"Did I Do Thaaaat?" Regarding The Woman in Adultery

Pax Christi, Everybody!

Something that has been brought to my attention recently is the fact that one of the loveliest stories in the whole of The Bible, the story of Jesus and the adulterer, is a bit of a later edition.

Is this true, and if so, do you feel alarmed?

Pax,
Charles

Great question. Both @Vinnie and @Klax have discussed this before; I’m trying to find their very good discussion, but having trouble. Can anyone else find it? Thanks.

1 Like

It’s true it is not in the oldest manuscripts.

It does not alarm me, nor do I think the fact that it is probably a later addition by a scribe means we shouldn’t learn from it.

Here is an interesting take on a possible motivation for including it:

A fascinating aspect of this passage is Jesus’ writing on the ground in John 8:6, John 8:8. Interpreters have offered an array of interpretations of these actions, which range from the idea that he wrote biblical passages to the idea that he was doodling. One must recognize, however, that if what he wrote was important, then the author probably would have included that information. Most likely, John 8:6, John 8:8 represents simply a claim that Jesus could write—a claim quite significant in the ancient world, where most individuals were illiterate. Such a claim also explains why a scribe inserted the passage after John 7, where the Jewish leaders question both Jesus’ literacy specifically (John 7:15) and Galileans’ knowledge of the law and ability to search it generally (John 7:49, John 7:52). In addition, the author borrows the verbs for “writing” in John 8:6, John 8:8 from the Greek version of Exod 32:15. This passage describes God’s authorship of the Ten Commandments; the woman in John’s gospel is accused of breaking the command against adultery. The context in Exodus insists that God wrote these laws with his finger (Exod 31:18), and in the story of the adulteress, Jesus, too, writes with his finger (John 8:6). The author of the story of the adulteress seems to be claiming not only that Jesus can write but also that this particular instance of writing parallels the actions of God himself, thus making Jesus superior to Moses, whom his enemies had challenged him to usurp by pronouncing judgment on the woman in the first place.

Chris Keith, “Manuscript History and John 8:1-8:11”, n.p. [cited 3 Feb 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/Manuscript History and John

5 Likes

Thanks for this; it’s very interesting!

I still wonder, however, if this story is true because it was added at a later time. Does it necessarily follow that it is made up because the story was a later addition, or could it simply be a matter of tradition that I’m fretting about for no good reason?

1 Like

The Gospels themselves were composed years after the historical facts they record and there is evidence the Synoptics relied on a common oral or written source for some of their content. So the woman caught in adultery story could have been based on real events, known in the Christian community and handed down, and then inserted. I find it doubtful that a scribe would invent a story out of his own imagination and insert it with no authorization or input from those entrusted with safeguarding the apostolic tradition, but that doesn’t prove it’s factual.

7 Likes

Oh okay. Thanks for this!

1 Like

I have opined on this in too many threads. (If one searches on ‘pericope adulterae’ of the 14 that come up, I comment on 13, @Randy!)

I couldn’t be more grateful to @Christy for Chris Keith’s (professor at the UK’s primus inter pares Catholic university) superb, obvious-with-hindsight (as genius often is) most convincing argument as to why it was inserted where it is and the startlingly obvious Exodus parallel.

I still find it all perplexing, but that will go in to the mix.

If it isn’t factual, but a goodwill parable, fable from oral sources but only refined once after four hundred years, it’s not a smoking gun of divine intelligence. It’s still a work of moral and more genius, but could be entirely natural.

PS @Combine_Advisor, why that title?

2 Likes

Thanks. I’m sorry; I wasn’t clear-- I had found those, but was looking specifically for an interaction with, I think, Vinnie, where he (or someone else) had brought up what Christy posted above. I thought it was a good discussion of this very question between the 2 of you.

1 Like

Apology not accepted @Randy : ) It’s up to me to trawl through. Aye, we’d have discussed @Christy’s 2nd post content, but not the first.

2 Likes

Keith is a very good scholar. I sat in on a zoom meeting during the Covid shutdowns as a complete amateur lurker with him and like 20 other top New Testament scholars discussing historical Jesus methodology. The format was adopted and opened on Facebook due to Covid. It was phenomenal!

2 Likes

It seems to have affinities with Luke’s special material IIRC.

2 Likes

I suspect the idea of “autographical” texts is an old relic that will eventually disappear in Biblical scholarship outside of very conservative circles. Textual criticism is filled with the most conservative of Christians why shy away from other areas of NT criticism that often erode those beliefs.

If you believe in canonization and inspiration, the version of the Bible with this story in it was canonized. It is also understandable why the story would be suppressed given trajectories in the Church ca 100CE towards suppressing women were pivotal to the growth and spread Christianity the previous 60 years. The Pastoral did it for sure with Real-Paul. Jesus may have went a little too far for his contemporaries here. An adulteress cannot go unpunished would probably be their thinking…

2 Likes

But that implies the rest of the Gospels was palatable material to them, which is a dubious claim. There was plenty of other content that would have infuriated anyone who would have had a problem with Jesus’ treatment of the woman in that account.

3 Likes

I don’t think it does. I think the authors are presenting palatable material overall (they are strengthening their respective communities) but there would certainly be things that would strike some readers or hearers as jarring. My comment is meant in terms of why the story wasn’t popularly spread and why it only shows up a bit later in the record. It is not a story a lot of people would be eager to transmit. Especially before every utterance of his was deemed theological fact from God. Jesus may have been too cavalier and forgiving of a sin worthy of vicious and violent capital punishment. But that there are other stories in scripture that not everyone would be eager to transmit doesn’t change the fact that this one would not have been overly popular in a lot of circles. Jesus’ earliest followers had to argue over circumcision and food laws for GENTILES, let alone a lax punishment for adultery. I know you don’t underestimate the gravity of misogyny an antiquity (not to mention today)!

The most unhistorical thing about it is that Jesus’ opponents don’t easily counter him with quotes from scripture. I would expect his opponents to care more about this (“he violates the commands of God!”). Its not that everything must be palatable but probability-wise its suppression is certainly not difficult to imagine. Just because some stories challenging to people made it in does not mean we should carte blanche assume they all did or would have. We have an embarrassment criterion for a reason, despite its limitations. There are clearly things that go with or against the grain in each community. Every story may have had its own development and tradition history. But I am speaking of Gospels as communal documents that developed over time, not as eyewitness, direct apostle to papyrus writings. We can see how Matthew and Luke handle embarrassing material in Mark (e.g. baptism or Matthew when Mark has Jesus say “only God alone is good.”. Sometimes Mark is omitted completely (Jesus declared all food clean, Sabbath statement etc). People will always disagree on some things others agree with and what others find embracing some will not. Brute facts will also occasionally get in the way of what people would like to ignore or promote. But the question is who would a story with a retributive hand slap for a woman who committed adultery benefit in the early church? How does it help them? What benefit does this scandalous story serve?

What traditions survived and developed would depend on communal need, survival and remembrances of those who heard Jesus. Some would become popular immediately and spread widely. Others would not.

So if you think the apostles just were writing down all they factually remembered about Jesus I suppose what you say is very much valid. I view the history and development of the Gospel and its traditions in a different fashion.

And sorry for my atrocious typing today!

2 Likes

That is why I liked the interpretation I quoted. It serves the “Jesus is Lord” claim of the early church if it is read as support that Jesus fulfills the law and his forgiveness of the woman in this case is a claim to divinity and lordship. That would also be far more controversial than simply fraternizing with women of ill-repute and advocating for “sinners,” something that is all over the Gospels.

2 Likes

Yes, Jesus was known to have questionable associates and compassion for sinners. Just a brute fact. Yes, this incident is suspect on manuscript grounds and was probably a later addition to the text and it occurs in a few different locations.

My whole approach is one of history. Did this incident really happen or did it just serve the purposes of the Church? is this just a fabricated story about Jesus or is it Jesus par excellence? I am inclined to the latter view.

I agree fully with Keith’s interpretation. That is what the text is saying. Those elements are with the grain of the early church and them showing up in a story much later can be questioned historically. When stories fit the ideology of the later Church too neatly, good historians will express caution. Good historians will also not try to disconnect Jesus entirely from his followers.

But as far as this interpretation, all of this can be done in a different story very easily without Jesus issuing a slap on the wrist for adultery. That appears against the grain to me in antiquity and this affords it a degree of historicity. If nothing else, I believe the evidence favors a core of historicity. That is the point I was making. I see the incident as having a historical basis and I am explaining its lack of popularity.

“Fulfilling” the law is easy for Gentiles to get behind on things they don’t care about like cultic purity or kosher regulations. Thats just Paul’s party line for Roman Christians. That serves their purposes. Matthew tells a slightly different story but I digress. I am just not convinced a slap on the wrist for adultery serves the patriarchy of the times. I also see trajectories on women in the Canon itself. I am elated this story survived at all.

I agree that this story is about the authority of Jesus but if it actually happened, it is also equally about the compassion Jesus showed for this woman and his direct dismissal of OT commands requiring capital punishments.

The story has even deeper meaning for me. It is the response of Jesus to every act of violence, every racism, every genocide, every lie, every murder, every justification of slavery, every land theft, every ethnic cleansing, every witch trial or instance of misogyny perpetuated in God’s name. It is also my response to many things in the Bible that don’t make sense to me—including command to stone Law breakers! That’s how I take it though that obviously is not its specific historical context.

And for those interested, this is how Rauser started Jesus Loves Canaanites:

“I have seen many violent films over the years, but The Stoning of Soraya M. is definitely among the most disturbing. There are several reasons that this film has never left me. To begin with, this tragic story of a spiraling marriage in rural Iran culminates in a horrific scene in which a woman is stoned to death by the residents of her village with her husband and father leading the way. It is a truly awful, extended display of inexplicable cruelty and sickeningviolence. There are few more vicious ways to die than to be pelted to death with rocks. Yet, through it all there is no compassion or mercy deployed by the villagers, once friendly neighbors have now become stone-cold executioners. Right before this haunting murder begins to unfold, Soraya, buried up to her waste, screams desperately at the gathered villagers glaring back at her with a mixture of hatred and curiosity. “How can you do this to anybody?” she cries. And without missing a beat, one man bellows back at her: “It’s God’s law.”
God’s law.
How many atrocities of history have been justified by an appeal to those words? “It’s God’s law!” “God wills it!” “God commands it!” “God approves of it!” How often have those very words been bellowed just loud enough to silence the voices of protest?””

We can all wiki Soraya Manutchehri (1986) or Asisha Ibrahim Duhulow (2008) as modern day examples of this story that happened. It is not just some ancient and primitive practice from a bygone era.

Imagine this woman’s fear and subsequent relief at not actually being murdered in this fashion if it is an actual story.

Vinnie

4 Likes

Scholar James McGrath deals with this story in his excellent book, “What Jesus Learned from Women.”
McGrath considers the story to be historical, even though it didn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts used for the Bible. The story was widely known by church fathers such as Papias.

McGrath’s treatment of the story is fascinating. He links Jesus’s writing in the dust to the horrendous Sotah ritual (Bitter Water Test) in Numbers 5. ( God’s magic a******* potion ) This “test” was forbidden in Jesus’s time, but both Jesus and the Pharisees wanted to avoid the death penalty for adultery. Since no man was caught and dragged in, McGrath thinks that the woman may have been raped and was too frightened to cry out.

The action of Jesus writing in the dust was likely a scriptural lesson and condemnation of the spiritual leaders who were testing Him.

It likely refers to Jeremiah 17:13 - “LORD, you are the hope of Israel; all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water.”

Jesus was saying they had forsaken and turned away from God.

Papias knows of a woman accused off many sins IIRC, not necessarily this one but they certainly have some commonalities.

I watched the video on the bitter water from Cargill . Another reason (Num 5:11-31) to just completely reject parts of the OT. Forget softening by apologetics about genre and accommodation. Just ditch it completely.

I see a few parallels in terms of adultery and writing but how does McGrath tie the two together? And this account seems to presuppose the sin. Why does Jesus tell her to sin no more if she was raped? Surely he isn’t admonishing her to go and be raped no more.

Vinnie

1 Like

Oh yeah, the title. I tried to be funny, like if Jesus was doing a Steve Urkel impression.

2 Likes

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.