Textural Considerations

            John 7:53-8:11, the Pericope De Adultera, is a highly disputed passage in the New Testament for a number of reasons. Firstly, as D.A. Carson points out, though “these verses are present in most of the medieval Greek miniscule manuscripts,” “they are absent from virtually all early Greek manuscripts that have come down to us.”[1] One notable exception to this is Codex Bezae (or Codex D), a fifth century uncial that is looked upon with suspicion due to its textual peculiarities.[2] Other uncials, “the earliest and certainly most important” manuscript group,[3] that contain the passage are G, H, K, M, U, and G.[4] Secondly, John 7:53-8:11 is also missing from many copies of early translations into Syriac, Coptic, Old Latin, Old Georgian and Armenian.[5] Neil R. Lightfoot observes that “practically none of the early versions have the story of the adulterous woman in them.”[6] This is actually a little misleading, for the passage is found in the Bohairic Coptic Version, the Syrian Palestinian Version and the Ethiopian Version, “all of which date from the second to the sixth centuries.”[7] Moreover, John 7:53-8:11 is also “clearly the reading of the majority of the Old Latin manuscripts and Jerome’s Vulgate.”[8] Thirdly, John MacArthur claims, “No Greek church father comments on the passage until the twelfth century.”[9] Carson similarly writes that “no Eastern Father cites the passage before the tenth century” and goes on to say that “all the early church Fathers omit this narrative: in commenting on John, they pass immediately from 7:52 to 8:12.”[10] These statements, though true to an extent, are quite unbalanced, for it should be pointed out that John 7:53-8:11 certainly does not find itself without early patristic attestation, as MacArthur and Carson lead one to believe. Thomas Holland points out that Didascalia (third century), Ambrosiaster (fourth century), Ambrose (fourth century), the Apostolic Constitutions (c. 380 AD), Jerome (420 AD), and Augustine (430 AD) all support John 7:53-8:1.[11] Augustine actually suggested that the passage was omitted for fear of some using it to excuse their adultery.[12] Fourthly, many of the Greek copies that do include John 7:53-8:11 “mark it off with asterisks or obeli, indicating hesitancy as to its authenticity.”[13] As Lightfoot notes, “some manuscripts that have it also have notes of doubt in the margin concerning it.”[14] Related to this is the diverse placement of the narrative. While most manuscripts that have it place it after John 7:52, some place it after John 7:44, John 7:36, John 21:25 or Luke 21:38.[15] Carson believes that all this “confirms the inauthenticity of the verses.”[16] Lastly, internal evidence against the passage has been proposed, as well. Carson says that John 7:53-8:11 contains “numerous expressions and constructions that are found nowhere in John, but which are characteristic of the Synoptic Gospels, Luke in particular.”[17] MacArthur affirms this in saying, “the vocabulary and style of the section also are different from the rest of the Gospel.”[18] Of course, a counter response can be and has been made to answer these objections. For example, Hughes and Laney demonstrate that “the stylistic trait of short explanatory phrases that appear elsewhere in John (6:6; 6:71; 11;31; 11:51; 13:11, 28) also appear here (8:6).”[19] Moreover, “The same type of legal language that appears in John 1-12 also appears here (‘questioning,’ ‘accusing’).”[20] Even if John 7:53-8:11 was not an original part of John, “many…do think that it has all the earmarks of historical veracity.”[21] In other words, one can legitimately hold that the story of the adulterous woman conveys historical truth and yet deny its authenticity as part of John’s Gospel. This is because “our early manuscripts do not deny the truthfulness of the story,” but, according to Lightfoot, simply “attest that the story was not an original part of John’s Gospel.”[22] Eusebius mentions in his History a story told by Papias “about a woman falsely accused before the Lord for many sins.”[23] Perhaps the woman referred to is the adulterous woman of John 7:53-8:11. In the end, “In spite of all these considerations…, it is possible to be wrong on the issue; and, thus, it is good to consider the meaning of this passage and leave it in the text.”[24]

EXEGESIS

Verses 1-2

            John 8 begins by saying that “Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.”[25] This occurrence follows a heated discussion among the Jewish religious leaders about Jesus (7:45-52). Since the Feast of Tabernacles is going on at this point in the text (7:2), Matthew Henry notes that it is possible that Jesus went to a booth set up on the Mount of Olives.[26] As to whether this is the case or not, we cannot be sure. Still, one detail is worthy of the reader’s attention: Jesus’ enemies “went each to his own house” (7:53), while Jesus, presumably, had no house to go to. This reminds one of Matthew 8:20, in which the Lord says, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Christ, because of His dedication to the Father’s will, continually experienced the discomfort that comes with persecution, while His enemies, on the other hand, lived comfortably as they obstinately rejected Jesus’ message. Believers, if they are faithfully seeking to obey God’s Word, are also forced to breach their comfort zone, for in John 15:20 the Lord says, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” A Christian is to imitate the model of devotion that Christ has provided. One accomplishes this by taking up his or her cross daily and following Jesus (Luke 9:23).

            Additional details in verse two solidify the picture of Jesus’ devotion. It is mentioned that Jesus came to the temple “early in the morning,” “though he lodged out of town, and perhaps had spent much of the night in secret prayer.”[27] In His eagerness to be about the Father’s business He wasted no time getting to the temple to teach. This passionate urgency to serve God should characterize every Christian. The text also specifically reminds the reader that Jesus was teaching in the temple the day before, for it says “he came again” (emphasis mine). Though the Lord may have been physically tired, He certainly wasn’t tired of reaching out to lost souls in accordance to the divine plan. As Henry comments, “Christ was a constant preacher, in season and out of season.”[28] Lastly, the text says that when he taught “he sat down.” This may not seem of any significance at first glance, but it actually conveys to the reader that Jesus was preparing to teach for an extended period of time. Again, Christ’s diligence, the focus of the first two verses, shines through. In the next verses, it is the commitment of the scribes and the Pharisees that is in view. Yet, of course, their commitment is misguided and in stark contrast to Christ’s, in that it seeks the failure of His ministry.

Verses 3-6a

            This section opens with the Pharisees bringing before Jesus “a woman who had been caught in adultery.” If the Pharisees are telling the truth about the woman then it seems that her adultery was actually witnessed. This causes one to wonder how this came about. Matthew Henry suggests that the adulterous act could have taken place recently in a tabernacle during the festivities that were going on at the time.[29] In other words, the adulterers “dwelling in booths, and their feasting and joy,” were “made occasions of sin” by their “wicked minds.”[30] This would explain how the sin in question could have been easily witnessed. In verse 5 the Pharisees appeal to the Law in order to justify their claim that the woman should be stoned to death. Now, though death is clearly the penalty for marital infidelity in the Torah (Lev. 10:10; Deut. 22:22), there is no specific mention of stoning being the means by which the punishment is carried out. On the other hand, Deuteronomy 22:23-24 indicates that if a “betrothed virgin” is unfaithful with another man then they are both to be stoned to death. This has led some to conclude, as Adam Clarke notes,[31] that the woman of John 8 was not married, but rather engaged to be. Regardless of this, it is incontestable that this woman, according to the Law, deserved death, for Jesus never challenged the Pharisees’ claim that the woman was guilty. As J. Vernon McGee writes, the Pharisees “are right about the Law of Moses; there is no way of toning it down. She should be stoned.”[32] In fact, it is the woman’s guilt that makes the dilemma the Lord finds Himself in all the more difficult. The lawyers “intend to push him either into contradicting the Mosaic law, or into falling foul of the Roman authorities, who did not allow Jews to carry out a death sentence.”[33] Moreover, if Jesus would have confirmed the sentence of the Law, the Pharisees would have accused him of being “inconsistent with himself and the character of the Messiah, who should be meek, and have salvation, and proclaim a year of release.”[34] Basically, “if He held to the Mosaic Law, His reputation for compassion and forgiveness would have been questioned.”[35] In summary, for Jesus to keep the Law would be for Him to defy the Romans and would also seem to contradict His message/conduct, while breaking the Law would be to, in the eyes of the people, demonstrate Him to be “a favorer of sin.”[36] Still, though the test was indeed a well crafted one, the brilliance of Jesus’ response outshines it by far, as will be seen below.

Verses 6b-8

            In the second part of verse 6, instead of making an automatic verbal response, Jesus begins to write on the ground. There are numerous conjectures as to what Jesus wrote. In the end, because the text does not give us an answer we can never know for sure. Still, mentioning a few interpretations is in order. Carson notes that “a longstanding interpretation in the church has been that he [i.e. Jesus] wrote part of Jeremiah 17:13: ‘Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water.’”[37] J. Vernon McGee is one commentator who holds this view.[38] Warren Wiersbe mentions another interpretation suggested by Arthur Pink:

“Christ wrote with His finger twice on the ground to remind them [i.e. the Pharisees] of the two tablets of the Law, written with the finger of God. The Jews sinned and Moses broke the first table; but God forgave their sin, provided blood sacrifices, and gave them a second table. Christ died for the sins of this woman, and was able to forgive her when she called Him, ‘Lord.’”[39]

This interpretation excellently expresses the biblical concepts of law and grace and uses them to illuminate the passage. Still, it is unclear whether or not the adulterous woman is actually repentant and, because of this, it is also unclear whether or not Jesus is extending forgiveness to the woman. The word for “Lord,” kyrie, “means ‘sir’ as readily as ‘lord’ or ‘Lord’”[40] and when Jesus says “Neither do I condemn you” he could simply be stating the fact that, under the regulations of the Mosaic Law and as a man, He had no authority to do so in the current situation, seeing as He was not a witness to the crime.[41] This relates to Jesus’ imperative in verse 7: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Is “without sin” general, referring to complete sinlessness, as McGee argues,[42] or should anamartetos (“without sin”) be seen as specific, meaning “without fault” in the regards to the case at hand, as John and Paul Feinberg contend.[43]


[1] Carson, 333

[2] Lightfoot, 23

[3] Ibid., 16

[4] Thomas Holland, Crowned With Glory, ch. 8 in SwordSearcher 6.1 (Broken Arrow, OK: StudyLamp Software LLC)

[5] Carson, 333

[6] Lightfoot, 40

[7] Holland

[8] Holland

[9] MacArthur, 293

[10] Carson, 333

[11] Holland

[12] Ibid.

[13] Carson, 333

[14] Lightfoot, 40

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Carson, 333

[18] MacArthur, 293

[19] Hughes and Laney, 548

[20] Ibid.

[21] MacArthur, 293

[22] Lightfoot, 40

[23] Eusebius, 114

[24] MacArthur, 293

[25] Unless otherwise noted the English Standard Version will be used for biblical quotation.

[26] Henry, 790

[27] Henry, 790

[28] Ibid.

[29] Henry, 791

[30] Ibid.

[31] Clarke

[32] McGee, 131

[33] Zondervan Handbook to the Bible, 632

[34] Henry, 791

[35] MacArthur, 293

[36] Henry, 791

[37] Carson, 335

[38] McGee, 131

[39] Wiersbe, 91

[40] Carson, 336

[41] Feinberg and Feinberg, 143

[42] McGee, 132

[43] Feinberg and Feinberg, 142