John’s Gospel: The Woman Taken in Adultery, Introduction

The (true) story of the woman taken in adultery is in the KJV without footnote or warning. But nearly all translations published in the last 100 years place these verses in brackets or even in a footnote. Why?

Well, its Greek is definitely unlike that of John. John has a very definite style, and the style of the story is more like the Synoptic Gospels, especially Luke.

Moreover, ancient manuscripts place the story in three different places in John or in Luke — or omit it altogether. The ancient, Christian copyists evidently could not decide which Gospel the story goes with!

The IVP New Testament Commentary explains,

That is, the earliest Greek manuscripts, the earliest translations and the earliest church fathers all lack reference to this story. Furthermore, some manuscripts place it at other points within John (after 7:36, 7:44 or 21:25), others include it in the Gospel of Luke (placing it after Luke 21:38), and many manuscripts have marks that indicate the scribes “were aware that it lacked satisfactory credentials” (Metzger 1994:189).

Indeed, the oldest and best Greek texts do not include the story at all

The pericope is not found in any place in any of the earliest surviving Greek Gospel manuscripts; neither in the two 3rd century papyrus witnesses to John – P66 and P75; nor in the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, although all four of these manuscripts may acknowledge the existence of the passage via diacritical marks at the spot. The first surviving Greek manuscript to contain the pericope is the Latin/Greek diglot Codex Bezae of the late 4th or early 5th century.

Therefore, the story seems to clearly not be part of John’s or Luke’s original manuscript. Theories based on misplaced pages ignore the fact that the earliest copies of John and Luke were scrolls — that had only one page rolled up on a spool!

There are, of course, scholars who disagree, but very conservative scholars generally consider the story true but not part of any of the four Gospels. The most likely theory is that the story circulated as a stand alone account, likely by Luke. We know from the writings of uninspired ancient Christians that many were aware of it. And there’s no reason to insist that the only true things ever written about Jesus are in the canonical 27 books. A story can be true and yet lack inspiration.

The argument that the story must be true is strong. It’s attested as true by several ancient Christian sources even though it goes against the teachings of many in the early church. You see, the grace taught by the New Testament was quickly forgotten by the church. Pagan converts so struggled with sexual morality that the church began to teach that you could not be forgiven of sin after conversion!

In fact, Constantine delayed baptism until he was on his death bed for fear that he might sin after being baptized! Many “Christians” delayed baptism because they could be more readily forgiven at baptism than after baptism. (Romans 5:6-10 teaches the exact opposite.)

And sexual immorality was taught against with a stridency we can barely imagine. Indeed, some in church leadership were so severe that they opposed sexual relations even within marriage! (Again, in direct contradiction to the scriptures.) (Many a husband was very unhappy when his wife converted and insisted on living as a “virgin,” i.e., without sexual relations, while still married!)

In that extreme culture, the story of the woman taken in adultery just didn’t fit. It was exactly the wrong message for a corrupted church filled with Greek philosophy rather than the grace of God.

And yet the church leadership never questioned its truth. The story was part of the church’s teaching during all this time, despite being so very inconvenient to the church’s evident mission to stamp out sex, even in marriage.

As a result, most conservative scholars consider the story true and likely inspired. It’s written in a style and with a beauty like the Synoptic Gospels. It fits the Jesus we know. And it’s been a beloved story for centuries because the church’s heart, filled with the Spirit, responds to it as truly the word of God.

Does that mean the story is false? Does that mean the story is uninspired? If you think about it, the first question is most important. If it’s true, then Jesus’ actions and words are inspired, even if the author didn’t have the gift of inspiration. It’s still instructive and vital, because it’s about Jesus!

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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