Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

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 no importance.

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?

Textual Evidence

The facts are these. Some very awe-inspiring witnesses can be cited against receiving this section as authentic Scripture.

  1. A number of very ancient manuscripts omit the passage: The Sinaitic, Vatican, and Freer codices, and the early Geneva papyrus (No. 66) are among these.
  2. A big proportion of the ancient versions do not have it.
  3. An important handful of early fathers, whose commentaries on the gospels could be expected to include it, leave out all mention.
  4. Those manuscripts which do have it involve a good many more "various readings" than is usual.
  5. The language is so obviously not John's style or vocabulary. This is obvious even to the student who is confined to the text in English
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.

First the textual evidence:

  1. More uncial manuscripts have it than omit it.
  2. Well over three hundred cursive manuscripts have it.
  3. 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 it.
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.

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 mentioned.

Church Lectionaries

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 Gethsemane (18:1).

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 the rest."

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.

Previous Index Next