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The Woman Caught in Adultery

Vasily Polenov
Vasily Polenov

The story of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11) is one of the most popular and widely cited gospel stories today, yet this was not always so. Missing from the earliest extant copies of the Gospels and only rarely cited by early Christians, most biblical scholars regard this passage as a later addition to the text of the New Testament. When the story became known, however, Christians regularly regarded it as “gospel”—the good news of and about Jesus—irrespective of its place within an acknowledged Gospel book. This practice continues today.

Is this story in the Gospel of John?

Readers of contemporary Bibles are often surprised to learn that the story of the woman taken in adultery was probably not placed within the Gospel of John until sometime after the Gospel was already circulating without it. Absent from surviving very early copies on papyrus and from every grand fourth- and fifth-century Bible, the earliest copy of the Gospel of John to include the passage is part of Codex Bezae, a fifth-century Greek-Latin manuscript likely copied in Syria. %%Codex Bezae treats the story as if it were fully part of the Gospel, suggesting that the passage was placed within John at some earlier point, though Bezae preserves a rather unique text and not only of John.

Eventually, and after a lengthy historical process, the adulteress and her story gained a secure home both in the Christian tradition and in the Christian Bible. Widely cited in Latin, the story can be found in every copy of the Vulgate, Saint Jerome’s Latin translation. The churches of Rome read the passage during Lent, guaranteeing that the faithful would hear it at least once a year. The story remained less well-known among Greek-speaking Christians, however; when copying their Gospel books, Greek scribes often marked the passage with asterisks, a custom designed to indicate what may not be original to the text, and Byzantine Christian preachers never cited it. The story was known if not exactly popular among Greek-speaking Christians: two late antique Egyptian ivory boxes with New Testament scenes depict Jesus with the adulteress; in many liturgies, the passage was assigned as the reading for the feast day of Saint Pelagia (a legendary Antiochene courtesan who, after conversion, disguised herself as a monk); and when the twelfth-century scholar Eustathios of Thessaloniki preached two sermons on the adulteress’s story, he called it a “great pearl of the gospel.”

Is this story “gospel”?

In the third century, the writer of the church order the Didascalia Apostolorum invoked Jesus’s treatment of the adulteress to illustrate God’s exceptional mercy. This writer did not know the passage from John, but that did not stop him from perceiving it as an authentic story about Jesus. Similar attitudes can be found among other ancient Christians. The Egyptian theologian Didymus the Blind (circa 313–398 C.E.), for example, cited Jesus’s response to the adulteress to exhort bishops to be compassionate when judging sinners, even as he acknowledged that the story was found only in “certain Gospels.” Similarly, Jerome (circa 347–420 C.E.) cited the passage and included it in the Vulgate, while also openly admitting that it was missing from some copies of John. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.) developed a novel solution to the story’s odd history: he was of the opinion that a man should not divorce his wife, even on account of adultery, and he accused those who disagreed with him of maliciously editing the story out. Nevertheless, all of these writers viewed this story as fully part of the Christian tradition, worrying less about its absence from an accepted Gospel book than about the meanings they found in it.

With the advent of modern New Testament textual criticism, a reappraisal of the inclusion of this passage within John began. Newly aware of its omission from respected early manuscripts, a majority of scholars concluded that the passage should be excluded from John’s own text. Popular English translations today preserve this history by situating it within double square brackets, usually with an accompanying footnote explaining its absence from the most reliable early manuscripts. Nevertheless, poets, theologians, artists, and scholars continue to mine the story for fresh insights, treating it as “gospel” even if its security within the canonical Gospels has been once again called into question. As the history of the story of the woman taken in adultery demonstrates, beliefs about what constitutes a valuable story about Jesus can and do change. Modifying the text of the Gospels—even to make them more like the most original manuscripts—affects the ways that communities interpret them.

  • Jennifer Knust

    Jennifer Knust is Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University. She specializes in the literature and history of ancient Christianity and is author of To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story (with Tommy Wasserman, Princeton University Press, 2019), as well as several other books and articles.