John 7:53-8:11 – The Woman Caught in Adultery: 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 the story of a woman caught in adultery from academic textual questions. It is important to realize at the outset that Jesus accepted and forgave sinners, including this well-known women caught in adultery. 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. Here is an article by Daniel Wallace on the 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 of the story about the woman caught in adultery, 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 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.


15 thoughts on “John 7:53-8:11 – The Woman Caught in Adultery: 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. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. This story of the adulterous woman seems to have been quite the controversy, even just in reflecting on it today. This blog post is mostly about the authenticity and relevancy of this story in the Gospel of John. Without even considering the sovereignty of God’s purpose and John’s intention for this passage, I truly do think that this story could be considered to being canonical. To accurately be considered canonical, this story must correlate with the revelation of God to mankind, along with the other canonical Scriptures. Faith is quite interestingly represented in this story, especially since the Pharisees wanted to test Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees questioned Jesus, saying that the law of Moses instructs this act of adultery to be met with stoning as punishment (John 8:3-6, ESV). The Pharisees may not have faith in Jesus as the Messiah, but they have enough faith to believe that He followed the Law. It is for this evidence that I believe this passage/story to being canonical. A piece of information that was included in this blog post that stood out to me was the comparison of this story to the story of the woman at the well. Both of these women have clearly sinned, and both are considered to being unlikely company to Jesus. Something that sets these stories apart and make them dissimilar is the witnesses, or the audience. While Jesus was found with the Samaritan woman by His disciples, He was instead cornered by scribes and Pharisees when it came to the story of the adulterous woman in John 8. Jesus may have defied the status quo, but He never disobeyed God. This is definitely a characteristic of God that can still be glorified today. In these stories, Jesus is optimistically authentic, without regard to what society thought of Him, specifically Jews (Pharisees).

  9. Wow, this is very interesting. I had no idea that a story so heavily quoted has been questioned like this throughout the years. I have always been taught this story was a mark of acceptability in the church. This story to me was as P. Long said in this blog post in the first and second line, “encouraging grace and forgiveness, even a kind of inclusiveness in the church” (P. Long). It was very surprising to find that this text is the holder of the glorious title of most varied among texts in the New Testament.
    I believe this story is authentic. What I believe is very similar to P. Long’s belief on this subject. I model my belief after the fact that this story has everything to do with the representation of Jesus’ character. Jesus helped the Samaritan woman in John 4 just as He helped this woman by defending her sin. He defends the weak and needy. He came to be a hospital for the sinners and not a temple for the saints. We all should model our character after Jesus.

  10. Looking at the passages before and after John 7:53-8:11, it seems like there is a possibility that the story of the woman caught in adultery might not have been in the original book of John. However, it is interesting to me that there is controversy surrounding the idea that not only was this potentially not intended to be included, but also that it could be non-canonical. What do I personally think about the non-canonical status of this story? I believe that even though it might seem out of place, it is consistent with the character of Jesus as described in other passages in John. For example, as Long mentions above, Jesus encountered the woman at the well in John 4, and although she had been committing adultery, Jesus extended grace and forgiveness, similar to how he showed grace and forgiveness to the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. Ultimately, 2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us that all scripture is inspired by God, and is included in the Bible for a specific purpose. Though the story of the woman caught in adultery may seem out of place within the gospel of John, I believe that God had planned for it to be included, and that it is consistent with the character of Jesus. This story shows that Jesus interacted consistently with others by informing them of their sin and self-destructive behaviors, while also demonstrating love and forgiveness. Jesus sets a great example throughout the book of John of balancing grace and truth with others in order to lead them to having a relationship with him.

  11. I’ll be completely honest here as someone who grew up in the church and someone who has been a follower of Jesus for most of my life- I never knew that this particular passage was under such academic scrutiny as to whether it is truly canonical or not. This whole ordeal is truly fascinating to me- and I cannot think of a piece of scripture that has its inclusion and canonical merits so widely debated. So where does this leave us, modern readers? I agree that we must carefully consider the inclusion of this text- the canonical nature of Scripture is sacred- so dealing with what should be included and what shouldn’t be is something that should be given great consideration. After reading this post, I’m inclined to agree that due to the research and historical evidence presented, it can be hard to truly be 100% confident that this is no doubt a canonical, included in the original manuscript, piece of scripture. However, the content of this passage, as the blog post suggests, is authentic. I’m more certain about the authenticity of this passage than I am about its canonical status- because this passage is extremely consistent with the character, heart, and actions of Jesus. Because of this, I see no issue giving this text its rightful place it in the canonical 66 books of the Bible. I look forward to diving into this text and the history that surrounds it as I continue my Biblical education.

  12. The Story of the adulterous women is a very interesting biblical story, that always seemed to offer a lot to learn from it. Up until I was in this class, I was never aware that there was debate about whether or not this story was in the original manuscripts of John. I find that very interesting, as with the bible being true, and accurate, you wouldn’t think there would be much debate about the contents, and if they actually were meant to be there or not. There seems to be an overwhelming amount of evidence that points towards it not being a canonical story, specifically from the outside, as it simply wasn’t found in many of the early manuscripts of the gospel of John. As it said in the blog post, they aren’t really any accounts in Greek manuscripts until the 8th century. While there are many people that say that the story is true, and Jesus really did meet the adulterous women, and common thought as to why it may have been added into the bible later on, rather than in the original manuscripts is that it was passed down through oral traditions, as a story, rather than an account of what exactly happened. Whether or not the story of the adulterous women is truly canonical or not, there is still so much that we can learn from that one simple story. Everything is in the bible for a reason, so regardless, it still is a important story to read and understand.

  13. The story of The woman caught in adultery is honestly not a passage that I’m too familiar with however when it comes to talking about whether it is authentic or not I think it would be impossible to know for sure. I know in Kostenberger when the topic was brought up he stated “almost certainly not original” (Kostenberger, 91). However, we know that it is in the Bible and I just can’t imagine God letting a passage slip into the Bible that shouldn’t be there. Just like in many other passages Jesus is teaching, showing grace to people, and showing other characteristics that he normally would. However, John’s theme is about Jesus being the light of the world and the story of the adulteress women doesn’t really fit well into John so it does make me believe that it maybe isn’t original to John. I think that my main point is I think everything that is in the Bible is there for a reason, I don’t think God would let a passage slip into His Holy book. I don’t think we can actually know for sure if it’s authentic or not.

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