Thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.
-Psalm 138:2, KJV

The Pericope de Adultera

by Floyd Nolen Jones

"Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more." (John 8:1-11)

The following is an excerpt from Which Version is the Bible?, ©1996 Floyd Nolen Jones, Twelfth edition, Appendix A. All Rights Reserved.  "This book may be freely reproduced in any form as long as it is not distributed for any material gain or profit; however, this book may not be published without written permission."

JOHN 8:1-11 The story of the woman taken in the act of adultery.

Most New Versions:  The story is omitted or footnoted.

Comment:   If the woman were caught in the very act, where was the man?  God required that both should be stoned (Lev.20:10; Deu.22:22-24).  Jesus knew the entire matter was a set up for the purpose of placing Him on the horns of a dilemma.  If He said stone her according to the Law of the O.T., He would be in trouble with the Roman authorities.  If He said to release her from the demand of the Law, the people would reject His claims as Messiah for Messiah would never go against the Word of God.

One reason that so many religious leaders and laymen oppose the inclusion of these verses, called the pericope de adultera in theological-scholastic circles ("pericope" is a short selection from a book), is due to their lack of understanding it and thus an inability to properly exegete the story.  The forgiveness which Christ bestowed upon the adulteress is contrary to the conviction of many that the punishment for adultery should be very severe. [1]   For most, the solution is to merely conclude that Jesus' coming to earth has somehow nullified the Laws of God; that God no longer punishes sin but has now "become" a God of mercy, love and compassion.  The story seems to offer too many inexplicable contradictory problems for most, and since they cannot understand the verses - they raise their vote to exclude them from the Scriptures.  It requires great humility to admit lack of insight.  Such men rarely will humble their intellect before God, constantly labeling paradoxes contained within the covers of the Bible as "unfortunate scribal errors" simply because their wisdom has failed to unravel the paradox.

Far better to confess lack of scholarship, understanding or lack of revelation than to insist, as most do, that the short-coming must be with the Scriptures themselves (Man's pride and ego must be served at all cost!).  Many of us are self deceived, imagining that we "believe" the Word of God.  The Lord has deliberately written as He has to bring us to the point of honesty.  When we are confronted with seemingly contradictory places in Scripture, what is our response?  The response reveals the actual condition of the heart and ego.  Do we now still believe or do we place our intellects above the Word, deciding that because we could not solve the apparent discrepancy - the Scripture must contain error.

Although not claiming inerrant insight into all such matters, we do not allow any errors within the Holy Writ - scribal or otherwise.  We confess ignorance, even hardness of heart, in areas that result in our lack of revelation from above.  We cannot explain all paradoxical parts of Scripture, but in calm assurance we rest in faith that the solutions are present within the pages of Scripture itself.  No outside information need be brought to bear on the problem to "add light" to the Word.  How does one add light to blinding revelation?

THE "PERICOPE" EXPLAINED [2]

As to the story before us, we find Jesus conducting a "Bible study" at the Temple area.  Suddenly the lesson is interrupted by a commotion as the scribes and Pharisees cast before Jesus and the "Church" a terrified believer, possibly clutching ashamedly at a bed sheet in an attempt to clothe
herself and hide her humiliation.  These religious leaders care nothing for her life or her shame.  For them she is but the means, the bait for the trap with which they seek to hopelessly ensnare our Lord.  These men are not "seekers of truth" as they pretend.  Their motive is to secure the death of their antagonist, and if this woman must die also in securing that end, so be it.

When Jesus saw that the equally guilty man was not present, He knew their motive.  Further, He knew the man must be of some importance, influential in the community or else the man would also now be before Him.  Moreover it is quite possible that the man was himself one of the leaders - having deliberately seduced the woman thereby "sacrificing himself" to commit the act as part of a conspiracy for the very purpose of entrapping Jesus.  "But what sayest thou?" that they might have something with which to accuse Him, they inquired.  Thus, the real issue before us is actually that of "authority" (cp. verse 36!).

It is most important that the reader realize that Jesus did not set aside the Laws of God or make an exception with this woman as though God had changed His mind or had "softened" from the Old Testament to the New Testament - that God was a God of wrath in the Old but had somehow "evolved" into a God of love, grace, and compassion in the New.  God loved and had compassion on the exposed adulterers all throughout the Old Testament.  He certainly did not love or feel more compassion for her than any before her.  It was always the sin itself that He hated, but His holy nature and justice then as now, called for righteous judgment and punishment.  God never changes (Mal.3:6).

First, this was still the time of the Old Covenant.  The New Covenant could not come into effect until the required blood of the Covenant was shed.  But the reader must come to see that Jesus perfectly upheld the demand of the Law - Jesus actually told these religious unbelievers to stone her (verse 7)!  He told them to obey the Law - but dealt with their consciences, bathed in murder as they were, by the prefacing remark "He that is without sin among you" let him cast the first stone.  The idea behind this stipulation was twofold.  First, Jesus caught them unawares in that rather than having the "Bible study group" carry out the stoning, Jesus called on the unregenerate scribes and Pharisees to perform the deed.  Thus if they so did, it would be they whom the Roman authorities would come against and not Jesus.  They would have fallen into the pit that they themselves had dug (Pro.26:27).  The Romans had taken the power of life and death away from the conquered Jews (Joh.18:31), and Roman law did not condemn an adulteress to be put to death.

In the second place, Jesus is challenging them to merely obey the law to which they so devotedly cleave.  Jesus is calling on the required two or three eye witnesses (Deu.17:6-7) to now step forward.  If they are credible witnesses, they must now identify themselves and also make known the identity of the man.  If they will not identify the man they will be disobeying the law and thus will incur guilt.  The man having been summoned, the stoning could continue but the first stones must be cast by these same men.

The qualifying "without sin" in Scriptural context with regard to witnesses, does not mean "moral perfection" as many suppose, thereby creating a problem here that does not exist.  The context refers to the witnesses not being guilty of sin with respect to their being false or unrighteous witnesses in the matter at hand (cp. Lev.20:10; Deu.17:6-7; Exo.23:1-2 & 7; Deu.19:15-19 and Pro.6:16-19).  This is especially made clear in Exodus 23:1-2, 7.  The Deuteronomy 19 passages continue the theme of dealing with false witnesses by God's charging the judges with the responsibility of having the sentence that would have been applied to the accused meted out to the false witness.  The implication from Jesus' stipulation is that if they obey God, being innocent and without sin regarding this matter, God would doubtless protect them from the Roman authorities.  If, however, they are not - well then, they could not expect to be so delivered could they?  They would thus incur the same penalty.

What the Lord wrote upon the ground is not recorded, but whatever it was, it had the effect of convicting each of the accusers in his conscience.  As one of the main functions of the Law was to convict of sin (Rom.3:20, 7:7 & 8b; 7:13), we are certain that which He wrote was Scripture and from the Law.  Besides, it was the Law upon which they hoped to trap Jesus (vs.5), yet now through a word of wisdom (I Cor.12:8; Heb.2:4) the Lord Jesus had used the very same to ensnare them in their own pit.  We do not wish to be dogmatic or presumptuous; nevertheless, we strongly maintain that the narrative's context makes plain that Jesus included Leviticus 20:10 in what He wrote the first time.

And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death (Lev.20:10).

We further affirm, judging from the effect upon these men bent as they were on the destruction of the Lord, the second time Jesus stooped down He wrote from Deuteronomy 19:15-19.  These verses have the sobering effect of reminding any "unrighteous" or "false" witnesses that the penalty which they had hoped to inflict upon the accused, would instead be carried out on them!  Even though the woman was actually guilty, without two or three of them stepping forward and identifying the man - they would be false and unrighteous with regard to the matter.  Moreover, if they now come forward and attempt to only stone the woman, not being willing to also name the man, they will bring upon themselves the selfsame judgment.  They filed out from the most honorable to those of the least repute (the probable sense).  No one came forward.

The Lord Jesus did not condone the woman's adultery but, as merely the "second man" and the "last Adam" (I Cor.15:45,47), He had no authority to overturn the Roman law and have her stoned.  What we are saying is that even though Jesus was God come down to earth, the Judge of all flesh - He had not come in that capacity at this time.  This He shall do upon His return.  As Philippians 2:5-8 and Hebrews 2:5-18 explain, Jesus took upon Himself the form of a servant, humbled Himself to human limitations, entered the arena of human affairs and though He never ceased to be God, He went about defeating the Devil and redeeming the fallen race purely as an unfallen man.  In so doing, He demonstrated that the first Adam could have defeated Satan in the contest in Eden - that Satan is so limited that an unfallen man can defeat him and be victorious over temptation and sin by standing on God's Word, be it written as in Jesus' case (Mat.4:1-11) or only spoken as in Adam's case (Gen.2:16-17).

Thus the Judge had laid aside His Judicial Robe and had voluntarily accepted certain limitations including that of submission to the will of the Father in all matters.  Jesus had divested Himself of all authority to act in the capacity as a Judge.  Lest the reader doubt this or consider such a declaration offensive or demeaning to the person and Holy character of our Lord, remember that Jesus Himself so taught on another occasion (Luk.12:13-14).

Now observe what the Master teacher has accomplished.  The Lord Jesus would not deal with the woman in the presence of unbelievers (I Cor.6:1 & 6).  His tactic emptied the "Bible study" of the lost hypocrites.  This freed Him to deal with her among and within the family of God.  The unnamed woman was said to be standing "in the midst" (vs.9).  Had everyone left, how could she have been "in the midst"?  It does not say that all the people whom our Lord had been instructing went out, but only her accusers, having been convicted.  The rest (vs.2) continued with their teacher, the adulteress being in their midst.  Jesus is "left alone" in the sense that His antagonists, having departed, left Him with only true seekers - those of His own "family".  It cannot mean "alone" in the absolute sense for we know that the woman was there.  The "none" of verse 10 is with regard to the accusers who had burst in with her.

The point being made is that the Lord does not deal with His own concerning their sins in the presence of the wicked.  Now that the "courtroom" had been cleared of the infidels, the problem at hand could be handled as a family matter.  She is dealt with fully in accord with the principles of the Law, and with "Church" discipline!  Jesus had not accepted the testimony of these wicked lost men, men with murder in their hearts, as being credible or valid against a sinning saint.  The matter would be handled much as an unconfirmed bad report.

Now He, according to the exact instructions of the Law, brought the "court" to order - calling for the credible witnesses against her (vs.10)!  Reader, see it clearly that Jesus is not abrogating the Law as nearly all teach.  He said He had not come to do that (Mat.5:17-19)!

Two eye witnesses were required by the law to implement its being carried out (Joh.8:17) and the eye witnesses had to cast the first stones.  The death penalty could not be meted out as there were none present.  To now do so would actually violate the specific instructions so carefully detailed within the Law.  As only an earthly human Judge - Jesus cannot now lawfully condemn her to death; there are no witnesses to her deed present!  Truly, the Law had been used by Jesus "lawfully" (I Tim.1:8).

"But how do we know that she was a believer?", one protests - by the way Jesus handled the matter as explained above.  Were she a pagan, the manner with which she was dealt within the "Bible study" would make no sense.  Next, though not of itself conclusive, she addressed Jesus as "Lord" (vs.11).

Decisive, however, was Jesus' final remark to the woman.  Were she unregenerate the Lord's words "go, and sin no more" would be meaningless and vacuous.  In the first place, without the Holy Spirit's presence and power in her life, she would be helpless to refrain for long without sin again taking dominion over her.

Secondly and conclusively, she would be no better off with such instructions from Christ as she had been when she had been so unceremoniously brought to Him at the first - for she would still be lost and hell bound even if she never sinned again.  The sin she had just committed would doom her apart from a sin substitute - a Savior.  Such instructions would only benefit a believer who has fallen into the snare of sin.

But was not Jesus letting her off too easy for such a flagrant shameful sin?  Shouldn't she have gotten what she deserved?  First, we all deserve to be banished to hell forever - we all have dared to sin against a three times Holy God.  By His marvelous plan of redemption through faith in Christ Jesus, God has made a way for Him to deal with us in both mercy and justice such that we are disciplined but not condemned.  When He deals with our sin in any way that is less than eternal exile to the lake that forever burns with fire, we all get off "easy" - though it may not seem so at the moment.

Next, we affirm that she did not get off easily.  Forever with her would be the humiliation of being caught in the very act of adultery.  She had been brought out and terrified with the threat of public execution.  What wild fear must have raced through her heart!  Consider the shame of being thrust before your own local Bible study half covered - men so bent on the destruction of another would certainly not have allowed time for her to have made herself more "presentable".  Brought low before those who know you and the fact of your hypocrisy laid open for all to see - was this really getting off "easy"?

But there is more.  To be brought, degraded and disheveled, before the Savior face to face after having just failed Him so ignominiously would not be light discipline.  Further, the Name of her God had been dishonored for now the scoffers would mock.

Finally, though forgiven of this sin - and let all observe and mark that Jesus did call adultery "sin", not an "affair between consenting adults" or "a meaningful relationship" - the woman had lost eternal rewards.  Blessings that God desired to heap upon her for all eternity, He now in righteousness could not so shower.  Oh reader, to forever lose something that He who loves you and died for you would have given you, is not that just punishment?  Yes, for such is the actual discipline that was discharged.

Moreover, we do not know if further ramifications followed as venereal disease, pregnancy, loss of husband and/or children (if applicable in her case), loss of job, depression, guilt, etc.  Having one's sins forgiven does not mean that the consequences of the sin are obliterated in this life.  David was forgiven in the matter of Uriah and Bathsheba, but the consequences that were set in motion by the sin followed David to his grave.  It is to David's credit that he never accused God of dealing too severely with him or whined concerning the matter.  For many, stoning would have been the preferred choice over the above.  No, her sin was neither condoned nor soft peddled.

Lest the reader still have the slightest reservation that our major points have been inaccurate or mistaken, we call to his attention that these same points are confirmed, being presented afterward in the same chapter!  Jesus asserted that He was not there to judge men (vs.15), not yet (cp. John 5:22; 18:36 - i.e.," now")!  But if He does judge now (in questions other than civil or criminal matters) in "Family" matters and the like, His judgment will be true (vs.16).  In the same verse, Jesus acknowledges that He is not executing this wisdom by His own God power and attributes, but by the power and wisdom of His Father (via the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Heb.2:4 etc.).  He then brings up the point from the Law which calls for the necessity of at least the attestation of two witnesses in establishing truth (vs.17), and in verse 36 Jesus makes unmistakably clear that He has final authority.

Majestically, we have seen the Lord Jesus the Christ in an awesome display of wisdom, mercy, love and compassion employ only several Scriptures from the Law and merely 15 words (only 9 in the Greek) to vanquish the wicked.  Then with only 21 words (Greek = 18), He both judged and restored a sinning saint.  Truly - He is Worthy!

BACK TO THE PROBLEM

Why then was the story deleted or footnoted?  Again, no name was given for the man but had he not been influential (even a scribe or Pharisee) he would have been brought out with the woman.  Perhaps a certain religious Gnostic (Origen) who walked about castrated and barefoot while trying to work his way into the Kingdom of God might be offended by a story which, as originally written, exposed a religious leader as having committed adultery.  Of this we are not certain, but as to the interpretation of the story given above, that we proclaim to the glory of God.

Tragically, most naturalistic scholars today feel so certain that the pericope is not genuine that they regard further discussion of the matter as unprofitable. [3]   Their arguments against the authenticity of the section are largely arguments from silence and the most telling of these silences is generally thought to be that of the Greek Church "Fathers". [4]   Bruce Metzger (1964) affirms that no Greek Father refers to the pericope until the first part of the 12th century. [5]   For the critic, this frail external evidence is conclusive.  However, Constantine von Tischendorf lists nine manuscripts of the 9th century which contain the verses under discussion and also one which may be of the 8th century. [6]   Yet not one Father commented upon these verses from the 9th until the 12th century, demonstrating that silence is not a trustworthy measure upon which to place one's confidence.  The entire matter of this silence is of no force whatsoever as we shall demonstrate.

First, we remind the reader that many of the Greek Fathers may well have been influenced against the pericope by the moralistic prejudice of which we have spoken; also, some may have been intimidated by the fact that several manuscripts known to them omitted it. [7]   Augustine wrote that these verses were being left out by some "lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning." [8]   Hills adds that a 10th century Greek named Nikon accused the Armenians of removing the account because "it was harmful for most persons to listen to such things". [9]

Burgon mentions another most relevant reason why these early Fathers did not comment on this section. [10]   Their comments were connected to the subject matter they preached and the "pericope de adultera" was omitted from the ancient Pentecostal lesson of the Church.  Burgon concludes that this is why Chrysostom (345-407) and Cyril (376-444), two early church Fathers, "in publicly commenting on John's Gospel, pass straight from ch. 7:52 to ch. 8:12.  Of course they do.  Why should they - indeed, how could they - comment on what was not publicly read before the congregation?" [11]

Hills continues: "At a very early date it had become customary throughout the Greek Church to read John 7:37-8:12 on the day of Pentecost.  This lesson began with 7:37-39, verses that are very appropriate to the Pentecostal feast day in which the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is commemorated: 'In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink ... But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive.'  Then the lesson continued through John 7:52, omitting 7:53-8:11, and concluded with John 8:12 - 'Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.'" [12]

GREEKS BEARING ANSWERS

Why then was the story of the Adulteress omitted from the Pentecostal lesson?  Obviously because it was inappropriate to the central idea of Pentecost. [13]   However, the critics insist that it was not read because it was not part of the Gospel of John at the time the Pentecostal lesson was selected - that it was added to the original reading hundreds of years later.  Yet by so insisting they shoot themselves in the foot.  As Hills has asked: "Why would a scribe introduce this story about an adulteress into the midst of the ancient lesson for Pentecost?  How would it ever occur to anyone to do this?" [14]   Besides, such a well known section could not be altered without the Church's awareness of the change and, tradition bound as people are, an outcry of major proportion would have been forthcoming from clergy and laity alike.  Also, such a momentous change would have aroused much written protest and debate.  Where is the historical evidence of such - but forgive us - we now argue from silence!

Moreover, although the Greek Fathers were silent about the "pericope de adultera" the Church was not silent.  John 8:3-11 was chosen as the lesson to be read publicly each year on St. Pelagia's day, October 8th. [15]   John Burgon first pointed out the significance of this historical circumstance: "The great Eastern Church speaks out on this subject in a voice of thunder.  In all her Patriarchates, as far back as the written records of her practice reach - and they reach back to the time of those very Fathers whose silence was felt to be embarrassing - the Eastern Church has selected nine of these twelve verses to be the special lesson for October 8." [16]   As Burgon remarked, this is not opinion - but a fact.

FINAL CONSIDERATIONS

The internal evidence for the verses is compelling.  Looking back at John 7:37-52, we note that two hostile parties crowded the Temple courts (vv.40-42).  Some were for laying violent hands upon Jesus (vs.44).  At the same time, the Sanhedrin disputed among themselves privately in closed chambers.  Some were reproaching their servants for not having taken Jesus prisoner (vv.45-52).

How then could John have proceeded "Again therefore Jesus spake unto them, saying, I am the light of the world"?  What are we supposed to imagine that John meant if he had penned such words immediately following the angry council scene? [17]

Hills rightly observes that the rejection of the pericope leaves a strange connection between the seventh and eighth chapters: "the reader is snatched from the midst of a dispute in the council chamber of the Sanhedrin back to Jesus in the Temple without a single word of explanation." [18]   If the pericope is left between these two events, it accounts for the rage of the leaders having been temporarily diffused through the encounter over the woman such that the narrative beginning at 8:12 could transpire without being so out of place.  Though their hatred for Jesus remained, the pericope incident brought its intensity down until the following confrontation.

To this we add Jerome's testimony (c.415) "in the Gospel according to John in many manuscripts, both Greek and Latin, is found the story of the adulterous woman who was accused before the Lord." [19]

We ask the reader's indulgence over the space allotted to this explanation, but the author deemed it necessary to so do in order that you may better judge whether this story be Scripture.  The 1611 translators may or may not have understood the account; regardless, they faithfully penned it without detraction.


[1]    Hills, The King James Version Defended, op. cit., p. 151.

[2]    The author must bear the full responsibility to the reader and before the Lord for the entire exegesis under this heading.

[3]    Hills, The King James Version Defended, op. cit., p. 154.  Most of the remainder of this defense of the Pericope has been gleaned from Dr. Hills excellent critique; see his pp. 150-159.

[4]    Ibid., p. 156.

[5]    Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, op. cit., p. 223.

[6]    Hills, The King James Version Defended, op. cit., p. 156.

[7]    Hills, The King James Version Defended, op. cit., p. 157.

[8]    Ibid., p. 151.

[9]    Ibid.

[10]    Ibid., p. 157.

[11]    Burgon, The Causes of the Corruption of the Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels, op. cit., p. 257.

[12]    Hills, The King James Version Defended, op. cit., p. 157.

[13]    Ibid.

[14]    Ibid., p. 158.

[15]    Hills, The King James Version Defended, op. cit., p. 158.

[16]    Burgon, The Causes of the Corruption of the Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels, op. cit., pp. 259-260.

[17]    Ibid., pp. 237-238.

[18]    Hills, The King James Version Defended, op. cit., p. 159.

[19]    Ibid., p. 151.

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