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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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Comments

  1. Avatar
    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 !

  2. Avatar
    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

  3. Avatar
    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.

  4. Avatar
    JamesSnappJr  April 1, 2017

    Bart,

    B: “The reality is that it is not a debated point among textual scholars and translators. ”

    I am fairly sure that it *is* a debated point, inasmuch as there was a significant 2014 conference about the passage at SEBTS in 2014, featuring Chris Keith, Jennifer Knust, and some others. Maurice Robinson was there and did extremely well (with a home-court advantage) — at the end of the conference, when David A. Black asked those in attendance if the passage was authentic or not, the overwhelming majority affirmed that it was authentic.

    B: “Probably most scholars think” —

    Already there’s a problem with your explanation. Most scholars, when it comes to the pericope adulterae, don’t think. They just digest Metzger’s obsolete comments and then regurgitate them.

    B: “Other scribes inserted the account in different places of the New Testament – some of them after John 21:25” —

    A moment please! You must be referring to the family-1 group of MSS. But in those cases, it is not as if (contra Metzger) the passage was just floating around; the note that prefaces the passage in MS 1 states specifically that the passage had previously been found in a few MSS after John 7:52. Not only is this detail worth mentioning, but to *not* mention it is to risk conveying a false impression about the transmission-history involved.

    B: “For most textual critics, the answer is No.”

    How do you know this? Is there a poll somewhere in which only textual critics participated? At the 2014 conference, all of the speakers — even those arguing against the genuineness of the passage — affirmed that it should be preached and proclaimed.

  5. Avatar
    Steefen  June 5, 2017

    Dr. Bart D. Ehrman:
    How then did it come to be added?

    Steefen, Author of The Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy (2nd Edition, in Progress)

    English: A Lame Person
    Latin: Claudo Vicinus

    Julius Caesar “Heals Clodios”
    Jesus Heals the Lame

    Healing the Lame/Clodios
    In order to maintain the parallels between the life of Julius Caesar and the Gospels, proper names turn into generic names. One Claudius stands out: Publius Clodius Pulcher.

    Julius Caesar’s Biography
    There was a house, Julius Caesar’s house.
    Clodius entered the house but not through the front door.
    He entered with the help of servants.
    He wanted to commit the sin of making his lay with Julius Caesar’s wife.
    Julius Caesar told him to take what you did laying a bed in my house and walk free.
    Julius Caesar forgave the man which also cleared Julius Caesar’s wife, but he divorced her also.
    Accusers were horrified at the forgiveness.

    The Gospel of Mark
    There was a house.
    A man entered the house but not through the front door.
    He entered the house by the help of servants lowering him through the roof.
    The lame man, on his mat, lay on the floor–on his mat of a bed.
    Jesus said your sin is forgiven. Arise, and take your mat and walk.
    Scribes were horrified at the forgiveness.

    FOLLOW-UP
    Julius Caesar forgives the woman (his wife) caught in adultery (or the appearance of adultery).
    Jesus Christ forgives the woman caught in adultery.

    This is why the Woman caught in adultery can be added later into the New Testament: because the biography of Julius Caesar is the standard.

  6. Spencer Black
    Spencer Black  October 18, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, to my knowledge we have at least 100 mss. containing the text of John ch. 7 & 8 before the 5th century which omit the Pericope Adulterae. Is this accurate?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2019

      No, I”m afraid not. We only have a few manuscripts of John before the 5th century.

      • Spencer Black
        Spencer Black  October 25, 2019

        What would you say is the best way I can identify each ms. of the gospel of John before the 5th century?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 27, 2019

          Do you know any Greek at all? Easiest thing to do is to get the UBS Greek New Testament and look at the appendix in the back on Principal Manuscripts and Versions and you will see the date of every manuscript used to reconstruct the text.

          • Spencer Black
            Spencer Black  October 27, 2019

            Well, it seems to truly know anything for myself about Christian origins I have to know Greek so I just started learning. So ya I’ll do this, thanks. Do you think the Nestle-Aland “Novum Testamentum Graece” would offer me more mss. to look at, and does that book have a handy appendix section as you’ve described? I wanna make sure I am able to look at all extant mss.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  April 26, 2020

    Bart, this is a very old post to be responding to, but I do it precisely for that reason, since I’m really just writing to you–you can erase this, or post it. My membership ends on 5/2, and I’ve decided not to renew for the present time, for no reason other than that I feel like I’ve discussed this subject enough for now–it’s been a great learning experience, and I may well return in future–my hope is that if I start a new membership, I’ll be able to post from my office computer (I would hope I’ll be back at my office by then). I’m the type who looks for signs, and your book coming out just before my membership ending seemed like one.

    I know I’ve been one of your more argumentative members, but just to be clear, that was never because I had any serious disagreements with you on scholarship–I lack the qualifications to do much more than quibble. Our differences are more philosophical than theological, and honestly, there are no qualifications required for a philosopher (or how could Socrates ever have been one?)

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 26, 2020

      (I will admit, the 200 word a post thing is irritating.)

      Now, about the Pericope Adulterae. You really got me thinking about this one, and reading other sources, particularly Roger David Aus (“Caught in the Act”). My personal conclusions are several.

      1)This really did happen. More or less as the story relates it. But to remember what happened and to understand it are two different things. So we have to look past the surviving account, read between the lines.

      2)The man caught in adultery was not a Jew, and they didn’t dare lay hands on him (amazing more people don’t think of this, as Aus did). City was full of Roman soldiers at Passover.

      3)The woman stood accused not of adultery (which wouldn’t have been a stoning offense) but of betraying her people.

      4)The men who took her, in a rage, were starting to have second thoughts about whether they really wanted to kill her.

      5)They were not especially hostile to Jesus–they were as hostile to the collaborationist temple authorities as he. They were curious to know his response, and just possibly hoped he would talk them off the ledge they were on. Have to finish tomorrow.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 27, 2020

        6) As we have it now, the story is assuming this is all a plot to trap Jesus somehow (a pattern seen in other gospel stories), but this doesn’t really make any sense. All he has to do is speak of mercy and forgiveness, and point out (correctly, see Aus) that this isn’t the traditional punishment for a married woman caught with another man, and her husband could simply divorce her. But will this save her life? Probably not. Will it prevent these men from committing a terrible sin, that will keep them from entering the Kingdom? They are going to stone her for sex with a foreigner, quite possibly a Roman soldier, at the Passover, when Jews are inflamed with the desire to take their country back from the Romans. She was caught in the act, en flagrante, betraying her country, and the reasons she might have done this (are there children to feed? is the husband sick, or absent?) are irrelevant. They have become a mob, and mobs can’t be quieted with such arguments. His concern is entirely for them. Not himself. How can he save them?

        • Avatar
          godspell  April 27, 2020

          7) So to conclude, in “Caught in the Act” Aus believes he knows what words Jesus scratched in the dirt. Malachi 2:11 and Hosea 4:14. Not the entire verses. Just the first few words. Some of these men are teachers of the law. They only need the first few words. The verses refer to an earlier occupation, and Jews–men and women–consorting with unbelievers. And in Hosea, God says he will not judge women alone for the sins men are equally guilty of. You cannot judge others until you get the log out of your own eye. And to make his argument clear, Jesus (who has been quiet until now) says a few words, that no one who heard them could ever possibly forget. He doesn’t know by magic what sins they’ve committed. He just knows they’re men. The elders (who understand the argument) walk away first–perhaps relieved? In any event, it’s a good argument, well-tailored to the jury Jesus addressed. The younger men, confused, embarassed, follow. Jesus asks nothing of the woman but to do better. She leaves before someone changes his mind.

          It all makes perfect sense. I believe it. And I can see him. The real him. The man, Jesus. And I believe in him. Stay safe.

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 28, 2020

            One last observation to squeeze in, and this isn’t from Aus (I have my own ideas sometimes).

            “Then neither do I condemn you.”

            The whole point of this lesson he is teaching all present is that there is no greater sin than to condemn the sins of others while ignoring your own. We punish others, in a very real sense, for our own failings. We project our disappointment with ourselves outward, because it’s too painful to see ourselves clearly.

            Jesus is telling her he’s a sinner too. He knows how hard it is to be good. Life is not constructed in such a way as to make righteous behavior easy–at times it can be near-impossible.

            He would never have condoned killing her–the dead can never repent–but he could still have reproached her–except that he has also sinned. So all he can do is forgive.

            If this was a made-up story, she would have become his follower (some later retconned her into Mary Magdalene). She would have at least thanked him. But this really happened. So she just leaves. And we never learn anything more about her. Because nobody knew. A memory, half-understood–but haunting.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 28, 2020

          Actually, stoning was the required legal procedure for someone caught committing adultery, and to urge them not to stone her would have been to urge them not to follow the law of Moses.

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 28, 2020

            I’m going by Aus’ article here, and what he says is that stoning was the recommended punishment for a young betrothed woman found not to be virgin at the time of her marriage. (This obviously begs some questions with regards to the Nativity Story, but let’s not go there now). Not for an already married woman who was unfaithful.

            If by the Law of Moses they mean Leviticus and Deuteronomy, all I can find is quotes about how a man who commits adultery and the woman he commits it with must be killed. Nothing about stoning.

            Even if that was the accepted practice, if they had enforced this strictly, nobody could go for a walk in Jerusalem without getting hit by a stray rock. That’s not what this woman is in trouble for. She’s there for sleeping with a gentile, probably a soldier or official. Aus is right about that. She’s on trial for being a shonda for the goyim. And this explains why the man isn’t there. They’d never make it to the place of stoning. They’d get crucified before Jesus did.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 29, 2020

            No, there is nothing in the passage about her partner being a gentile. I don’t know where Aus is getting his information about a “betrothed woman not a virgin” from. Not the Bible, I guess; is he referring to later rabbinic laws? If so, he would have to show that they were in force centuries earlier in Jesus’ day.

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 28, 2020

            Now I don’t assume the Pericope is a verbatim transcript of what was said–it certainly isn’t. Nobody would have forgotten the words Jesus says (he might have said other things as well), but the rest would have been clouded by foggy memory and transmission error. Maybe these scholars of the law didn’t say precisely what they’re recorded as saying. As Plato makes Socrates win every argument he was ever in by making his opponents dumber and oddly willing to agree with him, the gospel stories make the Jews depicted as hostile to Jesus stupid and bigoted, when of course many were neither. But they are, in this instance, wrong. There is no basis for stoning this woman.

            However, they have no alternative (Aus argues) because the Romans have reserved the death penalty for themselves. Only by stoning her immediately (in the temple courtyard) after catching her in the act can they hope to get away with it–the Romans, wanting to keep civic order, may look the other way, consider it an internal Jewish matter.

            But as I argue (not Aus), they might have been harboring doubts. And then they see Jesus.

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 30, 2020

            So for one last time, Jesus was in no danger, and had many answers he could have given, that would have avoided any serious discomfiture. Many Jews would have disagreed with stoning her–hardly a common occurrence for an adulteress. That was a later interpretation of what happened, lumping them in with others who had (perhaps) tried to catch Jesus out. (But seriously, why didn’t HE ask “Where’s the man?” He probably knew.)

            They were not trying to trap him, as I interpret this story–they genuinely wanted to know if he had an answer to the problem they had themselves created. And he wanted to find an answer, based on the Torah, that would convince them they were in error, and could let her go without violating their religious principles. Thus saving both her and them.

            If you want to know Aus’ arguments (and don’t run into him again in the near future)–

            https://books.google.com/books/about/Caught_in_the_Act_Walking_on_the_Sea_and.html?id=YoGFQgAACAAJ&source=kp_book_description

            But again, some of what I’ve said is my own extrapolation, influenced by him, and other scholars, yourself included (he does mention your own article on the Pericope in “Caught in the Act.”)

            And I think that’s it. I left a hundred in the collection plate. I hope to converse with you again in future. Best not to count on anything these days, though.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 1, 2020

            Yes, it’s an interesting argument. But you would think there would be a hint of it in the text. The absence of the man is usually seen as better explained as driven by the logic of the narrative and the fact that it is set within the context of a patriarchal culture, where it was the woman’s fault. Men’s sexual immoralities were almost always passed by, and for a very good reason. It was the men who were concerned with heirs and pure bloodlines; women were the way to have them. that is, they were tools and utensils for providing men what they wanted. If a woman got pregnant by another man it was a disaster; but not for the man who got her pregnant — he wouldn’t be punished. This is well documented.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 27, 2020

      OK, sorry to see you go!

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 28, 2020

        I will leave a donation on my way out. Oddly, more flush than usual, since there are so few frivolous entertainments left to fritter away the paycheck on (at least I still get one).

        It was a bit mean, in our present situation, to bring up the advice of Ecclesiastes, you know–to eat and drink with friends. Now we only see each other through a mask darkly. Or through texting. Meh.

        Even once my gang can all can mingle freely again, dogs and humans alike, a lot of our favorite restaurants will be gone–some already are. Our favorite Indian place isn’t even doing takeout/delivery. A beloved local bar has shut its doors forever.

        Ah well, those too are vanities.

  8. Avatar
    Coimbra1982  June 22, 2020

    Well, here is what I want to understand a litle bit more about it and I would love to have you share your thoughts on it. Why was it added within the Gospels and by whom and around what time in history? What was the purpose of it? I mean, why would someone add this story? since it seems that all the evidence shows that this never happened.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2020

      You may want to look at my older posts on it. If they don’t give you what you’re looking for, let me know!

      • Avatar
        Coimbra1982  June 23, 2020

        Prof. Ehrman,
        Thanks I have looked at it.

        If you don´t mind, just a few things.

        The manuscript evidence does not show that it did not happen. The evidence shows that it was not originally part of the gospel of John, is that correct? Also, I have reasearched that this story, or something like it, was reportedly part of the now mostly lost gospel to the Hebrews, according to Eusebius, perhaps relying at least in part on a lost writing of Papias. I don´t know but I think that since the synoptics omit this, I think this episode never happened. Do you?

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