Is the Woman Caught in the Act of Adultery Authentic?

This past Sunday, a colleague of mine preached from John 8.  While his sermon was on the entire chapter, the majority of his time was spent on the pericope of the woman caught in the act of adultery (vv. 1-11).

P66-Jn8fullThe preacher gave an overview about the uncertainty surrounding the text in question, and finally concluded on the matter with a quote from F.F. Bruce, “They [the manuscripts which have John 7:53-811] constitute, in fact, a fragment of authentic gospel material not originally included in any of the four Gospels.”

Before italicizing the passage in question, the new NIV Bible (2011) has this textual note:

[The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.  A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.]

As I sat there and listened to my colleague preached from the text in question, and especially about how Jesus came to the woman’s rescue and acquitted her, the phrase “a fragment of authentic gospel material” began to do a number on me.

Most scholars may consider this passage an insertion into the text of John’s Gospel, because the best extant Greek manuscripts do not have it, and when they do, it appears in a various places–but it sure does have an authentically Jesus thing about it!

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15 Responses to Is the Woman Caught in the Act of Adultery Authentic?

  1. I know a very well-known conservative, evangelical scholar (I’m not going to name him since he’s not here to offer further explanation) whom I once heard say he’d never preach from this passage any more than he’d preach from the longer ending of Mark. He consider’s both to be additions and therefore not authoritative. My question is this: “If we agree that John did not write this passage, does that necessarily mean that it’s not canon?” If it’s an oral tradition based on an actual event that eventually got written down, does it become any less impactful?

    John himself wrote, “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if they were written one by one, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25, HCSB).

    I suppose the difficulty is in the verification of the event without having the benefit of multiple witnesses as we do with the gospels themselves.

  2. David Beirne says:

    I remember as a brand spankin’ new believer around 1979 reading this passage for the first time. It affected me as many other scriptures did, looking back I would say my spirit bore witness with the Spirit that it was true. Could it be, as Rick Mansfield suggests above, a historical account that the Holy Spirit moved upon a scribe to ensure that it was in the canon? Can the Holy Spirit do that? I’m fascinated by this text and the 1 John 5:7 in the TR and to me they beg the question–is it truth? The older I get, and especially after the uproar caused by Davinci Code and Bart Ehrman’s popularity, the more vital I see the field of textual criticism. And the more I wish I had learned about it.

  3. It’s an issue of canon, isn’t it–and one that has only plagued modern readers (last century and a half or less)?

    It seems easier for us to accept divinely inspired redaction for the Old Testament than the New Testament. This past Sunday, I introduced the Book of Proverbs to my Bible study class. I began by asking who wrote it. I only heard “Solomon.” But then I showed what the Book of Proverbs claims about its own origins. Proverbs claims five sources:

    1. Solomon (1:1 – 22:16)
    2. “The Wise Men” (22:17 – 24:22)
    3. Additional Proverbs by Solomon copied by Hezekiah’s Men (25:1 – 29:27)
    4. Agur (30:1-33)
    5. King Lemuel (31:1-31)

    And in that discussion of the sources in Proverbs, I made the faith statement that this “compilation” was all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

    And there are plenty of other examples in the Hebrew Bible where a later redactor makes a comment that is clearly not from the original hand. This is not difficult for us to accept. But in the last century and a half, we’ve attempted to move in favor (in New Testament discussions of canon) strictly to what came from the pen of the original writer.

    And frankly, if we’re going to allow later additions, most would be more comfortable with a passage like the woman caught in adultery than the longer ending of Mark. So, why has no major translation simply removed these passages? Is it strictly out of fear of having the translation rejected by the church? Probably.

    But the question has to be asked: if later hands amended the OT text, and it is seen as canon, where can we safely draw the line with the NT? Do we accept the adulterous woman but not the longer ending of Mark? Do we accept 1 John 5:7 because it is doctrinally valid, even though it somewhat breaks the writer’s argument flow (and can easily be traced from the margins to the insertion into the text)?

    Does the evidence of mss without certain passages point to authority or merely an unfinished process?

    And although Metzger’s neat divisions of Alexandrian, Western, Eastern and Byzantine texts aren’t so universally agreed upon anymore, the reality remains that each of these traditions WAS canon for certain groups of Christians throughout history.

    Most defenses of the Textus Receptus or Byzantine texts have come from arguments that the questionable passages were original to the accepted authors–a claim which I do not find convincing. What I’ve never heard (but maybe it’s out there and I’ve missed it) is to see these texts defended as authoritative because of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in establishing the Canon.

    There’s obviously much to explore here.

    • TC says:

      Rick said:

      “What I’ve never heard (but maybe it’s out there and I’ve missed it) is to see these texts defended as authoritative because of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in establishing the Canon.”

      Rick, we had this when the early church applied the four criteria for canonization. True, the church was establishing the canon. But I don’t know if we can apply the same to these textual variants, which seems to be the underlying issue here.

      • I’m not referring to textual variants as much as something like the generally accepted (of which I realize there is not 100% agreement) Byzantine Text/Textus Receptus.

        To be clear, I’m not a proponent of this tradition, but I’m merely trying to clarify the point I was making to which you referred above.

  4. Kyle Phillips says:

    I like what James Dunn does with the original oral context of the gospels in Jesus Remembered. He doesn’t speak to John 7:53-8-11, but his locating the gospels originally in the oral story telling memory of the Palestinian community makes sense in thinking about how the event shows up in some but not all of the manuscripts.

  5. TC says:

    Rick, I understand, but Byz/TR are not even on solid ground.

    • No doubt, but if I remember correctly, the passages discussed here are part of that tradition, with the exception of the Johannine comma, which is only part of the TR, but not the Byzantine tradition. So I was merely speculating–and that is all!–that it would be interesting to see someone try to advocate for the authority of a passage like the woman caught in adultery, not based on Johannine authorship, but rather on the authority of the Holy Spirit as guiding a redacting process. But it’s probably a moot point. I’ve never known anyone to do that as I said.

      • TC says:

        Yes, but I’ve never heard anyone argue like that either. Interesting.

      • David Beirne says:

        Rick said: “… the Holy Spirit as guiding a redacting process. ” As you said earlier, we basically have to admit as conservative evangelicals that the Holy Spirit must have had to for us to have the Pentetuch, Chronicles, etc. As Spock would say, “Fascinating.”

  6. Simon says:

    It seems to me that the story of the adulterous woman was accepted by the Church as being of apostolic origin. That is exactly the same as saying what Rick was describing about the continuing work of the Spirit in establishing the Canon. It is the classic example of the church being “the pillar and bulwark of truth”. The Church, as the body of Christ – indwelt by the Spirit, determined the Canon. It is this fact that establishes the authenticity of this account.

    It is when we elevate the Holy Scriptures to some modern definition of “inerrancy” is when we get into these problems. The same issue is at play when we hear of Israeli archaeologists finding that domesticated camels could not have been in play when the Old Testament talks about them. This is probably because the stories were written down much later. This troubled many conservative evangelicals. It doesn’t bother, in the slightest, traditional Christians such as Catholics and Orthodox. This is because they understand the oral tradition in the ancient world far better than Protestants. The archaeologists who made this discovery themselves said that this finding shouldn’t discount the historicity of the broad OT narrative. But, unfortunately, because conservative Protestants have made inerrancy in all biblical claims (no matter how inconsequential) a dogma, it becomes an all or nothing issue. There is no need to do this. Our faith doesn’t depend on camels. It depends on the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Similarly we shouldn’t be bothered when we hear that textual criticism casts doubt on the historicity of the account of the adulterous woman. The story was preserved in the oral tradition of the Church and the Church believes it belongs in the Gospel. That is good enough for me.

    • TC says:

      Simon, you are onto something here.

      • Simon says:

        TC, when you say that the story of the adulterous woman sounds authentically like Jesus you are right. Those who know Jesus also know that this story has the ring of truth about it 🙂

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