Defense of the Pericope by Dr. Edward Freer Hills
The Woman Taken In Adultery (John 7:53-8:11)
The story of the woman taken in adultery (called the pericope de adultera) has been rather harshly treated by the modern English versions. The R.V. and the A.S.V. put it in brackets; the R.S.V. relegates it to the footnotes; the N.E.B. follows Westcott and Hort in removing it from its customary place altogether and printing it at the end of the Gospel of John as an independent fragment of unknown origin. The N.E.B. even gives this familiar narrative a new name, to wit, An Incident In the Temple. But as Burgon has reminded us long ago, this general rejection of these precious verses is unjustifiable.
(a) Ancient Testimony Concerning the Pericope de Adultera (John 7:53-8:11)
The story of the woman taken in adultery was a problem also in ancient times. Early Christians had trouble with this passage. The forgiveness which Christ vouchsafed to the adulteress was contrary to their conviction that the punishment for adultery ought to be very severe. As late as the time of Ambrose (c. 374), bishop of Milan, there were still many Christians who felt such scruples against this portion of John’s Gospel. This is clear from the remarks which Ambrose makes in a sermon on David’s sin. “In the same way also the Gospel lesson which has been read, may have caused no small offense to the unskilled, in which you have noticed that an adulteress was brought to Christ and dismissed without condemnation . . . Did Christ err that He did not judge righteously? It is not right that such a thought should come to our minds etc.” (32)
According to Augustine (c. 400), it was this moralistic objection to the pericope de adultera which was responsible for its omission in some of the New Testament manuscripts known to him. “Certain persons of little faith,” he wrote, “or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord’s act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if He who had said ‘sin no more’ had granted permission to sin.” (33) Also, in the 10th century a Greek named Nikon accused the Armenians of “casting out the account which teaches us how the adulteress was taken to Jesus . . . saying that it was harmful for most persons to listen to such things.” (34)
That early Greek manuscripts contained this pericope de adultera is proved by the presence of it in the 5th-century Greek manuscript D. That early Latin manuscripts also contained it is indicated by its actual appearance in the Old Latin codices b and e. And both these conclusions are confirmed by the statement of Jerome (c. 415) that “in the Gospel according to John in many manuscripts, both Greek and Latin, is found the story of the adulterous woman who was accused before the Lord.” (35) There is no reason to question the accuracy of Jerome’s statement, especially since another statement of his concerning an addition made to the ending of Mark has been proved to have been correct by the actual discovery of the additional material in W. And that Jerome personally accepted the pericope de adultera as genuine is shown by the fact that he included it in the Latin Vulgate.
Another evidence of the presence of the pericope de adultera in early Greek manuscripts of John is the citation of it in the Didascalia (Teaching) of the Apostles and in the Apostolic Constitutions, which are based on the Didascalia.
. . . to do as He also did with her that had sinned, whom the elders set before Him, and leaving the judgment in His hands departed. But He, the Searcher of Hearts, asked her and said to her, ‘Have the elders condemned thee, my daughter?” She saith to Him, ‘Nay, Lord.’ And He said unto her, ‘Go thy way: Neither do I condemn thee.’ (36)
In these two documents (from the 3rd and 4th centuries respectively) bishops are urged to extend forgiveness to penitent sinners. After many passages of Scripture have been cited to enforce this plea, the climax is reached in the supreme example of divine mercy, namely, the compassion which Christ showed to the woman taken in adultery. Tischendorf admitted that this citation was taken from the Gospel of John. “Although,” he wrote, “the Apostolic Constitutions do not actually name John as the author of this story of the adulteress, in vain would anyone claim that they could have derived this story from any other source.” (37) It is true that R. H. Connolly (1929) (38) and other more recent critics insist that the citation was not taken from the canonical Gospel of John but from the apocryphal Gospel according to the Hebrews, but this seems hardly credible. During the whole course of the argument only passages from the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are adduced. Can we suppose that when the authors of these two works reached the climax of their plea for clemency toward the penitent they would abandon the Scriptures at last and fall back on an apocryphal book?
Another important testimony concerning the pericope de adultera is that of Eusebius (c. 324). In his Ecclesiastical History Eusebius gives extracts from an ancient treatise written by Papias (d. 150), bishop of Hierapolis, entitled Interpretation of the Oracles of the Lord. Eusebius concludes his discussion of Papias’ writings with the following statement: “The same writer used quotations from the first Epistle of John, and likewise also from that of Peter, and has expounded another story about a woman who was accused before the Lord of many sins, which the Gospel according to the Hebrews contains.” (39)
From this statement of Eusebius naturalistic critics have inferred that Eusebius knew the pericope de adultera only as a story occurring in the writings of Papias and in the Gospel according to the Hebrews and not as a part of the canonical Gospel of John. This conclusion, however, by no means follows necessarily. Eusebius may have been hostile to the story of the woman taken in adultery not only because of moralistic objections but also because it was related by Papias. For Eusebius had a low opinion of Papias and his writings. “He was a man of very little intelligence,” Eusebius declared, “as is clear from his books.” (40) It may very well be that the disdain which Eusebius felt for Papias made him reluctant to mention the fact that Papias’ story occurred also in some of the manuscripts of the Gospel of John. At any rate, an argument against the genuineness of John 7:53-8:11 based on Eusebius is purely an argument from silence, and arguments from silence are always weak. Instead of stressing Eusebius’ silence it is more reasonable to lay the emphasis upon his positive testimony, which is that the story of the woman taken in adultery is a very ancient one, reaching back to the days of the Apostles.
Also the Spanish Father Pacian (c. 370) appealed to the pericope de adultera when protesting against excessive severity in discipline. “Are you not willing,” he asked, “to read in the Gospel that the Lord also spared the adulteress who confessed, whom no man had condemned?” (41)
(b) What the Facts of History Indicate
The facts of history indicate that during the early Christian centuries throughout the Church adultery was commonly regarded as such a serious sin that it could be forgiven, if at all, only after severe penance. For example, Cyprian (c. 250) says that certain bishops who preceded him in the province of North Africa “thought that reconciliation ought not to be given to adulterers and allowed to conjugal infidelity no place at all for repentance.” (42) Hence offence was taken at the story of the adulterous woman brought to Christ, because she seemed to have received pardon too easily. Such being the case, it is surely more reasonable to believe that this story was deleted from John’s Gospel by over-zealous disciplinarians than to suppose that a narrative so contrary to the ascetic outlook of the early Christian Church was added to John’s Gospel from some extra-canonical source. There would be a strong motive for deleting it but no motive at all for adding it, and the prejudice against it would make its insertion into the Gospel text very difficult.
Not only conservatives but also clear thinking radical scholars have perceived that the historical evidence favors the belief that the pericope de adultera was deleted from the text of the fourth Gospel rather than added to it. “The bold presentation of the evangelist,” Hilgenfeld (1875) observed, “must at an early date, especially in the Orient have seemed very offensive.” (43) Hence Hilgenfeld regarded Augustine’s statement that the passage had been deleted by overscrupulous scribes “as altogether not improbable.” And Steck (1893) suggested that the story of the adulteress was incorporated in the Gospel of John before it was first published. “That it later,” concluded Steck, “was set aside out of moral prudery is easily understandable.” (44)
Rendel Harris (1891) was convinced that the Montanists, an ascetic Christian sect which flourished during the 2nd century, were acquainted with the pericope de adultera. “The Montanist Churches,” he wrote, “either did not receive this addition to the text, or else they are responsible for its omission; but at the same time it can be shown that they knew of the passage perfectly well in the West; for the Latin glossator of the Acts has borrowed a few words from the section in Acts 5:18. (45) In Acts 5:18 we are told that the rulers laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison. To this verse the Latin portion of D adds, and they went away each one to his house. As Harris observes, this addition is obviously taken from the description of the breaking up of the council meeting in John 7:53. If the Montanists were the ones who added these words to Acts 5:18, then the pericope de adultera must have been part of John’s Gospel at a very early date.
Naturalistic scholars who insist that John 7:53-8:11 is an addition to the Gospel text can maintain their position only by ignoring the facts, by disregarding what the ancient writers say about this pericope de adultera and emphasizing the silence of other ancient writers who say nothing about it at all. This is what Hort did in his Introduction (1881). Here the testimony of Ambrose and Augustine is barely mentioned, and the statement of Nikon concerning the Armenians is dismissed as mere abuse. (46) Contrary to the evidence Hort insisted that the pericope de adultera was not offensive to the early Church. “Few in ancient times, there is reason to think, would have found the section a stumbling block except Montanists and Novatians.” (47) With the implications of this sweeping statement, however, Rendel Harris could not agree. “Evidently,” he observed, “Dr. Hort did not think that the tampering of the Montanists with the text amounted to much; we, on the contrary, have reason to believe that it was a very far reaching influence.” (48)
Today most naturalistic scholars feel so certain that John 7:53-8:11 is not genuine that they regard further discussion of the matter as unprofitable. When they do deal with the question (for the benefit of laymen who are still interested in it) they follow the line of Westcott and Hort. They dismiss the ancient testimony concerning this passage as absurd and rely on the “argument from silence.” Thus Colwell (1952) ridicules the reason which Augustine gives for the deletion of the pericope de adultera. “The generality,” he declares, “of the ‘omission’ in early Greek sources can hardly be explained this way. Some of those Greek scribes must have been unmarried! Nor is Augustine’s argument supported by the evidence from Luke’s Gospel, where even greater acts of compassion are left untouched by the scribes who lack this story in John.” (49)
There is no validity, however, in this point which Colwell tries to score against Augustine. For there is a big difference between the story of the adulteress in John 8 and the story in Luke 7 of the sinful woman who anointed the feet of Jesus and was forgiven. In Luke the penitence and faith of the woman are stressed; in John these factors are not mentioned explicitly. In Luke the law of God is not called in question; in John it, seemingly, is set aside. And in Luke the sinful woman was a harlot; in John the woman was an adulteress. Thus there are good reasons why the objections raised against the story of the adulteress in John would not apply to the story of the harlot in Luke and why Tertullian, for example, refers to Luke’s story but is silent about John’s.
(c) Misleading Notes in the Modem Versions
The notes printed in the modern versions regarding John 7:53 – 8:11 are completely misleading. For example, the R.S.V. states that most of the ancient authorities either omit 7:53-8:11 or insert it with variations of text after John 7:52 or at the end of John’s Gospel or after Luke 21:38. And the N.E.B. says the same thing and adds that the pericope de adultera has no fixed place in the ancient New Testament manuscripts. These notes imply that originally the story of the adulteress circulated as an independent narrative in many forms and that later, when scribes began to add it to the New Testament, they couldn’t agree on where to put it, some inserting it at one place and others at another.
Von Soden (1902) showed long ago that the view implied by these notes is entirely erroneous. Although this scholar denied the genuineness of John 7:53 – 8:11, nevertheless, in his monumental study of this passage he was eminently fair in his presentation of the facts. After mentioning that this section is sometimes found at the end of the Gospel of John and sometimes in the margin near John 7:52 and that in one group of manuscripts (the Ferrar group) the section is inserted after Luke 21:38, von Soden continues as follows: “But in the great majority of the manuscripts it stands in the text between 7:52 and 8:12 except that in at least half of these manuscripts it is provided with deletion marks in the margin.” (50) Thus the usual location of the pericope de adultera is in John between 7:52 and 8:12. The manuscripts which have it in any other place are exceptions to the rule.
“The pericope,” says Metzger (1964), “is obviously a piece of floating tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western Church. It was subsequently inserted into various manuscripts at various places.” (51) But Metzger’s interpretation of the facts is incorrect, as von Soden demonstrated long ago by his careful scholarship. Von Soden showed that the usual location of the pericope de adultera was also its original location in the New Testament text. The other positions which it sometimes occupies and the unusually large number of variant readings which it contains were later developments which took place after it became part of the New Testament. “In spite of the abundance of the variant readings,” he declared, “it has been established with certainty that the pericope was not intruded into the Four Gospels, perhaps in various forms, in various places. This hypothesis is already contradicted by the fixed place which the section has, against which the well known, solitary exception of the common ancestor of the so-called Ferrar group can prove nothing. On the contrary, when the pericope, at a definite time and at a definite place was first incorporated into the Four Gospels, in order then to defend its place with varying success against all attacks, it had the following wording.” (52) And then von Soden goes on to give his reconstruction of the original form of the pericope de adultera. This does not differ materially from the form printed in the Textus Receptus and the King James Version.
Also the opening verses (John 7:53-8:2) of the pericope de adultera indicate clearly that its original position in the New Testament was in John between 7:52 and 8:12, for this is the only location in which these introductory verses fit the context. The first of them (John 7:53) describes the breaking up of the stormy council meeting which immediately precedes. The next two verses (John 8:1-2) tell us what Jesus did in the meantime and thereafter. And thus a transition is made to the story of the woman taken in adultery. But in those other locations mentioned by N.E.B., which the pericope de adultera occupies in a relatively few manuscripts, these introductory verses make no sense and thus prove conclusively that the pericope has been misplaced.
Long ago Burgon pointed out how untrustworthy some of those manuscripts are which misplace the pericope de adultera. “The Critics eagerly remind us that in four cursive copies (the Ferrar group) the verses in question are found tacked on to the end of Luke 21. But have they forgotten that ‘these four codexes are derived from a common archetype,’ and therefore represent one and the same ancient and, I may add, corrupt copy? The same Critics are reminded that in the same four Codexes ‘the agony and bloody sweat’ (St. Luke 22:43-44) is found thrust into St. Matthew’s Gospel between ch. 26:39 and 40. Such licentiousness on the part of a solitary exemplar of the Gospels no more affects the proper place of these or of those verses than the superfluous digits of a certain man of Gath avail to disturb the induction that to either hand of a human being appertain but five fingers and to either foot but five toes.” (53)
(d) The Silence of the Greek Fathers Explained
The arguments of naturalistic critics against the genuineness of John 7:53-8:11 are largely arguments from silence, and the strongest of these silences is generally thought to be that of the Greek Church Fathers. Metzger (1964) speaks of it as follows: “Even more significant is the fact that no Greek Church Father for a thousand years after Christ refers to the pericope, including even those who, like Origen, Chrysostom, and Nonnus (in his metrical paraphrase) dealt with the entire Gospel verse by verse. Euthymius Zigabenus, who lived in the first part of the twelfth century, is the first Greek writer to comment on the passage, and even he declares that the accurate copies of the Gospel do not contain it.” (54)
This argument, however, is not nearly so strong as Metzger makes it seem. In the first place, as Burgon pointed out long ago, we must knock off at least three centuries from this thousand-year period of which Metzger speaks so ominously. For Tischendorf lists 9 manuscripts of the 9th century which contain the pericope de adultera in its usual place and also one which may be of the eighth century. And so the silence of the Greek Church Fathers during the last third of this thousand year period couldn’t have been because they didn’t know of manuscripts which contained John 7:53-8:11 in the position which it now occupies in the great majority of the New Testament manuscripts. The later Greek Fathers didn’t comment on these verses mainly because the earlier Greek Fathers hadn’t done so.
But neither does the silence of the earlier Greek Fathers, such as Origen (c. 230), Chrysostom (c. 400), and Nonnus (c. 400), necessarily imply that these ancient Bible scholars did not know of the pericope de adultera as part of the Gospel of John. For they may have been influenced against it by the moralistic prejudice of which we have spoken and also by the fact that some of the manuscripts known to them omitted it. And Burgon mentions another very good reason why these early Fathers failed to comment on this section. Their commenting was in connection with their preaching, and their preaching would be affected by the fact that the pericope de adultera was omitted from the ancient Pentecostal lesson of the Church.
“Now for the first time, it becomes abundantly plain, why Chrysostom and Cyril, in publicly commenting on St. John’s Gospel, pass straight from ch. 7:52 to ch. 8:12. Of course they do. Why should they,—how could they,—comment on what was not publicly read before the congregation? The same thing is related (in a well-known ‘scholium’) to have been done by Apolinarius and Theodore of Mopsuestia. Origen also, for aught I care, —though the adverse critics have no right to claim him, seeing that his commentary on all that part of St. John’s Gospel is lost,—but Origen’s name, as I was saying, for aught I care, may be added to those who did the same thing.” (55)
At a very early date it had become customary throughout the Church to read John 7:37-8:12 on the day of Pentecost. This lesson began with John 7:37-39, verses very appropriate to the great Christian feast day in which the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is commemorated: In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink . . . But this spake He of the Spirit which they that believe on Him should receive. Then the lesson continued through John 7:52, omitted John 7:53-8:11, and concluded with John 8:12, Again therefore Jesus spake unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. Thus the fact that the pericope de adultera was not publicly read at Pentecost was an additional reason why the early Greek Church Fathers did not comment on it.
Why was the story of the adulteress omitted from the Pentecostal lesson? Obviously because it was inappropriate to the central idea of Pentecost. But critics have another explanation. According to them, the passage was not part of the Gospel of John at the time that the Pentecostal lesson was selected. But, as Burgon pointed out, this makes it more difficult than ever to explain how this passage came to be placed after John 7:52. Why would a scribe introduce this story about an adulteress into the midst of the ancient lesson for Pentecost? How would it occur to anyone to do this?
Moreover, although the Greek Fathers were silent about the pericope de adultera, the Church was not silent. This is shown by the fact that John 8:3-11 was chosen as the lesson to be read publicly each year on St. Pelagia’s day, October 8. Burgon points out the significance of this historical circumstance. “The great Eastern Church speaks out on this subject in a voice of thunder. In all her Patriarchates, as far back as the written records of her practice reach, —and they reach back to the time of those very Fathers whose silence was felt to be embarrassing,—the Eastern Church has selected nine out of these twelve verses to be the special lesson for October 8.” (56)
(e) The Internal Evidence
Naturalistic critics have tried to argue against the genuineness of John 7:53-8:11 on the basis of the internal evidence. Colwell (1952), for example, claims that the story of the woman taken in adultery does not fit its context and that it differs in its vocabulary and general tone from the rest of John’s Gospel. (57) But by these arguments the critics only create new difficulties for themselves. For if the pericope de adultera is an interpolation and if it is so markedly out of harmony with its context and with the rest of the Gospel of John, why was it ever placed in the position which it now occupies? This is the question which Steck (1893) (58) asked long ago, and it has never been answered.
Actually, however, there is little substance to these charges. Arguments from literary style are notoriously weak. They have been used to prove all sorts of things. And Burgon long ago pointed out expressions in this passage which are characteristic of John’s Gospel. “We note how entirely in St. John’s manner is the little explanatory clause in ver. 6, —’This they said, tempting Him that they might have to accuse Him.’ We are struck besides by the prominence given in verses 6 and 8 to the act of writing, — allusions to which, are met with in every work of the last Evangelist.” (59)
As for not fitting the context, Burgon shows that the actual situation is just the reverse. When the pericope de adultera is omitted, it leaves a hole, a gaping wound that cannot be healed.
“Note that in the oracular Codexes B and Aleph immediate transition is made from the words ‘out of Galilee ariseth no prophet,’ in ch. 7:52, to the words ‘Again therefore JESUS spake unto them, saying,’ in ch. 8:12. And we are invited by all the adverse Critics alike to believe that so the place stood in the inspired autograph of the Evangelist.
“But the thing is incredible. Look back at what is contained between ch. 7:37 and 52, and note— (a) That two hostile parties crowded the Temple courts (ver. 40-42); (b) That some were for laying violent hands on our LORD (ver. 44); (c) That the Sanhedrin, being assembled in debate, were reproaching their servants for not having brought Him prisoner, and disputing one against another (ver. 45-52). How can the Evangelist have proceeded,—’Again therefore JESUS spake unto them, saying, I am the light of the world’? What is it supposed then that St. John meant when he wrote such words?” (60)
Surely the Dean’s point is well taken. Who can deny that when John 7:53-8:11 is rejected, the want of connection between the seventh and eighth chapters is exceedingly strange? The reader is snatched from the midst of a dispute in the council chamber of the Sanhedrin back to Jesus in the Temple without a single word of explanation. Such impressionistic writing might possibly be looked for in some sophisticated modern book but not in a book of the sacred Scriptures.
(f) The Negative Evidence of the Manuscripts and Versions Explained
It is not surprising that the pericope de adultera is omitted in Papyri 66 and 75, Aleph B W and L. For all these manuscripts are connected with the Alexandrian tradition which habitually favored omissions. When once the Montanists or some other extreme group had begun to leave the story of the adulteress out of their copies of John’s Gospel, the ascetic tendencies of the early Church were such that the practice would spread rapidly, especially in Egypt, and produce just the situation which we find among the Greek manuscripts. For the same reason many manuscripts of the Coptic (Egyptian) versions, including the recently discovered Bodmer Papyrus III, omit this passage, as do also the Syriac and Armenian versions. All these versions reflect the tendency to omit a passage which had become offensive. And the fact that the section had been so widely omitted encouraged later scribes to play the critic, and thus were produced the unusually large number of variant readings which appear in this passage in the extant manuscripts. And for the same cause many scribes placed deletion marks on the margin opposite this section.
None of these phenomena proves that the pericope de adultera is not genuine but merely that there was a widespread prejudice against it in the early Church. The existence of this prejudice makes it more reasonable to suppose that the story of the adulteress was omitted from the text of John than to insist that in the face of this prejudice it was added to the text of John. There would be a motive for omitting it but no motive for adding it.
32. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Academia Litterarum Vindobonensis, vol. xxxii, pp.359-360.
33. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Academia Litterarum Vindobonensis, vol. xxxxi, p.387.
34. S. S. Patrum J. B. Cotelerius, Antwerp, 1698, vol. i, p.235.
35. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina, vol. 23, col. 579.
36. Didascalia Apostolorum, trans. by R. Hugh Connolly, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929, p.76. F. X. Funk, Didascalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum, Paderborn, 1905, vol. 1, p. 92.
37. Tischendorf, N. T. Graece, vol. 1, p.829.
38. Didascalia Apost., p.li.
39. The Loeb Classical Library, Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius, vol. 1, p.298.
40. Idem, vol. 1, p.296.
41. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina, vol. 13, col. 1077.
42. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Academia Litterarum Vindobonensis, vol. iii, p.638.
43. Einleitung, p.782.
44. T Z aus der Schweiz, vol. 4, p.98.
45. “Codex Bezae,” Texts and Studies (Cambridge University Press), vol. 2 (1891), p.195.
46. N. T. In The Original Greek, vol. 2, Appendix, p.82.
47. Idem, p.86.
48. “Codex Bezae,” Texts and Studies (Cambridge University Press), vol. 2 (1891), p.195.
49. What Is The Best New Testament? By E. C. Colwell, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, Copyright 1952 by the University of Chicago, p.82.
50. Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments, von Soden, Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1. Teil, 1. Abt., p.486.
51. Text Of The New Testament, Metzger, p.224.
52. Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments, 1. Teil, 1 Abt. p.500.
53. The Causes Of The Corruption Of The Traditional Text, Burgon, p.250.
54. Text Of The New Testament, Metzger, p.223.
55. The Causes Of The Corruption Of The Traditional Text, p.257.
56. Idem, pp.259-260.
57. What Is The Best New Testament?, p.81.
58. T. Z. aus der Schweiz, p.98.
59. The Causes Of The Corruption Of The Traditional Text, p.241.
60. Idem, pp.237-238.
The King James Version Defended, 4th edition (Des Moines: Christian Research Press, 1984), pp. 150-159.