Does the Woman Caught in Adultery Belong in the Bible?
There is indeed a wide scholarly consensus that the story was not originally a part of the Gospel of John, but on the other hand, it may well go back to a very early tradition about Jesus and a woman accused of many sins, which gradually found its way into John. The earliest reference to such a story is found in the Didascalia Apostolorum, a third-century book of instructions on living a Christian life, which survives in Syriac.
The story of the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 7:53–8:11) is arguably one of the most beloved Jesus stories in the New Testament which includes the familiar quotation, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” However, the story is missing from some ancient manuscripts of John, as noted already by early church fathers like Jerome and Augustine. For this and other reasons, a majority of modern scholars regard the passage as a later insertion, and some even want to remove it altogether from our Bibles. One can imagine the outcry such a radical move could cause.
Thus, in his study on early manuscripts and modern translations, Philip Comfort rejected the passage as a non-Johannine interpolation and lamented the habit of printing the tradition at all in editions and translations: “True, the passage has been bracketed, or marked off with single lines … , or set in italics. But there it stands—an obstacle to reading the true narrative of John’s Gospel.”1
Andreas J. Köstenberger expresses a similar attitude in his commentary on John: “proper conservatism and caution suggests that the passage be omitted from preaching in churches” and it should not be regarded as “part of the Christian canon.”2 More recently, Dan Wallace has suggested that the inclusion of the narrative in modern translations reflects “a tradition of timidity,” implying that at least Protestant churches should but did not yet dare to remove the story from the Bible.
To be sure, the story is often marked out in various ways in both scholarly editions and Bible translations, for example, by double brackets and an accompanying footnote explaining that it is missing in the earliest manuscripts, including Papyrus 66, Papyrus 75, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus from the third and fourth centuries, and goes unmentioned by Greek church fathers until the twelfth century.
There is indeed a wide scholarly consensus that the story was not originally a part of the Gospel of John, but on the other hand, it may well go back to a very early tradition about Jesus and a woman accused of many sins, which gradually found its way into John. The earliest reference to such a story is found in the Didascalia Apostolorum, a third-century book of instructions on living a Christian life, which survives in Syriac:
But if you do not receive him 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 even as He did with her who had sinned, whom the elders placed before Him, and leaving the judgment in His hands, and departed. But He, the searcher of hearts, asked her and said to her: “Have the elders condemned you, my daughter?” She said to him: “Nay Lord.” And He said unto her: “Go, neither do I condemn you.” In this then let our Savior and King and God, be to you a standard, O bishops, and imitate Him.3
Eusebius (c. 260–c. 340) in his church history attributes a similar story to Papias of Hierapolis (c. 60–130) and the now lost Gospel of the Hebrews. Further, Didymus the Blind (c. 313–398) says he found the story “in certain gospels,” a reference which likely suggests he did not know the passage from John, but from a different gospel.
The earliest manuscript evidence for the passage in John is the Greek-Latin Codex Bezae (c. 400 AD) which contains the story in its traditional place both in Greek and Latin on facing pages. Interestingly, later annotators have marked out the story in the margins, probably because it was treated separately in the liturgy.