Few passages in the Bible are more beloved than the story of the adulterous woman being brought to Jesus, condemned by the scribes and Pharisees, and then set free by the wisdom and compassion of Christ. At the same time, few passages in the Bible are more debated. Should John 7:53–8:11 be included in the Bible, or not?
In the early church, it was recognized that this passage was not present in the earliest Greek manuscripts. And Augustine and others suggested that the teaching in the passage is what led to exclusion. In On Adulterous Marriages (2.7.6), he writes, “Some men of slight faith” and others “hostile to true faith” removed the passage for fear that it would encourage adultery.
In the modern era, the problem of the Pericope Audulterae (PA) has not been a matter of questionable ethics, so much as questionable evidence. As most translations admit, “The earliest manuscripts does not include John 7:53–8:11” (ESV). Likewise, a majority of evangelical scholars also question the inclusion of this passage in the Bible. See, for instance, Daniel Wallace, Jim Hamilton, and a list of others.
On the other hand, there are biblical scholars who do argue for the inclusion of the PA in the biblical canon. This would include advocates of the King James Version, Majority Text advocates, and others who would point to the Byzantine text tradition. For instance, Maurice Robinson, a retired professor from SEBTS, who is not KJV-Only, has done the most extensive work on this subject. And he has made the case for including this passage as original.
Still this is the minority report. And accordingly, Bible readers and preachers are left to wonder: How do we handle this text?
Surveying the Options
In an illuminating summary of the positions, Timothy Miller highlights eleven different approaches to John 7:53–8:11. These include a full canonical defense of Johannine authorship (1A), six other canonical but non-Johannine interpretations of the passage (1B–1G), and four positions that appreciate the message of John 7:53–8:11, but which do not see it as canonical (2A–2D). This graph, highlighting various ways to “preach” John 7:53–8:1, comes from Miller’s Themelios article.
At present, I hold to a view that would preach John 7:53–8:11 “as illustration of other canonical texts.” This is how John Piper handled the passage when he preached it, and it is the way I intend to preach it Sunday. (N.B. My view was formed before discovering that Piper handled John 7:53–8:11 this way).
Admittedly, I hold this view with open hands and with sympathy for many of the other views offered in Miller’s survey. I am not an expert on textual criticism, the biblical discipline which “refers to the reconstruction of the original text of the NT writings insofar as this can be accomplished using the various resources available to us (i.e. Greek manuscripts, ancient translations, early patristic citations, etc.).” Rather, I am a pastor and a theologian who depends upon the work of others who have dedicated themselves to this important first step in biblical exegesis. In truth, none of us can be experts on everything and it is healthy to depend upon the work of others.
That said, I do have to give an account for what I preach (2 Tim. 2:15). I cannot simply copy and paste the work of others when I preach this Sunday. For that reason, I have spent my time this week in preparation looking at how John 7:53–8:11 does or does not fit into the book of John itself.
Aside from the fact that the textual evidence for this passage is debated, and, in my mind, dubious, I want to answer this question: What does John 7:53–8:11 add to or take away in the Gospel of John? Or to say it differently, what is the internal evidence for John 7:53–8:11? How does it fit in John’s Gospel? Does it give evidence that John himself wrote it? Or does it look like it has been inserted at some later period?
Leaving aside the external evidence (i.e., the manuscript question), I believe the internal evidence for excluding John 7:53–8:11 is strong. In contrast to some who see John 7:53–8:11 coming at the end of a section in John 7, where John 8 starts a new section, I believe that John 7–8 should be read together, and that John 7:53–8:11 interferes with a clear and important unity in John 5-11, a section that holds together in a chiastic structure (see below) and a narrative unity.
A Biblical Conviction about the Canon
In what follows, I will offer six observations from the text of John’s Gospel that lead me to conclude that the absence of this passage in early manuscripts is because it was not written by John and, therefore, should not be preached as Christian Scripture. As Klink observes
Stories are not free-floating scenes for interpretation but are intentional parts of larger narratives that provide literary context. A pericope does not just belong to the historical Jesus of historical reconstruction and validation but to a canonical Gospel of the church. (Klink, John, 388)
This literary observation is important, because it affirms the fact that the canonical books of the Bible are not just collections of true events. The Spirit does not inspire events alone; he inspires the very words, pericopes, and literary structures found in the Bible. Moreover, the inspiration of the Bible is not just pieces of Scripture collected in Bible bag. Rather, the Bible demonstrates incredible literary structure and design. Such design is often surprising, but once it is seen it aids in understanding the author’s message via his grammatical structure.
In application, this means that if a passage like the adulteress woman is historical, but not a part of the author’s original intention, it should not be considered canonical. In my estimation, its historicity is not sufficient for its inclusion in the canon or its preaching as Christian Scripture. While it may bear truth, divorced from context, that truth lacks an appropriate literary frame—e.g., John’s purpose for writing his Gospel (John 20:31).
As John himself says, “There are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). This rationale, given in the last verse of John, might explain why the PA is added at the end of John, as it is in some manuscripts.
This verse could also apply to the insertion of the PA in between John 7 and 8, as it has many similarities (e.g., teaching in the temple, Jesus’s being tested, Jesus condemning the condemners by showing grace to a sinner, etc.). However, as I will show below this insertion is infelicitous as it breaks up the Feast of Booths event. (N.B. Klink does not hold John 7 and 8 together, thus allowing him to let the insertion stand).
One more thing before beginning. The question of John 7:53–8:11 is prompted by the textual history of the PA. I do not apply this approach to the text of Scripture universally, except in places like John 7:53–8:11 and Mark 16:9-20. The reason is that when we do test and see what manuscripts are available, we have every reason to have confidence that the Bible before us matches the manuscripts—even with a verse or word in question, as the ESV often indicates (see John 5:4). For more on this see Brandon Crowe’s article on textual criticism.
All in all, I have great confidence in the English Bible for reasons that would need to be enumerated another time. But here I will outline why I believe John 7:53–8:11 is best left out of our reading of John, or as Jim Hamilton has said, why it should be a footnote to the passage and not in the passage itself.
Six Reasons from John’s Gospel for Excluding John 7:53–8:11
Leaving aside the manuscript evidence, or the lack thereof, there are at least six reasons for excluding John 7:53–8:11 found within John’s Gospel.
First, John 7:53–8:11 breaks the flow of the text.
Most simply, if you read John 7 and John 8, there is one ongoing debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. In John 7:48 and again in John 8:13, the Pharisees are mentioned. In both cases, Jesus is debating with them about who he is and what he is doing.
Yet, John 7:53–8:11 breaks up that argument, by inserting a discussion with scribes and Pharisees and the “trial” of the adulteress woman. For reasons discussed below, there is stronger evidence to see John 7:53–8:11 as an addition in the text, rather than being native to John’s Gospel.
Second, the language of John 7:53–8:11 sounds like the Synoptics, not John.
As multiple commentators have noted, there are multiple evidences for seeing distinct language. As one commentator notes, there are 14 words in John 7:53–8:11 that are not used in John’s Gospel. Here is a sampling of what that looks like.
(1) “Mount of olives” (v. 1) is not used in John. It is used 8x in the Synoptics. (Matt. 21:1; 24:3; 26:30; Mark 11:1; 13:3; 14:26; Luke 19:37; 22:39). Certainly, ideas related to Zechariah 14 take place in John, even in the surrounding context of John 7–8—and this may be the rationale for including the pericope adulterae here. But it is important to remember the place name, Mount of Olives, is foreign to John’s Gospel.
(2) The word “scribes” (v. 3) is not used at all in John, except here. The word is used 57x in the Synoptics, plus 4x in Acts. Similarly, as noted in the first point, the use of “scribes” in John 8:3 breaks up Jesus’s interlocuters, the Pharisees, in John 7:48 and 8:13.
(3) “Scribes and Pharisees” (v. 3) (or Pharisees and scribes, or the “scribes of the Pharisees,” or some other combination) is used more than 18x in the Synoptics, including Jesus’s seven woes of Matthew 23. But there is not one instance of “scribes and Pharisees” in John.
(4) “He sat down and taught them” (v 2) also sounds like the Synoptics where Jesus often sat down and taught his disciples (see Matt. 5:1–2; 13:2; Luke 5:3; cf.; Matt. 15:29; Mark 9:35; 12:41). Nowhere in John does it say Jesus taught from a sitting position.
(5) “Early in the morning” (v. 3) is a phrase used in Luke 21:38, which is one of the places where this pericope adulterae is found. This single connection doesn’t make “early in the morning” a uniquely Synoptic idiom, but it does, perhaps, explain how this pericope translocated.
(6) “Teacher” (v. 4) is never used in the vocative in John. It is always nominative, where Jesus speaks about himself as a teacher (see 13:13, 14), or others talk about him as the teacher (11:28), or John explains that “Rabbi” means teacher (1:38; 20:16). In short, no one addresses Jesus as “Teacher” excepts in John 8:4. By comparison, Luke’s Gospel includes “Teacher” in the vocative 13x (3:12; 7:40; 8:49; 9:38; 10:25; 11:45; 12:13; 18:18; 19:39; 20:21, 28, 39; 21:7), Mark 11x (4:38; 5:35; 9:17, 38; 10:17, 20, 35; 12:14, 19, 32; 13:1), and Matthew 6x (8:19; 12:38; 19:16; 22:16, 24, 36)
(7) “Test” (v. 4, 6) is often used to describe the way scribes and Pharisees put Jesus to the test, but in John’s Gospel, this only occurs in 7:53–8:11. After Satan “tempts” Jesus in the Wilderness (Matt. 4:1, 3), Matthew shows Pharisees and Sadducees (16:1), the Pharisees (19:3), and a lawyer (22:35) coming to test Jesus. In turn Jesus asks his interlocuters in 22:18, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?” Mark also includes Satan’s testing (1:13), testing from Pharisees (8:11; 10:2), and Jesus’s question about being tested (12:15). So too, Luke records Jesus Wilderness test (4:2) and the testing from others (11:6). By contrast, John only includes Jesus testing his disciples (6:6). In John 8, however, the idea of the scribes and Pharisees testing Jesus repeats twice—it is untranslated in v. 4 and repeated in v. 6.
Put all this together and it produces a powerful effect: This pericope does not match the rest of John’s Gospel. While it reflects the language and theology of other Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), it does not naturally fit in John’s Gospel.
That said, it could argued that John is using language atypical of his usual writing style. Fair enough. I am usually uncomfortable arguing against any biblical author on the basis of word choice, literary style, etc. This is how arguments are made against Paul’s authorship of Ephesians, to give one example. I think this type of argumentation is often overplayed, because authors, ancient and modern, can speak in different ways in different settings.
Paul can speak poetically (see Col. 1:15–20; Phil 2:5–11), and he can speak rhetorically (Rom. 9:14–23). John can write letters (1, 2, 3, John) and heavenly visions (Revelation). Moses can write Law (Exodus 20–23) and he can write song (Exodus 15). So, it does not hold that authors cannot employ different language. Still, the debated history of the John 8:1–11 lends itself to ask—Do these verses match the rest of John’s Gospel? And so far, the internal evidences suggests a negative answer.
A second response could also be given. Perhaps John, the latest Evangelist, “copied and pasted” this passage. That would make current defenders of pulpit plagiarism happy, but I don’t the text warrants that conclusion. Such use of another Gospel’s material is not found in any other part of John’s Gospel. Moreover, John’s use of literary structures (e.g., chiasms, the number 7, and the Jewish calendar) all suggest that he does not simply copy the work of others and call it his own. And in fact, this is all the more evident when we look at the structures of John 5–11 and John 7–9.
Third, the inclusion of John 8:1–11 alters the chiastic structure of John 5–11.
As Jim Hamilton has observed, John 8 is the center of these seven chapters, the three in the middle all hanging together by means of the Feast of Booths. Here’s an outline (adopted from Hamilton, John, 105).
John 5 – Judgment and Resurrection
John 6 – Jesus Shepherds His People in the Wilderness
John 7 – Feast of Booths . . . bringing water to the thirsty
John 8 – Jesus is the light of the world
John 9 – Feast of Booths . . . bringing sight to the blind
John 10 – Jesus is the Good Shepherd
John 11 – Judgment and Resurrection
If this arrangement holds, then the addition of a foreign story may miss the structural emphasis—namely the light coming into the world. As noted above, the light and the water should be read together. But the insertion of John 8:1–11 misses that. Moreover, if the point of John’s Gospel is to separate those in the light from those in the dark, the theology of John 8:1–11, devoid of explicit faith, doesn’t help.
Fourth, the theology of John 8:1–11 doesn’t exactly match the theology of John’s Gospel.
That is to say, if the goal of John’s Gospel is to see faith produced in the children of God (see John 20:31), this narrative has no mention of faith. There is plenty of grace, forgiveness, and instruction for godly living (“go and sin no more”), but there is no faith. And this strikes me as odd in John’s Gospel.
In every other narrative—from Nicodemus (John 3) to Samaritans (John 4) to the cripple (John 5) to disciples (John 6) to the blind man (John 9) to Lazarus (John 11)—Jesus is working to bring people to faith. But in this story there is no mention of faith, only forgiveness. Such an emphasis on forgiveness sans faith does not deny faith, but like the parables of lostness in Luke 15, the repentance and faith of the “saved” is not prominent. Accordingly, the stress in John 8:1–11 fits better, it would appear, with the Synoptics than John’s Gospel.
Fifth, the narrative doesn’t make sense with John 7:53–8:11 left in.
Going back to the pericope in question, if you follow the storyline of John 8:1–11, you find a crowd leaving Jesus, until one by one, “Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him” (v. 9). Verses 10–11 have Jesus and the woman, no one else. At least, there is no one else in focus. But then, in v. 12, without any narrative transition, he is again talking to a crowd. Where did they come from?
If John was like Mark, and immediately moved from one event to the next, then this abrupt transition would be more plausible. John, however, is the Charles Dickens of transitions. He doesn’t move immediately to new scenes. Instead, he carefully sets up each day, its liturgical context, the location, the audience, and so on. But this is exactly what is missing in John 8:12. When the text picks up and moves to the new scene, it immediately begins with “Again Jesus spoke to them.” But this scene change doesn’t match John’s style, nor does it make sense of who the “them” is. If all the crowd has left Jesus, who is he talking to?
Verse 13 gives the answer: It is the Pharisees. But this doesn’t make sense if Jesus was left alone with the woman. The reader must assume that the crowd has returned or Jesus has picked a new fight with the Pharisees again. But this doesn’t match the way John writes his Gospel. Instead, it suggests that John 8:1–11 is a later addition to the manuscript, and one that misses the most important point in the text—all of these events took place on the last day of the Feast of Booths.
Sixth, the addition of John 7:53–8:11 adds another day to the Feast of Booths.
In my estimation, the most important reason for excluding the Pericope Adulterae has to do with the liturgical calendar that frames John’s Gospel. From John 2 until the end of John, the whole narrative is held together by three Passover Feasts (see 2:23; 6:4; 11:55). And in John 7–9, the festival in focus is the Feast of Booths, the last feast in the Jewish Calendar.
Highlighting the climactic moment of the feast, John 7:37 tells us that Jesus cried out on the last day of the feast. And he proceeds to speak of the outpouring of the Spirit that will come from hearts overflowing with living water. In short, using the Feast of Booths as a background, John places Jesus’s words at a time when the people were celebrating the feast with a water pouring ceremony. John 8 is then the follow up passage, which relates to the candle lighting ceremony, but only if it remains during the Feast of Booths. But this is exactly what the John 7:53–8:11 eliminates, because it adds another day.
Indeed, it seems odd of John to put the “light of the world” text outside of this Feast of Booths, when clearly Jesus light statement (“I am the light of the world”) is found in John 8:12 and John 9:5. Just as the Spirit of Christ will become the living water to be poured out in Jerusalem, fulfilling Zechariah 14 and Ezekiel 47, so Jesus as the true light of the world will put an end to darkness, just as Zechariah 14 also promises.
In the Feast, both of these ceremonies—the pouring out of water and the lighting of candles—prophetically symbolized the coming of the Messiah. And it seems best to read John as taking these liturgical events and pointing them to Jesus. But this is undone, if John 7:53-8:11 is added.
Therefore, as I read it, it seems far better to put John 8:12 right after John 7:52, and to see how Jesus statement about light fulfills events typified on the last day of the Feast of Booths. Such a liturgical fulfillment, however, depends upon keeping Jesus words on the last day of the festival (John 7:37), not the day after the festival, as it would have to be, if John 7:53–8:11 was genuinely Johannine.
Go and Preach No More?
For all of these reasons, I am persuaded that John 7:53–8:11 does not go back to the Apostle John. And if it is not John’s, then the best way to handle the passage is to use it as an illustration regarding the compassion of Jesus, more than an inspired text proclaiming Christ. To be certain, there are many places in the New Testament and in John’s Gospel where Jesus is shown to engage the Pharisees, to overturn the condemnation of the scribes, and to give grace to sinners, and John 7:53–8:11 illustrates that well.
That said, if we are committed to preaching God’s Word and not simply good stories, we should not preach this passage. Admittedly, there are some who might conclude that this passage, based on the Byzantine text tradition, is genuinely Johannine. But for me, because I cannot hold that view, I cannot preach a free-floating passage about Jesus as God’s Word.
In the end, it is a matter of conscience. And right now I could not preach this passage with full assurance of faith that this is John’s Word. And because I cannot preach this passage with faith that it is the inspired word of God, I will teach from this passage, how the Bible was put together and let John 7:53–8:11 be an illustration from other truths in John’s Gospel.
In the end, textual criticism is challenging, and it is good, and I am thankful for those who serve the church in this important field. I pray that all those who herald God’s Word will do so with understanding, integrity, and clarity, and that those who hear their preaching might grow in their confidence of God’s Word as it was originally inspired.
Truly, may God’s people be built up by the Word of God in all that truly is the Word of God.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
Photo by Joshua Hurricks on Pexels.com
 A pericope is a unit of text.
 Maurice Robinson, “Preliminary Observations Regarding the Pericopae Adulterae Based upon Fresh Collations of Nearly All Continuous-Text Manuscripts and All Lectionary Manuscripts Containing the Passage,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 13 (2000): 35–59. See also Maurice Robinson, “The Pericope Adulterae: A Johannine Tapestry with Double Interlock,” in The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research, ed. David Alan Black and Jacob N. Cerone, LNTS 551 (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 115–46. Cited by Timothy Miller, “Text-Criticism and the Pulpit: Should One Preach About the Woman Caught in Adultery?”
 Hagner, D. A. (1999). New Testament exegesis and research : a guide for seminarians (p. 9). Pasadena, California.: Fuller Seminary Press.
 Ibid, 9.