Is the "woman caught in adultery" story canonical?

ATLacasse's picture

I'm sure some or many have noticed the notation in the ESV version on John 7:53-8:11 which covers the woman caught in adultery. This section is taught on very often in the circles I travel in but I am unsure what to make of the ESV's note. If you do not have that version the note says: "The earliest manuscripts do not include John 7:53–8:11," and "Some manuscripts do not include 7:53–8:11; others add the passage here or after 7:36 or after 21:25 or after Luke 21:38, with variations in the text." Would anyone have any knowledge on this?

re: stratplaya

These are good questions--as we are currently wrestling with some of these same questions in the John's Gospel study group, I will repost some of my answers here, along with the original links. There is some historical evidence, and Augustine also notes that this episode is "shifty" in a couple of different senses--it moves around in the manuscripts, and is absent in some (as Oliver mentions below). I gather that you are uncomfortable with the literary/rhetorical approach to scripture because of the disunity represented in the JEPD theory; I have problems with the extension of this particular methodology into New Testament studies. But I still use some similar tools of analysis, because the use and abuse of a methodology to produce unfavorable conclusions in one place doesn't invalidate that methodology in other circumstances--I use my microwave all the time, even though the technology therein could, on a different scale and with different conditions, be fashioned into a doomsday device. Although some theologians distort some texts through literary or rhetorical analysis, it doesn't necessarily make sense to abandon all rhetorical or literary applications.

Your "looks-like-a-duck" point is a good one--are you familiar with Star Wars? If you watch the updated Return of the Jedi, you'll notice that there are new scenes and characters that were digitally inserted for the rerelease; are these characters "authentic" Star Wars characters? Do they belong to the Star Wars narrative? Some fans say yes, and some say no--they are later insertions, which add depth and richness to the story, but which change the flavor of certain parts. In my mind, this seems like a fair if crude analogy for the Adulterous Woman pericope--even if it is an insertion, it may still be seen as a part of the Johannine narrative, although perhaps not as part of the "first release."

If you're interested, I'd love to hear from you in our Gospel of John study; the study is underway as we speak--we're somewhere in the middle of John 8, and we move pretty slowly.

Comments on the Scene itself
Comments on manuscript evidence by Oliver128 (Thanks Oliver!)
Comments on how the Adulterous Woman interrupts the discourse of John 7 & 8
Comments on the singular flow of the conversation interrupted by the Adulterous Woman


The statement, rather famous, that Jesus is the “light of the world,” follows the initial context of John 7. There, after pleading with the masses to judge righteous judgment, Jesus proclaimed himself to be the giver or source of living water. While the masses wonder if this means he is the Christ, the Pharisees respond by turning to scripture, citing a messianic prerequisite which holds that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, the city of David—not Galilee, a point they make repeatedly. Nicodemus asks the Pharisees to lawfully reserve judgment, for which he is ridiculed. But Jesus is allowed to continue.

Thus we arrive at the present verse: “I am the light of the world; he who follows me won’t walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” Throughout John’s Gospel, light and darkness function as metaphors for understanding--or wisdom--and misunderstanding--or ignorance. The metaphor continues through this scene, as well. After this controversy, Jesus will heal a blind man sitting by the way, who then recognizes that Jesus must be a righteous man, and by extension the Messiah. The Pharisees, who see both Jesus and his signs, remain willfully ignorant and misunderstand his claims.

Jesus’ claim is a fairly direct allusion to Isaiah, which promises that the nations will see a great light; perhaps more important than the “light” of revelation is Isaiah’s direct reference to Galilee--while the Pharisees reply that Jesus “bears witness” to himself, contrary to the legal requirements of the law, Jesus has cited a messianic passage that DOES suggest a messianic connection to Galilee, a passage which goes on to promise the destruction of Israel’s learned leaders:

Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. (Isaiah 9:1-2; compare also Isaiah 42.6-7, [which informs John 9]; also, Isaiah 49.6, and the bulk of Isaiah 60).

Jesus began with the plea for his critics to evaluate his person and claims carefully, in accordance with the law; the Pharisees, in turn, evaluate Jesus according to a partial and insufficient application of the law. Jesus is NOT bearing witness of himself—he is citing scripture that associates Galilee with the universal light of God’s revelation, as it shines upon the nations. But they miss this reference, because they are intent upon their own criteria; they also forget the five special witnesses Jesus cited in his first public address to the people, which includes scripture. Those who recognize Jesus’ allusion, and remember those five witnesses—as ideally, John’s audience, the church, would remember—would be vindicated as those who “judge righteous judgment,” in contrast to the egregious lapse of the Pharisees.


....In this sense, the account of the Adulterous Woman in John 8 follows the same format. Jesus “saves” the Adulterous Woman, who—consistent with the typological characteristics of so many of the “saved” parties in John’s Gospel—is remarkably compatible with a typological figure of the Old Testament, playing an active role in Israel's as-of-yet unrealized future. The woman here closely resembles the explicit Adulterous Israel figure active in prophetic works like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea. Her situation—caught under the law for a crime carrying the penalty of death, and humiliated by a protracted and shameful public judgment—is remarkably similar to Israel’s own situation at the close of the Old Testament; Jesus’ subsequent forgiveness of Israel despite the demands of the law bears a striking similarity to God’s own declarations about Israel in Jeremiah:

They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man's, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? but thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the LORD. (Jeremiah 3:1)…. Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the LORD; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the LORD, and I will not keep anger for ever. Only acknowledge thine iniquity, that thou hast transgressed against the LORD thy God, and hast scattered thy ways to the strangers under every green tree, and ye have not obeyed my voice, saith the LORD. (Jeremiah 3:12-13)

One reason I am comfortable counting John 7.53-8.11 as part of the Johannine corpus—I am also comfortable discounting it—is the high degree of compatibility the scene has with the other Johannine signs. By placing the account where it is in John, we immediately have a better context for comparison. Whereas in one manuscript the same account is placed in Luke, where the episode’s typological structure and eschatological concern are likely to be overridden by a different type of exegetical analysis, the placement of this episode in John asks us, as readers, to analyze the event as we would the Johannine signs, rather than as the less-stylized miracle accounts in the synoptics—although, to be honest, I’d say those too are highly stylized and typological gospels demanding similar rather than dissimilar exegesis. This approach to the Adulterous Woman yields a distinct set of answers to many of the scenes commonly-provoked questions.


Thus begins an episode which is absent from some of the older manuscripts, and is found in elsewhere in some—the story appears in Luke in one manuscript (no, I don’t know which one), and in the margins of another. The insertion of the Woman Caught in Adultery, which carries over until John 8.11, interrupts an otherwise continuous discourse; the conversation in John 8.12 should ideally be read as a continuation of the discussion taking place prior to John 7.53. Augustine suggested that the account was removed from some manuscripts because it inexplicably forgives gross immorality, but I find it more likely that the account, while agreeing with Johannine theology, is nevertheless a spurious insertion, rather than a deletion, an insertion facilitated by the episode's thematic similarity to the scene's focus on judgment and the law.

John 7 and 8 are thematically linked, and should not be separated; even the style of discussion is the same—before the insertion, Jesus stands and cites the prophets, promising the "water" of life; directly after the insertion, Jesus continues with his allusion to the prophets when he promises to his followers the “light" of life. Not insignificantly, if we set aside the added material, Jesus' promise of the "light of life"--which echoes John 1.4 and evokes the eternal narrative from the "beginning" (comp. John 8.35, 57-58)--follows directly on the hanging question of 7.52, “Are you also from Galilee?,” and suggests that Jesus is immune to the scrutiny of the Pharisees because his position of universal authority was established long before the Abrahamic covenant (in agreement with Paul in Galatians); Jesus has adopted the language of universal revelation established in John 1's account of the world's creation, while the Pharisees are fixated on a much later prophetic development.

Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,) Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth? They answered and said unto him, Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet. (John 7:50-52)… Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. The Pharisees therefore said unto him, Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true. (John 8:12-13)

Unfortunately, while John 7.53-8.11 is a beautiful picture of the bridegroom’s forgiveness of Zion’s unfaithfulness (comp. Isaiah 52, etc), its insertion here obscures the connection between Nicodemus’ demand that Jesus receive a fair evaluation according to the Mosaic Law, Jesus’ subsequent promise of light, and the Pharisee’s subsequent failure to “judge righteous judgment.” While the Pharisees perceive in scripture a Davidic messiah, Jesus presents himself as a universal savior. The Pharisees accuse Jesus of fabricating his own support, and Jesus deals with them abruptly, calling them blind to the obvious prophetic fulfillment unfolding before them in the conversion of the blind (which carries over into John 9’s depiction of the blind man who sees, and the seeing Pharisees’ who are blind). Both Jesus' promise of light and life and the healing of the blind man foreshadow the conversion of the Gentiles and the “blindness which has happened in part to Israel” described by Paul in Romans 11, and the section of John 8.31-59 relies on the Pauline logic of Galatians to establish the chronological relationship between the covenant of Abraham, the Mosaic Law, and the preeminence of Christ. But I've probably gotten way ahead of myself, and so it's time to move into chapter 8.