Woman caught in adultery: In or out of New Testament?



By Spencer D Gear

Are there chunks of the Bible that should not be there? Even to raise this topic may cause some some conservative Christians to doubt my salvation: ‘How dare you suggest that you know better than what is in the Bible’,a small number have said to me. What they fail to realise is that they are accepting what is in their English Bible (for many it is the KJV) as the authentic word of God – all of it. They treat their Bible version as the original, inspired text.

However, like it or not, there are issues with a few small sections of Scripture as to whether they should be in the Bible or not. One such example, which I will discuss here, is John 7:53-8:11 which deals with the woman caught in adultery.

The latest edition of the New International Version states at the beginning of this passage: “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53” (BibleGateway).

For the English Standard Version, latest edition, immediately prior to John 7:53, there is this statement, ‘The earliest manuscripts do not include John 7:53-8:11’ (BibleGateway).

Should this passage of John 7-8 be included in the New Testament or not? Let’s look at the evidence. There are two sides to the discussion. Yes! and No! Firstly, let’s those who support the retention of this portion in the NT.

1. Support for John 7:53-8:11 to remain in the NT

Who are the supporters of this passage remaining in Scripture?

1.1 Supporters of the Majority Text of the NT

What is the Majority Text? Michael Marlowe explains that

The “Majority Text” is a statistical construct that does not correspond exactly to any known manuscript. It is arrived at by comparing all known manuscripts with one another and deriving from them the readings that are more numerous than any others. There are two published Greek texts which purport to represent the Majority readings — Hodges & Farstad 1982 and Pierpont & Robinson 1991 (in ‘What about the Majority Text?’).

The Majority Text is the Greek text behind the King James Version and the New King James Version of the Bible – New Testament. The text of modern Bible translations for the NT is known as the ‘Received Text’. This is the text behind the RSV, NRSV, ESV, ERV, ASV, NASB, NIV and NLT to mention a few. Michael Marlowe gives an excellent assessment of the issues and his summary is reasonable:

The idea that the majority of existing Greek manuscripts (i.e. the numerous medieval copies) somehow represent the original text better than any of the oldest manuscripts known to us is an idea that is very hard to defend intellectually. One would suppose, even on common-sense grounds, that a consensus of the earlier copies is likely to be closer to the original text. Against this, it is said that perhaps all of the early manuscripts known to us have derived from a deviant kind of text which gained currency only in the area around Alexandria, where these very old manuscripts were preserved on account of the dry climate. But this hypothesis fails to account for the readings of the ancient versions (e.g. Latin and Syriac) which frequently agree with the older Greek copies against the later ones. We cannot reasonably suppose that the Latin and Syriac versions were based upon manuscripts that were not circulating in Italy and Syria. And then there are the scripture quotations from ecclesiastical writers who lived outside of Egypt, which likewise often support the earlier manuscripts. It is very hard for a Majority Text advocate to overcome this evidence, and certainly it cannot all be brushed aside with an hypothesis about “Alexandrian” deviations. For this reason, very few competent scholars have argued in favor of the Majority Text.

1.2 Dean John Burgeon

Dean John Burgeon supports its inclusion in the NT. See his arguments in John 8:1-11. They include:

  • The historical circumstance and burden of proof lies with those who challenge its authenticity;
  • The Gospel context – John 8:1-11 is an integral part of the immediately antecedent and following narrative;
  • The content and meaning – it ‘carries on its front the impress of Divine origin’;
  • Style and diction – it is ‘woven on a heavenly loom’;
  • Alleged textual evidence against – in spite of the trail of opponents, ‘these twelve verses exhibit the required notes of genuineness less conspicuously than any other twelve consecutive verses in the same Gospel’.

Burgeon explains further:

Section 9: – Evidences Re-Examined: The Old Latin
Section 10: – Patristic and Versional Support

Sidebar: – The Ferrar Group (Family 13)

Section 11: – The Cause of the Omission
Section 12: – The Ancient Lectionary Tradition
Section 13: – Silence of Early Commentators Explained
Section 14: – The Voice of the Early Church Identified
Section 15: – Critical Theories Fail to Explain Facts
Section 16: – Spiritual Bankruptcy of the Critical Position

1.3 Peter Ruckman

Another promoter of this passage in John 8 to remain in the NT is long-term KJV-onlyism advocate, Peter Ruckman of Pensacola Bible Institute. See Ruckman on ‘James White’s Seven Errors in the King James Bible’. See James White’s reply, ‘A response to Dr Ruckman’.

1.4 Trinitarian Bible Society

The Trinitarian Bible Society has a statement in its Constitution:

This Society shall circulate the HOLY SCRIPTURES, as comprised in the Canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, WITHOUT NOTE OR COMMENT, to the exclusion of the Apocrypha; the copies in the English language shall be those of the Authorised Version.

1.5 Gail Riplinger

See Gail Riplinger’s website, ‘Authorized Version Publications’ for her view of keeping the section on the adulterous woman in John’s Gospel.

2. Support for John 7:53-8:11 to be excluded from the NT

But there is support for excluding this passage from the NT.

D. A. Carson wrote:

“Despite the best efforts of Zane Hodges[1] to prove that this narrative was originally part of John’s Gospel, the evidence is against him, and modern English versions are right to rule it off from the rest of the text (NIV) or to relegate it to a footnote (RSV). These verses are present in most of the medieval Greek minuscule manuscripts, but they are absent from virtually all early Greek manuscripts that have come down to us, representing great diversity of textual traditions. The most notable exception is the Western uncial D, known for its independence in numerous other places. They are also missing from the earliest forms of the Syriac and Coptic Gospels, and from many Old Latin, Old Georgian and Armenian manuscripts. All the early church Fathers omit this narrative: in commenting on John, they pass immediately from 7:52 to 8:12. No Eastern Father cites the passage before the tenth century. Didymus the Blind (a fourth-century exegete from Alexandria) reports a variation on this narrative, not the narrative as we have it here. Moreover, a number of (later) manuscripts that include the narrative mark it off with asterisks or obeli, indicating hesitation as to its authenticity, while those that do include it display a rather high frequency of textual variants. Although most of the manuscripts that include the story place it here (i.e. at 7:53-8:11), some place it instead after Luke 21:38, and other witnesses variously place it after John 7:44, John 7:36 or John 21:25.[2] The diversity of placement confirms the inauthenticity of the verses. Finally, even if someone should decide that the material is authentic, it would be very difficult to justify the view that the material is authentically Johannine: there are numerous expressions and constructions that are found nowhere in John, but which are characteristic of the Synoptic Gospels, Luke in particular.

On the other hand, there is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred, even if in its written form it did not in the beginning belong to the canonical books. Similar stories are found in other sources. One of the best known, as reported by Papias (and recorded by the historian Eusebius, H. E. III. xxxix. 16)[3] is the account of a woman, accused in the Lord’s presence of many sins (unlike the woman here who is accused of but one). The narrative before us also has a number of parallels (some of them noted below) with stories in the Synoptic Gospels. The reason for its insertion here may have been to illustrate 7:24 and 8:15 or, conceivably, the Jews’ sinfulness over against Jesus’ sinlessness (8:21, 24, 26) [Carson 1991:333-334].

Bruce Metzger’s (1971:219-222) assessment is:[4]

[John] 7.53-8.11 Pericope of the Adulteress

The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming. It is absent from such early and diverse manuscripts as Papyrus66.75 Aleph 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 pericope, 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 Syriac version (syrc.s. and the best manuscripts of syrp), as well as from 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 from several Old Latin manuscripts (ita.l*.q). No Greek Church Father prior to Euthymius Zigabenus (twelfth century) comments on the passage, and Euthymius declares that the accurate copies of the Gospels do not contain it.

When one adds to this impressive and diversified list of external evidence the consideration that the style and vocabulary of the pericope differ noticeably from the rest of the Fourth Gospel (see any critical commentary), and that it interrupts the sequence of 7.52 and 8.12 ff., the case against its being of Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive.

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 P 28 700 892 al). Others placed it after 7.36 (ms. 225) or after 7.44 (several Georgian mss.) or after 21.25 (1 565 1076 1570 1582 armmss) or after Luke 21.38 (f13). Significantly enough, in many of the witnesses which contain the passage it is marked with asterisks or obeli, indicating that, though the scribes included the account, they were aware that it lacked satisfactory credentials.

Sometimes it is stated that the pericope was deliberately expunged from the Fourth Gospel because it was liable to be understood in a sense too indulgent to adultery. But, apart from the absence of any instance elsewhere of scribal excision of an extensive passage because of moral prudence, this theory fails “to explain why the three preliminary verses (vii 53; viii 1-2), so important as apparently descriptive of the time and place at which all the discourses of chapter viii were spoken, should have been omitted with the rest” (Hort, “Notes on Select Readings,” pp. 86 f.).

Although the committee [that is, the editorial committee of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament] was unanimous that the pericope 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 7.52.

Inasmuch as the passage is absent from the earlier and better manuscripts that normally serve to identify types of text, it is not always easy to make a decision among alternative readings. In any case it will be understood that the levels of certainty ({A}, {B}) are within the framework of the initial decision relating to the passage as a whole.[5]

My conclusion

Since I accept that the MSS that are closer to the originals are deemed to be the most accurate (see the arguments above), I accept that John 7:53-8:11 is an addition to the original MSS and should not be included in the NT.

Works consulted

Carson, D A 1991. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Metzger, Bruce M 1971. A textual commentary on the Greek New Testament: Acompanion volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (3rd ed). London / New York: United Bible Societies.


[1] BibliothecaSacra 136, 1979, pp. 318-372; 1980, pp. 41-53.

[2] Carson’s footnote at this point was, ‘For a convenient summary of the evidence, cf. Metzger, pp. 219-222. He is referring to Metzger (1971).

[3] This was in Ecclesiastical History 3.39.16, available at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250103.htm (Accessed 14 May 2012).

[4] Available at: (1) Bible Research, ‘The story of the adulteress in the eighth chapter of John’, available at: http://www.bible-researcher.com/adult.html (Accessed 14 May 2012); (2)

[5] The last paragraph was not in the URL. I copied it from the actual text.


Copyright (c) 2012 Spencer D. Gear.  This document last updated at Date: 29 October 2015.