Recently, Dan Wallace gave an interview in Christianity Today regarding the discovery of New Testament manuscripts in Albania. In answering a question about what textual decisions the new manuscripts might affect, he mentions the infamous Pericope Adulterae, the story of Jesus and an adulterous woman found between John 7.52 and 8.12. Due to his bluntness about the erroneous text, Christianity Today ran a sidebar on the PA, as well as an older article by J. I. Packer about how to "reconcile [a] belief in the inerrancy of Scripture with comments in Bible translations that state that a particular verse is not 'in better manuscripts'." Though it's certainly not anything new (neither from Wallace nor within the scholarly community: as Bart Ehrman put it 20 years ago, the scholarly consensus on the story is that "the passage did not originally form part of the Fourth Gospel"), there are many who continue to argue in favor of its continued inclusion in our texts. I write today to (1) affirm that it is not original to the text of the New Testament, (2) that beyond that, it is not canonical in any sense of the word, or inspired by any meaningful measure, and therefore (3) that it ought to be removed from the main text of our modern translations, deserving inclusion at most as a footnote.
Is It Original?
I'll not spend too much time on this question, if only because the answer is overwhelmingly "no." The list of scholars who affirm its inauthenticity only begins with Wallace, Ehrman, and Metzger, who notes, "The evidence for the non–Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming....When one adds to this impressive and diversified list of external evidence the consideration that the style and vocabulary of the pericope differ noticeably from the rest of the Fourth Gospel (see any critical commentary), and that it interrupts the sequence of 7.52 and 8.12ff., the case against its being of Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive". Pick up virtually any commentary on the Gospel of John, any treatment of its literary qualities, any article on the PA particularly, and you will see, over and over again, scholars, exegetes, pastors, and others affirming that the text is not original to John. Those grounds alone should give pause to those who wish for its continued inclusion in the text. If we respect what the human authors of the books of the New Testament were attempting to do, what they were attempting to transmit, then we must respect what they originally wrote. One of the marks against the PA is how poorly it fits into John where it's ended up today--to the point that scribes would sometimes place it elsewhere in John or even in entirely different gospels (e.g., the end of Luke). No, the text is not original, and to place it randomly in John is to do violence to what John was attempting to accomplish literarily.
Is It Canonical?
What if we want to affirm its status as scripture even though it is not original to the text, and even though it doesn't necessarily fit into John. Well, I think that could be accomplished one of two ways: arguing either (1) the text is inspired, but not authentic, or (2) the text is canonical. The implications of the first statement are a bit troubling, and probably too broad for a blog post that is already getting too long, but let's take up a few of them. By what metric are we measuring inspiration here:
- That it's a nice story. Surely not.
- That it's edifying to the body of believers. Well, so were the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache, yet they weren't recognized as being part of the New Testament.
- That it's historical. Can't be that either, lest we start preaching from portions of the Gospel of Thomas on Sunday mornings.
Let's move one step further, and posit for a moment that the various canon lists from the early centuries represent some sort of official recognition of the NT canon. We'll use Athanasius' 39th Festal Epistle of 367 CE as our example. When Athanasius declared the 27 books we recognize today canonical, what did that declaration mean? Was he saying that the 27 books in the exact form that he knew of them were canonical? In other words, when Athanasius says that John's Gospel is part of the recognized Christian canon, did he mean only the manuscript copy he had was canonical? Well, if he did, that's actually even worse for those who wish to include the PA in the text as he almost certainly was unaware of it. Other than Didymus, whose recognition of the PA is tenuous, no church father comments on the story until the 9th century. Not a single one. After that, there's not another mention of it until the 12th century. It's a late text that either the fathers didn't know about (probably not) or one that its iffy textual credentials drove them away (probably so). Going back to Athanasius: if he didn't mean that only the form of John he possessed was canonical, then what did he mean? In all likelihood, the various lists of the canon represent top level categorizations: John is a part of the canon, Luke is a part of the canon, Colossians is a part of the canon. We can see that being "canon" has nothing to do with whether or not a given variant is a part of scripture, and everything to do with whether a given book is part of scripture.
Having dispensed with the question of its canonicity, let's return to one last criterion for inspiration. Roger Mugs, in commenting on an earlier post, put it this way:
[The Gospel of Thomas is] weird. the teaching doesn't fall in line with the rest of the Scripture and therefore could not be canonized.In the first place, I'd ask if our standard for inspiration or canonization is really so low: is it really enough to make the PA scripture simply because it's not as weird as the Gospel of Thomas? Beyond which, while it's true enough that there's a lot of weird stuff in apocryphal texts, there's a lot of weird stuff in the New Testament, too. The mistake Christians make is in not separating ourselves from the familiarity we have with the biblical texts. I like a story that Mark Goodacre related about an exercise he runs in some of his classes (emphasis mine):
I gather together a series of quotations, some taken from the New Testament, some taken from Christian apocryphal texts, and I put them on a hand-out but do not give the source of the texts. I try to make sure that each quotation is a good paragraph or so. I then ask the students, in class, to study the sheets and to ask themselves whether they think the texts in question come from (a) the New Testament or (b) a non-canonical text. I then ask them to state their reasons. The results vary from group to group, but one of the most memorable experiences I had was of a student who guessed that the coin in the fish's mouth (Matt. 17.24-27) must be a non-canonical text because it was so weird. She was horrified to discover that it was in the Bible.He relates that story in response to one of Tony Chartrand-Burke's "Top Ten Faulty Arguments in Anti-Apocrypha Apologetics," the fault of characterizing apocryphal works as "bizarre." That something is weird is not enough to keep it out of scripture or out of the canon. That something is not weird is not enough to keep it in scripture or in the canon. Put another way, the character of a text, whether it's bizarre to modern ears or not, is not what determines its canonical or inspired status (though it may determine how often the text is preached from a pulpit!). And if it's not that, then I would continue to ask what it is about the PA that deserves acceptance over equally historical material from Thomas or elsewhere.
Should It Be in Our Texts?
No. It's time to relegate John 7.53–8.11 to the footnotes, or to the bins of the history books. One thing I've tried to dedicate myself to as a scholar (or, more accurately, as I attempt to be a scholar) is caution and charity. I don't want to be uncharitable to a particular viewpoint or person when I write. Not to pick on him, but Jim West gets a lot of hits by making bold pronouncements; I know that that style is certainly part of what draws me (and many others) to his blog, but that's not me. I don't like bold pronouncements; I don't like black and white worldviews and zero-sum situations (either I'm right and you're wrong, or it's the other way around). However, I have learned that when faced with the evidence, there are times that bold pronouncements and proclamations are exactly what's called for. And when faced with the evidence above, and the near-certainty that it does not belong in the text of the New Testament, why do we continue to debate the status of this story? What is it about the passage that we find so hard to let go of? Is Jesus any less loving without this passage? Is he any less forgiving? Do we somehow lose his compassion without this story? I register an emphatic "NO!" to these questions. Indeed, it would be far more troubling to me if we did lose something important due to the removal of non-canonical, uninspired text. Fortunately, we do not. The story of the woman caught in adultery is a lovely story, and it may even be a historical one. But it is not scripture. And we shouldn't treat it as such.
 Bart Ehrman, "Jesus and the Adulteress," NTS 34 (1988): 24.
 Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2d ed (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1994), 187ff.
 See again Ehrman, "Jesus and the Adulteress," NTS 34 (1988).
For those interested in diving further into the world of textual criticism and the PA:
Bart D. Ehrman, "Jesus and the Adulteress," NTS 34 (1988): 24–44; John Paul Heil, "The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress (John 7,53-8,11) Reconsidered," Biblica 72 (1991): 182-91; Heil, "A Rejoinder to "Reconsidering 'The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress Reconsidered'," Église et Théologie 25 (1994): 361–366; Daniel B. Wallace, "Reconsidering 'The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress Reconsidered'," NTS 39 (1993): 290–296.