Is John 7:53-8:11 Authentic?

The account of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) has a textual history that makes heads spin. Michaels in her commentary on John [146] offers the details: It is not in the earliest manuscripts (with one exception); in those manuscripts where we do find it, it is not found in one place. Some have it at the end of John. Some put it after our John 7:36; one puts it after 7:44. Some have it in Luke, after Luke 21:38.

So what's happening here? Do we maybe have a bit of an otherwise rejected gospel, or an inauthentic story of Jesus, in our canon?

The answer to both questions is, probably not -- and it is important to see these, indeed, as two separate questions, despite a certain tendency to treat them as one. The story could easily have been authentic, yet made its way at first only into heretical gospels; heretics should certainly have wanted it to add a pretension of authenticity to their works. (Although, note well, we have no copy of a heretical or alternate gospel with the story.)

In this short essay, we'll discuss three questions. First, does the evidence point to this being an authentic account from the ministry of Jesus? Second, who wrote up this account? And finally, why wasn't it put in one of our canonical gospels to start with?

  1. Authentic or not? Even staunch critics admit that this pericope, though obviously not originally part of John, is quite likely to reflect an authentic episode in the life of Jesus. C. S. Lewis is often followed in his observation that the record of Jesus writing in the dust has the ring of the record of an eyewitness. Why note this detail -- yet not note what was being written?

    (This has been a source for endless speculation: That Jesus was writing the charge out as though for a Roman trial; that he was inscribing some passage from the OT, or even listing the sins of the accusers!)

    Also slightly favoring authenticity is the fact that this story seems to be alluded to by some patristic texts. Eusebius indicates that Papias told a similar story of a woman accused before Jesus of many sins. The story also seems to be alluded to in the Apostolic Constitutions, and in the Syrian Didascalia of the third century, which tells bishops to deal with repentant sinners "as he also did with her who had sinned, when the elders set before him, and leaving the judgment in his hands, departed." (See Morris' commentary on John, 883, and Beasley-Murray's commentary on John, 143.)

  2. Who's the author? Many would say there's no way to tell, but I'm not that squeamish. I think there's fairly strong evidence to link this story to Luke. This evidence would include:
    • The inclusion of the story in some mss. of Luke.
    • The use of unique Lukan or Synoptic vocabulary:
      • orthros ("early" -- John 8:2; Luke 24:1, Acts 5:21
      • "all the people" (John 8:2; appears almost 20 times in Luke-Acts, but only 5 times in Mark and Matthew together)
      • paraginomai ("appear" -- John 8:2; appears over two dozen times in Luke-Acts, but only 3 times in Matt, once in Mark, and once elsewhere in John)
      • kategoros ("accusers" -- found elsewhere only in Acts, 5 times)
      • suneideis ("conscience" -- found only here, and twice in Acts)
      • "Mount of Olives", "scribes and Pharisees", "eldest" (8:1, 8:3, 8:9) -- unique to the Synoptics, other than here in John
    • The story fits well with Luke's special interest in women.
  3. Why not in the original gospel texts? The only speculation I have seen suggested is that this text was not included in a final gospel product because it seemed to have been too easy on those who committed sexual sin. However, I think a far more practical reason can be offered.

    In the process of composing his Gospel, Luke, following standard literary practice for the time, would have compiled notes which he later collected and collated into a full text. The pericope would be well designated as one of Luke's original "loose leaf" notes that didn't make the cut to the final gospel. Why? The pericope fits quite well in the context where it is sometimes placed in Luke (after 21:38). But it is also immediately before the Passion narrative.

    Luke's Gospel is just about the right size for a typical ancient scroll, so the omission of this pericope from his Gospel may have been for a no less practical reason than that Luke saw that he was running out of writing room.

-JPH