Here's an excerpt from this 43-minute lecture:
Today, we are investigating one of the most famous textual variants in the New Testament: John 7:53-8:11, also known as the story of the adulteress. The textual contest involving these 12 verses is often introduced to Bible-readers by a heading, such as the one that appears in the Christian Standard Bible between John 7:52 and 7:53: “The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11.”
Back in 1982, when the New King James Version was published, its footnote about these verses said that they “are present in over 900 manuscripts.” More recently, Dr. Maurice Robinson has confirmed that although 270 manuscripts do not include these verses, they are supported by 1,500 manuscripts. That is a ratio of 85 to 15, in favor of the inclusion of the passage.
But it is a well-grounded axiom that manuscripts must be weighed, not counted. Among the early manuscripts that do not include John 7:53-8:11 are Papyrus 66, Papyrus 75, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Ephraimi Rescriptus, Codex T, also known as 029, Codex Washingtonianus, and Codex N, also known as 022, a purple uncial from the 500s.
Most of these manuscripts represent the Alexandrian Text. The early versions based in Egypt, such as the Sahidic version, agree, along with the Ethiopic version. But some relatively early non-Coptic versions also agree: Codex Argenteus, the primary witness to the Gothic version of the Gospels, does not have the story of the adulteress. Neither does the Peshitta, which in the Gospels is frequently an ally of the Byzantine Text.
To researchers who value the flagship manuscripts of the Alexandrian Text as if their weight is greater than all other manuscripts put together, the evidence I have just mentioned settles the question of whether John 7:53-8:11 is part of the original text of the Gospel of John. They would say that this passage is not original, and that the evidence against its genuineness is “overwhelming.” However, there is other evidence that points in the other direction. There is also a considerable amount of misinformation circulating about this passage that has to be sorted out.
Some researchers have stated that out of the 322 majuscule manuscripts that were catalogued, as of several years ago, only three support the inclusion of John 7:53-8:11. That statement is built on a false picture of the majuscules, as if they are all majuscule manuscripts of John.
Most of those 322 majuscule manuscripts do not have any text from chapters 7 and 8 of the Gospel of John. Using “3 out of 322 majuscules” as a frame of reference is a silly proportion; it is like combining all of the baseball games, football games, and hockey games played in 1972, and saying, “The 1972 Miami Dolphins only won 17 out of 500 games.”
Sounds like the 1972 Dolphins weren’t very good.
Plus, the claim that only three majuscules include John 7:53-8:11 is simply false. The uncials D, E, G, H, K, M, U, S, G, Γ, Λ, Π, Ω, 047, and 0233 support the passage. Codex F, Boreelianus, included it when the manuscript was in pristine condition. Codex Y, Macedonianus, does not have the passage, but its marginalia expresses awareness of the missing verses. In Codex Delta, and in Codex L, John 7:53-8:11 is absent, but a large blank space appears between John 7:52 and John 8:12, evidently left as memorial-space; acknowledging the copyists’ recollection of the missing verses.
I don’t want to give the impression that the way to solve textual variants is to hold a democratic election with manuscripts in the role of citizens. But since an appeal to the number of manuscripts has been attempted, we might as well improve its accuracy: The number of majuscules that have John 7-8, and include John 7:53-8:11 or part of the passage, is 16, and the number of majuscules that have John 7 and 8 that do not include John 7:53-8:11 is 18, but two of those 18 – Codex Regius and Codex Delta – leave memorial-space for the passage.
Codex Macedonianus, already mentioned, does not include the passage but has symbols in the margin that appear to refer to it. In the case of Codex A, Codex C, and 070 – three of the 18 majuscules counted as witnesses for non-inclusion – we don’t see a text in which John 8:12 follows John 7:52; we have to depend on space-considerations. Granting that those considerations are correct, the count is 16 for inclusion, 16 for non-inclusion, and a three-vote buffer-zone that both supports a text without John 7:53-8:11 while also supporting a memory of an exemplar with John 7:53-8:11.
In addition, a few manuscripts, such as Codex Lambda and minuscules 34 and 135, have notes that refer to the presence of the story of the adulteress in earlier copies. I will say more about this feature later in the lecture.
What we see here are the signs of two early forms of the text of the Gospel of John: one based in the West, that included John 7:53-8:11, and one based in the East, that did not.
The dry climate of Egypt gave an advantage to papyrus manuscripts there, allowing the writing-material to survive longer, regardless of the quality of the text that was written on it. Outside Egypt, papyrus tended to naturally experience more rapid decomposition. Partly for this reason, the heading that states that the “earliest manuscripts” do not include John 7:53-8:11 is true. But there is also early evidence in favor of the story of the adulteress.
Jerome, writing in the early 400s, said in his composition Against the Pelagians, 2:17: “In the Gospel according to John, there is found, in many copies, Greek as well as Latin, the story of the adulteress who was accused before the Lord.”
About 30 years earlier, in 383, Jerome had included John 7:53-8:11 in the Gospel of John in the Vulgate Gospels. In his Preface to the Gospels, Jerome wrote that he had revised the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John “by a comparison of the Greek manuscripts. Only early ones have been used.”
In his Epistle 27, To Marcella, Jerome was more candid. He stated, “The Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are demonstrated to be faulty by the variations which they all exhibit, and my objective has been to restore them to the form of the original Greek.”
So: when Jerome translated the Vulgate Gospels, he did so on the basis of “ancient Greek manuscripts” – that is, manuscripts that were already considered ancient in 383. This testimony alone goes a long way toward outweighing the early Egyptian manuscripts. We don’t know exactly how many Greek manuscripts Jerome would call “many,” but if it was more than nine, that would imply that Jerome saw as many manuscripts, made before the year 400, with the passage, as we have seen without it.
In a composition from the 200s, called the Didascalia Apostolorum, we find the following, in Syriac, in chapter 7, after the author used King Manasseh as an example of those who have received mercy from God:
“If you do not receive the one who repents, because you are without mercy, you shall sin against the Lord God, for you do not obey our Savior and our God, to do as He also did with her who had sinned, whom the elders set before Him, and leaving the judgment in His hands, departed. But He, the searcher of hearts, asked her and said to her, ‘Have the elders condemned you, my daughter?’ She said to Him, ‘No, Lord.’ And He said to her, ‘Go your way; neither do I condemn you.’ In Him therefore, our Savior and King and God, is your pattern, O bishops.”
The author of the Didascalia appears to regard the scene about Jesus and this woman as if it as well-known as the many other passages that he refer to in this composition. He uses Jesus’ act of forgiveness as a precedent for Christian bishops to emulate.
There are eleven forms of the Old Latin capitula that mention the adulteress, plus one that mentions that Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, referring to what is said in John 8:1.
One of these forms is called the Cy form, because it is assigned to the time of Cyprian or shortly later, that is, the mid-200s or late 200s. In John’s chapter-summaries in the Cy-form of the Old Latin capitula, the summary of chapter 30 begins like this: “Wherein he dismissed the adulteress, and said that he was the light of the world.” This indicates that the story of the adulteress was in an Old Latin text in the 200s, right before John 8:12.
Furthermore, as Hugh Houghton has confirmed, the chapter-summary in some Latin manuscripts uses a loan-word based on the Greek word for adultery. The same loan-word also appears in the text of Codex Corbeiensis, from the 400s or 500s, indicates that the Latin text here echoes a Greek text.
The testimony of Saint Ambrose of Milan, from about the 380s, deserves attention. Although some commentators have claimed that none of the early writers used the story of the adulteress, Ambrose made several extensive quotations of the story of the adulteress. Ambrose is widely regarded as the author of Apologia David, in which, in the course of commenting on sub-title of Psalm 51, the author says, “Perhaps most people are taken aback by the title of the Psalm, which you have heard read, that Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Likewise those with weak faith could be disturbed by the Gospel-reading, which has been covered, in which we see an adulteress presented to Christ and sent away without condemnation.” If the author was indeed Ambrose, this reference shows that the story of the adulteress was routinely read in Milan. If not, it shows that the passage was routinely read somewhere else.
In his Epistle 25, To Studius, Ambrose addresses the question of whether a Christian official may pronounce a death-sentence. In the course of his comments on this question, he refers to how Jesus dealt with the adulteress. Ambrose quotes the words, “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone at her. And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.” He continues: “When they heard this they began to go out one by one, beginning at the eldest.” And then he quotes, “So when they departed, Jesus was left alone, and lifting up His head, He said to the woman, Woman, where are those your accusers? Has no man condemned you? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”
In his next letter, Epistle 26, To Studius, Ambrose goes into even more detail, introducing the passage about the adulteress by saying that it is “very famous,” and once again he quotes extensively from the passage.
Earlier than Ambrose is the writer Pacian of Barcelona, who became a bishop in 365. In his Third Epistle to Sympronian – Against the Treatise of the Novatians, in paragraph 39, Pacian writes with heavy sarcasm: “O Novatians, why do you delay to ask an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and to demand life for life? Why do you wait to renew once more the practice of circumcision and the sabbath? Kill the thief. Stone the petulant. Choose not to read in the Gospel that the Lord spared even the adulteress who confessed, when none had condemned her.”
So it is not as if the early evidence all points one way: there is very strong evidence from the East, especially from Egypt, against the passage. And there is evidence from the West, in the Old Latin capitula, and in the quotations from Pacian and Ambrose, and in the “many manuscripts, both Greek and Latin,” mentioned by Jerome, in favor of the passage.
Before considering what caused the difference between these two forms of the text, there are other forms of the text to consider: forms in which the story of the adulteress appears at different places. As a footnote in the Christian Standard Bible states, “Other manuscripts include all or some of the passage after John 7:36, John 7:44, John 7:52, John 21:25, or Luke 21:38.”
This is sometimes presented as definitive proof that the passage is secondary. For example, apologist James White has commented, “Such moving about by a body of text is plain evidence of its later origin,” and these different locations of the story constitute “absolute evidence” that it is not genuine.
In 2008, Dan Wallace similarly stated that this account “has all the earmarks of a pericope that was looking for a home. It took up permanent residence, in the ninth century, in the middle of the fourth gospel.”
This sort of comment suggests that some researchers need to get better acquainted with the influence of early lection-cycles. What is a lection-cycle? A lection-cycle is the arrangement of specific passages of Scripture assigned to be read in church-services on specific days of the year. Eventually lectionaries were developed, in which the daily readings were arranged in the chronological order in which they were to be read, but until then, there were simply local customs about which passage was assigned to each day. Important celebrations were among the first days for which specific readings were assigned. Easter-week was a very prominent annual observance on the Christian calendar. The Quartodeciman Controversy was a serious dispute in the late 100s, about precisely when the annual celebration of the Resurrection of Christ should be observed.
Another important annual feast-day was Pentecost, a festival inherited by the church from its earlier observance in the old covenant. The Christian church has been celebrating Pentecost ever since Acts chapter 2.
In the Byzantine lection-cycle, the Gospels-reading assigned to Pentecost consists of John 7:37-52, plus John 8:12. Thematically, it is a natural choice: Pentecost was known as the day when the Holy Spirit came to the church, and in John 7:37-39, Jesus speaks about the coming of the Holy Spirit. The inclusion of John 8:12 forms a positive closing flourish for the lection.
When the realization is made that one of the most important annual celebrations in the early church involved reading a passage of John beginning at John 7:37, continuing to the end of 7:52, and concluding with John 8:12, several things are resolved regarding manuscripts in which John 7:53-8:11 is moved around:
The movement of the passage to precede John 7:37, in minuscule 225, was done so that the lector (the person who read the text in the church-services) would have the Pentecost-lection all in one piece, without having to stop at the end of verse 52 to find the final verse. This kind of conformation to lectionary usage is also shown in minuscule 225 where it has John 13:3-17 in the text of Matthew, after Matthew 26:20.
So much for the claim that the movement to John 7:37 shows that the story of the adulteress was a “floating anecdote” in the early church. But what about the manuscripts in which it appears at the end of John, after John 21:25?
These are not a random assortment of manuscripts; they consist mainly of members of the family-1 group. In the best representatives of this group, minuscules 1 and 1582, there is a note after John 21:25 that introduces the story of the adulteress there. The note goes like this:
“The chapter about the adulteress: in the Gospel according to John, this does not appear in the majority of copies; nor is it commented upon by the divine fathers whose interpretations have been preserved – specifically, by John Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria. Nor is it taken up by Theodore of Mopsuestia and the others. Therefore, it was not kept in the place where it is found in a few copies, at the beginning of the 86th chapter, following, ‘Search and see that a prophet does not arise out of Galilee.’”
In the Palestinian Aramaic Lectionary, only part of the story of the adulteress was transferred to the end of John. In the lection that includes John 8:2, the Palestinian Aramaic text in two manuscripts says, “The Gospel of John was completed in Greek in Ephesus,” and in one manuscript, after John 8:2, it says, “The Gospel of John was completed by the help of Christ.”
As J. Rendel Harris deduced back in the late 1800s, this implies that the Palestinian Aramaic lectionary was initial made by individuals using a text of John in which John 8:3-11 had been transferred to the end of John. The individuals who made the Palestinian Aramaic lectionary included in the lection the subscription-note to the Gospel of John, as well as John 8:3-11. Considering that John 7:53-8:2 is in the Palestinian Aramaic text of John, this shows that the story of the adulteress was in the text of John 7 and 8 before John 8:3-11 was transferred to the end of the Gospel.
John 8:3-11 constituted the lection for October 8, which in the Byzantine Menologion is the feast-day honoring Saint Pelagia. This bring us to the testimony of minuscule 1333, which has been very poorly described by some commentators as if it has John 7:53-8:11 after the end of Luke.
Minuscule 1333 would be listed among the manuscripts that do not include the passage, if someone had not written John 8:3-11 on what had been a blank page between the end of Luke and the chapter-list for John. All that has happened in minuscule 1333 is that someone who wanted to read lections from this manuscript added the lection for Saint Pelagia’s Day on the blank page. Contrary to Dan Wallace’s claim that the story of the adulteress stands as “an independent pericope between Luke and John,” in minuscule 1333 the lection’s title is explicitly provided: “For Saint Pelagia, on October 8, from the Gospel of John.”
But what about the manuscripts related to the cluster known as family-13, in which the story of the adulteress appears at the end of Luke 21? This is a later adaptation to the series of lections that honor saints in the Menologion. After John 7:53-8:11 was moved out of the text of John, the passage was transferred to a location where it would conveniently follow the previous day’s lection in the Menologion.
Earlier in Luke 21, verses 12-19 serve as the lection for October 7, the feast-day of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. At the end of the chapter, where verse 38 refers to Jesus teaching in the temple, the text is thematically similar to John 8:1-2. So, in the family-13 manuscripts, when the Pentecost lection was turned into one block of text via the removal of the story of the adulteress, the story of the adulteress was moved to this location, so that the lection for October 8 would be near the lection for October 7. In the main members of family 13, when you look at the transplanted text of John 8:2-3, you can see that the text has been shortened to create a smoother fit with Luke 21:37-38. After “And early in the morning He came into the temple,” the text in family 13 then says, “and the scribes presented to Him.”
So with just a few minutes spent looking at the details of the case, we can see why copyists moved the story of the adulteress, from where it had previously been found after John 7:52, to a location after John 7:36, a location after John 21:25, and a location after Luke 21:38.
But one other location has not yet been explained: the Christian Standard Bible’s footnote says that “Other manuscripts include all or some of the passage after John 7:44.”
There are no Greek manuscripts in which the story of the adulteress appears after John 7:44. What the CSB’s footnote refers to here is a small number of Georgian copies, including Sinai Georgian MS 16. These Gospels-manuscripts generally support the Caesarean Gospels-text, like the early Armenian manuscripts and the main members of family-1.
What has happened is that when the Georgian version was revised, the revisor was guided by the same kind of note that appears in minuscules 1 and 1582, stating that the passage had been found in the text “at the beginning of the 86th chapter. This is a reference to the 86th Eusebian Section, which begins at the beginning of John 7:45. The note that guided the Georgian revisor apparently did not get more specific than that. And so, guided by a note that stated that the story had been found at the beginning of the 86th Eusebian Section, that is where he put it.
Thus, instead of showing that John 7:53-8:11 was floating around like a butterfly, the transmission-streams that transfer the passage also contain earlier evidence of the passage in its usual location position between John 7:52 and John 8:12.
What about the 270 manuscripts in which the story of the adulteress is simply absent? Before addressing that question, there is another aspect of some of the early manuscripts that should be pointed out. The Caesarean form of the text had the story of the adulteress at the end of John, introduced by a note that stated that it had been found in a few copies after John 7:52. If this was where it was in some of those early manuscripts, there would be no way to tell.
● Papyrus 75 is not extant after John 15:10.
● The Lycopolitan manuscript of John is not extant after 20:27.
● Codex T is not extant after John chapter 8.
● And, in Codex Vaticanus, marks called distigmai, resembling umlauts, appear frequently in the margin alongside a line of text that has a textual variant. One such mark appears alongside the blank space after the end of John.
I don’t think these dots are contemporary with the main scribes of Codex Vaticanus. But others disagree, and if they are correct, then this leaves an open question about whether the transfer of the story of the adulteress was known to copyists in the early 300s.
Considering how the Pentecost lection plays a large part in the displacement of the passage, I submit this hypothesis as an explanation for the initial omission of the passage:
I first propose that John 7:53-8:11 was in the text of John in an exemplar used by a copyist in Egypt in the mid-100’s. By the mid-100s, the churches in Egypt already had a basic lection-cycle for their major annual festivals, including Eastertime and Pentecost.
This doesn’t mean that each congregation, or each locale, observed exactly the same series of readings on the same feast-days, or that gradual expansion and adjustments did not happen. My first point here is simply that the celebration of Pentecost was an extremely ancient practice, included among the annual feast-days mentioned in the late 300s by the pilgrim Etheria, also known as Egeria.
In order to make it clear to the lector – the individual responsible for the reading of Scripture in the church-services – what the contours of the Pentecost-reading were, a copyist in the 100s marked his copy of the Gospel of John with simple notes signifying that when he reached the end of John 7:52, he was to jump ahead and resume at chapter 8, verse 12.
Now picture the puzzle that presented itself to a professional copyist who used that exemplar: as he copies down the text of John chapter seven, after the end of verse 52 the copyist sees in the margin the instructions, “Skip ahead.” Unaware that these instructions were meant for the lector, he interprets them as if they were meant for him, the copyist. And so he skips ahead until he finds instructions in the margin which say, Restart here.
The copyist follows these instructions, and accordingly he does not copy John 7:53-8:11, thinking that he is faithfully following instructions.
And the manuscript – or manuscripts, if the same copyist made several copies – which contained this mistake proceeded to affect both the main Alexandrian transmission-stream and whatever transmission-streams to which it was exported.
This simple theory explains why the text in the East, especially the text in Egypt, tends to not have the story about the adulteress, and the text in the West does.