Four Reasons to Reject the Floating Tradition Argument Against the Pericope Adulterae

In Home Page Slider, Pericope de Adulterae, Post Slider on Main Page, Textual Criticism by Paul J. Barth2 Comments

The “floating tradition” argument against the authenticity of the Pericope Adulterae (PA), John 7:53-8:11, is summarized well by Bruce Metzger in 1964, “The pericope 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” (Text Of The New Testament, pg. 320). The argument attempts to capitalize on the fact that the woman caught in adultery passage is located in various places in a few manuscripts. A group of manuscripts believed to be copies from the same source called “Family 13” places the PA after Luke 21:38, manuscript 1333 places it between the books of Luke and John, one manuscript places it after John 7:36, and a few others place it after 7:44 or 21:25. Here are four reasons to reject the “floating tradition” interpretation of this evidence:

1) PA relocations are very late

No manuscript prior to the late 9th or 10th century relocates the PA, all the manuscripts which contain it have it in John until a few very late manuscripts relocate it. Additionally, Dr. Chris Keith pointed out that “Ambrose confirms a Johannine location while Jerome and Augustine confirm the specific location of John 7:53-8:11” (The Initial Location of the Pericope Adulterae in Fourfold Tradition, pg. 10). But, as Dr. Keith demonstrates, the context that Ambrose speaks of the PA within John, makes it “a sound assumption” (pg. 12) that Ambrose knew of the PA in the traditional location. So not only is there no manuscript evidence that it was “floating around looking for a home and landing in multiple spots,” patristic testimony flatly contradicts the theory. Having considered this, Dr. Keith asks, “If John 7:53-8:11 is demonstrably the majority location, and demonstrably the earliest location (and only narrative location in the extant evidence until the tenth century), how is it that PA came to be lodged from that position?” (pg. 14).

2) Lectionary and Feast Days

The relocation of the PA is due to lectionary-related issues, primarily so that the PA would not be the reading for Pentecost, but also because it is more appropriate for another Greek Orthodox feast day. “The location of the PA in Family 13

[none earlier than the 11th century] is a blatant example of the influence of the Byzantine lectionary system on the text of the New Testament. Luke 21:12-19 is to be read on 7 October, the feast of Saints Sergios and Bakchos; the day after, on 8 October, the PA is to be read on the feast of Saint Pelagia” (Keith, pg. 21). Saint Pelagia the Harlot was a notorious prostitute in the 4th or 5th century who repented and became a Christian at the preaching of Saint Nonnus. Thus it is apparent how her hagiography came to be associated with the woman caught in adultery and why that passage would be read on such a holiday. The “PA’s presence in these locations was therefore not due to confusion but to a deliberate scribal choice” (Keith, pg. 22).

3) “From out of John”

Manuscript 1333, also a late manuscript, places the Pericope Adulterae between Luke and John and explicitly states “ΕΚ ΤΟΥ ΚΑΤΑ ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ” [i.e. from out of John], therefore it can hardly be counted as evidence for the “floating tradition” (Robinson, Preliminary Observations Regarding the Pericope). “It is misleading when writers or apparatuses claim that in MS 1333c the PA appears ‘at the end of Luke’ or ‘post Lk 24,53’ (which makes it appear as though it were a portion of the Lukan text). Such a claim is clearly negated both by its placement location as well as the introductory phrase that identifies the pericope as coming ‘from that according to John.'” (Robinson, Addendum).

4) PA not the only passage found at various places

The Pericope Adulterae is not the only passage “inserted into various manuscripts at various places.” Dr. Keith notes that some of these same manuscripts shift many passages around for lectionary readings on certain Greek Orthodox saint/feast days. For example, he cites a scholar who “shows how the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13:3-17 occurs in MS 225 in its normal location and after Matt 26:20, ‘because the Byzantine liturgy prescribes the reading of this pericope both for the ceremony of foot-washing on Maundy Thursday and as part of the ordinary lesson of that day’” (footnote 81, pg. 20). That is just one example of many. Even the most weighty manuscripts for the Critical Text are not immune. Ironically, John 19:26 is inserted at Matthew 27:49 in both Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (David C. Parker, Codex Sinaiticus, pgs. 102-103). Are any of these examples absolute proof that those passages were floating around looking for a home and therefore we should reject them as belonging to Scripture? Certainly not.


The reader is encouraged to read Dr. Chris Keith’s thorough refutation of the floating tradition argument in his article The Initial Location of the Pericope Adulterae in Fourfold Tradition, Novum Testamentum Journal #51, 2009. Dr. Keith is not a Textus Receptus advocate and does not even believe that the Pericope Adulterae is authentic, but he has demonstrated that the floating tradition argument is a baseless theory. Additionally, the reader can see Majority Text advocate Dr. Maurice Robinson’s article Preliminary Observations Regarding the Pericope in Filologia Neotestamentaria #13, 2000. One would think that after several years of these journal articles being published, this naive floating tradition argument would cease to be made.

See also Defense of the Pericope by Dr. E.F. Hills

Word Magazine #51: Review: James White on Text on Apologia Part 3 by Dr. Jeff Riddle

The Pericope Adulterae: A “Floating Tradition”? by Dr. Jeff Riddle

Pericope Adulterae, The Gospel of John and the Literacy of Jesus by Dr. Chris Keith

Saint Pelagia. Saint Nonnus prays.


  1. Paul,
    The lection for St. Pelagia’s feast-day was usually John 8:3-11 (or, unusually, John 8:1-11). But there were oodles of lections for feast-days and we don’t see the other ones get moved around (or removed) the way we see John 7:53-8:11 get moved around (or removed). The trigger for the initial loss of the PA was not that it included St. Pelagia’s lection. It was, instead, the contours of the lection for a feast-day which Christians celebrated since the very beginning of the church: the lection for Pentecost.

    The lection for Pentecost begins in John 7:37, continues to the end of John 7:52, and then jumps to 8:12, and it ends and the end of 8:12. The reason for this is not hard to see: stopping at 7:52 would end the lection on a down-note; adding 8:12 gives it a nice positive conclusion and makes the lection more preachable, so to speak. But to include John 7:53-8:11 would be to take up an entirely new theme. That is why, in many of the over 1,300 manuscripts of John that include John 7:53-8:11, there is a little symbol before John 7:53 that means “jump from here,” and in those manuscripts there is also a little symbol before John 8:12 that means “resume here.”

    Those little symbols, properly understood by a lector, conveyed the contours of the Pentecost-Day lection. But, when misunderstood by a scribe, they would mean that he was to stop writing at the end of 7:52 and resume writing at the beginning of 8:12, and thus the passage went >poof< in an early influential transmission-stream.

    The f-1 MSS display another was that scribes handled the Pentecost-lection: in the main text of John, it was all written as one continuous unit without 7:53-8:11 — thus simplifying the lector's task — and the PA was moved to the end of the book.

    The f-13 MSS display another option: the master-copy of these MSS put the PA after Luke 21:28, adjusting the text of 8:2 so as to avoid repeating essentially the same content found in Lk. 21:38, so that there it could be easily found and read for St. Pelagia's feast-day (Oct. 8), near the text that was read for Oct. 7, as you mentioned.

    Other dislocations (such as before John 7:37, and after 8:12) were also resorted to as means of simplifying the task of the lector on Pentecost, so that the lector would not have to speedily jump down the page to find the end of the Pentecost-lection; both formats have the result of making the Pentecost-lection one uninterrupted block of text. The unusual contours of the Pentecost-lection — not the lection for St. Pelagia — are what caused the loss and dislocations of the PA.

    The lection for St. Pelagia is significant for a different reason: In dozens of the manuscripts which are said to have asterisks alongside the PA, the asterisks only appear alongside John 8:3-11. This was a means of identifying the lection for St. Pelagia's day; it did not mean that the passage was doubtful or that it was to be removed. In 18 manuscripts, however, the copyists misunderstood the marks in their exemplar, and for this reason, although those 18 copies have John 7:53-8:2, the remaining verses (3-11) are absent. And in some other copies, too, 7:53-8:2 is in the text, but 8:3-11 was moved to the end of the book.

    1. Author

      Thank you for that explanation! It is definitely more complex than I could capture in this short article, and I by no means am an expert. Thanks for taking the time to elaborate!

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