This is part of my expanding Bible Manipulations series.
- The End of Biblical Studies (p 98-99) by Hector Avalos
- Misquoting Jesus (p 63-65) by Bart Ehrman
“Jesus and the Adulterous Woman” (John 7:53 – 8:1-12) is a favorite sermon story — the verses are quoted at the end of the post. This section of John is called the “pericopae adulterai” (the adulteress’s section). Stories in the New Testament which form a coherent story of themselves are referred to as pericope (Gr: a cutting out). In this pericope, Jesus gives us a message which differs from the Old Testament — he forgives the adulteress. For in Lev. 20:10 the Law of Moses tells us that both the man and the woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death.
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.
— Lev. 20:10 (RSV)
Matthew’s Jesus. apparently disagreeing with John’s, tells us that the Law must be accomplished. But remember that Matthew wanted Jesus to be very Jewish.
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
— Matt 5:18 (RSV)
But in John’s story, Jesus tells the adulterous woman that she is forgiven, will not be stone and should simply leave and sin no more.
Textual criticism has shown us that this story was not originally in the Gospel of John but was added later by scribes. This excellent Wiki article lists ancient texts with and without the passage. This pericope is actually no longer regarded as authentic by most modern translations. The early Christian church wrestled with what part of the Jewish law they should keep. This verse may have been added to help the anti-Law theology. But how do we know this verse was not written by the author of John’s Gospel? By the following two methods:
- The story is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John
- It is written in a style very different from the rest of John with a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel.
But many scholars feel it was a well-known story circulating in the oral tradition of Jesus and was just liberally added by a scribe later. It is now included in most translations with some only offering a footnote telling of this controversy. Interestingly, we have translations where this story appear after John 21:25 and another after Luke 21:38.
Why has the authenticity of this verse been debated? Here are two important reasons why people fight to keep it:
- It again shows that the Bible has been augmented and changed over the years — an image many Christians are not comfortable with.
- Importantly, however, it is the primary text to support the abolition of the death penalty for some Christians. Since the executor must be sinless by the story added to John (The Adulteress Pericope) then supposedly no one could execute since no one is without sin. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in American has this pericope as part of their written arguments against the death penalty.
The Adulteress Pericope:
Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’
— John 7:53 -8:11 (RSV)