greek manuscript known
to contain the passage is Codex Bezae, of the fifth century, which is
joined by several Old Latin manuscripts (aur, c, e, f, f2, j, r1).” Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration,
4th Ed. (New York, Oxford University Press, 2005), 319–20. They also
recognize the anomalies raised by the pericope. It was absent from
a large number of diverse manuscripts, no Greek Church Father for 1,000
years after Christ referred to the passage as being part of the fourth
Gospel, the style and vocabulary differ from the rest of the Gospel of
John, etc. Metzger has observed that the story shows strong signs of
historical veracity. See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament,
(New York: United Bible Societies, 1975), 220. Yet, Metzger and
Ehrman also find that “the case against its being of Johannine
authorship appears to be conclusive.” Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 320. This suggests the possibility of an authentic story that was not authored by John.
In contrast, Heil argued that there is strong linguistic and
literary evidence that supports the conclusion that the story was
original to Gospel of John. John Paul Heil, “The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress (John 7:53–8:11) Reconsidered,” Biblica
72 (1991): 182–91. Wallace responds to Heil by arguing that Heil’s
literary arguments usually work against themselves and that the
external evidence that the pericope was a latter interpolation into the
Gospel of John is overwhelming. Daniel B. Wallace, “Reconsidering ‘The
Story of Jesus and the Adulteress Reconsidered’” New Testament Studies, 39 (1993): 290–96.
Wayment writes, “The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament omit
this verse and John 8:1–11. Some manuscripts place the story of the
woman caught in adultery at John 7:36, after John 21:25, or after Luke
21:38. The story appears to have strong external support that it
originated with Jesus, but it may not have originally been placed here
in the Gospel of John or even to have been written by the author of the
Fourth Gospel. It is placed in double brackets [in Wayment’s
translation] to indicate that it has questionable textual support, but
it is included in the text because it has a reasonable likelihood of
describing a historical event from the life of Jesus.” Thomas A.
Wayment, trans., The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints: A Study Bible (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2019), 181.
Some evidence exists that may lead us to conclude that while the
story may not have originally been in the Gospel of John, it may
nevertheless be authentic. For example, Knust noted that “the pericope adulterae,
or some version of it, was perceived to be ‘gospel’ — in the sense of
‘a good story about Jesus — by the late second century, whether or not
it was known from a written Gospel. By the fourth century, the pericope adulterae
appears as a regular proof-text among Latin-speaking Christians.”
Jennifer Wright Knust, “Early Christian Re-Writing and the History of
the Pericope Adulterae,” Journal of Early Christian Studies
14:4 (2006): 489. Knust added, “The story remained less known in Greek
Christian traditions, though it appears in a commentary of Didymus the
Blind, is depicted on a few fifth- and sixth-century Egyptian pyxides [a cylindrical box],
and is discussed in the writings of one anonymous sixth-century Greek
chronicler.” Knust, “Early Christian Re-Writing,” 490. While perhaps
not original to the Gospel of John, there is some evidence that it may
have been included in the Gospel of the Hebrews. “According to
Eusebius, Papias, a second-century bishop of Hierapolis, knew a story
involving a woman of sins before the Lord, a story that Eusebius (and maybe Papias?) also found in the Gospel according to the Hebrews.
Eusebius writes that ‘[Papias] has put forth also another story
concerning a woman falsely accused of many sins before the Lord, which
is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews.’” Knust, “Early
Christian Re-Writing,” 495. Of course, the pericope adulterae
in John involves a single sin, and there is no indication in the text
that she had been falsely accused. So this may be referring to
a different story, or perhaps Eusebius or Papias remembered it
Interestingly, Didymus the Blind described a story “in certain
gospels” of a woman “condemned by the Jews for a sin” who was taken
before the Savior to be stoned. Christ is quoted as saying, “He who has
not sinned, let that one take a stone and cast it.” Knust, “Early
Christian Re-Writing,” 499–500. This sounds very much like the story in
John. Scholars are unsure of what is meant by the phrase “in certain
gospels” and debate whether Didymus meant various copies of John, or
that he found it in various gospels perhaps including John and the Gospel according to the Hebrews.
Knust, “Early Christian Re-Writing,” fn. 47. In any event, there is
reason to believe that the story was circulating among the believers
fairly early and certainly before it appeared in the Codex Bezae.
J. Duncan M. Derrett suggests that one reason the story may not have
been included in some of the early texts was that it may have been
offensive to some who would rather not give the impression that Christ
was lenient toward sin. See J. Duncan M. Derrett, “Law in the New
Testament: The Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery,” New Testament Studies 10 (1963), 1–2.
Some of the basic issues on this pericope are also discussed in what strikes me as a balanced essay at Wikipedia: “Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.” Also of keen interest is a recent book review: Kyle Dillon, “The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research,” Allkirk Network: Where Presbyterian faith meets postmodern culture, Alkirk.net, June 23, 2018. Dillon reviews a book with essays for and against the authenticity of the pericope. Dillon feels that arguments presented against authenticity as a part of John have the upper hand, though not as strong an upper hand as he expected. But he also recongizes that there must have been an early tradition with this account for it to have been included so widely in the later manuscripts. Or, as I would put it, it might not belong in the Gospel of John, but many early Christians knew and accepted this story, or at least related versions of it.
So I’ve still got a question mark, but in much lighter ink, maybe just pencil, now a little smaller, and much less distracting from the beauty of this text.
Got big question marks over the scriptures or other aspects of the Gospel? We all do. But hang in there and keep searching and learning with faith and patience. There may be helpful answers along the way.