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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Pericope adulterae in early church writings

Many biblical textual critics agree among themselves that the story of Jesus and the adulteress that is found in John 7:53–8:11 (often called pericope adulterae or “PA” for short)[i] was not originally in John’s Gospel. The English Standard Version Bible, for example, includes it in brackets and states, “The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53–8:11.”

Three main arguments are placed against it.
  • The pericope is not in “the earliest and best” manuscripts; the oldest manuscript of John that includes this story is Codex Bezae (D), which dates to the fourth or fifth century.
  • These verses in the pericope interrupt the narrative of John’s Gospel between John 7:52 and 8:1.
  • These verses in the pericope feature vocabulary and grammar not common to John.
Contra these arguments we find.
  • The pericope adulterae appears in the majority of Greek manuscripts.[ii]
  • The details of the encounter fit well in the context, and provide an important bridge from 7:52 to 8:12, which is unexplained otherwise.
  • There are points of similarity between the style of the pericope adulterae style and the style of the rest of the gospel.
The latter two points are highly subjective. One says, “Reading from John 7:52 to John 8:12 (skipping the debated section) makes perfect sense.”[iii] Another says, “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.” Those who reject the pericope adulterae look for style, vocabulary and grammar not common to John, while those who accept the pericope adulterae look for style, vocabulary and grammar common to John – and apparently both find what they are looking for. At least they say they do.

The first point is fairly clear cut – the pericope is not in the oldest manuscripts but is in the majority of manuscripts. Here one’s presupposition of oldest versus majority comes into play and most line up their views on the pericope with their views on textual criticism.

Another area to check, when considering the antiquity of the pericope adulterae, is the writings of the “early church fathers.” Strangely, Bruce Metzger claimed that the pericope was not referenced by any church father prior to the 12th century![iv] Metzger was an exceptionally well-known, well-trained and well-respected scholar of the Greek texts and early church fathers – making his statement all the more incomprehensible.

Here are a few examples that dispute Metzger.

Ambrose knew of this passage. According to Dean John William Burgon, Ambrose quotes the Pericope de Adultera at least nine times. In To the Emperor Gratian, Three Books on the Holy Spirit; Book 3.3.15 (circa AD 381) Ambrose wrote, “With this Finger, also, the Lord Jesus, with bowed head, mystically wrote on the ground, when the adulteress was brought before Him by the Jews, signifying in a figure that, when we judge of the sins of another, we ought to remember our own.” As found in St. Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters (Volume 10 of Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, New York, NY: Christian Literature Company, p. 263)

Pacian of Barcelona (circa AD 310–391)) mentions it, writing, “Put to death the thief. Stone the petulant. Choose not to read in the Gospel that the Lord spared even the adulteress who confessed, when none had condemned her; that He absolved the sinner who washed His feet with her tears; that He delivered Rahab at Jericho, itself a city of the Phoenicians; that He set Tamar free from the sentence of the Patriarch; that when the Sodomites also perished, He destroyed not the daughters of Lot; willing likewise to have delivered his sons-in-law, had they believed the destruction to come.” Letter 3(39) Against the treatise of the Novatians.

Augustine’s writings (circa AD 380-428) demonstrate not only his knowledge of the pericope adulterae, but also its current location in the Gospel of John. See, for example,

Jerome was familiar with it in the first half of the 5th century (circa AD 415), writing in Against the Pelagians (Book 2.17): “John viii. 3. None of the accusers of the woman taken in adultery were without sin. Christ wrote their names in the earth.”

The writings of early church fathers do not prove that the pericope adulterae/John 7:53–8:11 were part of the original text of John. They do prove that the pericope was known early, apparently about as old as the manuscripts containing John’s gospel that exclude this section.

“When there are differences in the Greek manuscripts, textual scholars usually depend on two basic principles to determine the perceived original reading. First, they consider the external evidence. This means they regard the age of a manuscript, its geographical distribution, and its relationship with other textual families. Second, they will observe the internal evidence. This means they consider the textual variant in light of what the original writer would most likely have written. It takes into account style and vocabulary, the context, and how the variant harmonizes with other passages written by the same writer. These evidences are logical and certainly are of great value. Nevertheless, we should also embrace the biblical promises from God concerning preservation, thereby approaching the issue both scripturally and scholastically.”[v]




[i] The scholarly title for the passage combines pericope (a passage or selection from a book, especially the Bible) with adulterae (Latin for adulteress).
[ii] Zane Hodges estimates at least 450 Greek manuscripts that contain this story in its traditional place between John 7:52 and 8:12. (Zane C. Hodges, “Problem Passages in the Gospel of John Part 8: The Woman Taken in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11): The Text,” in Bibliotheca Sacra 136, No. 544 (October 1979): 318)
[iii] Curiously, those who claim the story doesn’t fit well in John’s Gospel often claim that some scribe added this story to the Gospel in a place where it fit well!
[iv] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed.  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 188

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