109. The Woman taken in adultery: The Textual Problem (John 8:1 -11)
The first of several problems which the student of this
section of John's gospel encounters is: Does it belong? Is it an authentic part
of what John wrote?
With hardly an exception the modern textual critics answer:
No. Yet in the next breath practically all of them are agreed that this passage
is part of dependable apostolic tradition. It has "the ring of truth"; there is
about it somehow the hall-mark of genuineness. Consequently most modern versions
either print it in brackets (RV) or relegate it to the foot of page (RSV) or to
the end of the gospel (NEB). But all, in one way or another, make the reader
aware of the fact that he is being warned against accepting this as an integral
part of John's gospel.
Then, did John write it, or didn't he? To most modern readers
the question is academic. They like this story. They instinctively believe the
truth of it as they read it, and that is good enough for them. Just where it
came from, or who wrote it, or how it got where it is, are questions of almost
But for those who believe in the inspiration of Holy Scripture
such sloppy attitudes are hardly seemly. Then, is it possible to come to any
definite conclusions regarding this issue?
The facts are these. Some very awe-inspiring witnesses can be
cited against receiving this section as authentic Scripture.
This is an impressive case, only to be set aside by massive
evidence the other way. And if it is set aside, a very convincing explanation is
called for as to how omission by all these authorities has come about. Both of
these it is possible to provide, with the net result that these twelve verses
may be confidently received as an authentic and authoritative part of the gospel
as originally written.
- A number of very ancient manuscripts omit the passage: The Sinaitic,
Vatican, and Freer codices, and the early Geneva papyrus (No. 66) are among
- A big proportion of the ancient versions do not have it.
important handful of early fathers, whose commentaries on the gospels could be
expected to include it, leave out all mention.
- Those manuscripts which do
have it involve a good many more "various readings" than is usual.
language is so obviously not John's style or vocabulary. This is obvious even to
the student who is confined to the text in
First the textual evidence:
The inclusion by such a large number of manuscripts presents a
problem. If these twelve verses represent a floating bit of early tradition
which has come to be incorporated with John's gospel, how is it that practically
all the manuscripts insert it at this particular place? The answer usually
supplied is that in the fourth century a widespread revision of existing New
Testament texts took place throughout the churches, and a big degree of
standardisation ensued. This sounds plausible enough, but unhappily no shred of
documentary evidence to support such a view has ever been found-and this from a
period which has church writings available today in great abundance. Nor
is it possible to see how such a revision could be efficient in every
part of the Roman empire.
- More uncial manuscripts have it than omit it.
- Well over three hundred
cursive manuscripts have it.
- The "Apostolic Constitutions", a very early
document, includes the words. So also do most of the Old Latin manuscripts and
the Latin Vulgate. Jerome commented that this section was to be found in many
Greek and Latin codices of his day (4th century). Several of the ancient
versions (e.g. Ethiopic and Jerusalem Syriac) include
On the other hand there is clear evidence of a very striking
character that a documentary revision of a different kind was going on in
certain areas about that time. There are indications in the writings of
Augustine and other prominent leaders of the fourth century church that the
story of the woman taken in adultery was deemed to be a threat to the purity of
Christian living, inasmuch as it could be construed as an encouragement to
promiscuity. For this reason there developed a marked tendency to give this
story as little prominence in church teaching as possible. In the lectionaries
it was either relegated to use at one or two very minor church festivals or was
not read at all.
More than this, there is evidence in the manuscripts
themselves that a campaign of this kind was in progress. Scrivener has pointed
out that in one of the Old Latin manuscripts "the whole text from 7:44 to 8:12
has been wilfully erased." (Introduction to Criticism of New Testament 2.367).
In Codex A, the scribe began to write this disputed section, and then erased it.
Codices A C L leave a space at this point in John's gospel, a clear indication
that the scribes responsible for them knew of the familiar reading but had some
reason for omitting it. A group of thirteen cursives put these verses at the end
of the gospel. The Ferrar group (f 13) inserts them at the end of Luke 21,
doubtless because of the marked resemblance to two verses there.
All these facts fit readily enough with the hypothesis that an
attempt was being made to relegate this inconvenient Scripture (as it was
deemed) to a place of obscurity, and this for the reason already
The lectionaries of the early church (these were a kind of
"Bible Companion") show very clearly how omission of these twelve verses came
about in some manuscripts. The gospel reading chosen for Whit Sunday was John
7:37 to the end of the chapter. But it was desired to include also Jn. 8:12: "I
am the light of the world." Accordingly at 7:52 a//the lectionaries (and there
are many of them still in existence) had in their margin a word meaning: "Go
over, overleap", and then at 8 :12 the word for "begin (again)."
Lectionary discontinuities of this sort are to be found
elsewhere and have actually led to other similar omissions in some manuscripts
(Burgon: Trad. Text, p. 256).
In this instance the 'overleaping' is done at the expense of a
certain loss of smoothness in the reading. Theargument,againstthe validity of
the twelve verses, has often been used that if they are left out there is
perfect continuity. But is there? John 7 :52 ends with the altercation between
the rulers and the officers and Nicodemus. John 8 :12 resumes with: "Again
therefore Jesus spake unto them, saying, I am the light of the world"-a strange
kind of continuity, surely! On the other hand, verse 12: "Again therefore Jesus
spake unto them, saying . . ." refers back naturally enough to verse 2; "and he
sat down and taught them."
As it stands, the received text presents no continuity problem
at all. The argumentation in the temple concluded, "every man went unto his own
house, but Jesus went into the mount of Olives." This harmonizes excellently
with the point, which chapter 7 has already mentioned several times, that the
rulers sought to kill Jesus. There was no safety for him in the city, hence his
taking refuge where they would never dream of looking for him, in the garden of
Then, "early in the morning, he came again into the temple,
and all the people came unto him." After the challenge of judgment concerning
the adulterous woman, his adversaries disappear from the scene (8:9,10), and
Jesus is able to resume his teaching: "I am the Light of the world." It will be
shown in Study 110 that not only does this incident harmonize perfectly with the
rest of chapter?, but some of the language which follows requires to be read as
allusive to the judging of the adulterous woman.
The Problem of Style
There still remains, however, the evident fad that in style
and vocabulary these disputed verses seem to have little resemblance to the
writing of John. This has to be admitted. But, again, there is a very simple
factual explanation available. Unfortunately, although both simple and factual,
the explanation is necessarily rather lengthy, and accordingly it is needful to
bespeak the reader's patience regarding it.
There are two very interesting statements available from early
church writers regarding the origin of John's gospel. Clement of Alexandria (c.
190) wrote: "The tradition of the presbyters from the first is that John, last,
having observed that the bodily things (regarding Jesus) had been set forth in
the synoptic gospels, on the exhortation of his friends, inspired by the Spirit
produced a spiritual gospel." The Muratorian Fragment (c. 180), found in a
library in Milan, has this: "It was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles,
that John should narrate everything in his own name, subject to the revision of
These two testimonies from widely separated sources indicate
that whilst the writing of the gospel was John's work (necessarily so), he had
associated with him in the writing of it, others, also guided by the Spirit, who
were able to vouch for the validity of what he wrote. Some arrangement of this
kind was obviously desirable in an age when not a few undependable attempts were
being made to set out the life and work of Christ (see Luke 1 :1).
Here, then is the explanation of the strange occasional
occurrence of the plural pronoun in John's narrative: "This is the disciple
(John) which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know
that his testimony is true" (21 :24). This is clearly the authenticating
certificate, so to speak, of the brethren associated with John. Similarly, "the
Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory"
(1 :14). It is possible now to see that the plural pronouns in this familiar
passage are not just a vague way of referring to the human race in general. They
are intended to include with John others such as Andrew who also had personal
contact with Jesus in the days of his flesh.
With this background to the gospel made more clear, it is not
difficult to see the section under consideration as having been contributed by
Andrew or one of the others because of its exceptional relevance to the sequence
of ideas in the Lord's controversy with the rulers. Just how relevant it is will
be shown in the next study. Thus it becomes possible to regard this section as
coming from the pen of some writer other than John and yet as being an integral
part of the gospel, decidedly helpful to a proper understanding of all that was
taking place at that time.