"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 8 Jesus at Tabernacles (Jn 7.1- 8.59)

Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery: An Interlude on Judgement (Jn 7.53-8.11)


The story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery is one of the most popular stories in the New Testament. I suspect there are many people who know little else about the New Testament who nevertheless know some version of Jesus' remark about casting the first stone. But it is a story that raises many difficulties, because it is not found in every manuscript of the New Testament.

There are many, many manuscripts of the New Testament. In the period between the writing of its books and its first printing, over 5,800 Greek manuscripts were copied that we know of (because they survive in whole or in part). And there are thousands more manuscripts if we count what are called the early versions, the translations of the New Testament into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and other ancient languages. The majority of these manuscripts contain the story of the woman taken in adultery, but many of the oldest and best manuscripts we have don't have it. The oldest manuscript that does include the story is dated c400 CE, although there are writers like Jerome and Augustine at the end of the fourth century who refer to the story in ways that make it plain that they found it here in this location. In fact, Jerome remarked that the story was here in many manuscripts, both Greek and Latin. This evidence is often overlooked by those who conclude from its absence from surviving dateable Greek manuscripts before c400, or between c400 CE and the ninth century, that the story was also not present in the Greek manuscripts that have not survived. But the testimony of Jerome, an important Biblical scholar of the time, shows that this was simply not so. The “many manuscripts” to which he refers have not survived but we have his testimony that they did exist in the late 300s. Earlier writers in the third century refer to the story but not in enough detail to determine its location in the text. A few manuscripts, many of them intended for lectionary use, have the story but place it elsewhere than here, as Jn 7.53-8.11, probably because of the practice of such manuscripts to copy some passages out of order so as to accomodate the cycle of readings for a given period.

It is only in the last 200 years or so that the absence of this story in some manuscripts has caused many scholars to doubt that it really belongs in John's Gospel. In trying to understand why it was not present in those particular, usually reliable, manuscripts, scholars have carefully examined the passage, its language, and its context in John's Gospel. Most have come to the conclusion that its language is not Johannine, that is, that it uses vocabulary that is not characteristic of John's storytelling, but rather that of the other Gospel writers. For example, those who brought the woman to Jesus are called 'scribes and Pharisees', a combination which John does not use elsewhere but is common in the Synoptic gospels. In addition, many think that the passage is awkward in its setting, interrupting a tightly constructed section of the gospel devoted to the actions and words of Jesus at the feast of Tabernacles. Without this story, they say, John's Gospel would flow far more naturally from Jn 7.52 straight to Jn 8.12, without any interuption.

So a scholarly consensus has formed that this story was not writen by John the Evangelist, and that it should really not be printed in its traditional location between Jn 7.52 and Jn 8.12. But this is not universal: some still argue that the discrepancies between the style and language of the story and the style and language used elsewhere in the Gospel are not so great as to compel us to believe that John did not write it. And many scholars, even some of those who think it is a later addition or interpolation into the text of the gospel, point out that it actually does fit well into the story of Jesus at Tabernacles, taking up some of the themes of judgement that arise either from Jesus' own words or from the discussion between Nicodemus and other members of the council that precedes it. It may be a largely self-contained unit that could be taken out without doing apparent damage to the flow of the text, but a deeper reading shows that it has thematic affinities with the gospel as a whole, as the comments on Section 8 of the gospel as a whole will show, I hope. It seems more likely to me that this is a story which the evangelist himself has incorporated at this point without very much change in its own traditional language than that it has been crafted by someone else and then inserted with such sensitivity for its interpolated context.

Those who believe that it was not written by the Fourth Evangelist, and that it doesn't fit in its present location, have to deal with the questions of who wrote it and who added it and why. Those who think it was written by John and belongs in its present location have to deal with the question of why it dropped out of the manuscript traditions that do not include it. I have decided to keep the story of the woman taken in adultery in its traditional location here at Jn 7.53-8.11. But I recognise that it can be regarded as an aside, or even an interruption, in the story of Jesus' teaching during the feast of Tabernacles, so I have designated it as an interlude in the title of this subsection.

In my opinion it is easier to explain an omission than an addition in these circumstances, and I do not find any of the explanations of why the story was crafted to fit so well in its present location and then dropped into place by an unknown writer at an unknown time between the end of the first century and the third or fourth century entirely convincing. The argument from style and vocabulary is always a difficult one, since the way readers react to a writer's choice of words is often very individual. What strikes one person as completely unlike a writer's normal style may strike another as only somewhat different and in ways explained by the subject matter of the passage. To me, for example, the vocabulary of this story seems no more unusual for John than that of the story of the healing that begins ch5 of John's Gospel, which is also clearly close to Synoptic traditions.

How then to explain its disappearance in the manuscripts that don't include it? It seems to me there are two possibilities, of which the first is more probable. First is that its subject matter was offensive to a few very early copyists, who deliberately left this story out. Their manuscripts would have been copied and recopied, creating a chain of copies that lacked it. But what is it about this story that might cause several copyists not to copy it in their manuscripts? In the early church, especially in the second and third centuries, when these putative copyists would have been working, adultery was considered one of the three most serious sins: adultery, idolatry, and murder. Although most church leaders believed and taught that adultery could be forgiven (after a lengthy and serious period of repentence and exclusion from community life, or at least from some parts of it), others went so far as to teach that adultery was an unforgiveable sin. If you had committed adultery before baptism, you were cleansed from it as from all other sins; but if you committed adultery again after baptism, in the view of these extreme teachers, you could not be forgiven by the church. So precisely the quality of Jesus that has attracted so many to this story over the centuries, his deep commitment to mercy, would have repelled some second and third century Christians: they would have thought he had been too easy on the woman and provided a dangerous precedent and example. I think it is not unthinkable that a handful of copyists during this period might had left this story out when they copied the gospels.

The second possibility is that the evangelists' circle, his own disciples, themselves circulated the gospel in two forms, one containing this story and one not. I suggested in the Introduction that John's Gospel was circulated by his disciples after his death, a death that prevented the evangelist from making a final edit of some rough passages in his gospel. But I find it much more difficult to suppose that he left unclear whether he intended to include this story! The gospel does not seem to me to be in such a state of flux that we are justified in supposing that the author himself was still debating whether to add a significant incident. So I find it difficult to propose a plausible theory of why those followers would do so. However it is not impossible, and it would explain the omission.

It seems to me in any case important to comment on this text as we have it, in this particular context of John 7 and 8. If it is an addition, then the person who added it has done a remarkable job of crafting the story to fit the wider narrative of Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles, and picking up on key themes of the Gospel.


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Who are designated here by 'they'? Probably the worshippers who listened to Jesus' proclamation on the last day of the feast (as well the members of the Sanhedrin and the Temple attendants who conferred about him) whose reactions to Jesus's preaching we see in 7.37-52.

In any case, we are told here that after the events of the day each one of them went to their own home. In the regulations for the Feast of Tabernacles given in Leviticus 23.40-43, the people are commanded to live in booths for the duration of the festival. In v37, the day in question was identified as the last day of Tabernacles. So that evening they went, not to their temporary holiday shelters, but to their own lodgings.

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The Mount of Olives is a mountain ridge separated by the Kidron Valley from the site of the Second Temple and the Old City of Jerusalem. It was formerly covered with olive groves which gave it its name. The garden of Gethesame is at the western base of the Mount of Olives, facing Jerusalem, while the village of Bethany (home of Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus) was on the eastern side. Near the top of the ridge, also on the eastern side, is believed to be the site of the village of Bethphage. In going there, Jesus may have been following the same path he was to take, in the opposite direction, when he made his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when he rode down the western slope from Bethany and Bethphage (see Mark 11.1-10, Matt 21. 1-9, and Luke 19.29-44).

It is interesting that Jesus has to go outside the city proper to get to his lodging and it fits with the picture we have from chapter 7 of the gospel that Jesus did not feel entirely safe in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Judaea. Here although he had ventured to come to Jerusalem for the festival he seems to have had lodgings outside it, and in an area where we know that he had contacts: the Lazarus family in Bethany and the unknown owner of the colt on which he rode into Jerusalem and others in Bethphage.

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On the day following the feast, Jesus returned to the Temple area and taught the crowd (“all the people” is rhetorical exaggeration). Here as at the start of ch6 Jesus followed the usual practice of the time and sat down to teach. By contrast on the previous day, the final day of the feast, he had stood up and cried out, according to John 7.37, proclaiming rather than teaching when he said “If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me and let the one that trusts in me drink. As Scripture says: From his inmost parts rivers of living water will flow.”

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Who were these men? The scribes would have included some of the most learned students of the Law, capable of copying the text of Scripture. Perhaps among the Pharisees were some of the members of the Council who had argued with Nicodemos at the end of ch7. Since these scribes and Pharisees were bringing a capital charge and apparently prepared to carry it out, they included the witnesses to the crime of adultery of which they accused the woman. Generations of commentators have asked why they brought only the accused woman to Jesus. Lev 20.10 specifies that both parties to adultery are to be put to death but the man is nowhere in evidence here. Had he escaped from the scene somehow? Unfortunately we do not have enough information in the text to know.

They made her stand “in front of everyone”, literally “in the middle”. This Greek phrase is often used in legal contexts to describe the position of the accused in a court, so its use here and in v9 (where it is translated “before him”) may have been intended to suggest a courtroom scene.

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The group of scribes and Pharisees obviously think they have put Jesus in a clever trap. If he goes against the dictates of the Law, they can accuse him of the sort of ignorance that the authorities spoke of in Jn 7.15 and challenge his right to act as a teacher. If he upholds the sentence of death prescribed in the Scripture, he risks conflict with the Romans, who had apparently banned Jewish authorities from carrying out executions for crimes: he could be accused of empowering a mob to carry out a death sentence against government orders.

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What was Jesus writing in vv6 and 8? This is a question that has preoccupied biblical scholars almost as much as the controversy about whether the story of the woman caught in adultery belongs in John's Gospel or not. In his book on the story, Chris Keith outlines thirty-seven interpretations, from the Fathers to contemporary scholars, of what Jesus wrote or why he wrote it (Keith 2009B 12-21)! We know too little from the story itself to have any clear idea what he wrote, and some scholars have tried to interpret the Greek verbs in those verses to mean something else, such as doodle or draw. Keith has demonstrated the unlikelihood of such a possibility, based on the usage of the words. However, I think we should entertain the possibilty that they mean something like “trace” in this instance (a possible meaning even if not the most likely one). There is no indication where in the Temple precincts we should envision this encounter to have taken place. But I would venture to imagine that there was nowhere in the Temple precincts where the surface on which men and women walked or stood or on which seating was placed that was not covered either by paving stones or hard-packed earth. So it seems unlikely to me that Jesus was writing words or letters in loose dirt or dust thick enough to hold the impression of his finger. Rather I think he was tracing letters on a hard surface. That doesn't mean of course, that no one could read what he wrote: we've all had the experience of seeing someone “write” on a tabletop and known what they were writing. But Keith is likely correct that that what is important is not what he wrote but that he wrote.

Back at Jn 7.15, the authorities had challenged Jesus' own learning, and thereby his authority to teach others. This type of challenge recurs in the conversation between Nicodemus and the other Pharisees on the Council, in which those Pharisees challenge Jesus' authority both because it is only the uneducated crowd who listen to him and because he is from Galillee. One of the functions of the story of the woman taken in adultery in the larger narrative of this gospel is to show Jesus meeting a challenge from the most learned members of the religious authorities in a way that shows both superior knowledge of the Law by avoiding the trap they set for him and equal familiarity with religious learning by showing him writing. In ancient society, people did not, as we do, normally learn to read and write at the same time. Someone might learn to read while acquiring only the most rudimentary knowledge of how to write letters and words, and fluent writing (that combined composition with the physical skills) was part of advanced education. As Keith points out, it was possible even for Jewish teachers to have become “trained in the Scriptures” without becoming, or before becoming, able to write (Keith 2009B pp 109-10). This story shows that Jesus was not only learned in the Law but able to write, putting him in a very advanced category.

Note that Jesus wrote with his finger and not with something like a stick. Some scholars have seen in this detail a parallel between Jesus's writing on the ground and God's writing on the tablets of the Law in Exodus 31.18, also done with a finger. If this is a valid parallel, then the text shows Jesus as one who does not simply know the Law, but in some sense wrote the Law. However, although I think this is an appealing thought, I don't think the analogy works. What God wrote in Exodus is both known and fundamental to the readers' understanding of the text. But in the case of this story, we do not even know what Jesus wrote on the ground, we are never told it, and so it cannot function in the same way. In fact, it appears more likely that we as readers are expected to see here a comparison between Jesus and Moses, rather than Jesus and YHWH.

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The key to how we read this passage lies in these words spoken by Jesus in v7. How were they intended to be heard by the group of scribes and Pharisees (and witnesses)? First of all, as Baylis argues in his 1989 article, in this legal judgement Jesus spoke specifically to the witnesses to the crime, who had brought the charge and were obliged to take the lead in carrying out the Law's sentence (in this case, stoning). They are to be without sin. There is a sin that is quite specific to witnesses, and that is bearing false witness, especially malicious witness (see especially Ex 20.16, and 23.1). Jesus had perceived that these men were out to “test” him and indeed had set a trap for him. The woman's situation, her putative guilt, even her life, were secondary to their desire to show Jesus up as an incompetent teacher. By giving this judgement, Jesus “called them out” as malicious and false. Further he demonstrated his knowledge of the Law and its requirements. And he did all this in such a way as to show mercy to the woman caught up in it all.

This judgement by Jesus is sandwiched between the two acts of writing on the ground. John has told the story in such a way that the judgement is surrounded by the writing, that is, by the graphic demonstration of Jesus' extreme competence as a judge. This carries further the comparisons between Jesus and Moses that are found throughout this gospel. In Exodus Moses wrote down the Ten Words and the ordinances that the Lord had spoken so that the people could make a covenant to keep them (see Ex 24.1-8), but Jesus went beyond Moses by writing what he himself knew without any divine dictation and gave a judgement that both upheld the principles of the Law and went beyond them in exercising divine mercy.

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Jesus' judgement so shamed the group of scribes and Pharisees that they all left the improvised court, one by one. The woman is left standing alone “before him” -- this phrase, literally “in the midst” or “middle”, emphasises the legal aspects of the situation. She is a defendant with a judge but no witnesses or other accusers. Jesus is alone in the impromptu court with no one before him as judge but her. At the start of the scene, before the arrival of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus was teaching those gathered in the Temple precincts on the day after the festival of Tabernacles had ended. Although this verse refers to him as being alone after the scribes and Pharisees withdraw, it doesn't actually tell us what has become of those listeners. Jesus' aloneness is as a judge sitting in the court without any accusers present. Presumably the crowd is still there, relegated to the background by the excitement of the arrival of the scribes and Pharisees with their victim and the subsequent challenge to Jesus.

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In the two final verses, Jesus completes his judgement, which continues both to honour the Law and demonstrate mercy. In the absence of witnesses, he cannot pronounce a sentence, for no-one can be condemned without the testimony of two or three witnesses. Yet as in the case of the man healed at the pool of Bethesda in ch5, Jesus admonishes her to sin no more at the same time as he encourages her to go without any condemnation. Both the woman and Jesus were apparently caught in a trap at the beginning of this story but at the end both are free. We will see this whole matter of witnessing to the truth of a claim or a charge becoming even more important in the following passages.

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