John 7:53-8:11 – Preachable, but is it Authentic?

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is an commonly quoted text encouraging grace and forgiveness, even a kind of inclusiveness in the church. But the authenticity of the story in 7:53-8:11 is disputed. It is hard to separate the potential “preachability” of this text from the rather academic textual questions. It is important to realize at the outset that Jesus was in fact accepting of sinners and forgave sinners, including well-known adulterous women. But does this text reflect an authentic episode from the life of Jesus?

This story is often dismissed as non-canonical based on its very poor manuscript evidence. There are no major Greek manuscripts prior to the 8th century that include the story except Codex Bezae, possible the most free of all the uncials. It is known in the Old Latin versions, indicating that the story was known in the western church. There are many ninth century Byzantine texts that include the story, but often with an indication by the scribe that the story was doubtful. It is missing in all major Greek manuscripts and in all eastern versions and eastern fathers, as well as the earliest lectionaries.

Internal evidence is not much better. The location of the story shifts from John 7:53 to the end of John, to after Luke 21:38 (the Farrar group) or Luke 24:53 (a corrector of manuscript 1333). Like most commentators, Burge thinks the story fits awkwardly in the flow of John’s gospel, possibly explaining the wide variety of placements within the New Testament. The twelve verses of the story have the highest rate of major text variants in the New Testament (Burge, 144).

Even with this overwhelming evidence against authenticity, there are several scholars willing to accept the story as authentic, but that it remained outside the canon until the fourth century. Burge offers several reasons that might have lead to the suppression of the story as an authentic Jesus story: the ethics of early Christianity took very seriously the demand for perfection (as expressed in Ephesians 4:17-24, for example, cf. The Didache). Sexual sin was even more severely disciplined in the early church. This is most likely a reaction to the particular sexual excess of the Roman world. Burge cites the text of the Acts of Paul, an apocryphal book written well into the Christian era, as an example of how strong attitudes were concerning sexual immorality.

The problem for the study of the canon is this: If it is authentic and if it was somehow detached from John or was a separately circulating oral tradition that managed to be written at some point and slowly accepted by the church as authentic, what to we do with it? Protestantism has always understood the books of the Bible to be “self authenticating.” Biblical books are inspired and the church recognizes them as such. If the overwhelming textual evidence indicates that the story is an insertion, then this story cannot be canonical even if it is authentic. For this reason many commentaries, even from evangelicals with a commitment to biblical inspiration and inerrancy, do not include the text in their discussion of the canonical Gospel of John.

N. T. Wright suggests that the story became associated with the beginning of John 8 to explain the harsh critique of the Judeans later in chapter 8. The woman is used by these teachers and scribes to try and trap Jesus into either dismissing a clear teaching of the Law and forgiving adultery or contradicting his usual practice of forgiveness (Wright, John for Everyone, Part 1, 112). This is as good a reason as any for the association of the story with John, although there is little evidence for the suggestion.

I think the story is consistent with the description of Jesus in Gospels, but especially in John’s gospel. Jesus talked with the woman at the well in John 4. Even though she was in an adulterous relationship he offered her “living water” and forgiveness. There is nothing this story which strikes me as out of character for Jesus and the story does explain a shift in John’s gospel toward an intentionally hostile conflict between Jesus and the Judeans.

What do you think about the non-canonical status of this story? Is it possible to have an authentic story about Jesus that is non part of the Gospel of John? Is the theology of this story really consistent with John’s presentation of Jesus?


Bibliography:  Gary M.  Burge,“A Specific Problem In The New Testament Text And Canon: The Woman Caught In Adultery (John 7:53-8:11)” JETS 27 (1984): 141-148.


11 thoughts on “John 7:53-8:11 – Preachable, but is it Authentic?

  1. If I read this, does it mean I can stay home tonight and watch the Packers?

  2. I have to teach John 7:1 through 8:11 on Sunday, and am spending a disproportionate amount of time on 7:53-8:11. I think I’ll be prepared to answer questions about the originality and authenticity but not dwell on the controversy. To me it sounds true to the nature of Jesus’ teaching, and is probably an ancient story, so I’ll not throw fuel on the fire.

  3. The story contains some words that are found only in the writings of Luke. I would say that for some reason Luke left it out of his gospel, but it still found its way into the canon. It has the ring of truth and it is not found in any pseudo-canonical gospels or other writings. It’s the real deal. Don’t take an Exacto knife to it.

    • In some manuscripts, the story is attached to Luke’s gospel, albeit with an asterisk. I am not sure the story is close enough to Luke to say he wrote it, but it is certainly possible.

  4. I have mixed feelings about this section of scripture as there is a lot of evidence that has come up to say that this is not an original part of the book of John, yet we know that everything that is in the Bible is true (John 10:3-26). I can’t just believe that God would allow any random story into His word because we also read that all scripture is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16), so I think that the story of the woman caught in adultery is meant to be in the Bible. It is probable then that this story may have been written by someone else who just happened to pick John to pop the story into. I think that it is an authentic story but, then the debate around it seems to rule in the favor of it not being authentic like Kostenberger wouldn’t even discuss the topic as he deemed it, “almost certainly not original” (Kostenberger, 91). It may not be original, but there is nothing against it being authentic. If we look at the passage, we see Jesus showing characteristics that he would normally show, such as teaching the people, challenging the Pharisees, and showing grace to people. It doesn’t follow the theme that John has set into his book of Jesus being the light of the world, which just points back to it most likely not an original part of John. None of this is evidence against the story being fake but it isn’t strong evidence for it either. My view on its authenticity is basically backed up on the fact I think everything is in the Bible for a reason.

  5. I think there is no reason to beleive it is not an authentic story about Jesus. This story is correct and congruent with cultural standards, historical standards and matches Jesus character and what we have seen him do in other stories that seemed to be “proved” as authentic stories. This also goes along with what John is trying to show about Jesus. He came to save sinners. To me, I trust that the Bible we have in our hands today is still the living and active word of God and it is innerent. We have to trust the process of interpretaion and copying of texts, that God has had his hand on his word over all these years, and not one jot or tiddle will fade away. If it is in the Bible we have today, there is no reason or way for me to think or say that this story does not belong or is irrelavent to us today.

  6. The story of the adulterous woman is one that I have always enjoyed reading in the Bible. I’ve always been drawn to the interaction that Jesus has with the teachers and the profoundness of how the idea of everyone is sinful is shown. Looking at the canonicity of the passage, I can definitely see why it is such a grey area.
    Looking at the passage, I believe it is impossible to tell whether or not it is a true story. The actions and wording that Jesus uses certainly fits within what the rest of the Gospels portray about him, his forgiveness and his intellect when questioned by the Pharisees. For those reasons, I could see how this story could be true.
    Looking at the canonicity, again it is hard to tell one hundred percent whether it is canon or not. The fact that it doesn’t appear in Greek manuscripts makes it difficult to believe that it was a part of John’s original manuscript, otherwise it would appear in the Greek manuscripts. Also, since it appears in multiple spots in other manuscripts, the internal evidence does not help the case for canonicity. Overall, I would say that it is possible for it to be an authentic story of Jesus, though we cannot prove so, and it is most likely not canonical to the Gospels.

  7. This passage is one that I have known was not necessarily included in all translations, but I had never thought that far into why that would be the case. I just knew that my footnote in the bottom of my Bible told me that this was the case, and so that was as far as I went with looking into it. I had never realized that it was not included in the original manuscripts or that it was not considered part of the cannon. This passage defiantly makes me realize that even in our Scriptures, that we consider to be the words of God – 2 Timothy 3:16, there is still human error to it. Is this passage one that God had revealed to John to write in his Gospel or is it the addition of humanity? Then there is also the factor that God knew whether or not it would end up in our translation of the Bible, so He must have intended it to be in there? There is also the knowledge that we are given that all the books in the world could not contain the works that Jesus did, John 21:25, so is this simply something that was written down and then included simply because it is something that Jesus did? It might not have been John who wrote it, but someone wanted this story of what Jesus did to be shared. This also begs the question of is this something that actually happened; was it something that Jesus actually did? There is not a lot of internal evidence to show that it is because there are a lot of things left out of the context that we are given. For example, how or why did Pharisees bring an unclean woman into the Temple courts; or why is only the woman being accused, where is the man (Long, 92)? This is a peculiar passage to say the least, but even if it is not part of the cannon, it makes me wonder if God intended this to be in Scripture or not.

  8. I am not sure which camp I reside in for this debate of whether John 7:53-8:11, I would have to look more into it before I actually pick a side. One question I have though is: Why and how is is non-canonical? I know that often to determine if something is a part of the cannon, they compare it to other texts and context surround it. The story does not seem to be misplaced either, at least in the HCSB. It seems to transition smoothly as if it were just the next day of Jesus’s ministry. However, often the question for this passage is its authenticity of whether the story actually took place or if it was more like a parable. It could have been either. Additionally, could it have made more sense if the story was placed entirely in chapter 7 and not split between 7 and 8? (just throwing it out there) I like that you mention that the story seems to be consistent with who Jesus seems to be throughout the Gospels. Jesus spent much of this ministry taking the side of sinners, tax collectors, and ceremonially unclean people. This story of the woman caught in adultery is not out of character for Jesus; he is just doing what he has been doing throughout his ministry.

  9. When I first read this story, I did not know that it was only in some manuscripts and not in others.
    When I look at this story, I do not see anything that is out of Jesus’ character. I see Him being the same God that He is throughout the rest of the Bible. He bent down and wrote with His finger. Then He stood up and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
    This goes along with the scripture in John 3:17, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”
    We can learn that God’s heart in this story is to show that Jesus did not come to the world to condemn us, to make us look like fools, but rather to love and save us.
    This story reminds me of the song Mercy by Amanda Cook. It talks about how mercy triumphs over judgement.
    James 2:!3 says,
    “. . . judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

    god has been teaching me a lot about not judging others in their process with the Lord.
    I began to notice how I would so easily judge others sometimes because of their behavior.
    Holy Spirit began to teach me that He is after their heart and not just about changing their behavior, for that is not love.
    My prayer is that we would begin to see people’s hearts and who God created them to be, instead of ungodly judging what is seen on outside.

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