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The Manuscript History of John 8

Vasily Polenov
Vasily Polenov

The story of the woman caught in adultery, typically located at John 8:1-8:11, is one of the most popular stories in the entire Bible. Jesus’ lack of condemnation of a known sinner captivates some readers, as does his statement “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7) and the manner in which he outwits the scribes and the Pharisees with that statement. Since, as his opponents note (John 8:5), the law of Moses demanded that an adulteress be killed, Jesus’ opponents have thrust him upon the horns of a dilemma. He has to choose either to allow the woman to go free and publicly disobey the law of Moses or to approve of her killing and forfeit his reputation as a friend to sinners (and possibly risk trouble with Rome for contributing to a capital punishment that they had not sanctioned). The cleverness of Jesus’ response in John 8:7 is that it renders the enactment of the legal punishment impossible without requiring his public disavowal of the law.

Interestingly enough, the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John do not contain this beloved passage. Indeed, the first manuscript to contain the story is from around 400 C.E. Around 4% of Greek manuscripts that include the passage place it in locations other than John 8:1-8:11; the earliest of these is from around the ninth and tenth centuries C.E. This perplexing manuscript history fuels debates about whether the story was originally in John’s Gospel and, if so, where. The majority of scholars believe a later Christian scribe inserted the passage into John’s Gospel at John 8:1-8:11 and that the alternate locations are due to the effects of later liturgical reading in what is known as the lectionary system. This popular method of reading the Bible broke the text into individual units that were designated for specific days and often rearranged the order of the holy text in order to reflect these reading preferences. The story of the woman caught in adultery was one of several such relocated passages. 

A fascinating aspect of this passage is Jesus’ writing on the ground in John 8:6, John 8:8. Interpreters have offered an array of interpretations of these actions, which range from the idea that he wrote biblical passages to the idea that he was doodling. One must recognize, however, that if what he wrote was important, then the author probably would have included that information. Most likely, John 8:6, John 8:8 represents simply a claim that Jesus could write—a claim quite significant in the ancient world, where most individuals were illiterate. Such a claim also explains why a scribe inserted the passage after John 7, where the Jewish leaders question both Jesus’ literacy specifically (John 7:15) and Galileans’ knowledge of the law and ability to search it generally (John 7:49, John 7:52). In addition, the author borrows the verbs for “writing” in John 8:6, John 8:8 from the Greek version of Exod 32:15. This passage describes God’s authorship of the Ten Commandments; the woman in John’s gospel is accused of breaking the command against adultery. The context in Exodus insists that God wrote these laws with his finger (Exod 31:18), and in the story of the adulteress, Jesus, too, writes with his finger (John 8:6). The author of the story of the adulteress seems to be claiming not only that Jesus can write but also that this particular instance of writing parallels the actions of God himself, thus making Jesus superior to Moses, whom his enemies had challenged him to usurp by pronouncing judgment on the woman in the first place.

  • Chris Keith

    Chris Keith is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s University where he also serves as Director of the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible.  His publications include Jesus against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Baker Academic, 2014), Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels (co-edited with Larry W. Hurtado, Baker Academic, 2011), and Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (co-edited with Anthony Le Donne, T&T Clark, 2012).