Jesus and the woman taken in adultery

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Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Guercino, 1621 (Dulwich Picture Gallery).
Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Guercino, 1621 (Dulwich Picture Gallery).

The Pericope Adulterae (pəˈrɪkəpi əˈdʌltəri in anglicised Latin)[1] is a traditional name for a famous passage (pericope) about an adulterous woman—verses John 7:53-8:11 of the Gospel of John. The passage describes a confrontation between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees over whether a woman, caught in an act of adultery, ought to be stoned. Jesus shames the crowd into dispersing, and averts the execution.

Although in line with many stories in the Gospels and probably primitive (Didascalia Apostolorum refers to it, possibly Papias also), some scholars [2][3] theorise that it was not part of the original text of John's Gospel.[4] On the other hand, Jerome reports that the pericope adulterae was to be found in its canonical place in "many Greek and Latin manuscripts" in Rome and the Latin West in the late 4th Century, the Council of Trent declared that the Latin Vulgate was authentic and authoritative. [5]The Latin Vulgate includes the adultery episode in John 7:53-8:11, and many other internal and external evidences exist to prove its validity such as Papias (circa 125 CE) refers to a story of Jesus and a woman "accused of many sins" as being found in the Gospel of the Hebrews, which may well refer to this passage; while there is a certain reference to the pericope adulterae in the 3rd Century Syriac Didascalia Apostolorum

The English idiomatic phrase to "cast the first stone" is derived from this passage.[6]


The passage

John 7:53-8:11 9, in the King James Version:

7:53 And every man went unto his own house. 8:1 Jesus went unto the Mount of Olives. 2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. 3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, 4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? 6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. 7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. 9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? 11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

Textual history

John 7:52–8:12 in Codex Vaticanus (c. 350 AD):lines 2&3 end 7:52; lines 4&5 start 8:12.
John 7:52–8:12 in Codex Vaticanus (c. 350 AD):lines 2&3 end 7:52; lines 4&5 start 8:12.

The pericope is not found in its canonical place in any of the earliest surviving Greek Gospel manuscripts; neither in the two 3rd century papyrus witnesses to John - P66 and P75; nor in the 4th century Codex Vaticanus (Codex Sinaiticus is proven to be a modern forgery). The first surviving Greek manuscript witness to the pericope is the Latin/Greek diglot Codex Bezae of the fifth century (although this manuscript may be earlier). Papias (circa 125 CE) refers to a story of Jesus and a woman "accused of many sins" as being found in the Gospel of the Hebrews, which may well refer to this passage; while there is a certain reference to the pericope adulterae in the 3rd Century Syriac Didascalia Apostolorum; though without any indication as to which Gospel, then contained the story. The Second Epistle of Pope Callistus section 6 contains a quote that may be from John 8:11 - "Let him see to it that he sin no more, that the sentence of the Gospel may abide in him: “Go, and sin no more.”" However the epistle quotes from eighth century writings and is not thought to be genuine.

Until recently, it was not thought that any Greek Church Father had taken note of the passage before the 12th Century; but in 1941 a large collection of the writings of Didymus the Blind (ca. 313- 398) was discovered in Egypt, including a reference to the pericope adulterae as being found in "several gospels"; and it is now considered established that this passage was present in its canonical place in a minority of Greek manuscripts known in Alexandria from the 4th Century onwards. In support of this it is noted that the 4th century Codex Vaticanus, which was written in Egypt, marks the end of John chapter 7 with an "umlaut", indicating that an alternative reading was known at this point.

Jerome reports that the pericope adulterae was to be found in its canonical place in "many Greek and Latin manuscripts" in Rome and the Latin West in the late 4th Century. This is confirmed by the consensus of Latin Fathers of the 4th and 5th Centuries CE; including Ambrose, and Augustine. The latter claimed that the passage may have been improperly excluded from some manuscripts in order to avoid the impression that Christ had sanctioned adultery:

Certain persons of little faith, 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.

History of textual criticism on John 7:53-8:11

The first to systematically apply the critical marks of the Alexandrian critics was the heretic Origen:

"In the Septuagint column [Origen] used the system of diacritical marks which was in use with the Alexandrian critics of Homer, especially Aristarchus, marking with an obelus under different forms, as "./.", called lemniscus, and "/.", called a hypolemniscus, those passages of the Septuagint which had nothing to correspond to in Hebrew, and inserting, chiefly from Theodotion under an asterisk (*), those which were missing in the Septuagint; in both cases a metobelus (Y) marked the end of the notation."

Early textual critics familiar with the use and meaning of these marks in classical Greek works like Homer, falsely interpreted the signs to mean that the section (John 7:53-8:11) was an interpolation and not an original part of the Gospel.

During the 16th Century, Western European scholars - both Catholic and Protestant - sought to recover the most correct Greek text of the New Testament, rather than relying on the Vulgate Latin translation. At this time, it was noticed that a number of early manuscripts containing John's Gospel lacked John 7:53-8:11 inclusive; and also that some manuscripts containing the verses marked them with critical signs, usually a lemniscus or asterisk. It was also noted that, in the lectionary of the Greek church, the set gospel reading for Pentecost runs from John 7:37 to 8:12, but skips over the twelve verses of this pericope. In several manuscripts, the verses appear at the end of the gospel.

Beginning with Lachmann (in Germany, 1840), reservations about the pericope became more strongly argued in the modern period, and these opinions were carried into the English world by Samuel Davidson (1848-1851), Tregelles (1862), and others; the argument against the verses being given body and final expression in Hort (1886). Those opposing the authenticity of the verses as part of John are represented in the 20th century by men like Cadbury (1917), Colwell (1935), and Metzger (1971).

On the other hand, many scholars strongly defend the Johannine authorship of these verses, and present opposing arguments and counter-analysis. This group of critics is typified by such scholars as Nolan (1865), and Burgon (1886); and find modern counterparts and apologists in Hoskier (1920), O.T. Fuller (1978), Pickering (1980), Hodges & Farstad (1985), Pierpont, and Robinson (2005).

Almost all modern translations now include the Pericope de Adultera at John 7:53-8:11; but some enclose it in brackets, and/or add a note concerning the oldest and most reliable witnesses (i.e. those favored by textual critics).


Arguments against Johannine authorship

Bishop J.B. Lightfoot wrote that absence of the passage from the earliest manuscripts, combined with the occurrence of stylistic characteristics atypical of John, together implied that the passage was an interpolation. Nevertheless, he considered the story to be authentic history. As a result, based on Eusebius' mention that the writings of Papias contained a story "about a woman falsely accused before the Lord of many sins" (H.E. 3.39), surmised that this section originally was part of Papias' Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord, and included it in his collection of Papias' fragments. However, Michael W. Holmes has pointed out that it is not certain "that Papias knew the story in precisely this form, inasmuch as it now appears that at least two independent stories about Jesus and a sinful woman circulated among Christians in the first two centuries of the church, so that the traditional form found in many New Testament manuscripts may well represent a conflation of two independent shorter, earlier versions of the incident."

Arguments for Johannine authorship

Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad argue for Johannine authorship of the pericope. They suggest points of similarity between the pericope's style and the style of the rest of the gospel. They claim that the details of the encounter fit very well into the context of the surrounding verses. They argue that the pericope's appearance in the majority of manuscripts, if not in the oldest ones, is evidence of its authenticity.

Manuscript evidence

John 7:52–8:12 in Codex Sinaiticus

Both Novum Testamentum Graece (NA27) and the United Bible Societies (UBS4) provide critical text for the pericope, but mark this off with [[double brackets]], indicating that the pericope is regarded as a later addition to the text. However, UBS4 rates its reconstruction of the wording of the pericope as { A }, meaning "virtually certain" to reflect the original text of the addition.

  1. Exclude pericope. Papyri 66 (c. 200) and 75 (early 3rd century); Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (4th century), also apparently Alexandrinus and Ephraemi (5th), Codices Washingtonianus and Borgianus also from the 5th century, Regius from the 8th, Athous Lavrensis (c. 800), Petropolitanus Purpureus, Macedoniensis, Codex Sangallensis and Koridethi from the 9th century and Monacensis from the 10th; Uncials 0141 and 0211; Minuscules 3, 12, 15, 21, 22, 32, 33, 39, 63, 96, 124, 134, 151, 157, 169, 209, 228, 297, 388, 391, 401, 416, 431 (added by a later hand), 445, 565, 578, 584, 703, 723, 730, 731, 741, 742, 768, 770, 772, 776, 777, 788, 799, 800, 827, 828, 843, 896, 1100, 1178, 1230, 1241, 1242, 1253, 1333, 2193 and 2768; the majority of lectionaries; some Old Latin, the majority of the Syriac, the Sahidic dialect of the Coptic, the Gothic, some Armenian, and the Georgian translations; Diatessaron (2nd century); apparently Clement of Alexandria (died 215), other Church Fathers namely Tertullian (died 220), Origen (died 254), Cyprian (died 258), Nonnus (died 431), Cyril of Alexandria (died 444) and Cosmas (died 550).
  2. Shorter pericope exclude. Minuscule 795 contains John 7:53-8:2 but exclude 8:3-11.
  3. Shorter pericope include (8:3-11). 4, 67, 69, 70, 71, 75, 81, 89, 90, 98, 101, 107, 125, 126, 139, 146, 185, 211, 217, 229, 267, 280, 282, 376, 381, 386, 390, 396, 398, 402, 405, 409, 417, 422, 430, 431, 435 (8:2-11), 462, 464, 465, 520 (8:2-11).
  4. Include pericope. Codex Bezae (5th century), 9th century Codices Boreelianus, Seidelianus I, Seidelianus II, Cyprius, Campianus and Nanianus, also Tischendorfianus IV from the 10th; Minuscule 28, 318, 700, 892, 1009, 1010, 1071, 1079, 1195, 1216, 1344, 1365, 1546, 1646, 2148, 2174; the Byzantine majority text; 79, 100 (John 8:1-11), 118, 130 (8:1-11), 221, 274, 281, 411, 421, 429 (8:1-11), 442 (8:1-11), 445 (8:1-11), 459; the majority of the Old Latin, the Vulgate, some Syriac, the Bohairic dialect of the Coptic, some Armenian, and the Ethopian translations; Didascalia (3rd century), Didymus the Blind (4th century), Ambrosiaster (4th century), Ambrose (died 397), John Chrysostom (died 407), Jerome (died 420), Augustine (died 430).
  5. Question pericope. Marked with asterisks (*) or obeli (÷). Codex Vaticanus 354 (S) and the Minuscules 4, 8, 35, 83, 161, 164, 165, 166, 167, 168, 200, 202, 285, 338, 348, 363, 367, 376, 386, 407, 443, 478, 532, 547, 553, 656, 662, 757, 758, 769, 781, 797, 801, 824, 825, 829, 844, 845, 873, 897, 922, 1073, 1077, 1092, 1099, 1187, 1189, 1443 and 1445 include entire pericope from 7:53; the menologion of Lectionary 185 includes 8:1ff; Codex Basilensis (E) includes 8:2ff; Codex Tischendorfianus III (Λ) and Petropolitanus (П) also the menologia of Lectionaries 86, 211, 1579 and 1761 include 8:3ff. Minuscule 807 is a manuscript with a Catena, but only in John 7:53-8:11 without catena.
  6. Relocate pericope. Family 1, minuscules 20, 135, 207, 301, 347, and nearly all Armenian translations place the pericope after John 21:25; Family 13 place it after Luke 24:53; a corrector to Minuscule 1333 added 8:3–11 after Luke 24:53; and Minuscule 225 includes the pericope after John 7:36. Minuscule 129, 259, 470, 564, 831, and 1356 place John 8:3-11 after John 21:25. Minuscule 826 placed pericope after Luke 21:38

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