Volume 45 - Issue 2

Text-Criticism and the Pulpit: Should One Preach About the Woman Caught in Adultery?

By Timothy E. Miller


This article considers whether “The Woman Caught in Adultery” (John 7:53–8:11) should be preached. After indicating why the issue is significant, the article details eleven approaches to the question. Throughout, an analysis of each position on the basis of textual evidence and an evangelical definition of canon is provided. The article concludes by suggesting practical ways of handling the text as it comes up in an expositional series.

A faithful pulpit ministry is characterized by at least two virtues: (1) proclaiming the whole counsel of God,1 and (2) speaking authoritatively only to the degree that the preacher can confidently say “thus saith the Lord.” These virtues require pastors to reflect on how text-critical issues should be handled in the pulpit. While there are many ways to consider this topic, this study will look at the issue through the lens of one highly debated passage, the pericope adulterae (John 7:53–8:11). This passage, popularly known as “The Woman Caught in Adultery” has been chosen not only because it is one of the longest text-critical passages in the New Testament, but also because its beloved status presents peculiar challenges.2

Thus, this study will look at the broad intersection of text-criticism and preaching through the narrow question, “Should a pastor preach on ‘The Woman Caught in Adultery’?” Such a question is not merely academic. A now retired professor, who is presently aiding in local church ministry, mentioned in conversation that this topic may be interesting to debate in an academic context, but is of grave concern to those who must enter the pulpit.

Why such grave concern? In addition to the desire to be a faithful steward of the pulpit ministry, pastors should also be concerned about the potential of leading their people to doubt. If handled poorly, the pastor may lead his people to doubt that the Bible they hold is actually Scripture. On the other hand, he may lead people to doubt his pastoral ability, since he casts doubt on the text included in their Bible. Spurgeon noted this double problem as he spoke of the intersection of the pulpit and text-criticism: “It is unwise to be making every old lady distrust the only Bible she can get at, or what is more likely, mistrust you for falling out with her cherished treasure.”3 Carefully navigating in the pulpit without falling into one of these two ditches is difficult and requires much wisdom.

This article is the fruit of research into both the academic works on the topic as well as the pastoral treatments of the passage. In regard to the former, numerous commentaries were surveyed in an attempt to discern patterns of how interpreters handled the passage. In regard to the latter, sermon series on the Gospel of John were examined concerning how pastors handled the text as it arose within a preaching series. In light of this research, a survey of positions will be provided along with a theological and logical analysis of those positions. The conclusion will offer suggestions on how the passage should be handled in the pulpit.

1. Can the Issue Be Ignored?

Before addressing how theologians and pastors have handled the topic, it should be recognized that some ignore the topic altogether, acting as though there is no text-critical problem. Consequently, they preach the text as though it is like any other passage in the Bible. While many pastoral examples of this abound (often in churches dedicated to the Authorized Version), there are some surprising examples in published literature as well. For example, in Exalting Jesus in John, Matt Carter and Josh Wredberg present a sermon on the passage without any discussion of the difficulty.4 Likewise, Walter Lüthi’s published sermons through John never address the issue, though he does present a sermon on the passage.5

Ignoring the issue, however, is damaging both to the pastor and the congregants. In regard to the pastor, it is necessary that he has confidence that what he preaches is actually God’s Word. Accordingly, to ignore the issue is to abandon one’s pastoral duty. It may be that the pastor is untrained in the discipline of text-criticism, yet surely he is able to read the work of those who are so trained. Thus, to the extent of his ability, he should determine the truth of the matter and proceed accordingly. Of course, there is always the danger that such study will lead in a direction the pastor would rather not go. But Broadus is as correct today as he was over a century ago when he stated this regarding the spurious ending of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13):

We may give up the pleasing and familiar words with regret, but surely it is more important to know what the Bible really contains and really means, than to cling to something not really in the Bible, merely because it gratifies our taste, or even because it has for us some precious associations.6

Ignoring the issue is also damaging to the congregation. Nearly every modern version of the Bible brackets this section off with a statement that reads something like, “The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53–8:11.” Even if the pastor decides to ignore the issue, congregants are hard pressed to ignore the marks in their Bible. They at least need to know that the pastor knows about the issue. Michael Milton suggests that ignoring an obvious issue like this is comparable to ignoring a bird that flew in during the sermon:

If a sparrow flies into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, at around the second point of the sermon, the preacher who continues his message without addressing the obvious flutter of little wings above the congregation, will not enjoy a congregation who hears his third point.7

In the same way, when a pastor avoids discussing an issue that the printed text highlights, they are at a risk of losing their audience. Perhaps they simply lose their attention, but just as likely they will lose the congregants’ confidence.

2. Charting the Options

A simplistic view of the matter is as follows: If the text is canonical, then preach it. If it is not canonical, then do not preach it. But things are not so simple. First, there is significant debate concerning the meaning of canonicity. Second, there are many who believe the text is not canonical, and yet they still believe it should be preached. Finally, even those who agree it is non-canonical and should not be preached disagree concerning what should be done in a preaching cycle when the text comes up.

The following charts show the differing positions on how to handle this passage. They differ in that the first group believes the text is canonical, while the second does not. Each position is labeled with a number and letter (e.g., 1A, 2C) for ease of reference.

3. The Text Is Canonical

The following positions argue that the pericope adulterae is canonical. The basis for such a belief is quite diverse. Each will be examined in turn, sometimes with a focus on how they define the canon, and sometimes assessing whether their evidential claims are accurate.

3.1. It Is Canonical Because the Text Is Original to John’s Gospel

Throughout the history of scholarship there has been a minor undercurrent of scholars who argue that the narrative of the woman caught in adultery is genuine to John’s Gospel. The most detailed defense is given by Maurice Robinson, a Majority Text advocate who has collated all of the manuscripts of John that include the pericope.8 But since the case against the authenticity of the passage is so strong, few have followed Robinson.9 In fact, Metzger has noted, “The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming.”10 While the case cannot be developed at length here, it will be worthwhile to overview some of the data.

In regard to manuscript evidence, quite early and diverse manuscripts do not contain the reading (e.g., 𝔓66,א B L N T W X Y Δ Θ Ψ 0141 0211 etc.), and many early versions (Syriac and some Coptic) do not contain it. No extant manuscript before the fifth century contains the reading. Even in manuscripts that contain the text, it is often accompanied by a mark identifying the debatable nature of the passage. The literature of the early church fathers provides little additional confidence, for with the exception of Didymus the Blind, none of the Greek fathers (e.g., Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, etc.) mention the passage for the first millennium of the church’s existence.

If the story is original, one would expect to find a reason for its exclusion from the text. Augustine thought it was original to the Gospel but was excluded because some men were afraid that their wives would see in it a license to sin.11 Kenneth Bailey, on a similar note, imagines a man asking for a copy of John without the narrative so that one could give the copy to his daughter. Such reasoning would be, “I don’t want my daughters committing adultery and telling me, ‘Jesus forgave this woman and therefore you should forgive me!’”12 It must be admitted that such positions are highly speculative, and there is no other example of a text that was modified due to moral prudence.13 Recently Jennifer Knust and Tommy Wasserman dedicated two lengthy chapters of their monograph on this pericope to examining whether this story was suppressed. They concluded that not only are there no persuasive reasons given for why the text would have been removed, but they also show that such a removal would have been nearly impossible.14 On the other hand, there is good reason to believe the narrative would have been added. The story portrays the forgiveness of Jesus in a powerful way, and it may have served early on to distinguish Christianity from Judaism.

As for the internal evidence, the passage “seriously interrupts the flow of thought in John’s narrative.”15 Such disruption may partially explain why the passage appears in five different places in various manuscripts: (1) after 7:52 (D E [F] G H K M U Γ Π 28 700 892]; (2) after 7:36 (225); (3) after 7:44 (several Georgian manuscripts); (4) after 21:25 (1 565 1076 1570 1582 armmss); and (5) after Luke 21:38 (f).16 Further, the style and vocabulary appear to be distinct from the rest of John’s Gospel.

When added together, the external and internal evidence strongly indicate the inauthenticity of the passage. Accordingly, few have found 1A to be an attractive position.

3.2. It Is Canonical Because It Is in a Text Tradition

Some interpreters include the pericope adulterae in the canon because of an adherence to an authoritative tradition. There are diverse groups who hold to positions under this broad umbrella.

The most prominent group holding to this perspective is the Roman Catholic Church. The Council of Trent settled the issue, for it stated “If anyone does not accept as sacred and canonical the aforesaid books in their entirety and with all their parts, as they have been accustomed to be read in the Catholic Church and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate Edition, and knowingly and deliberately rejects the aforesaid traditions, let him be anathema.”17 While many Roman Catholic scholars argue against the authenticity of the passage on the grounds established above, they nevertheless accept the text as canonical Scripture due to the decision of the Council of Trent.

Four Roman Catholic examples may be given.18 First, the New American Bible editors clearly believe the text is an intrusion; nevertheless they indicate that “the Catholic Church accepts this passage as canonical scripture.”19 Schnackenberg also makes this same point, though more explicitly: “Since it is included in the Vulgate, and the Council of Trent did not make any further comment about it, it forms part of the canon, though this does not involve any decision about its literary origin.”20 Third, the Catholic Commentary on Scripture argues against the texts authenticity, yet states “the Church receives this text as inspired Scripture.”21 Finally, Raymond Brown notes that in “Roman Catholic Church the criterion of canonicity is acceptance into the Vulgate … so Catholics regard [the pericope adulterae] as canonical.”22

Outside the Roman Catholic Church other groups hold to a canon that includes the pericope based on text traditions. While the King James Version Only (KJVO) and Textus Receptus (TR) advocates do not believe in a council’s determination of the canon, they effectively embrace Erasmus’s work in a similar manner.23 Coming alongside these are Majority Text (MT) proponents who argue that readings found in the majority of Greek manuscripts should be accepted as canonical.24 These movements are similar in that they all believe the text is canonical because it is found in a particular text tradition. Of course, there are some differences. In the Roman Catholic Church there is much agreement that the text is an intrusion within John’s original Gospel. The KJV/TR/MT proponents generally argue that the text is original to John’s Gospel. In all cases, however, an authoritative text-tradition plays a central role in determining the canonicity of the passage. For those who find no authority in these sources, 1B is not an option.

3.3. It Is Canonical Because of Spirit-Guided Ecclesiastical Use

Like the text-tradition examples above, this position finds an authority outside the textual evidence for the canonicity of the text. In this case, ecclesiastical use determines the canon. Edward Klink III is an explicit proponent of this position. While he recognizes the text is inauthentic, he nevertheless believes it is canonical: “The thirteen-hundred-year use and application of this text in the church becomes a kind of ecclesial argument, trusting in some limited capacity in the Spirit-guided decisions of the church and, behind the scenes, the providence of God.”25 Milton agrees, though he takes the argument in a slightly different direction:

No matter the controversies, the text is there. It may be disputed, but for some reason or another, the Church collectively through the centuries decided it should be there. It is more destructive to the work of the Church to gloss over the treasured contents of this repository than to decide to get rid of what has held the attention of the Church since the early centuries after the ascension of Jesus.… I am not arguing for the majority text. I am arguing for the majority time.26

On this view, canonicity is, at least partly, determined by the usefulness of a text among God’s people. Such usefulness, these proponents stress, is providentially guided by the Holy Spirit. Burge clarifies the connection between the question of ecclesiastical use and canonicity as he speaks of the pericope adulterae: “The story edifies the Church and has often become a vehicle through which the Holy Spirit works. Are these the grounds of the Protestant canon? If so, the passage should remain firmly anchored in the NT.”27

The position of Milton and Klink is attractive in that it recognizes the role of the Spirit in the canonical process. Nevertheless, one wonders why text-criticism is necessary if this is the standard of canonicity.28 Further, what is the role of apostolicity and inspiration in canonicity? These are questions that will be returned to. For now, it is enough to say that 1C offers a truncated view of canonicity, one which lacks the necessary depth for the concept.

3.4. It Is Canonical Because the Spirit Attests to Its Canonicity

Michael Kruger, following Calvin and others, has argued that the role of the Spirit is crucial in the historical process by which the church recognized the canon. Accordingly, it is possible that someone would argue that the Spirit testifies to the inclusion of this narrative. To be clear, neither Kruger nor Calvin argues this way. Nevertheless, one could logically make the argument, and so we should consider it.

While some might suggest this position is the same as 1C, there is a major difference. When Kruger speaks of the Spirit’s role in attesting to canonicity, he is not talking about the usefulness of the text in the church. Instead, he refers to the process whereby “the Holy Spirit works to overcome the noetic effects of sin and produces belief that these books are from God.”29 This work of the Spirit is often not direct, but is usually mediated through external evidences, including the positive case for the apostolicity of a text, its acceptance by the church, and a recognition of the divine qualities of a text.30 Therefore, while the usefulness of the text throughout church history may be one of the evidences for canonicity, it is not decisive. Further, it is only a part of a larger process whereby the Spirit indicates to God’s people what is canonical.

It is critical to note that Kruger does not think spirit-attestation can settle text-critical matters. He explains,

The canon is the result of the church’s corporate response; the individual textual variations are not. Thus, there is no reason to think that the final shape of the text is necessarily connected to the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit or that the majority reading is necessarily the original one.31

In other words, the testimony of the Spirit is applicable at the book level, but not the individual text level. In Kruger’s words, since “[divine] qualities are bound up with the broader meaning, teaching, and doctrine communicated by a book, they are not as applicable to individual textual variations (which, on the whole, tend to be quite small and change very little of the overall meaning).”32

A potential weakness in Kruger’s view of the canon can be seen in his parenthetical statement. What he says certainly applies to small textual matters, but what about the pericope adulterae or the ending of Mark’s Gospel? He does not explicitly address these. Likely he would note that though these disputed texts are of significant size, they pale in comparison to the size of the book they appear in. Accordingly, the text is not seriously altered. John’s Gospel, for instance, has the same message with or without the pericope adulterae. Thus, the Spirit witnesses to the canonicity of the Gospel of John, but such witness does not indicate anything about the inclusion of the debated passage.

3.5. It Is Canonical Because It Is Both Historical and Orthodox

In a journal article articulating an interconfessional approach to the problem of the pericope adulterae, Armin Baum states that “If the [pericope adulterae] is considered to be orthodox and historical, nothing speaks against crediting it with canonical authority.”33 Two standards are highlighted as necessary for canonicity: orthodoxy and historicity. As for the former, few argue that the text includes heterodoxy. Indeed, that is what makes the text so difficult. If the text had included false doctrine, then it would surely have been rejected many years ago (or would never have been included in the first place).

That the narrative is historical is less clear, though often assumed. The case for the historicity of the episode will be treated thoroughly below (see 2C). For now, it is enough to recognize that some believe its claims for historicity along with its orthodox nature combine to form a solid case for the text’s canonicity. F. F. Bruce appears to affirm the same perspective on the text, suggesting that such a “genuine remembrance of Jesus’ ministry” as that recorded in the pericope adulterae “is eminently worthy of being treated as canonical.”34 And this is true even if, as Bruce believes, the text is not original to the Gospel of John.

Granted its historicity—a point challenged below—Baum asks, “What can be more authoritative than the authentic words and deeds of Jesus? Did not the first Christians develop the whole concept of canonicity on the basis of Jesus’ (and his apostles’) authority? Did not they regard every authentic word and deed of Jesus as normative for their Christian faith?”35

Baum’s comments get to the heart of this position. If this is a true historical remembrance, and if much of the Gospels are retellings of true historical remembrances of Jesus’ life, then why shouldn’t this be parallel with the rest of Scripture? In answer, it must be admitted that it is not clear that it is true. In fact, even Baum concludes his article saying “the historicity of the event it relates has not been disproved. It is by all means plausible that the incident the Pericope Adulterae narrates is just as authentic as the words and deeds of Jesus that are in the original Gospel of John.”36 Notice that Baum’s case rests on the “plausible” and that which “has not been disproved.” These are unstable foundations which cannot bear the weight Baum places on them.

Even if Baum could prove that the narrative is historical, there is still the matter concerning how the narrative is communicated. The doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration (a doctrine to which Baum may not subscribe) indicates that it is not only the historical narratives but the very wording of those narratives that are inspired.37 Further, Baum is correct to highlight, “One of the main objections against the historical-theological approach and against a historical and a theological testing of the canonicity [of the pericope adulterae] is that it presupposes an open canon and therefore deprives the church of the normative basis for its theological judgments.”38

In sum, this perspective is correct to investigate the historicity and orthodoxy of the narrative. If either definitively proves faulty, the case for canonicity also falls. Nevertheless, historicity and orthodoxy are not sufficient criteria for canonicity. As with 1C, this position offers a truncated and insufficient view of canonicity.

3.6. It Is Canonical Because Authoritative Text-Forms Are Canonical

Another perspective on the canonicity of the pericope adulterae derives from a particular view of text-criticism. In light of the variances between manuscripts, scholars cannot know with certainty the exact form of the original text. In light of this fact, some have suggested that canonicity applies to any reading that has held authority within the church. For instance, Eldon Epp, after noting that the original text is unattainable, says that “the canonicity of readings has virtually the same degree of multiformity as do the meaningful competing variants.”39 Such a position necessitates more than one canon. The reason for this is stated plainly by Epp as he questions the meaning of “canonical”: “what can ‘canonical’ mean when each of our 5,300 Greek New Testament manuscripts and perhaps 9,000 versional manuscripts, as well as every one now lost, was considered authoritative—and therefore canonical—in worship and instruction in one or more of the thousands upon thousands of individuals churches when no two manuscripts are alike?”40 For Epp, then, the pericope adulterae may or may not be canonical, depending on whether the group in question considers the text authoritative.

Bruce Metzger also recognizes the challenge of text-criticism in relation to canonicity, but he seeks to solve the problem in a different way. For Metzger, it is best to view canonicity as pertaining “to the document qua document, and not to one particular form or version of that document.”41 For this reason, Mark’s Gospel was canonical and the question of the end of the text was not a consideration in regard to its canonicity. For Metzger, such a position explains why the delineation of canonicity did not result in an attempt to specify which specific readings were “canonical.”42 Metzger provides a modern analogy: “Churches today accept a wide variety of contemporary versions as canonical New Testament, though the versions differ not only as to rendering but also with respect to the presence or absence of certain verses.”43

Metzger does limit the variants that would be allowed in a canonical text by whether they appear very early. In his words, “The category of ‘canonical’ appears to have been broad enough to include all variant readings (as well as variant renderings in early versions) that emerged during the course of the transmission of the New Testament documents while apostolic tradition was still a living entity, with an intermingling of written and oral forms of that tradition.”44 By the “apostolic tradition” as a “living entity,” Metzger does not mean traditions that derive from the life of the apostles. He provides an example with the long ending of Mark, which was known to the church fathers Justin Martyr and Tatian. Apparently, these second century men lived during the “living testimony of the apostles,” for in light of their knowledge of the text, Metzger concludes, “There seems to be good reason … to conclude that, though external and internal evidence is conclusive against the authenticity of the last twelve verses as coming from the same pen as the rest of the Gospel, the passage ought to be accepted as part of the canonical text of Mark.”45

While Metzger and Epp have differing views on the relation between canonicity and text-criticism, they are both seeking to answer the same question: How can one attribute canonicity to a text that is as variable as the NT documents have proved to be? Epp, by seeing canonicity primarily as a social construction, simplifies the process by noting that all texts deemed authoritative for a group are canonical. Metzger, who wants to maintain some connection between canonicity and apostolic tradition, argues that any form of the text that can be traced back to the second century or earlier may be considered canonical. What is lost in all of this, however, is the role of the Spirit and inspiration. Does “canonical” merely mean that a text has authority, or that it was penned before a certain period? These are the fruits of canonicity, not their root. Accordingly, no matter how much authority is placed in a text by a religious group, that text is not canonical if not from the Spirit. Further, no matter how early a variant enters the stream of manuscripts, it is not canonical if not from the Spirit. In sum, 1F fails just as 1C and 1E by offering an insufficient definition of canonicity.

3.7. It Is Canonical Because It Is Apostolic

For those who believe a text must have apostolic authority (whether direct or indirect) in order to be canonical, the inauthenticity of the pericope adulterae in John’s Gospel appears to rule it out of the canon. There is a hybrid view, however, that suggests the passage is apostolic even if not penned by John for the Gospel. This perspective was explored at length by Scott Kaczorowski, who suggests that the text is an “inspired text inserted into an inspired text.”46 He argues that the passage gives evidence of antiquity, apostolicity, historicity, and orthodoxy, while also showing itself useful in the church.

Others have argued from a similar perspective. In a sermon on the passage, R. C. Sproul opened by defending his preaching of the passage on the following grounds:

The overwhelming consensus of text critics is that it was not part of the original Gospel of John, at least not at this portion of John. At the same time, the overwhelming consensus is this account is authentic, apostolic and it should be contained in any edition of the NT. I believe it is nothing less than the Word of God. Whether it belongs here in John’s Gospel or at the end of the 21st chapter of Luke, or somewhere else in John’s Gospel, I leave to the ages. But I am treating it as nothing less than the very Word of God.47

Along the same lines, Russell Smith, in a printed sermon, said, “Most conservative scholars agree that this passage depicts a genuine incident in Jesus’ life and that it bears the marks of authorship by one of the apostles. Therefore, I believe it is safe to assume that this passage is genuinely inspired Scripture, though it may not have been authored by John.”48

This position is attractive in that it gives full weight to the evidence that the story does not belong in John’s Gospel. Nevertheless, the nearly insurmountable problem is that the text is not attested until long after the apostolic period. The most Kaczorowski is able to say is this: “We feel it is unlikely that the story only reached written form as late as the third century.”49 Further, that early church fathers did not make use of this powerful story also speaks against its apostolic origin.

3.8. Conclusion to the Canonical Views

Despite their diversity, each of the prior positions agree that the pericope adulterae is canonical. But each falls short for one of three reasons. First, some fail in regard to evidence. For instance, the claim that the text is original to the Gospel (1A) appears to go against the manuscript and historical evidence, while the claims that the text is apostolic (1G) or is factually historical (1E) lack sufficient evidence. Second, some of the canonical arguments fail to convince because they are based on spurious claims of authority—whether from a church council or from a revered text-tradition (1B).

Third, some arguments fail to convince because they are based on truncated definitions of canonicity. Brevard Childs once said that “much of the present confusion over the problem of canon turns on the failure to reach an agreement regarding the terminology.”50 This is still true today, as is evident by the differing definitions of canonicity offered above. Following Kruger, a robust definition of canonicity takes into account the character of the text (its divine qualities), the corporate reception of the church, and its apostolic origins.51 These are confirmed to God’s people through the attestation of the Spirit. Many of the definitions used above, however, isolate one or two of these factors. For instance, that the text is canonical because it is useful in the church (1C) maximizes one of the characteristics of the text and makes it sufficient for canonicity. Additionally, the position that the text is Spirit-attested (1E) separates the Spirit’s attestation from the evidences the Spirit uses to attest to canonical Scripture. Finally, that the canon is diverse because the text-critical problems are early and abundant (1F) fails either because the proponent overemphasizes the role of corporate reception in canonicity (e.g., Epp) or the author extends apostolicity beyond the lifetime of the apostles (e.g., Metzger).

On the basis of the manuscript evidence and a robust definition of canon, the case for the canonicity of the text falls short. If it is not canonical, how should the text be handled in the pulpit? This question is considered next.

4. The Text Is Not Canonical

Though it is a necessary first step, rejecting the canonicity of the text does not solve the problem of what a pastor should do when the pericope adulterae comes up in a preaching series. The following are four positions a pastor may take.

4.1. It Is Non-Canonical, So Skip the Text without Consideration

This is the opposite problem of the person who preaches the text without mentioning the text-critical problems. In the former case, people wonder what the brackets in their Bible mean. In this case, people may wonder why their Pastor does not believe the Bible. Though he speaks in reference to Bible translations, the comments of Ben Witherington III are appropriate here: “If you leave it out without any comments, there are bound to be thousands of Bible readers asking, ‘Is this Thomas Jefferson’s Bible?’”52

If modern versions of the Bible relegated the entire pericope to the footnotes, a pastor may be able to make minor comment and move along, continuing John’s narrative. As it stands, however, few versions are willing to do this.53 The RSV initially did so, but placed the passage back in the main text in the second edition.54 Comfort asks a legitimate question in this regard: “Isn’t it the task of translators to remove those obstacles that keep the reader from comprehending the meaning of the original text? If so, this ‘fixture’ should be relegated to the margin, so that the reader can see the continuity of John’s narrative.”55 Dan Wallace indicates that modern versions continue to print the text because of a continued “tradition of timidity.”56 Regardless of the reason, however, modern versions have kept the passage in the body of the text, and therefore it cannot be safely ignored.

Just as the brackets force those who think the text is genuine to talk about the text-critical issues at hand, so the inclusion of the text in the main body of modern versions also requires those who believe the text is non-canonical to address it. To ignore the passage altogether is to neglect the needs of the congregants. While passing over the text has the benefit of not interrupting John’s narrative, the pastor risks leaving the distracted listener behind. Therefore, the next position addresses the issue head on.

4.2. It Is Non-Canonical, So Speak about Text-Criticism

While there are many small textual issues throughout the NT, there are only a few that are of significant size. When these arrive in a preaching schedule, they provide the pastor the opportunity to address text-criticism from the pulpit. While some might refrain from doing this, believing the topic too controversial, esoteric, or difficult for the congregants, there are good reasons to consider it.

First, faithful Bible readers often meet text-criticism in their Bible reading. Of course, it is not direct, but whenever they read an alternative version and discover it says something different from their beloved version, or when they see a footnote offering a different reading, they are facing text-criticism. Do they know how to handle these footnotes and differences? Second, there is only one New York Times Best Seller that discusses text-criticism, and it is written by someone who opposes an Evangelical definition of Scripture.57 While a pastor’s congregants might not read Bart Erhman’s work, they very well may have conversations with relatives or friends at work who have done so. Textual matters can be unsettling for the unaware, and it is less than ideal that they first meet the challenge from a skeptic.

Of course, the teaching on text-criticism need not take up the majority of the sermon, though it could. The pastor could either combine the teaching of text-criticism with one of the options mentioned below (2C or 2D), or he could explain why he is passing over the material and move on to the next section of John’s Gospel. In either case, it does seem wise to address the topic.

4.3. It Is Non-Canonical, But It Is True and Historical, So Preach It

Though a pastor may decide that the text is not canonical, he may believe the text communicates a true story concerning Jesus. This is a very common view. For example, D. A. Carson says, “There is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred, even if in its written form it did not in the beginning belong to the canonical books.”58 Leon Morris adds, “But if we cannot feel that this is part of John’s Gospel, we can feel that the story is true to the character of Jesus. Throughout the history of the church it has been held that, whoever wrote it, this little story is authentic. It rings true.”59 J. Ramsey Michaels is more bold: “It is undoubtedly a true incident in Jesus’ life.”60 Merrill Tenney draws a similar conclusion: “It doubtless constitutes a genuine account of an episode of His career.”61

John’s Gospel indicates that there are many more things Jesus said than could be written down (21:25). There are even agrapha (teaching of Jesus not recorded in the Gospels) expressed elsewhere in the NT (e.g., “It is more blessed to give than to receive” [Acts 20:35]). Accordingly, it is possible that this narrative truly occurred. The literary and historical evidence, however, is not convincing.

As for the literary evidence, the criterion that this episode “sounds like Jesus” fails to convince. The danger of casting Jesus in our own image must always be guarded against, and a criterion of “sounds like Jesus” can too easily devolve into that error. For instance, some might claim that Jesus being angry (Mark 3:5) or his speaking negatively to a Gentile woman (Matt 15:26) does not “sound like Jesus.” On the other hand, statements like “God accepts everyone just as they are” are touted by many to “sound like Jesus.” Indeed, Carl Bridges is correct to warn, “One should use the ‘sounds like Jesus’ criterion sparingly, if only because it ‘sounds like’ the Jesus Seminar.”62

Other literary evidence is a bit more supportive. There are many similarities between the pericope adulterae and other Gospel narratives. For instance, the narrative presents Jesus answering a question designed to trick him in a way that turns the tables on the questioners (cf. Matt 21:25). Further, Jesus is merciful to the sinful and offers forgiveness to those who recognize their sin. Finally, there is an apparent subversion of the law, which is actually a deeper confirmation of it.63 Added to these are the claims that the pericope adulterae shows similarity to Johannine and Lukan style.64

On the historical side, there is a statement made by Papias, a second century church father, about “a woman who was accused before the Lord of many sins, which the Gospel according to the Hebrews contains.”65 Even if there were no questions concerning the testimony of Papias,66 it is uncertain that this episode is the same as the pericope adulterae. The woman in that story has many sins, while in the pericope adulterae it appears to be one sin. Thus, Kaczorowski appears overly optimistic when he says, “The fact that this story (or one very much like it) came down to Papias through his conversations with those who had known the apostles points not just to the antiquity of the account but also suggests its apostolicity.”67

The only other historical evidence occurs in the third century and later.68 Some have argued that though the textual evidence begins in the third century, the narrative must have originated prior to that point because the ascetic, moralistic nature of the church at the time would not have created such a scandalous narrative. In the words of Metzger, “No ascetically minded monk would have invented a narrative that closes with what seems to be only a mild rebuke on Jesus’ part.”69

In sum, the limited historical and literary reasons to believe the account is factual seem not to support the confidence of some interpreters. Indeed, it appears that the burden of proof has not been met. Accordingly, the preacher is on unstable ground if he preaches the text on the grounds that it is historically accurate.

4.4. It Is Non-Canonical, But It Is a “Benign Expansion,” So It Can Be Used Illustratively70

The final position under consideration argues that the text is non-canonical, but since its contents are taught in other places in Scripture, the material can be used illustratively. John Piper handles the passage this way. After noting that many commentators believe the pericope adulterae to be historical, he says,

Perhaps. I would like to think so. Who doesn’t love this story? But that does not give it the authority of Scripture. So what I will do is take its most remarkable point and show that it is true on the basis of other parts of Scripture, and so let this story not be the basis of our authority, but an echo and a pointer to our authority, namely, the Scriptures, that teach what it says.

Later he clarifies, “I am not going to say what I am about to preach to you is because of this text [the pericope adulterae]. I don’t think I have the warrant to do that. I preach the word of God, and I don’t think this is part of it. Even if [the narrative truly] happened.”71

David Doran offers a similar perspective, noting that even though many argue the narrative to be historically factual, “I can’t bring myself in good conscience to [preach it]. I don’t have any reason to think it didn’t happen. But I also don’t have a reason to believe God intended for us to have this as an inspired record, so I can’t see preaching a message from it.” He then offers an analogy: “It would be like if I opened a church history book and said, this event happened, so let me preach a sermon to you about it. I would actually be taking a stance on the authority that is outside the Bible.”72 Despite this, Doran argues that the passage can still be useful, for “It rings with an illustrious power of what we know to be true. There is nothing contrary to the Scripture taught in this story.” On this basis Doran offers a helpful way of preaching the text: instead of going through the story to biblical truths, a pastor should go through biblical truths to the story.73

These pastors do not deny the historical truthfulness of the narrative, but since they cannot prove it, they are unwilling to preach it. Nevertheless, they also see that the truths presented in the narrative are consistent with other passages of Scripture, and thus they are willing to preach the truths of the narrative but only on the authority of other biblical texts.

5. Conclusion

The question of whether one should preach about the “Woman Caught in Adultery” is a theological question at heart. Its answer depends on one’s view of canonicity, inspiration, preservation, and the role of the ecclesiastical office.

The conclusion of this paper is that the pericope adulterae is not canonical. This assessment is based on the textual and historical evidence, as well as on a robust, Evangelical definition of canon. Having concluded it is not canonical, four options were presented concerning how to handle the passage as it comes up in an expositional series on John’s Gospel. Since nearly all modern versions include the passage in the main text, it is not safe to avoid the passage. Further, since there is insufficient evidence to conclude that the non-canonical narrative is historically accurate, one should not simply preach the passage. Two options remain, and they are not exclusive. First, one may teach on why the passage will be skipped and thus teach the basics of text-criticism. Second, one may preach the truths of the narrative sourced in other, clearly canonical texts. It is possible, and perhaps best, to do both.74 One may start the message talking about the text-critical issues and then transition to preaching the text on the basis of other passages. In this way, the preacher is able to confidently say “thus saith the Lord.”

[1] Acts 20:27 uses this language, though in a sense different than the sense popularly understood. Paul had only two and a half years with the Ephesians, and it is quite likely he did not exposit all of the Old Testament verse by verse. Nevertheless, Paul did communicate the fulness of the Scripture, and in order to do that he had to know what that Scripture indicated.

[2] In regard to the NT, two passages immediately come to mind when thinking about difficult text-critical passages in the pulpit: The pericope adulterae (John 7:53–8:11) and the ending of Mark’s Gospel (16:9–20). The ending of Mark would make for a good case study, for it has been used to justify peculiar worship habits (i.e., handling snakes), and the lack of an expected ending leaves the reader unsatisfied (which actually might be the point!). But the passage under consideration here is “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” for it is a well-known and well-beloved narrative.

[3] He said this in relation to the Authorized Version, which he noted was “faulty in many places” yet still “a grand work.” Spurgeon was not against text-criticism, but he warned that a preacher must “correct where correction must be for truth’s sake, but never for the vainglorious display of [one’s] critical ability.” Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Commenting & Commentaries (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1969), 31. See also Elijah Hixson, “New Testament Textual Criticism in the Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon,” JETS 57 (2014): 555–70.

[4] Matt Carter and Josh Wredberg, Exalting Jesus in John, Christ-Centered Exposition (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017).

[5] Walter Lüthi, St. John’s Gospel: An Exposition (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1960).

[6] John Broadus, Commentary on Matthew (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), 139.

[7] Michael A. Milton, “Preaching from the Footnotes: The Challenge of Textual Criticism in Expository Preaching,” The Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 9.2 (2009): 61.

[8] Maurice Robinson, “Preliminary Observations Regarding the Pericopae Adulterae Based upon Fresh Collations of Nearly All Continuous-Text Manuscripts and All Lectionary Manuscripts Containing the Passage,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 13 (2000): 35–59. See also Maurice Robinson, “The Pericope Adulterae: A Johannine Tapestry with Double Interlock,” in The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research, ed. David Alan Black and Jacob N. Cerone, LNTS 551 (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 115–46.

[9] Few commentaries argue for its inclusion. See, however, John Phillips, Exploring the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001), 449 n. 1; Carl L. Laney, John, Moody Gospel Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 151–54.

[10] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (London: United Bible Societies, 1994), 187.

[11] Augustine, “Adulterous Marriages,” in Treatises on Marriage and Other Subjects, trans. Charles T. Wilcox, The Fathers of the Church 27 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 2.7 (pp. 107–8).

[12] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 230.

[13] Metzger, Textual Commentary, 189.

[14] Jennifer Knust and Tommy Wasserman, To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 96–172.

[15] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 1:736.

[16] Metzger, Textual Commentary, 188–89.

[17] Italics added for emphasis. After two months of debate, there were twenty-four yes votes, fifteen no votes, and sixteen abstentions. Council of Trent, Session 4, “Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures” in Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Trans. Henry Joseph Schroeder (St. Louis: Herder, 1941), 18.

[18] Not all Roman Catholic Commentators have cited the Council in their academic consideration of this passage. For example, Francis Moloney, a Catholic critical commentator, argues against the authenticity of the text and suggest the text is an intrusion on John’s Gospel (Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, SP 4 [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998], 259.

[19] Here is the full statement, showing their reasoning and then simple assertion of submission to authority: “The story of the woman caught in adultery is a later insertion here, missing from all early Greek manuscripts. A Western text-type insertion, attested mainly in Old Latin translations, it is found in different places in different manuscripts: here, or after Jn 7:36 or at the end of this gospel, or after Lk 21:38, or at the end of that gospel. There are many non-Johannine features in the language, and there are also many doubtful readings within the passage. The style and motifs are similar to those of Luke, and it fits better with the general situation at the end of Lk 21: but it was probably inserted here because of the allusion to Jer 17:13 (cf. note on Jn 8:6) and the statement, ‘I do not judge anyone,’ in Jn 8:15. The Catholic Church accepts this passage as canonical scripture.” The New American Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 1816.

[20] Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, trans. Kevin Smyth, HThKNT (New York: Herder, 1968), 2:162.

[21] Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV, The Gospel of John, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 151.

[22] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John, AB 29–29A (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966–1970) 1:336.

[23] The reasons for this are diverse, but generally these proponents indicate that God providentially led so that the text would be precisely what it is. For a defense of the passage from this perspective, see Peter S. Ruckman, The “Errors” in the King James Bible (Pensacola, FL: Bible Baptist Bookstore, 1999), 335–36.

[24] Zane Clark Hodges, Arthur L. Farstad, and William C. Dunkin, eds., The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Nelson, 1985). Byzantine Priority advocates, like Maurice Robinson, should be considered separately from the MT position. Byzantine Priority advocates do not simply count manuscripts; instead, they give primary attention to the transmission history of a textual reading (finding greater value in the Byzantine tradition than most eclectic critics) and subsequently follow this with an analysis of internal textual considerations. See Robinson’s defense of the canonicity of this passage as an example (“The Pericope Adulterae: A Johannine Tapestry with Double Interlock,” 115–46).

[25] Edward W. Klink III, John, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 389.

[26] Milton’s quote indicates the closeness between this position and the last. Indeed, many people argue for the Majority Text on the basis of its historicity. Milton, “Preaching from the Footnotes,” 58–59.

[27] Gary M. Burge, “A Specific Problem in the New Testament Text and Canon: The Woman Caught in Adultery,” JETS 27 (1984): 148. Burge refrains from explicitly taking this view in either his article or in his commentary (John, NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000], 244–45); nevertheless, both works appear to speak positively concerning the view.

[28] More disturbingly, an abuse of this perspective could be used to eliminate sections of Scripture from canonicity, for some passages may be judged not to be used by the Spirit.

[29] Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 94.

[30] Kruger, Canon Revisited, 112.

[31] Kruger, Canon Revisited, 101 n. 37.

[32] Kruger, Canon Revisited, 101 n. 37.

[33] Armin D. Baum, “Does the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53–8:11) Have Canonical Authority? An Interconfessional Approach,” BBR 24 (2014): 175.

[34] F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1996), 289.

[35] Baum, “Does the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53–8:11) Have Canonical Authority?,” 175.

[36] Baum, “Does the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53–8:11) Have Canonical Authority?,” 177.

[37] Second Timothy 3:16 indicates that the Scriptures are “breathed out by God,” investing the very words with authority. In regard to narratives, the truth is not just the historical situation they convey, but it also includes the way that narrative is told. For example, the statement “Jesus was angry so he flipped over tables and threw people out of the temple” is historically accurate and orthodox. Nevertheless, the way it is told is less than ideal. It could mislead, and it does not capture what Scripture captures as it speaks of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. This simple illustration is meant to highlight that the words one uses matter just as much as the historical truths being communicated.

[38] Baum, “Does the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53–8:11) Have Canonical Authority?,” 177. He does not consider this a problem, noting that certain segments of the church have held a different canon in history. Further, he notes that churches who hold to the pericope adulterae and those that do not would not differ in any significant way.

[39] Eldon Jay Epp, “Interrelation of New Testament Textual Criticism and Canon,” in Perspectives on New Testament Textual Criticism (Boston: Brill, 2005), 638.

[40] Epp, “Interrelation of New Testament Textual Criticism and Canon,” 636.

[41] Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), 269.

[42] Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 269.

[43] Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 270.

[44] Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 269, emphasis added.

[45] Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 270.

[46] Scott J. Kaczorowski, “The Pericope of the Woman Caught in Adultery: An Inspired Text Inserted into an Inspired Text?,” JETS 61 (2018): 321–37.

[47] R. C. Sproul, “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” Ligonier Ministries,, emphasis added.

[48] Russell B. Smith, “False Judges: A Sermon on John 8:1–11,” Reformed Perspectives Magazine 3.43 (October 2001),, emphasis added.

[49] Kaczorowski, “The Pericope of the Woman Caught in Adultery,” 334.

[50] Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 179.

[51] Kruger, Canon Revisited, 118.

[52] As quoted in an interview: Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Is ‘Go and Sin No More’ Biblical?,” Christianity Today 52 (June 2008): 46.

[53] Even some scholarly editions of the Greek New Testament keep the passage in brackets (e.g., NA28 and UBS5). On the other hand, other editions have properly relegated the text to the footnotes (e.g., The Tyndale House Greek New Testament and SBLGNT).

[54] Philip Wesley Comfort, “The Pericope of the Adulteress,” The Bible Translator 40 (1989): 145. See also, Philip Wesley Comfort, Early Manuscripts and Modern Translations of the New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1990), 116.

[55] Comfort, “The Pericope of the Adulteress,” 145. See also, Comfort, Early Manuscripts and Modern Translations of the New Testament, 116. It should be mentioned that the New World Translation places it in a footnote.

[56] Daniel B. Wallace, “The Gospel According to Bart,” JETS 49 (2006): 336.

[57] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperOne, 2007).

[58] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 333.

[59] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, rev. ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 779.

[60] J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 146.

[61] Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 138.

[62] Carl B. Bridges, “The Canonical Status of the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53–8:11),” Stone-Campbell Journal 11 (2008): 216 n. 17.

[63] See the excellent treatment of this in Kaczorowski, “The Pericope of the Woman Caught in Adultery,” 332.

[64] Kaczorowski’s article argues for a similarity with Luke, while Baum argues for similarity to John. Whitacre argues for it being a mix between synoptic and Johannine presentations, and that though it is clearly foreign to the document, it is a “patch sewn onto John’s Gospel” which has the “same pattern as the whole, even if the colors are somewhat different.” Kaczorowski, “The Pericope of the Woman Caught in Adultery,” 325–27; Baum, “Does the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53–8:11) Have Canonical Authority?,” 335; Rodney A. Whitacre, John, IVP New Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 210.

[65] Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, Books 1–5, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, The Fathers of the Church 19 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 206.

[66] The testimony from Papias has been doubted in relation to the following factors. First, Papias only knew the disciples of the apostles. Second, the knowledge of what Papias says comes only through the quotations of a later writer, Eusebius. For a general defense of Papias’s testimony, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 12–38.

[67] Kaczorowski, “The Pericope of the Woman Caught in Adultery,” 332.

[68] Didymus the Blind, who wrote in the fourth century, certainly knew the story as is evidenced by his account in Ecclesiastes Commentary, 223.6b–13a, which was translated in Bart D. Ehrman, “Jesus and the Adulteress,” NTS 34 (1988): 25. The third century Didascalia Apostolorum in Syrian also contains the narrative.

[69] Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 319.

[70] Bridges defines the pericope adulterae as a “benign expansion” by which he means that its truth-claims are consistent with the message of the NT. Bridges, “The Canonical Status of the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53–8:11),” 220–21. Cf. Steven J. Cole, “Caught in the Act (John 7:53–8:11),” 23 February 2014,–811.

[71] John Piper, “Neither Do I Condemn You,” Desiring God, 6 March 2011,–3.

[72] David Doran, “The Woman Caught in Adultery” (sermon at Inter-City Baptist Church, Allen Park, MI, 20 October 2013).

[73] Doran, “The Woman Caught in Adultery.”

[74] Significantly, both Piper and Doran began their messages by overviewing text-criticism, helping their people understand the issues. The second half of their sermon was an analysis of the text which focused on the shared truths with other Scripture. In this way, Piper and Doran combined views 2B and 2D.

Timothy E. Miller

Timothy E. Miller is assistant professor of New Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.

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