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The Woman Taken in Adultery in the King James Version

Among the most popular stories about Jesus that you will find in the King James Version is one that, alas, was not originally in the Bible, but was added by scribes.  This is the famous account of Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery.  The story is so well known that even most modern translations will include it – but place it in brackets with a footnote indicating there are doubts about its originality or, in some translations, making an even stronger note that it probably does not belong in the New Testament.

In fact, even though it is technically true that the passage “probably” does not belong in the New Testament, the reality is that it is not a debated point among textual scholars and translators.  The passage was not part of the Gospel of John originally.  Or any other Gospel.  People know it so well principally because it appeared in the KJV

Here is what I say about the passage in my book Misquoting Jesus.

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The Woman Taken in Adultery

The story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery is arguably the best known story about Jesus in the Bible; it certainly has always been a favorite in Hollywood versions of his life.  It even makes it into Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, even though the movie focuses only on Jesus’ last hours (the story is treated as one of the rare flashbacks).  Despite its popularity, the account is found in only one passage of the New Testament, in John 7:59-8:12, and it appears not to have been original, even there.

 

The story line is familiar.  Jesus is teaching in the temple, and a group of scribes and Pharisees, his sworn enemies, approach him, bringing in tow a woman “who had been caught in the very act of adultery.”  They bring her before Jesus because they want to put him to the test.  The Law of Moses, as they tell him, demands that such a one be stoned to death; but they want to know what he has to say about the matter.  Should they stone her, or show her mercy?  It is a trap, of course.  If Jesus…

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The Ending of Mark in the King James Bible
The Trinity in the King James Bible

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Comments

  1. godspell  February 1, 2017

    Since what made it into the biblical canon was arbitrary to start with (and the Protestant canon is different than the Catholic one), and most people would say leave it in, obviously it should be in the New Testament.

    Whether it should be in the Gospel of John is a different matter. The author of that gospel did not include the story, may not even have been aware of it. As a purely literary matter, it is an interpolation into what is otherwise most likely the work of one Christian, with a vision quite distinct from those of the other gospel authors.

    My solution would be to collect these and other stories about Jesus from the gospel era and put them at the end of the New Testament, as an addenda.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  February 1, 2017

    Around what year do we start seeing the Woman Taken in Adultary appear in manuscripts?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      The first time it appears in a Greek manuscript is the fifth century Codex Bezae.

  3. clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 1, 2017

    Are scholars able to determine or make a reasonable guess when the story was first added to a manuscript, eg, 2nd century? later than that? Are the style and words used (and point of view) similar to any of the other NT writings or to any of the early non-canonical writings?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      It first occurs in the fifth century Codex Bezae. It probably occurred earlier, but it’s hard to know when.

  4. clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 1, 2017

    I wonder how Jews at the time would have understood this story, or how contemporary Jewish critical scholars would understand it. I’ve read a little bit of Jewish (NT?) scholar Amy Jill-Levine. My impression is that she thinks Christian scholars often don’t understand these stories the way Jews in Jesus’s time would have understood them. Did Jews “(almost) always” stone adulterers? Was it typical for Jews to recuse themselves from a stoning if they happened to reflect on their own sins first? Is there anything in the Mosaic law to suggest they should? From a literary if not historical or religious standpoint what is the point of Jesus’s doodling? Just to fill an interlude that prompted the accusers to think about what they were doing?

    Just trying to find a different angle from which to look at the story.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      It’s hard to know how often Jews actually implemented the justice required by the law of Moses. One of the very strange things about this story is that this woman was caught “in the act” of adultery. The law says both people are to be stoned. Where’s the man?

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 5, 2017

      There’s an interesting passage in Josephus’ “Life” where Josephus, as leader of the Jewish resistance in Tiberius, orders a thief’s hand to be cut off. If this is any reflection on how justice was meted out by Jews in 1st century Palestine, then I’m sure the occasional adultress was stoned to death now and then. Justice worked the same way in ancient times as it does now; if you’re a rich, powerful, influential person, you’re afforded due process (e.g. a trial before the Sanhedrin, or before the Roman Governor — cf. Paul’s trial before Felix — or if you were a particularly influential Jewish leader, a trial before the Roman Emperor himself), but if you were a poor, powerless nobody, you would have been lucky to even get a fair hearing from the local leaders. I think Jesus was arrested, “tried” and executed within a 24 hour period because he was pretty much a nobody.

      • Scott  February 9, 2017

        I might mark Josephus’ tale as a special circumstance. He was in the middle of an armed conflict. In a military unit, discipline must be preserved so more draconian punishments would be favored to signal to the other soldiers that anything disrupting unit cohesion (i.e. stealing from each other) would not be tolerated.

  5. Caiaphas  February 1, 2017

    How early are the manuscripts that do contain The Woman Taken in Adultery?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      It first occurs in the fifth century Codex Bezae. It probably occurred earlier, but it’s hard to know when.

  6. doug  February 1, 2017

    When it comes to some of the things that got into the Bible, apparently “alternative facts” go wayyyy back. What some people want to believe often trumps the truth.

  7. Stylites  February 1, 2017

    Well, it is a great story. It will always be part of my Bible. Yes, we need the work of the scholars to reveal it was not part of John’s Gospel, and it may well be something that never happened. We do need to know that. However, we also need to know that beyond the possible fiction is a tremendous truth. That is the power of forgiveness and compassion. Put the story in a footnote if that helps to clarify what it is, but please keep the footnote in the book.

  8. roycecil  February 1, 2017

    Dr. Bart, 3 questions.
    1) are there any parallel story similar to this earlier than this insertion in recorded history before the insertion of this story?
    2) do historians know the source of this story?

    If there are no other parallels do *you* think it is probable that the story is true?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      1. Not really; 2. It is rooted in stories told by word of mouth about Jesus; 3. Do you mean do I think it actually happened? No. But it certainly is “true” in the sense that it strives to convey a “truth” that I agree with.

  9. Robert  February 1, 2017

    Rufinus’ 4th century translation of Eusebius seems to equate the story of the woman caught in adultery with the story of ‘a woman accused of may things before the Lord’ that Papias mentions from the gospel to the Hebrews. Thus it may be that it was just too good of a story to not include somewhere somewhere in the canonical gospels. Like the longer ending of Mark, it would not have been originally part of any of the canonical gospels as written, and may have even been part of a gospel eventually judged to be heretical, but it nonetheless becomes canonical.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      I have an article on this, if you’re interested, “Jesus and the Adulteress” in New Testament Studies, 34 (1988) 24-44.

  10. bensonian  February 1, 2017

    Do any of the early dialects contain the periscope de adultera, such as the Sahidic, Bohairic, Fayyumic, or others prior to the 5th century?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      Latin, definitely — none others that we know about.

  11. RonaldTaska  February 2, 2017

    Fascinating as is the ending of Mark. Thanks.

  12. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  February 2, 2017

    This is one of those stories that I’ve always found irksome because there’s no mention of the man involved. She didn’t commit adultery by herself!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      Exactly! One of the strangest and most troubling parts of the story!

    • flcombs  February 4, 2017

      I don’t believe the story is true. But when I get into discussions about the man, I find the silence about the man just opens to a lot of possibilities. Maybe the man was already stoned. Maybe she was married and he didn’t know that, so he was spared. Maybe when they were caught he got away. Just saying that for all the speculation that “nothing happened to the man” there are plenty of ways to answer since nothing is said about it at all. I’ve heard it ssaid it was unfair because nothing happened to the man, but in fact it doesn’t say.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  February 5, 2017

        The silence, to me, is what’s so disturbing. The focus of the story is entirely on her.

  13. jhague  February 2, 2017

    The Christians that I know will never accept that this passage doesn’t belong in the Bible. They read right past the note in their Bible saying that the passage was not in the oldest manuscripts. How do your students usually respond to being told that this passage was not originally in the Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      With some surprise!

      • jhague  February 5, 2017

        Do they accept that the story was not originally in the Bible? The Christians that I know think that people who say that something was not originally in the Bible are wrong. They do not accept reality about the Bible.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 5, 2017

          Fundamentalists tend to think the story originally was in the Bible.

  14. wostraub  February 2, 2017

    Years ago I dated a Mormon woman who, when confronted with the obvious lies that Joseph Smith had told (the Book of Abraham, the Kinderhook plates, etc.), she told me that even though Smith may have believed himself that he was lying, he was in fact being inspired by God. The same could be said about the scribe who penned the fictional Adulterous Woman tale in John — he may have thought he was making it up, but he was actually inspired by God, so it really does belong in the Bible. Wiggle room to spare!

    I’ve searched in vain for a description of this kind of “truth lying.” Is it called agnatology?

  15. Pegill7  February 2, 2017

    In a footnote in the New Oxford Annotated Bible version of the New Revised Standard Version it is stated that”This account, omitted in many ancient manuscripts, appears to be an authentic incident in Jesus’ ministry, though not belonging originally to John’s Gospel.” What evidence is there that this is an authentic incident in Jesus’ ministry?
    Would this be the opinion of Bruce Metzger since he is the head editor of the NRSV?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      Yes, this was Metzger’s personal opinion. I think he just couldn’t bring himself to think that this beloved story didn’t really happen.

      • jhague  February 5, 2017

        This is what the people I know also think.

  16. TBeard  February 2, 2017

    I couldn’t find a topic to ask this question but I was told the Babylonian Talmud, which tends to be anti Christian, contains a part in it that mentions ‘On the eve of Passover Christ was hung(presumably on a cross) and was known for his works of sorcery.’ Would you know if this is true? If so could this be used as extra biblical evidence for his existence?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      Yes, that (basic) line is found in the Talmud.

      • TBeard  February 4, 2017

        Thank you.

      • TBeard  February 5, 2017

        Would you be able to use that as extra biblical evidence Jesus existed?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 5, 2017

          INteresting idea. Sure, why not! Then again, unless it is near to the time of Jesus himself — instead, say, late second century — I suppose it would not be *good* evidence….

          • TBeard  February 7, 2017

            Thanks again. I’m such a fan of yours because you teach me so much on actual biblical history. Your knowledge on these issues is priceless.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 5, 2017

      The Rabbis who compiled the Talmud did believe that Jesus existed, but they also believed that Jesus was a false prophet and a fraud. They also believed Jesus was the bastard son of a Roman soldier named Panthera, and that Jesus worked miracles via evil spirits (i.e. he was a sorceror). Considering that the Babylonian Talmud was compiled at least 400 years after Jesus, and that the story of Panthera and the sorcery are probably malicious rumors, it’s also safe to say that anything else the Rabbis had to say about Jesus can also be called into question.

  17. RonaldTaska  February 3, 2017

    Your having explained textual issues in “Misquoting Jesus” in a clear, concise, balanced way that non-experts can understand was a HUGE contribution. Thanks!

  18. clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 3, 2017

    One of my big problems with Christianity is that the whole doctrine of atonement doesn’t make sense. Somewhere I read the suggestion that the crucifixion came first and then the idea of atonement was trundled out to interpret it in order to explain why something as mind-shattering as the Messiah’s ignominious death had to take place. Is this view common among critical NT scholars?

    Also, somewhere I read the suggestion that there is a difference between understanding the crucifixion as expiation and as atonement. I don’t have a good handle on the distinction. In expiation Jesus “absorbed” all the punishment that sinful humanity had coming. In atonement I think Jesus’s death is more of a “sign” of God’s forgiveness of humanity’s sins. Forgiveness came first and then a sacrifice, Jesus, was offered as a sort of “celebration” and sign that forgiveness had in fact already taken place. And I think that some sort of continuity with Jewish atoning animal sacrifices is seen. Something like two estranged friends reconciling and then going out to dinner to celebrate. Furthermore, I seem to remember something to the effect that in Jewish animal sacrifices it was not the actual death of the animal that was important but of obtaining the animal’s blood (life force?) to sprinkle on the altar. Of course it would be difficult to get the animal’s blood without first killing it but the death itself was secondary to having the blood.

    Do many scholars see this kind, or any kind, of distinction between expiation and atonement?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      Yes, I should stress that the doctrine of the atonement doesn’t make sense to a lot of Christian theologians either! There are of course different understandings of how the doctrine needs to work, but about all of them think it requires Jesus to shed his blood and die. I’m not sure about the distinction you’re describing. The one I’m more familiar with is the difference between propitiation and expiation (both of them explaining how the atonement works). Propitiation means the satisfying of God’s wrath (he takes it out on Jesus instead of others) and expiation means the “covering over” of sins (the blood allows God to overlook the sins of others). I may be wrong but my sense is that propitiation is often held more often among conservative Christians and expiation by others.

      • clipper9422@yahoo.com  February 5, 2017

        Thanks for the distinction between propitiation and expiation-though my understanding of expiation was the same as your understanding of propitiation. It gives me more to think about.

        I’d thought that my distinction came from a book entitled “Catholicism” by (fairly liberal?) Catholic theologian Richard McBrien. When I went back to check I couldn’t find it-despite multiple tries. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised my memory failed after all I’ve read recently-including your latest book-about the deceptions of memory.

        Here again my memory may be failing me but I think even CS Lewis said something that to the effect that if you find the doctrine of atonement helpful then hang on to it but it wasn’t necessary to accept it (at least not in its more sadistic versions) in order to be a Christian.

        It’s good to know that many Christian theologians have problems with the idea of atonement as do I. Yet it seems like any traditional and biblical understanding of Christianity (not just fundamentalist and evangelical) would have to put atonement right at or very near the core of Christian belief. I think you’ve written that Luke’s understanding of the crucifixion might be different (martyrdom as an example for Christians?) but, overall, atonement just seems to be an overwhelming idea in the NT.

      • Wilusa  February 5, 2017

        I’m amazed at the complexity of these doctrines. Can’t help remembering that I’d thought what we were supposed to believe was just that Jesus let himself die in the most public of ways, so when he was *resurrected* – the resurrection being all-important – no one would doubt he’d been dead. (The resurrection was all-important because it proved he was divine, and therefore, everyone should take his teachings seriously, and lead the good lives he’d urged them to live.)

      • pdahl  February 7, 2017

        Hi Bart,

        To your point, theologian Stephen Finlan has written a short, incisive book on this subject entitled “Problems with Atonement.” Also, there’s another good book entitled “Convictions” by the late theologian Marcus Borg, which includes a refreshing and respectful critique of traditional atonement ideas. And finally, there’s “Paul on the Cross” by theologian David Brondos, who turns some of the tradition upside down while also (he claims) staying true to St. Paul’s original writings.

        Like these authors and some of your blog followers, I too have long struggled to embrace traditional atonement theology. Indeed, the various independent lines of historical, theological, scientific, and logical evidence against it seem quite compelling, especially once I compiled the counter-evidence into a single essay, strictly for my own amazement. What if anything to do with this 32-page, fully-referenced compilation (including my own commentary) is another question, of course. But it’s a fascinating topic, for sure.

  19. Rockwine  February 3, 2017

    I tend to think that this beautiful story actually reflects a story told by Jesus himself and saved in oral tradition. It may have been left out of the official gospel texts because it is too radical. Any challenge of the Mosaic law could throw doubt on Jesus status as Messiah or son of God.
    It is worth reminding people that the law around adultery was based on property rights which were owned by men. Women offered their owners rights to their children, rights to their labor, and rights to their sexual services. They represent a valuable property and would be vigorously defended. I imagine if the owner of the woman refused to place her life at risk she would not be executed. This might not be true of the man who was involved but I am not sure about all this. I imagine that since religion was crafted by men it would be designed to protect their property rights.
    The important thing is that, quite remarkably, Jesus saw and treated women with respect as individuals from his mother onward. Where can you find such an attitude in Greek, Roman, Jewish law and practice? I much prefer Jesus as an exceptional person rather than some God or other. Unfortunately so many religious authorities liked power. And still like power! The emotional and spiritual appeal of religion is unfortunately so often used in the pursuit of power. For instance Christianity was a convenient tool in the hands of the Emperor Constantine helping him to consolidate his Empire. In the following 1000 years Christianity was the major authority. It was extremely brutal. It fell into the hands of a masculine celibate hierarchy who substituted their passion and sexual drive with the lust for power! Their claims to Christianity seem to have no relationship with the life and example of Jesus. I reached this conclusion from carefully reading the Gospels and ignoring most of Paul who clearly had little respect for women!
    The absence of respect for women throughout the history of Christianity which still permeates our society leaves me with little respect for what is now official Christianity. The United States is more than half Christian who largely vote for the Republicans. This most powerful country in the world has continuously used violence in their treatment of most other countries. They might easily destroy the earth if they decided to flex their nuclear muscles. In the meantime the industrial world is destroying our earth more quickly than a lot of people imagine! The Christian church claims that Jesus saved us from our sins by his death on the cross! It is clear to me that he died in vain. In fact his death seems to have encouraged a lot of people to use it as justification for their violence!
    ‘By their fruits shall ye know them!’ This was mentioned by Michael Brown in your debate with him. He may be a fine man but his idea of the Bible seems to exist largely in his own imagination. Personally Bart I think that he was quietly undermining you by a process of what I will call one up man ship!
    Final point: if Jesus saved us from our sins how can Michael Brown keep on saying that we are a ‘fallen’ people.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      I’m not sure exactly how he reconciles those two statements, but one can imagine a variety of ways (Christians are saved but still sinful, e.g.)

  20. Gary  February 3, 2017

    When did the Church first acknowledge that this passage was not originally part of the Gospels? Prior to the Reformation?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2017

      Earliest Christians would have all thought this, since it *wasn’t* in their Bibles!

  21. Bwana  February 4, 2017

    “… in John 7:59-8:12 …”

    This seems to be a clear case of misquoting Misquoting Jesus. John chapter 7 stops at verse 53 !

  22. wje  February 5, 2017

    HI, Bart. It is very interesting to read these last few posts. A couple of questions. Is there a website that explains when the first known written bible books were written? Since I am reading the story about the adulterous women, do you know when the first written copies of John came out?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2017

      Do you mean New Testament books? The first was almost certainly 1 THessalonians around 49 CE. The first written copies of John would have been in circulation right after it was written, possibly in the mid 90s. The first manuscript with the adulterous woman in it was from around 400 CE

  23. Jana  February 8, 2017

    Do we know the origins of this inspiring story before it’s inclusion in the Bible? Why would a scribe have included it? It simply boggles and stuns that someone somewhere decided to add a story that was not inherently sacred doctrine and again to what purpose? I think you’ve addressed this before. Isn’t this lying?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2017

      My guess is that some scribe at one point wrote the story out in the margin of his manuscript to illustrate the point the text was making, and a later copyists who copied that copy thought the first scribe meant to put it in the text, and so he himself did so. From then on it was copied as part of the text.

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