To many, there is no greater expression of the compassion and forgiveness of Jesus than the story of the adulterous woman in John 7:53-8:11. This passage, known as the pericope adulterae, has been the subject of textual criticism, mainly in the last few decades, attempting to decipher if it is a “lost pearl of ancient tradition or original to the text of the fourth gospel.” Church historians and textual critics generally agree that John 7:53-8:11 was a later addition to the Gospel of John and is not part of the original text. Many translations of the Bible simply denote this fact by supplying a footnote of the pericope’s exclusion from early manuscripts, or including a brief insertion in the appendix. The question of the authenticity, antiquity and authority of the pericope adulterae is one that the modern church has sought to answer. In order to reach an accurate conclusion on the canonicity and inspiration of the text, one must consider many different aspects concerning the pericope adulterae. First, one must consider the origin of the passage and examine why the passage hibernated for nearly three hundred years. If the pericope adulterae is not an authentic, historical text, then it cannot be considered authoritative for the church. Once the origin of the text is determined, one must consider its canonicity and inspiration. Finally, if the pericope adulterae is historical and inspired, one must determine how to properly interpret the verse. This paper will prove that the
pericope adulterae is not original to the Gospel of John, but is divinely inspired and, therefore, useful for teaching and instructing in righteousness.
An Examination of the Antiquity and Authenticity of the Pericope Adulterae
Critics of the inclusion of the pericope adulterae focus on the inspiration and authority of the John 7:53-8:11 and the fact that no significant New Testament manuscripts include the pericope adulterae until after the 4th century. Carl Bridges, a Professor of New Testament from Johnson Bible College, highlights the fact the “earliest witnesses of the text of the Gospel of John omit the pericope.” Earle McMillan, who wrote a well-documented work, which concluded that the pericope adulterae is a later insertion into the Gospel of John, explained that major Latin works excluded the pericope. These major Latin versions of the New Testament that did not include the pericope adulterae are: the Codex Vercellensis in the 4th century, the Codex Veronensis in the 4th-5th century, the Codex Brixianus in the 6th century, and the Codex Rhedigerianus in the 7th century. The first reference in a Latin work to the pericope adulterae occurs in the Didascalia Apostolorum, which quotes John 8:11, “go and sin no more.” Historians disagree on the extent to which the pericope adulterae was used as an extra-biblical writing before its insertion into the Gospel of John.
The Latin texts were not the only texts that omitted the pericope adulterae. Gary Burge found that, “in all of the major Greek MSS we find the account absent.” Burge’s conclusion supports the fact that historians have not found any widely used Greek texts that support the inclusion of the pericope adulterae. Thus, the text on John 7:53-8:11 was a later insertion into the Gospel of John.
It is also curious that the early patriarchs of the church fail to mention the periscope adulterae in their writings. Some notable figures who excluded the passage include Origen, who transitions from John 7:52 to verse 8:12 uninterrupted in his commentary on John’s Gospel. Even more significant is the fact that Tertullian does not mention this passage of Scripture. Tertullian wrote De Pudicitia c. 220 C.E., which sought to answer the question of how a church should deal with the blatant sins committed by its members and at what point the church should excommunicate those guilty of sin. In this work, Tertullian gave clear judicial instruction in cases dealing with adultery yet does not make reference to Jesus’ dealing with the adulterous woman. It is unclear why Tertullian, among others, chose not to reference this passage in their writings.
In regards to external evidence supporting the antiquity of the pericope, the first patriarchs of the Church to quote the passage include Jerome in his work, Against the Pelagians, in the 4th century. Jerome includes the passage in his Latin translation of the New Testament, the Vulgate. This is significant because the inclusion of the pericope in the Vulgate influences many modern Catholics to accept the passage without question. Analysis of external evidence for the pericope adulterae leads to the conclusion that the periscope represents an early writing that is not original to the Gospel of John.
The Origin of John 7:53-8:11
Within the early manuscripts that make mention of the text, the periscope adulterae is located in a number of places within the Gospel if John, such as after John 7:36, 7:44, or at the end of the work. One text, the Farrer Group, even places this passage after Luke 21:38. Roy Bowen Ward argues that the field of form criticism has heavily influenced the study of the periscope adulterae. Form criticism seeks to examine the oral stages of the sharing of Jesus’ stories. In his work, Form Tradition to Gospel, Martin Dibelius, a well-known form critic, believes that the periscope adulterae is “a hybrid form – a paradigm which has been transformed into a tale. His main criticism is that it has not the brevity and simplicity characteristic of the paradigm.” Dibelius concludes that this passage is a relatively late addition to the book of John. The problem with the placement of the text has led some theologians to believe that the periscope adulterae could be of Lucan origin.
Henry Cadbury, an advocate of the Lucan authorship of the periscope adulterae, concluded that the vocabulary and style employed by the periscope is more characteristic of Luke than John. Cadbury identifies vocabulary used in the periscope adulterae that occurs in Luke and Acts but no other New Testament work. Fausto Salvoni highlights the fact that the same author would not likely have used these two distinct writing styles. Salvoni identifies several reasons why the periscope adulterae could possibly be Lucan in origin, and not original to the Gospel of John.
Within his writing, Luke had a tendency to emphasize the individual. He consistently focused on women, social outcasts, children and the poor. Furthermore, Luke emphasized the role of women in Jesus’ ministry significantly more than any other gospel writer. Several stories involving women are found solely in the gospel of Luke including the women who followed Jesus (8:1-3), the resurrection of the son of the widow (7:11-17) and the sinner woman whom Jesus forgave (7:36-50). Finally, in John’s gospel, he consistently takes time to discuss the theological impact of Jesus’ actions, which the author of the pericope adulterae does not take time to do. In his work, Behind the Third Gospel, Vincent Taylor argues for “Proto-Luke” writings. He supposes that Luke’s career as a historian led him to collect oral material and eye-witness accounts, especially those that focused on women, that he would later use in his writings. According to Taylor, there must have been some material that remained unused in the composition of the books of Luke and Acts. Therefore, the Gospel writers and church patriarchs would have had this “Proto-Luke” collection of writings to draw from. The story of the adulterous woman could have been a well-known passage in the early church, written by Luke, and later inserted into the Gospel of John. Though the idea of Lucan authorship is solely a supposition, it supplies a solid argument for the origin of the pericope adulterae.
On the ‘Hibernation’ of the Pericope Adulterae
Historians agree that the periscope adulterae is not original to the Gospel of John. Since the passage is not original, one must consider why it does not appear until in the manuscripts of the Gospel of John until three to four centuries later. During the period of the early church, the patriarchs of the church sought to promote a perfect ethical standard. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 6:9, says: “Wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God. Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom.” (NIV)
Paul encouraged followers to rid themselves of their sinful nature and be reborn through the Holy Spirit. The ritual of baptism served as an outward expression that a person had repented of their sins. Church fathers had to determine how to deal with the idea of post-baptismal sin. 1 John 1:8 states, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (NIV). Since the early church patriarchs believed in strong ethical perfection, then it is understandable as to why they would not have wanted to make mention of a story where Jesus might have violated the ethical standard of the church. Furthermore, there were special warnings against the sin of adultery.
Writers such as Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria wrote in staunch opposition to adultery. These writers believed that sexual sin was especially heinous. The majority of early New Testament manuscripts were written against this background. The periscope adulterae would have contradicted the teaching of the church during this time. This passage most likely described an actual event. The woman presented to Jesus in the pericope adulterae committed the same sin as the Samaritan woman in John 4. The Pharisees challenged Jesus on his interpretation of the death penalty, but Jesus shifted the conversation from the condemnation to mercy. This refusal of Jesus to condemn the woman of adultery contradicted many teachings of the early Church. In the third and fourth centuries, the periscope adulterae emerged as a testimony of the Lord’s forgiveness for those who repent. The theme of judgment within the periscope fits in well with this section of the Gospel of John. Roy Ward concludes, “As the story became more well-known, it may have found its way into the Fourth Gospel, perhaps as a gloss on the subject of ‘judgment’ in John 8:15, or perhaps through a lectionary.” It is this theme of judgment and mercy that one should focus on whilst interpreting the pericope adulterae.
Should the Pericope Adulterae be Treated as Inspired?
A study of early manuscripts of the New Testament concludes that John 7:53-8:11 are not original to the Gospel of John. Therefore, the church must determine whether or not to treat this Scripture as inspired. If one were to determine canonicity solely based on whether the text is original to the book, it does not make the cut. This passage is clearly an insertion. However, that does not automatically discount the passage. A study of the history of the periscope adulterae has confirmed its historiocity. The patristic history of the text reveals a plausible reason for the exclusion of the periscope adulterae. The passage does not add or diminish the person of Jesus like many of the books of the Apocrypha. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, portrays that Jesus was a ‘mystical teacher’ who possessed a secret knowledge. This is inconsistent with how Jesus is represented in the synoptic gospels and in the gospel of John. Carl Bridges rightfully considers the periscope adulterae a benign expansion of the New Testament.
Differing views on biblical inspirations could lead to differing conclusions about the inspiration of the pericope adulterae. The plenary-verbal view of inspiration highlights the fact that there is no way of proving the process by which the New Testament was written, but the end result is exactly what God intended. Those who adhere to this view of Biblical inspiration believe that the Bible is without error and that all writings included in the Bible are intended by God to be there. The weakness of this view is that there are no original manuscripts of the Gospels, only very early versions. Without autographs, one must rely solely on faith. Ultimately, the story does not add or subtract from the theology of the New Testament and should be treated as an inspired text.
Teaching and Preaching using John 7:53-8:11
The pericope adulterae should be included in the New Testament canon; however, pastors should approach the passage carefully. Many Christians are liable to believe the periscope adulterae simply because it is included in their Bibles. A preacher should be careful not to base any significant theological arguments on this passage alone. Instead, the preacher should allow scripture to prove scripture and should support the character, works and theology of Jesus in this passage with other New Testament accounts.
Gail O’Day argues that John 7:53-8:11 has been severely misinterpreted. O’Day argues that Augustine’s interpretation of the pericope adulterae has shaped the views of the western church. He believed that at the end of the passage, “there remained alone the two, a wretch and Mercy.” O’Day argues that this interpretation ignores the larger social questions presented in the passage, such as Jesus’ relationship with the establishment. Second, O’Day believes that pastors misinterpret the passage for fear of antinomianism. For example, in regards to the pericope adulterae, John Calvin argues:
“It is not related that Christ simply absolved the woman, but that he let her go free. And it is not surprising, for he did not wish to undertake anything that did not belong to his office. Those who deduce from this adultery should not be punished by death, must on the same reasoning, admit that inheritances should not be divided, since Christ refused to arbitrate between two brothers. Indeed every crime will be exempt from the penalites of law if the punishment of adultery is remitted, for the door will then be thrown open to every kind of treachery…”
Calvin has a vested interest in reshaping the interpretation of the text. He cannot allow for Jesus to be graceful towards the woman because he believes that Jesus may have subverted the status quo. Lastly, O’Day believes that too many interpreters seek to decipher what Jesus wrote on the ground. The passage, however, is clear, the crowd and woman respond to what they hear Jesus say, not what he wrote on the ground.
The pericope adulterae presents a significant challenge to the interpreter. At the heart of the story is the fact that the scribes, Pharisees and the adulterous woman are all treated equal by Jesus. Both the Pharisees and the woman are invited to turn from their old habits and start anew. O’Day highlights that the adulterous woman is invited to participate in a new future as a free woman and the Pharisees are invited to give up the categories which define their lives. Through this story, one can conclude that Jesus views everyone equally, and is not afraid to contradict man-made societal norms in order to ensure that justice and mercy prevails.
A study of early manuscripts of the New Testament evidences that the periscope adulterae is not original to the gospel of John. However, this passage was passed along through oral tradition in the early history of the church. Early church patriarchs promoted a strict moral and ethical standard that was not supported by the pericope adulterae. After the conversion of Constantine, and the solidification of Christianity within society, the passage was included in many significant works, such as Jerome’s Vulgate. The plenary-verbal view of biblical interpretation confirms Paul’s teaching that all scripture is God breathed and that the Bible is exactly how God intended. Therefore, though the periscope adulterae is not original to the Gospel of John, it is divinely inspired and useful for teaching, rebuking and instructing in righteousness.
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