Review: The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research


David Alan Black and Jacob N. Cerone, Editors. The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research. T&T Clark, 2016. 216 pages.

They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 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. 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.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 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. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 7:53-8:11)

The story of the woman caught in adultery is one of the most familiar and beloved passages in the Gospels. It also happens to be one of the most controversial passages for modern textual critics. It isn’t found in the earliest known manuscripts of John’s Gospel, and it also has differences in vocabulary and style from the rest of John. For these reasons, the majority of Bible scholars today agree that the Pericope Adulterae (PA) was probably not originally from John’s own hand, but was inserted into manuscripts of John much later. But what if the majority has gotten it wrong? What are the reasons offered by the minority for considering the PA to be authentic? Might the evidence deserve a second look?

To tackle these questions, I decided to fork out the dough ($82.08, but hopefully that will go down when the paperback is released this November) and download the Kindle edition of The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research, edited by David Alan Black and Jacob Cerone. This volume was originally a collection of papers that were presented at a symposium on the PA at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2014. The six contributors are divided on the question of the PA’s authenticity: Tommy Wasserman, Jennifer Knust, Chris Keith, and Larry Hurtado all argue against it, while John David Punch and Maurice Robinson argue in its favor. In what follows, I’ll summarize each contributor’s argument, and then conclude with my own evaluations of the book.


In his essay “The Piously Offensive Pericope Adulterae,” Punch makes a case for the PA’s authenticity based on 1) contextual compatibility, 2) grammatical and syntactical congruity, and 3) external evidence. With respect to context, Punch observes that the PA fits well within the broader Tabernacles discourse (7:1-10:21). He also points out that the narrative flow of John 7-8 appears to be awkwardly disrupted if the PA is removed; chapter 7 ends with a private conversation between the Pharisees and temple guards in Jesus’ absence, and then 8:12 picks up with, “Again Jesus spoke to them.” With respect to grammar/syntax, Punch acknowledges the many allegedly non-Johannine features of the PA, such as the relatively high frequency of hapax legomena (words that occur only once in John) and the paucity of common Johannine vocabulary (like the conjunction oun). However, Punch argues that these features can be explained by the unique content of the PA; for example, nowhere else does John’s Gospel address the topic of adultery, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this is the only passage in John where we find the Greek word for “adultery” (moicheia). Punch also draws our attention to some distinctive Johannine features that are present in the PA, such as the expression “sin no more” (see 5:14) and references to stoning (see 8:59; 10:31). Punch then looks at both the early manuscripts and the patristic witnesses to the PA. He argues that the earliest Greek manuscript to include the PA, the fifth-century Codex Bezae, has not been given enough credit as an independent witness. He also points to the testimony of church fathers Jerome and Augustine, who wrote that many Greek manuscripts in their own day included the PA. Punch concludes with a defense of Augustine’s “suppression theory” to explain the PA’s removal from some early manuscripts of John:

Some of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, I suppose, from a fear lest their wives should gain impunity in sin, removed from their manuscripts the Lord’s act of indulgence toward the adulteress, as if he who had said “sin no more” had granted permission to sin. (Augustine, De Adulterinis Conjugiis ii.6-7)

In “The Strange Case of the Missing Adulteress,” Wasserman takes the opposite view, challenging the PA’s authenticity. He begins by noting that although a story of an adulterous woman was known among Christians in the second and third centuries, there is no evidence that the story was attributed to John at that time. He then examines the early manuscript evidence, and especially the seventeen second- and third-century papyrus fragments containing John’s Gospel. Of these seventeen fragments, only two (Papyrus 66 and Papyrus 75) contain the relevant section of John, and both omit the PA. What is remarkable about all of the papyri, according to Wasserman, is their evident concern for reliably preserving the text of their exemplars. To be sure, there are many variants among them, but these are largely inconsequential errors in spelling or grammar. Small omissions do occur, but in no case do we see liberty taken to alter or remove significant portions of text for theological concerns, as Punch (and Augustine) would argue happened with the PA. Wasserman then proceeds to examine a number of non-received Jesus traditions (mostly details and embellishments added to canonical Gospel narratives), some of which made their way into later Gospel manuscripts, especially in the Latin-speaking West. Based on this evidence, as well as evidence from Old Latin capitula (chapter headings) that included the PA, Wasserman concludes that the PA, though originally written in Greek (and perhaps originally from the Gospel to the Hebrews mentioned by Papias), was probably first added to the Latin textual tradition some time between 150 and 250 AD.

Knust also argues against the PA’s authenticity in her essay “‘Taking Away From’: Patristic Evidence and the Omission of the Pericope Adulterae from John’s Gospel.” She seeks to refute Augustine’s suppression theory by appealing to patristic attitudes about textual deletion and correction. It was common for early Christians to accuse Jews of removing undesired passages from the Old Testament (such as messianic psalms), but hostility to textual deletion efforts became especially intense after the time of the heretic Marcion, who tampered with the Christian canon in order to remove elements perceived to be too Jewish. Knust further argues on the basis of the early practice of diorthosis (textual correction) that intentional deletion of the PA would have been highly unlikely. Pointing to the example of the church father Origen (who may have been aware of some version of the PA, but not as part of John’s Gospel), Knust shows that copyists generally didn’t remove questionable passages outright, but rather marked them with critical sigla to indicate their spurious status, to be accompanied by commentary in supplemental writings. Lastly, various early church fathers’ comments on the topic of sexual sin and repentance indicate that Christians would likely have had no moral objections to the content of the PA. In other words, the PA was not offensive enough, and scribes not audacious enough, for it to have been deliberately excised from John.

Keith’ essay, “The Pericope Adulterae: A Theory of Attentive Insertion,” also makes a case against the PA’s Johannine authorship, while also proposing a novel explanation for its insertion into John’s Gospel some time in the late second or early third century. Keith questions the usefulness of linguistic style as a guide to determining the PA’s authenticity. For one, scholars have appealed to linguistic evidence to make cases both for and against authenticity, and such evidence remains inconclusive. For another, given the known phenomenon of mimicry of linguistic style (Keith cites the examples of the long ending of Mark, Septuagintalisms in the Gospels, and the Gethsemane angelophany in Luke 22:43-44), we cannot rule out the possibility that a later interpolator purposefully mimicked John’s style. Instead, Keith suggests, socio-historical context may serve as a more reliable guide to assessing the PA’s status. He draws our attention to the early pagan accusations of Christians’ ignorance and illiteracy. In this polemical context, it would make sense for Christians to try to boost their credibility by portraying Jesus as scribal-literate, such as we find in the PA. Keith also points to the parallels between Jesus twice “writing down” (Greek katagraphō) on the ground with his own finger in the PA, and God twice writing down the Decalogue with his own finger in Exodus. Such parallels would serve to reinforce the idea of Jesus’ moral authority over the Mosaic law, thereby providing a further plausible motivation for inserting the PA into John.

Robinson is the second contributor to defend the PA’s authenticity with his essay, “The Pericope Adulterae: A Johannine Tapestry with Double Interlock.” He makes the same argument as Punch with regard to the PA’s fitting within the narrative flow of the Tabernacles discourse in John 7:1-10:21. He also points to some of the uniquely Johannine features found in the PA, such as the use of the historical present tense. He admits that there is a high proportion of seemingly non-Johannine vocabulary in the PA, but when compared to other undisputed passages of John, this should not be surprising. The Temple cleansing narrative in 2:14-21, for example, contains 16 root words that occur nowhere else in John, and yet no modern scholar questions this passage’s authenticity. Robinson then makes a case for seeing the PA as an example of the “Tapestry Effect,” a phenomenon that commentators Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman identify in the early chapters of Hosea. This phenomenon refers to the creative interweaving of a passage within its broader literary context by means of repeated key words and themes, combined with the use of unique words and themes within the passage to achieve some intended narrative effect (such as the intensification of conflict). This tapestry effect would thus, according to Robinson, explain both the continuities and the discontinuities between the PA and the rest of John. To support this claim, Robinson gives an impressive list of verbal/thematic links between the PA and the the broader Tabernacles discourse and the remainder of John (although I do wonder if his parameters for such links were too broad; would similar comparisons between the PA and the Synoptic Gospels yield similar results?).

The volume concludes with Hurtado’s essay, “The Pericope Adulterae: Where from Here?” He sides with the PA’s critics, basing his case primarily on the early manuscript evidence. He repeats some of Wasserman’s points about the textual reliability of the early papyrus fragments of John’s Gospel, and he also agrees with Knust’s argument that intentional scribal deletion would have been unlikely, especially in the wake of the controversy occasioned by Marcion. Further, while the trend in the early manuscript variants was generally toward omissions rather than additions, these were mostly minor and accidental in nature. In the long run, the preference among copyists was clearly for longer readings, lessening the likelihood of an authentically Johannine PA being removed. With regard to the PA’s allegedly Johannine style, Hurtado finds Punch and Robinson’s arguments unpersuasive. He points to the non-canonical “Unknown Gospel” (contained in P. Egerton 2) as a clear example of a later author capable of mimicking Johannine style, showing that similarity of style is no proof of common authorship. Hurtado concludes his essay by calling into question the standard picture of early textual transmission—namely, that the second and third centuries were a relatively “wild” period of textual variability, with the process of transmission gradually stabilizing during the fourth and fifth centuries. Hurtado suggests that we turn this picture on its head: manuscripts from the second and third centuries actually show a greater stability, while manuscripts from the post-Constantinian period reflect a more flexible and expansive attitude toward manuscript transmission. If this alternative picture is correct, it would lend further support to the PA’s critics.


So which side makes the stronger case? In my judgment, the scales still tip in favor of the PA’s critics, but admittedly not by as much as I initially thought. With Hurtado and others, I find the external evidence to be the strongest argument against the PA’s authenticity. There is a wide geographical distribution showing the PA’s absence—not only in the Alexandrian manuscripts of John, but also in the writings of early church fathers ranging from John Chrysostom in Constantinople, to Theodore of Mopsuestia in Antioch, to Cyprian and Tertullian in Carthage. The PA’s defenders would have to explain how a textual deletion made in Egypt came to be accepted across so much of the Roman Empire, especially if versions of John containing the PA were circulating elsewhere at the same time. It’s not just an Alexandrian problem.

I find the internal evidence to be somewhat mixed, but again, slightly on the side of the critics. First, as Keith and Hurtado show, the Johannine elements in the PA can be explained as the work of a creative interpolator mimicking Johannine style. Second, the seemingly non-Johannine elements in the PA are much harder for defenders to account for. While some unique vocabulary could be explained as due to the unique content of the narrative (Robinson’s comparison with the Temple cleansing narrative is apt), it is much harder to explain the occurrence of unique vocabulary not directly related to the content. To give one example, the verb katakrinō (“to condemn”) occurs only in 8:10-11 in all of John, while the verb krinō (without the kata-prefix) is quite common in John, including the immediately surrounding context (7:5; 8:15). If the PA had been written by John himself, one would reasonably expect him to have used his preferred prefix-less form of this verb. Such stylistic anomalies might not be decisive in themselves, but they at least form part of a cumulative case against the PA’s inclusion.

In my opinion, Punch and Robinson’s argument for the PA’s contextual compatibility with the Tabernacles discourse (7:1-10:21) is strong but not insurmountable. The disruption caused by the PA’s insertion into the narrative doesn’t seem to me as jarring as critics have claimed, but at the same time, I don’t think the transition from 7:52 to 8:12 without the PA is quite as awkward as Punch and Robinson claim. This isn’t the first passage in John where Jesus speaks to the Pharisees, so the use of “again” in 8:12 isn’t particularly problematic, even if Jesus isn’t a participant in the immediately preceding dialogue in 7:40-52. Further, we can assume that the PA’s interpolator would have been at least somewhat reasonably competent in choosing the best location to insert the PA, wanting to create the least amount of disruption to the surrounding narrative. I would grant, however, that the popular notion of the PA as originally a “free-floating anecdote” in search of a canonical home is not supported by the text itself. Whether original to John or added later, the PA was clearly intended to fit in its present location in John 8 (as Robinson has humorously remarked elsewhere, floating stories don’t usually begin with the phrase, “Once upon a time, everybody went home”).

There are two areas where I wish the contributors on both sides had elaborated further: explanatory power and theological presuppositions. In addition to accounting for internal and external evidence, any case for (or against) the PA needs to provide a plausible explanation for how the PA was removed from (or added to) John’s Gospel. Keith is the only contributor to do this on the side of the critics, arguing that the PA was inserted to establish Jesus’ status as scribal-literate. However, he does not seem to hold his own theory to the same standard as Augustine’s suppression theory. He rightly asks if there are any other examples of large passages being removed from Gospel manuscripts simply because of their perceived theological offensiveness. But I would ask, are there any other examples of large passages being added to Gospel manuscripts simply because of their perceived theological advantage? One could perhaps point to the long ending of Mark, but even that was mostly derivative of Matthew and Luke’s resurrection accounts, rather than being purely a scribal invention. I doubt that the PA could have been added to John—and then so widely accepted—unless the story was already recognized as authoritative to some degree.

As for the PA’s defenders, the only extended explanation they offer for its removal is Augustine’s suppression theory (which, I believe, the critics satisfactorily refute). I wish they had given greater consideration to the possibility of the PA’s accidental removal from John (Robinson comes close to suggesting this in note 83 but doesn’t elaborate). The most compelling version of this theory that I have seen is in A Fresh Analysis of John 7:53-8:11 by James Snapp, who argues that a second-century Alexandrian scribe may have mistaken the Pentecost lectionary markings in his exemplar copy of John as instructions to delete the PA. (It is worth pointing out that even this explanation is not without difficulties, since it would push back the existence of lectionary readings and their corresponding markings two or three centuries earlier than any currently available evidence for them.)

Lastly, the contributors say almost nothing about how this debate affects or is affected by one’s doctrine of God and Scripture. Is it possible to believe in an inerrant Bible that has such significant scribal alterations in it? If we cannot trust this passage, doesn’t that cast a shadow of doubt on the rest of the Bible? Would God allow these kinds of transmissional errors to enter into his Word? I believe that there are reasonable answers to such questions (I have attempted to address them myself in previous blog posts here and here), but it would have been helpful if the contributors had been more upfront about the theological commitments with which they approach the text.

These complaints notwithstanding, I have found this volume to be one of the most valuable resources on the debate over the PA’s authenticity. Each side is presented with force and clarity by its leading defenders, enabling the reader to arrive at an informed opinion. The material is probably a bit too technical—and the price a bit too steep—for most lay readers, but it would be a worthwhile addition to any theological library, especially for pastors, educators, and seminarians.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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