Pericope Adulterae: Outside the Box

    In Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman writes this concerning John 7:53-8:12, “Despite the brilliance of the story, its captivating quality, and its inherent intrigue, there is one other enormous problem that it poses.  As it turns out, it was not originally in the Gospel of John.  In fact, it was not originally part of any of the Gospels.  It was added by later scribes.  How do we know this? In fact, scholars who work on the manuscript tradition have no doubts about this particular case…:  the story is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the gospel of John; its writing style is very different from what we find in the rest of John (including the stories immediately before and after); and it includes a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel.  The conclusion is unavoidable:  this passage was not originally part of the Gospel.” (1)  In answering this, let us take a look at textual criticism before we dive into discussing the various claims of Ehrman’s statement. 

     The science of textual criticism seeks to restore the original autographs of the New Testament.  As such, the critic invested in this science must believe that such an endeavor is possible.  If it is impossible, then textual criticism ceases to have importance and becomes an extreme exercise in futility.  Who, but a madman, would seek to restore something that he believed was impossible to restore?  So, the critics, in order to continue his endeavors in the science, must somewhere, perhaps deep down in the hidden recesses of the soul, must believe that the original text is attainable.  We have seen this with Dr. Ehrman and noted it already. The point here is this. Despite all the data we have regarding the New Testament, and it is a substantial amount of data (more than any other book in the history of humanity), we still lack the most crucial piece of evidence pertaining to what was in the originals.  Mainly, the originals themselves remain aloof.  Again, in order for the textual critic to say that “this or that passage is not in the originals” is a statement made in arrogance.  We can say that, “according to all the present data that we posses, this or that passage of scripture may be suspect of a later interpolation.  But to say, flat out, that it wasn’t in the original is to say that one has complete knowledge, from beginning to end, of all that is included in the original.  This is the only way to make a complete and absolute statement about the original.  To date, this remains impossible. Hence, here, like with the defense of the Marcan appendix, the attempt will be to mount another plausible defense to the woman caught in adultery (or the Pericope Adulterae as it is often called and abbreviated as PA.  For brevity sake, we will use PA when referring to it from here forward).  It is our supposition that a full and exhaustive view of the data has not been completed by Dr. Ehrman.  It is our opinion that this review will allow for its placement within the canon of scripture.  Additionally, it is our position that to completely axe it from the text, as “Ehrman seems to imply, is, to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water.  The fact that the Editorial Committee of the United bible Societies of the Greek New Testament headed by Bruce Metzger (who is largely considered the most celebrated textual critic of our time) states, “Although the Committee was unanimous that the periscope was originally no part of the Fourth Gospel, in deference to the evident antiquity of the passage a majority decided to print it, enclosed within double square brackets, at its traditional place following John 7:5” (2) demonstrates that they were responsible enough scholars to agree with what I’m saying here.  We will examine the manuscript evidence for and against PA.  We will also view the writing styles comparatively, and lastly, we will consider whether the incident actually occurred in history and, if so, it is reliable.


Manuscripts/External Evidence

     The manuscript evidence against PA is colossal to say the least.  It is the primary piece of evidence that textual critics use to “toss out” the section.  Bruce Metzger writes, “The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the periscope of the adulteress is overwhelming.  It is absent from such early and diverse manuscripts as P66, 75 a B L N T W X Y D Q Y 0141 0211 22 33 124 157 209 788 828 1230 1241 1242 1253 2193 al. Codices A and C are defective in this part of John, but it is highly probable that neither contained the periscope, for careful measurement discloses that there would not have been space enough on the missing leaves to include the section along with the rest of the text.  In the East the passage is absent from the oldest form of the Syraic version, as well as the Sahidic and the sub-Achmimic versions and the older Bohairic manuscripts.  Some Armenian manuscripts and the Old Georgian version omit it.  In the West the passage is absent from the Gothic version and form several Old Latin manuscripts.  No Greek Church Father prior to Euthymius Zigabenus (twelfth century) comments on the passage, and Euthymius declare that the accurate copies of the Gospel do not contain it.” (3) SHEW!!  WOW!!  If we just took this at face value, and it is very impressive, we might just close the case on it, get out our scissors and systematically remove it from our gospels (even if this were the case, it would change nothing of major Christian doctrine).  However, it is not the end of the story.  There are some manuscripts that do contain it.  Again Metzger, “At the same time the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity.  It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places.  Most copyists apparently thought that it would interrupt John’s narrative least if it were inserted after 7.52 (D E F G H K M U G 28 P 700 892 al) others placed it after 7.36 (ms 225) or after 7.44 (several Georgina mss.) or after 21.25 (1 55 1076 1570 1582 arm.mss) or after Luke 21.38 (f13).” (4)  Let’s re-cap what Dr. Metzger is saying.  He is taking the position that this is a piece of oral tradition that eventually found its way into the writing of scripture.  This is significant.  In a society, that Dr. Ehrman presents, as being largely illiterate, oral transmission was crucial for the transmission of actual sayings and events of Christ.  This means that this event, in all probability, did happen in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Thus, it may not have been included in the “originals” but nevertheless, deserves a place among them. Hence, many scribes thought to add it and were unsure of where to place it, as Dr. Metzger has pointed out.  Simply because it is not in the same place in all manuscripts, missing from the majority, and appears in different places and at different times, does not mean that it has no place in the canon of scripture.  I would like to ask textual critics to think outside of the box in regards to this passage and regards to this evidence.  PA is certainly unlike any other piece of New Testament scripture.  Perhaps an overall review of this data would permit, if not justify, its continued placement in scripture.  As well as, continuing its right to be seen as an authoritative piece of scripture.  Before leaving the external evidence of manuscripts, I would like to draw our attention to the placement of PA at Luke 21.38.

     The placement of PA in Luke is contained in a group of manuscripts called family 13 or f13.  “In 1868, a professor of Latin at Dublin University, William Hugh Ferrar, discovered that four medieval manuscripts, namely 13, 69, 124, and 346, were closely related textually.  His collations were published posthumously in 1877 by his friend and colleague, T.K. Abbott.  It is known today that this group (the Ferrar group) comprises about a dozen members (including manuscripts 230, 543, 788, 826, 983, 1689, and 1709).  They were copied between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries and are descendants of an archetype that came either from Calabira in southern Italy or from Sicily.” (5)  Kurt and Barbara Aland describes this family as a category III uncial.  This means “Manuscripts of a distinctive character with an independent text, usually important for establishing the original text, but particularly important for the history of the text.” (6)  This tells us that the Greek text that was preserved here in f 13 represented an independent work from the regions in Italy.  This means that there were not any other manuscripts around from which to compare their text.  Hence, it is preserved without much change.  Indeed, “There were of course Greek-speaking enclaves which continued to thrive and preserve their texts well in the medieval period, e.g. in Italy (cf. the manuscript groups of f1 and f 13 which developed in southern Italy).” (7)  What we may be seeing here is an ancient saying that has been preserved for centuries through a largely isolated text.  Given that it was originally a saying, and then preserved in the text in various places, f 13 demonstrates this but it also demonstrates that is can be traced to an ancient root.  Dr. Bart Ehrman explains to us how this makes a manuscript reliable.  He writes, “In terms of logic, suppose a manuscript of the fifth century has one reading, but a manuscript of the eight century ahs a different one.  Is the reading from in the fifth-century manuscript necessarily the older form of the text?  No, not necessarily.  What if the firth-century manuscript had been produced from a copy of the fourth century but the eighth-century manuscript had been produced from one of the third century? In that case, the eight-century manuscript would preserve the older reading.” (8)  Perhaps that is what we are seeing here with f13 and PA.

     While the manuscript evidence appears to be overwhelming, we have here answered that it is largely absent from the oldest and earliest manuscripts because of its early oral transmission.  At some point, it was included into the scripture as authentic only the scribes were unsure of where to place it.  So, the massive case against PA doesn’t quite seem so massive when it is viewed in this context.  This theory is “outside the box” for most textual critics, but then again, real life human events that bear marks of actual history occasionally don’t fit inside of the boxes of Academia.  Many will, but some will not.  PA doesn’t fit in the box.  Does this mean that it should be axed from the text?  I think not. 

Are There Differences in Style and who was the Author?

          The data concerning the internal evidence is somewhat stronger.  There has recently been a surge of scholarship that has discerned the internal evidence in favor of PA.  I think the motivating factor behind this is the desire to show some justification for keeping it in the text despite all the external evidence against it.  No question, that it is a piece of oral tradition really, the question becomes is it reliable oral transmission as it was transmitted at the time or shortly thereafter of Jesus.  Stylistic differences here should demonstrate that the oral transmission is reliable. It style, content, and vocabulary are all strikingly similar to the other gospels.  Hence, it would appear that this oral transmission is historically reliable and it deserves a place in the canon as an actual saying and happening in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Hence, we will demonstrate the similarities, in this section, between PA and the gospels, in particular, John.

     There are 12-15 words used in PA that are found nowhere else in John.  Most of these can be reconciled to the distinction of this occurrence.  Specifically, the vocabulary is different because of the content, being solely a Jewish occurrence and John’s frequent use of language from the Septuagint.  Many of those words are used in the Septuagint and are used here.  For example, the Greek phrase, panti laos is used in this section meaning, “all of the people.” This is the only occurrence of this phrase in John.  (Normally John uses the more common oclos meaning “the crowd).  However,  laos is the common designation used in the Septuagint describing the Jewish people.  Most of the words used here can have a similar explanation.  None of them are earth shattering as far as the case for validity is concerned. It should also be pointed out here that 26 of John’s favorite phrases are used in this section.  That almost 50 percent frequency of the phrases in the section are the favorites of John.  This is particularly compelling.  

     As far as literary patters, Heil has four similarities with the rest of the gospel of John.  He identifies, ‘The Narrator Asides in John 8 and also in John 6.”  Meaning, that the narrator will interrupt the story to give us “aside” comments and details.  Secondly, the phrase, “to throw a stone” is used twice in John 8, once in PA and then later in the chapter.  Thirdly, “Teaching in the Temple” occurs in John 7 and also in John 8.  On a side note, it seems to fit nicely here in the section that details the Feast of Tabernacles.  There would’ve been a huge crowd in Jerusalem as this is one of the commanded pilgrimages.  This may also account for John’s use of os in describing “the people” meaning God’s people who have obediently come up for the feast.  Heil also identifies, the phrase “sin no longer” as being used in PA as well in John 5:14.  All these suggest Johanine similarities, if not, authorship. (9). Another wonderful work concerning the internal evidence supporting PA is done by J.D. Punch.  It is exhaustive and won’t be given in detail here.  However, the reader is referred to his work for further details.  However, we will quote his conclusion here.  He states, “The internal evidence of vocabulary and style may not be as much of a hindrance to belief that Pericope Adulterae is Johannine as at first imagined.  In fact, the evidence actually tends to point in favor of Johannine authorship in many cases.” (10)

    Another possibility is that Luke was the author.  Here is some of the evidence that supports Luke as the author.  (Remember that it is found in Luke in some manuscripts)  My point in including it here is only to validate the oral transmission as reliable.  What I mean is that it has striking similarities to other pieces of scripture which validates its place in the canon.  Here is some of the evidence:

    • 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. (11)

     At the end of the day, authorship by an apostle doesn’t necessarily qualify the passage as original.  It is possible that PA existed as oral tradition until John penned his gospel, which is the latest of the four, and then he included it.  It is also possible that Luke, by his own admission, collected the account; likewise from oral tradition, and had difficulty placing it somewhere.  It is also possible that a later scribe inserted it recognizing it as a genuine and trustworthy piece of information.  Either way, it seems appropriate that PA deserves a place among the canon.

Historical Evidence

        We have already quoted that Metzger believed that PA was a historical event.  He writes, “It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church.” (12)  Additionally, FF Bruce had a similar opinion in regards to PA.  He writes, “They constitute, in fact, a fragment of authentic gospel material not originally included in any of the four Gospels.  Its preservation (for which we should be thankful) is due to the fact that it was inserted at what seemed to be a not inappropriate place in the Gospel of John and Luke.” (13) Both of these, trustworthy scholars considered tops in their fields, regard PA as historically reliable.  We could stop here and take their expert testimony on the matter.  However, let’s dive a little deeper into how they drew their conclusions.

     Perhaps the oldest piece of information comes from Papias through Eusebius.  Papias tells his methods for collecting data and it fits well with the oral transmission of PA.  Papias states, “But if I met with anyone who had been a follower of the elders anywhere, I made it a point to inquire what the declarations of the elders were.  What was said by Andrew, Peter or Philip?  What by Thomas, James, John, Matthew, or any other of the disciples of our Lord.  What was said by Aristion, and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord; for I do not think that I derived so much benefit from books as from the living voice of those that are still surviving.”(14)  (So much for Ehrman’s theory that early Christianity was a “religion of the book”, it was a religion of experience and of oral transmission, (because the society was largely illiterate) as Papias tells us.)  This witness tells us that Papias would’ve been very familiar with the oral transmissions of the first century.  He is dated at about 100 AD.  Eusebius points to Papias knowledge of PA.  He writes, “The same author (Papias) made use of testimonies from the first epistle of John and likewise from that of Peter.  He also gave another history of a woman who had been accused of many sins before the Lord, which was also contained in the gospel according to the Hebrews.” (15)  If he is referring to PA, this is awesome evidence in support of the passage.  First, it is very early, around 100 AD.  Second, it tells us that by the time of Papias, it was already considered authoritative and being placed in the writings.  Lastly, this makes PA a historically reliable gem as the oral transmission and the writing would have occurred within perhaps a few as 30 years from the events that it describes.  Unprecedented as historically reliable in the history of antiquity!


       It has been my attempt here to present PA outside of the box.  Why?  Because it is unlike any other piece of scripture and it really is “outside” the box if we are going to consider all of the evidence.  It is not listed among the ancient manuscripts and yet textual critics and historians consider it a reliable oral transmission.  It turns up in an isolated manuscript in Luke that point to an early origin.  It is very historically reliable by the testimony of Papias.  Finally, there is evidence to suggest that either John or Luke composed PA.  Considering all this, should we follow Ehrman’s implied suggestion that is should not be considered authoritative simply because it is not in the oldest and reliable manuscripts.  If we just looked at the manuscript evidence alone, this might be the case.  However, if we step outside the box and consider PA from a more holistic approach, we can see that it does deserve a place of authority in the canon of scripture.  In my opinion, to simply axe it or to relegate it to some insignificance because of the manuscript evidence would be at best, irresponsible and short-sided scholarship, and at worst, biased to support a skeptical view of scripture. 



  1.  Ehrman, Bart, Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Harper Collins Pub, New York, NY, 2005, page 64-65.
  2. Metzger, Bruce, A Textual Commentary on The Greek New Testament, United Bible Societies, USA, Second Edition, 1971, page 189.
  3. Ibid, page 187-188.
  4. Ibid, page 188-189.
  5. Metzger, Bruce, Ehrman, Bart, The Text of the New Testament, Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2005, page 87. Emphasis added is my own.
  6. Aland, Kurt, and Aland, Barbara, The Text of the New Testament, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, second edition, 1981, page 106. Emphasis added is my own
  7. Ibid, page 68.
  8. Ehrman, Bart, MJ, page 129.
  9. Heil, J.P.  “The story of Jesus and the Adulteress Reconsidered” as viewed on line at”
  10. Punch, J.D.  The Pericope Adulterae: Theories of Insertion & Omission ,  as viewed on line at:
  11. Author unknown, Is John 8 Genuine?  As viewed on line @:
  12. Ibid, Metzger, TCGNT.
  13. Bruce, F.F., The Gospel and Epistles of John, Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1983, page 413.
  14. Cruse, C.F. “Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History” Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody Mass., 2003, third printing, book 3: 39:14-16, page, 104.
  15. Ibid, page 106.