The Woman Taken in Adultery (John 7:53–8:11)

An inspired account of John’s Gospel proving Jesus Christ as Light of the World

Jeffrey Khoo

The story of the woman taken in adultery in John 7:53–8:11 is called the pericope de adultera. Modernistic scholars have attempted to remove this whole passage from the Bible. According to Westcott, “This account of a most characteristic incident in the Lord’s life is certainly not a part of John’s narrative.” Not only has it been said that the pericope de adultera was not a part of John’s Gospel, both Westcott and Hort insisted that the story “has no right to a place in the text of the four Gospels.”

The Westcott-Hort based NIV has this misleading statement concerning the authenticity of John 7:53–8:11: “[The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53–8:11].” What are these so called “earliest” and “most reliable” manuscripts which do not have the pericope de adultera? They are Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, both 4th century manuscripts. Those who reject the pericope de adulterado so on a presuppositional bias that these 2 codices which omit it are superior manuscripts.

Are the above codices really reliable? According to Dean Burgon, a godly and renowned Bible defender of the last century, the codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are among “the most corrupt copies in existence.” Burgon wrote, “I am able to demonstrate that every one of them singly is in a high degree corrupt, and is condemned upon evidence older than itself” (for a full discussion, refer to John William Burgon’s The Revision Revised [Collingswood NJ: The Bible For Today, 1981 reprint], 548 pp). Although the above two codices may be “earliest” they are by no means “most reliable.”

There is abundant evidence in support of the authenticity of the pericope de adultera. John 7:53–8:11 is found (1) in many Greek uncials and minuscules mainly of the Majority or Byzantine text-type, (2) in the ancient versions or translations: Old Latin, Vulgate, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, and Ethiopic, and (3) in the writings of the Church Fathers: Didascalia, Ambrosiaster, Apostolic Constitutions, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine.

Jerome (AD 340–420), the translator of the Latin Bible called the Vulgate, said this about the pericope de adultera: “. . . 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.” Jerome considered the pericope genuine, and included it in his Vulgate.

Self-styled textual critics who arrogantly say: “This text has no place in Scripture; I will never preach from it!,” should rather heed these wise words of Calvin: “it has always been received by the Latin Churches, and is found in many old Greek manuscripts, and contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit, there is no reason why we should refuse to apply it to our advantage.”

It must be noted that if John 7:53–8:11 is removed from the Gospel, it leaves a vacuum between the words “out of Galilee ariseth no prophet (7:52), and “Then spake Jesus again unto them” (8:12). In 7:40–52, we find the private dialogue and debate among the Jewish populace, and between the temple servants and Pharisees over Jesus’ identity; whether He was the Moses-like Prophet (Deut 18:15) or not. Jesus was out of the picture at that time. It is thus quite awkward to introduce Jesus so abruptly in 8:12 where it is recorded that He spoke to them “again.” Jesus in verses 12–16 was teaching what is righteous judgment. The pericope de adultera provides the link between the two episodes. Jesus taught them “again” because He had already begun teaching the people before he was interrupted by the scribes and Pharisees (8:2–3). Jesus’ “light of the world” discourse clearly fits the context of the pericope de adultera. The Jewish religious leaders had failed to exercise righteous judgment because in condemning the adulteress, they failed to judge themselves for they were equally sinful (8:7–9). Jesus’ judicial and yet merciful treatment of the adulteress clearly demonstrates that He alone as the light of the world is the true and perfect Judge (8:12).

The divinely inspired account of the woman taken in adultery rightfully belongs to the Gospel of John. Let us not hesitate to use it for our encouragement and comfort.

Recommended reading: John William Burgon, “The Woman Taken in Adultery: A Defense of the Authenticity of St John 7:53–8:11,” in Unholy Hands on the Bible (Lafayette: Sovereign Grace Trust Fund, 1990), F1–16; and Edward F Hills, The King James Version Defended (Des Moines: The Christian Research Press, 1984), 150–9.

Dr Jeffrey Khoo is the academic dean of Far Eastern Bible College.