The Woman Caught In Adultery: Oral Tradition Or Fabricated Story? (7.53-8:54)

john_sliderThey went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

In other portions of this commentary we spoke about how the science of textual criticism can help Christian believers to know which texts of the Bible are authentic and which are not, which belong to the Bible, and which constitute editorial additions or subtractions by scribes who handled the transition of Holy Writ before the invention of printing press. Since we don’t have a single original manuscript or scroll of any of the books of the Bible and since there exist multiple versions (most of them with minor differences) of most biblical books, textual criticism/analysis through various methods of dating can help to determine which versions of the available textual witnesses are more faithful than others to the Biblical original.

In the passage we are considering, as we come upon one of the most famous and beloved Gospel stories, we are very much in need of textual analysis. So what is the issue? It is rather simple. All the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of the Gospels do not contain this beautiful story that is otherwise so magnificently consistent with the rest Gospel of Christ.

All modern translations of the Bible, with a disclaimer that this story is not found in early manuscripts, still include it in their printed texts. What is perhaps even more intriguing for our discussion is that this story is often passed on orally more often than many other stories even today! This implies that while the textual criticism scholars have made a strong and even convincing (to my mind) argument that this text was not part of the original of John’s Gospel; the living church of God has generally not accepted the implications of their argument.

Before we continue let me surprise you a bit. I think that this is an authentic story. In other words I think it really did take place and therefore must be told and retold in Gospel proclamation. However, I agree with most scholars that it does not belong to John’s Gospel. Please, let me explain.

There could be several ways to explain why this true story is not found in the original Gospel texts.

First of all, we do know that not everything Jesus taught and did was included in the Gospels (John 21:25). It is therefore fully possible that Jesus said things that were not written down. Like all books of the Bible, the Gospels are highly selective. They only give enough information to make the point that the author of a particular Gospel is seeking to make. The Gospels are not like cameras that simply record what happened around Jesus. They are literary works setting forth the arguments of the Gospel writers about Jesus on the basis of what they and their witnesses remembered had really happened. Therefore selectivity of presentation is unavoidable.

Secondly, most things that Jesus taught and said were not written down immediately. They were circulated orally as they were passed on from one person to another. There is no reason to think that this story is fabricated only because it entered the Gospel textual tradition later. It may have only been transmitted orally until the issue was raised among the copyists about the need to include it in one of the Gospels (this story is found only in fourth century manuscripts and later).

Thirdly, textual criticism like any other scientific enterprise is a work in progress. It certainly can be mistaken. In other words, it has limitations and there can be issues that textual scholars did not take into consideration or were in error. For example, we must keep in mind that from time to time new discoveries of ancient texts are made. We certainly cannot be dogmatic about these issues (Discovery of Dead Sea Scrolls has proved this point convincingly).

Personally, however, I am almost 100% persuaded that we will never find an early manuscript with this story. Why? To my mind there are at least three main reasons.

1)      Ancient scribes rarely cut texts down, normally, they expanded them, clarifying or explaining, and as such expending the text. One of the insights of textual criticism is in fact called “the priority of the shorter manuscript.” This means that shorter manuscripts are considered to be earlier than longer ones. There are of course other factors involved, but it is an important factor.

2)      For the sake of discussion, if we only read through John 7:52 and skip immediately to John 8:12, we will see that the text reads very smoothly. In fact, the story under consideration seems rather awkwardly inserted into the flow of the John 7-8. There could be many reasons why Christian scribes decided to place it in the Gospel of John. Most of the reasons would be too speculative for us to seriously consider.

3)      The story makes use of the pair that is never mentioned together in the Gospel of John – “scribes and Pharisees”. This phrase over abounds in other canonical Gospels, but it is never used in the Gospel of John. On several occasions John features his own couple – “hoi Ioudaioi and Pharisees” instead.

As always let us continue to think together! I, therefore, invite you to share your thoughts, opinions and comments about this commentary section.

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  1. Alex Fisher


    Unfortunately, my objection to the authenticity of this passage has nothing whatsoever to do with textual criticism. Let me say at the outset that I do not believe the events related ever occurred. Permit me to explain.

    There are several glaring inaccuracies in the story. In the first place, the supposed penalty for adultery by a female. Secondly, the apparent method of execution by stoning. Both are quite incorrect.

    According to the halakha, the penalty for a woman committing adultery was death *by strangulation*, not by stoning. Those who put the question would have undoubtedly known this, so the first statement they allegedly make about the penalty would never have been spoken by either the scribes, the kohanim or the Sadducees.

    Jesus’ supposed response implies that he accepted that the penalty was execution by stoning, yet he is regularly referred to as “Rabbi”, and is apparently regarded as qualified to pasken halakha. If that is so, he would have known the correct penalty and his reply would have reflected that.

    The second problem with the passage is the comment about casting the first stone. This seems to imply that the mode of execution consisted of hurling rocks at the victim. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to the method prescribed in the Talmud (Tamud Sanhedrin 48b IIRC), teh person to be executed was to be taken to a “high place”, having a height at least that of two tall men (about 4 metres or about 12 feet). The two witnesses whose testimony had led to the conviction of the victim were then obliged to take hold of the victim and throw him/her over the edge onto the rocks below. They were required to try to do it in such a way that the individual landed head first. If the fall did not kill the person, the same two witnesses were then required to fins a large rock, so large that the two of them could only just manage to lift it. This rock was then to be dropped onto the victim, preferably landing on the chest. Only if the victim survived these events could anyone else throw stones.

    There are other problems too. Such a matter would not have been bought to Jesus, since capital matters could only be decided by a sitting of at least 23 members of the Sanhedrin.

    In the light of these errors, the conclusion is that the story did not originate with any Jew, be he a follower of Jesus or not. The story was certainly added to the Gospel at a much later date, and one can only wonder why. I personally feel there was a strong element of anti-Jewish polemic involved, but that is a different argument.

    Enough for now.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Alex, shalom. Thank you for sharing your ideas on this forum. The major difficulty I have with your arguments is that they rely on a very later source. Talmud is 5th century CE and the earliest copies of the come from even later (8th century). Of course there are traditions there that go back even to BCE, but which ones? that is the big question.

      The halakha was not yet formed at the time of Jesus to the extend that you seem to think. This is pretty much a consensus in Jewish studies. The mistake therefore to my mind is to to read Bavli anachronistically. (Something that is later gets read into something that is early). Let us keep on thinking together. Dr. Eli

      1. Alex Fisher

        I understand the problems with anachronism, however in defence (at least as it relates to the mode of execution by stoning) I’d point out that the Tractate I referred to earlier has a reference to the Tzadakim burning someone at the stake. From the discussion in that passage, it would seem that the Tzadakim had a tendency to rewrite the rules to suit themselves. I would submit that the Tractate Sanhedrin closely reflects the practise of the Pharisees, and so would have been pretty much what Jesus would have followed.

        Of course, it is very difficult to know for certain what was happening in Jewish thought at the time. Although the Talmud was not completed until many centuries later, parts of it were in existence during Jesus lifetime (several of the Mishnas, for example).

        Maybe one of these days I’ll find out. Probably won’t be until the resurrection though 🙂


        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          I agree.

  2. Maddison Lavarack

    Nobody has without sin in this world so we should not have any right to raise fingure to anybody. God is watching to all of us

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I think that is the main point here. Thanks for your comment! Dr. Eli

  3. Sonia Willats

    Shalom, Dr Eli. I never knew that this story did not appear in the oldest manuscripts; yet I can see why you find the story, as eventually recorded; authentic.
    The fact that Jesus went to the Mount of Olives (no doubt to pray,) whilst others went to their homes to rest for the night, fits with other parts of the narrative, like the evening in the garden of Gethsemane. Then he calmly goes back to the Temple, to ‘his Father’s house’ and in compassion, with quiet authority, begins to teach the children of Jerusalem. Once again the quiet authority as he scratched on the ground… The understanding that they were testing him, as usual. That he knew what was in the hearts of men, and understood that even the self-righteous leadership would have to turn away; acknowledging that they were not totally righteous. The fact that he sent her away and did not condemn her, but also told her to change her life… It is all in character, in accord with the other stories recorded.

    The irony that the Messiah and Future Judge of the world is left alone with the woman (by those who did not accept his authority) to deal with her as the Judge of the world should was an acknowledgment from them, at that moment in time, as the true and greater Judge.

  4. Susan W

    It’s amazing that this story has been taught and taught and then to find out that it’s not even in the original manuscripts. “Where was the man” question has been around as long as the story. I believe it still takes two to commit adultery and I also believe the punishment for both was stoning. I don’t think that the fact- that it only appears in John gospel is of any significance. John’s gospel records alot of “stories” that aren’t in the other gospels. I don’t know if there were temple prostitutes during the period that Jesus walked the earth but temple prostitutes are mentioned in the Bible during other periods of time. It wouldn’t be a great stretch of the imagination that the Scribes & Pharisees would not have been involved in any “unholy practices”. I’m pretty sure that they paid Judas iscariot 30 pieces of silver to have Jesus delivered so they could have him put to death. I call that pretty “unholy”. John 8:6 says that “this they said, ‘testing’ him and they might have to accuse Him.” They weren’t concerned about the man or woman at all, they were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus of breaking the law of Moses. My biggest problem with the teachings of this story is the “writing on the ground.” I know WHAT is says but I also know that John 8:2 said Jesus was in the temple teaching when they brought her in. I’m pretty sure that the Temple, by this time is considered the 3rd Temple, did NOT have dirt floors and when it says that Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground, that it was actually the “finger of God writing in stone”. The Bible records the finger of God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets and the hand of God wrote on the wall (of mortar) at King Bellshazzar’s last party……

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Susan, I agree we have to be careful not to speculate too much. Did this really take place? Did something like this take place. I think so. How exactly we may never know. Well… I should not say never :-).

  5. Stephen Lockwood

    Dr. Eli,
    I too have ha problems with the placement of this story in Johns Gospel. Though the story places Yeshua in the Temple, it breaks the flow of the story of Yeshuas events at the celebration of the Feast of Succot.

    Whether or not the story belongs IN Johns Gospel, I won’t debate that here. But, I’ve always had a problem of WHERE it is placed. I also, hadn’t noticed the change in names of the leaders of the Judeans.

    This story does follow Johns underlying story of Yeshua’s love for His people, and showing great mercy for the common man/woman. It also is about having the contempt He had for those wielding power unjustly.

    Love to read your commentary, it makes me think.

  6. Michelle

    Shalom, Dr. Eli,

    I’ve missed reading your blog posts. Glad I had a little time this morning to read.

    This story has intrigued me for years. I have all the usual questions that everyone else has:

    why was only the woman brought to Jesus, and not the man?
    why did He write on the ground with His finger? and what did He write?
    does the original language truly say, “Let him who is without *this* sin among you…” ?

    But now you’ve caused a lot of other questions to come to mind! I had no idea this was not in the original texts.

    Could it be this was included in John’s gospel because of the mere fact all of the other three gospels mention scribes and Pharisees together, but he does not?

    Many people have said the reason no man was brought along with the woman is because she was a Temple prostitute, and by bringing the man as well, the Pharisees and scribes would have been revealing unholy practices that were going on in their groups. Could it be that this story was not originally written into the manuscripts, though widely talked about, because it would have been written record of this type of unholy practice with the Jewish leadership?

    Could it be this was included in John’s gospel, because the other gospels mention the topic of adultery (Matt. 5:28, 32; Matt. 19:9; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18) in regard to the law, but John’s gospel does not? (I searched for the words “woman” and “adultery” and did not find any other passages in John on the topic.)

    Looking forward to your thoughts.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      There are too many questions here to deal with all at once. Let’s wait also for other comments.

      1. Michelle

        Oops. Sorry, Dr. Eli. Didn’t mean to ask too many questions, though I look forward to any answers you can share.

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          🙂 You are ok, I am just busier know days than I was before 🙂

    2. Lois

      Writing in the dust……Jeremiah 17:13 Is Jesus symbolically referring the accusers back to this passage? ” all who forsake Thee will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the LORD.” The scribes and Pharisees have turned away from the living water.