John 7:53-8:11: The Woman Caught in Adultery

Liberty University


A paper submitted to Dr. TOM CAMPBELL

In partial fulfillment of the Requirements for

the course NBST 655

Liberty Theological seminary


William Mcpherson

Lynchburg, Virginia




THE HISTORICITY OF THE NARRATIVE……………………………………………………………..3







            Few passages of Scripture are more beloved than the one that describes the incident that involved a woman caught in adultery, an obsessed religious mob, and a compassionate though firm Jesus. In John 7:53-8:11, Jesus is approached by an angry, deceptive religious mob dragging along a young woman who was caught by eyewitnesses in adultery. One has to wonder where the man was whom she was sleeping with; he too was supposed to be put to death under the law in which they would invoke. These religious zealots pursued Jesus with their case; they had hoped for Jesus to go against the Law or go against Rome and to their chagrin Jesus did neither. Instead, he stooped down and told them that the one without sin could cast the first stone; since they wanted her to die to uphold the law, though that was not their motive and it would be her blood on their hands. This seems to have struck their hearts, for they put down their stones from oldest to youngest and went home, leaving the woman with Jesus. Jesus then speaks to the woman and asks where those were who had so zealously condemned her; she could not find a single one. Jesus then pronounced that he would not condemn her either and that she should go and forsake her sin.

This story resonates with believers because it is the story of the second chance; a story of Christ’s compassion amidst religious, though exploitative zeal. But it may shock the reader to know that this pericope is likely not a part of the Gospel of John. This paper will demonstrate that though it is almost certainly a historical event, this passage is likely foreign to the Gospel of John based on the external and internal evidence that leaves it absent from early sources and links it more with the Synoptics than with John.


            John 7:53-8:11, though likely not a part of the original composition of John’s Gospel, is nevertheless convincing in its historical accuracy, “There is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred, even if in its written form it did not in the beginning belong to the canonical books.”[1] F.F. Bruce, while denying the Johannine authorship of the passage, writes that, “They [the manuscripts which have John 7:53-811] constitute, in fact, a fragment of authentic gospel material not originally included in any of the four Gospels.”[2] Leon Morris also concurs with this assessment, “But if we cannot feel that this is part of John’s Gospel, we can feel that the story is true to the character of Jesus. Throughout the history of the church it has been held that, whoever wrote it, this little story is authentic.”[3] It is the unanimous opinion of each commentator, that the passage is historically reliable.

Why is this the case? D.A. Carson points to other sources that can be used to back up the authenticity of the book. There is one comment by Papias (as recorded by the church historian Eusebius) where there is a woman who was accused in the Lord’s presence of many sins, and this incident also accords well with stories found within the Synoptics.[4] Leo Morris writes, “It rings true. It speaks to our condition. And it can scarcely have been com-posed in the early church with its sternness about sexual sin,” he continues, “The story is undoubtedly very ancient. Many authorities agree that it is referred to by Papias. It is mentioned also in the Apostolic Constitutions. But it is not mentioned very much in the early days.”[5] Why was this the case? Morris concludes that the reason for the silence is that the punishment for sexual sin was very severe and the story could be used to justify a lack of chastity.[6]

So why is this narrative even included in the Gospel of John at all? Bruce believes that it is there to link Jesus’ words in John 8:15 with an illustration.[7] Morris denies this stating, “the passage does not fit well into the context, whereas 8:12 follows naturally after 7:52.[8] So the passage, though almost certainly historical, was placed into the Gospel of John by a scribe or editor who wanted to preserve it. It has been found in manuscripts to be placed in Luke 21:38, John 7:44, 36; 21:25; showing it clearly to be historically important but not Johannine.[9]




Many modern translations make a note over the passage because they are convinced that the evidence, both external and especially internal, denies that this story belongs in the Gospel of John. But just what is this evidence and why is it so overwhelming that scholars completely remove it from the Gospel of John, with the exception of Zane Hodges[10]? Both the external and internal evidence will be considered.

First, the external evidence must be evaluated. For starters Carson points out, “All the early church Fathers omit this narrative: in commenting on John, they pass immediately from 7:52 to 8:12. No Eastern Father cites the passage before the tenth century.”[11] The only exception to this would be a similar variation of the narrative from a Didymus the Blind, who was a exegete from Alexandria in the fourth century.[12] As was mentioned earlier, the manuscripts place the passage in various places, “It seems clear enough that those scribes who felt it too important to be lost were not at all sure where to attach it. And if they could not agree on the right place for it, they could not agree on the true text for it either.”[13] There are several important texts that do not even include this passage: several early Greek manuscripts (though not all) and early Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, and Latin translations as well as the Gothic Bible.[14] The most notable exception to this however is Western unical D, which Carson says is “known for its independence in numerous other places.”[15] So, the lack of testimony from the early church, the variations in the manuscripts, and the lack of its inclusion in most of the early Christian texts and translations proves that this passage is inauthentic to the Gospel of John.

What about the internal evidence renders the passage likely to be non-Johannine? F.F Bruce sees a lot of the construction in 7:53-8:1 as being related to Luke; Jesus’ schedule during the Holy Week and his placement of teaching corresponds to Luke’s account well.[16] He also sees the horns of dilemma situation that Jesus is placed in as similar to the incident with paying tribute to Caesar in the Synoptics because of Jesus’ choice of obeying the Law of Moses or offending Rome.[17] Carson presents a Luke-Acts proposal and shows that use of the Greek noun orthos is found elsewhere only in Luke 24:1 and Acts 5:21. The Greek verb paraginomai and the noun laos are all commonly found in Luke-Acts.[18] The language of this passage is also at odds with Johannine authorship, “‘Scribes…and Pharisees’ is a conjunction found quite often in the Synoptic Gospels, but the scribes are never mentioned in John. The two terms do not mean the same people, for scribes were not necessarily Pharisees.”[19] The fact that the time table and word choice lean more toward a Synoptic origin rather than Johannine leaves little doubt that the passage is not to find its true home in the Gospel of John.



            At this point, the evidence for this aporia needs to be rehashed. The passage is historically reliable because 1) variations of it are referred to by the church fathers, 2) it matches similar passages in the Synoptics, and 3) it can be reconciled with both human experience and the character of Jesus. Even though it is historically accurate, its origin is not in the Gospel of John. The external evidence is 1) the lack of direct quotes in commentaries by the church fathers, 2) the fact that the passage is missing from most of the key manuscripts, and 3) the number of variants in placement show that it is inauthentic. The internal evidence is 1) a common time table and language with the Synoptics (especially Luke-Acts) and 2) the use of language virtually absent from the Gospel of John (e.g. scribes).

On the historicity of the passage, Carson’s citing of Papias and Synoptic parallels is a lot more convincing than Morris’ appeal to human experience and the character of Jesus, even though Eusebius is not always reliable in his exact quotations. Still, the story from Papias seems vague and could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Also, even though one can argue for Synoptic parallels and the character of Jesus, this does not mean that these events occurred. Human experience is not a reliable guide; many people can see themselves in narratives of Scripture that they are not meant to see themselves in. The best evidence is perhaps the including of the narrative in so many subsequent manuscripts; there was a strong conviction that the story was authentic, even though no one could agree on where to put it. Bruce’s conjecture that it might have been used as an illustration of Jesus’ later comment in John 8:15 is stretching the evidence 1) because, as Morris mentions, there is a more natural reading from 7:52 right into 8:12 and 2) Jesus used illustrations during or after a teaching, not before (especially in the Synoptics).

It should be concluded that even though the individual arguments of each commentator are rather unconvincing, the mass of evidence together shows that the narrative is likely to be historical, though there is no way to be absolutely sure. The best evidence is likely the perseverance of the account throughout church history; even if it is not directly quoted by the church fathers, it seems to have been a beloved narrative.

An evaluation of the evidence against Johannine authorship is incredibly solid. Carson’s evidence involving the absence of direct quotes in the commentaries on John of the church fathers is very convincing. The church fathers were known to quote Scripture in their works as much as they breathed air in and out of their lungs; for there to be no quotations is a weight indeed. The textual variants in the manuscript placement that Morris points out is also a good argument because it shows uncertainty as to where the passage belongs, if it belongs at all, within the four gospels. The absence from most crucial Christian documents is another great piece of evidence and one should not be overly concerned with the inclusion of the passage by Western unical D, 1) because it is known to have rogue tendencies and 2) it just makes it easier to affirm historicity.

The internal evidence is also convincing, though reservations need to be expressed. The language/situation argument for Luke-Acts is probably the more solid argument than the mentioning of the scribes not being found in the Gospel of John. The reason for this being that it is much more conclusive to base evidence on successive similarities than with changes in language. There are many Pauline scholars who do not believe the apostle wrote some of the letters ascribed to him because of a change in language. However, the two language evidences together form a convincing weight against the passage being of Johannine origin. Also, F.F. Bruce’s comparison of Jesus’ dilemma with that of the tribute to Caesar, while not conclusive on its own, shows that the Synoptic parallels tend to match the Synoptic language.



            While John 7:53-8:11 is not likely to be Johannine in origin, it is still a historically reliable narrative on par with those found in the Synoptics. The evidence is clearly against any sort of Johannine authorship, even though the passage has been placed in modern times within the Gospel of John. This should give one confidence that while the narrative is out of place, it is certainly not fraudulent or embellished; it is an event that occurred that was somehow lost in the Synoptics or the oral tradition from which the Synoptics were derived. One can be confident that one is still reading an inspired text, a text that continues to speak to hearts and minds of sinners and saints up until this day.























Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, Notes. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B.    Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.


Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Leicester, England.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing   Co., 1991. Kindle edition.


Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John (the New International Commentary On the New      Testament). Revised ed. Nashville: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

                [1] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), 333. Kindle edition.


[2] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, Notes (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 413.


[3] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (the New International Commentary On the New Testament), Revised ed. (Nashville: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995),  20286. Kindle Edition.


[4] Carson, 334.


[5] Morris, 20290.


[6] Ibid., 20295.


[7] Bruce, 413.


[8] Morris, 20286.


[9] Carson, 333.


[10] Ibid.

                [11] Ibid.


[12] Ibid.


[13] Morris, 20279.


[14] Bruce, 413.


[15] Carson, 333.


[16] Bruce, 413.

                [17] Ibid., 415.


[18] Carson, 334.


[19] Morris, 20305.


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