“Men, A Woman, Jesus, Sin” John 7:53-8:11
While acknowledging the positive influences of Confucianism on Korean culture, one cannot ignore its contribution to the oppression of women. The subordination of women to men in Confucian teaching and the subsequent oppression of women has contributed to the unequal partnership in marriage between men and women. Korean Christians need to be helped to read the scriptures critically to discover the liberating message of Jesus.
The story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11 offers one such liberating message. I hope this reflection will provide one small but significant contribution towards helping Korean Christian women reflect on the message and compassion of Jesus in a society which demands strict chastity of women but allows a double standard of life for men. In John 7:53-8:11 Jesus allows no one to cast the first stone!
The Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11 has captured women’s hearts. It speaks especially to Korean women. The story depicts Jesus’ compassion for a woman in a vulnerable situation. His profound wisdom saved her from a life and death situation. And his forgiveness stirs up our strong feelings of gratitude towards him since the story is an authentic piece of Jesus’ tradition. Since Korean men are living a double standard life and can escape from the adultery situation which contrasts with the forced demands on women’s chastity, the message of John 7:53-8:11 will be helpful for women to recognize that any form of oppression is wrong and they are precious in Jesus’ eyes. Thus, this story is more than moral teaching for Korean women.
However, this text has a complicated textual history; furthermore, it does not belong to the Johannine text. Therefore, I would like to offer evidences to show that the passage is a non-Johannine text, then I will describe the history of its textual transmission, its historical value and its canonical location. Lastly, I will study the content and the message of the text.
There are literary and extra biblical evidences to show that the text does not belong to the Johannine literature. The literary evidence such as style, syntax and vocabulary suggests that the story’s origin is not Johannine. For example, the noun “scribes (grammateis)” in 8:3 is used only once in the Fourth Gospel, although the noun is common in the other gospels (Mt 5:20; 12:38; Mk 2:16; 7:1; Lk 5:21, 30; 11:35). The setting and form of the story also suggest that the text is not original to the Johannine text: e.g., a controversy with a Jewish leader in the temple (Jn 8:2) has more in common with the synoptic temple controversy stories (Mt 2:23-27; 22:15-22-33; Mt 11:27-33; 12:13-17-27; Lk 2:1-8, 20-40) than the long and involved debate between Jesus and the Jewish authorities in John [5:19-47; 8:12-58] (O’Day 1995: 627).
The passage (7:35-8:11) is absent from all of the important early Greek textual witnesses of the Eastern Provenance and is missing from the earliest forms of the Syriac and Coptic Gospels. It is also missing from many of the Old Latin, Old Gregorian, and Armenian manuscripts. There are no comments on them by the Greek writers on John of the 1st millennium. The evidence for the passage as scripture in the early centuries is confined to the Western Church, and the text appears in some Old Latin texts of the Gospels and the 5th C.E. Greco-Latin Cotex Bezae (Carson 1991: 333).1
All the early Church Fathers omit this narrative and they pass immediately from 7:52 to 8:12. No Eastern Father of the Church cites the passage before the tenth century. But Ambrose and Augustine wanted it read as part of the Gospel and Jerome included it in the Vulgate (Brown 1996: 335).
A number of later manuscripts that include the narrative mark it off with asterisks or obeli indicating hesitation as to its authenticity and its textual variants. Although most of the manuscripts (e.g., Jerome’s Vulgate) that include the story place it between 7:34 and 8:12, some place it instead after Lk 21:38 or 24:53 and others place it after Jn 7:44, 7:36 or 21:25 (Brown 1996: 335).2 All this suggests that this story of Jesus once circulated independently but did not find a place in John as the first Gospel was published. As we have seen above, most scholars are agreed that the text is not Johannine.
History of Textual Transmission
The textual history of the passage is notoriously complex. However, Brad H. Young tells us that there are three aspects of the textual history that have strong support. One is that 7:53-8:11 did not originate as a part of John’s gospel. Secondly, John 8:6a “They said to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him” (NRSV)3 is an even later addition to the text. And the last is that in its original form the entire story represents a realistic story. It can be counted among the best sources available for the life and teaching of Jesus (Young 1995: 61).
There are six stages that provide an outline of the story’s transmission. Stage one is: the story circulated without verse 6a. Stage two is that the story became popular enough to be inserted into one or more manuscripts of the text of John (after 7:52, 7:36, 7:44 or 21:25). Stage three is that verse 6a was placed into the story in one or more manuscripts of John. Stage four is the growing manuscript tradition. In this tradition, some copies of John were generated that lacked 7:53-8:11 entirely. Other copies contained the story of the woman caught in adultery without 8:6a; still other copies contained the story including verse 8:6a. In stage five the confusion arose over the position of John 8:6a because the interpolation broke the continuity of the episode and because other texts omitted 8:6a. Stage six is that verse 6a achieves a permanent place in the gospel tradition (Young 1995: 61-2).
The Historical Value of the Story
Although the story did not belong to the canonical books in the beginning, there is some evidence that the event occurred as described. There are similar stories found in other non-biblical sources. Obviously the story is ancient and is a well-known example of our Lord’s gentleness. First, a form of the episode is attested to by early patristic witnesses. Such a story is reported by Papias and recorded by the historian Eusebius, “the account of (a) woman, accused in the Lord’s presence of many sins which is contained in the Gospel according to Hebrews.” Secondly, another such story is recorded in the Apostolic Constitutions II, 24 which is the Syriac Didascalia 7 and is dated to the third century. The constitutions have been drawn from the Gospel of Peter which resembles the Johannine story. This story was known in 2nd century Syria (Barret 1978: 590; O’Day 1995: 627-8).
The Johannine story closely resembles form and style of the synoptic narratives especially the style of Luke (e.g., Olives in 8:1 and at dawn in 8:2). It also represents the character and method of Jesus as these are revealed elsewhere (Barret 1978: 590). And scholars have found some agreement between the narrative and expected Jewish custom such as the accuser being the first to throw a stone.
The Canonical Location
Although the story of the adulteress was an ancient story about Jesus, it did not immediately become part of the accepted Gospel. Here is Riesenfeld’s explanation of the delay in including the story in John. In the early church’s stern penitential discipline it was hard to reconcile the ease of Jesus’ forgiveness of the adulteress. Thus, it was accepted only when a more liberal penitential practice was firmly established (Riesenfeld 1952: 106-11).4 However, its canonical status is still up for debate. We will now see how the scholars see the canonical status of the passage and its location in the Fourth Gospel.
Some scholars see the non-canonical status of the passage since the story is a later addition to the gospel and is not of Johannine origin. For others, their view of canonicity is a question of traditional ecclesiastical acceptance and usage. In our Roman Catholic Church, the criterion of canonicity is what is acceptable in the Vulgate, and the Church has been using the Vulgate as its bible for centuries. The story of the adulteress has been accepted by Jerome, and so Catholics regard it as canonical. The story was also included in the text of the Byzantine Church and in the King James Bible. So the majority of non-Roman Christians also accept the story as scripture (Brown 1996: 336).
There are several possible reasons why John 7:53-8:11 received its canonical location. Guliding says that the location of the story both in John and Luke are on the basis of the lectionary cycle theory (Guliding 1960: 110; Barret 1978: 590). Schilling insists on the parallel with the Susanna story that draws attention to echoes of Daniel in John and thus makes the Daniel motif a guiding factor for the introduction of the story of the adulteress in John (Schilling 1955: 91-106; Brown 1996: 336). Raymond Brown says it provides a narrative illustration of the conflict that animates the dialogues of John 7-8. One of the specific conflicts in John 7 is the proper interpretation of the law (7:19-24, 48-49). One can read this story as an illustration of 7:24 which shows the difference between judging by appearance or by right judgement. The theme of judgement continues into John 8. For example, 8:15 “I judge by human standard; I judge no one” 8:46 “Which of you convicts me of sin?” [NRSV] (Brown 1996: 336). Gail O’Day says that the setting of John 7-8 was in Jerusalem at the feast of Tabernacles and chapters 7-8 create a picture of the increasing conflict between Jesus and his opponents (1995: 614).
When we read the passage in a larger context, two chapters (7-8) can be outlined and here I follow O’Day’s outline (1995: 615).
7:14-36 Word of conflict: Jesus’ teaching and response
7:37-52 Word of conflict: Jesus’ teaching and response
(7:53-8:11A narrative of conflict)
8:12-30 Word of conflict: Jesus’ teaching and response
8:31-59 Debate between Jesus and his Jewish opponents
Chapters 7-8 create a picture of the increasing conflict between Jesus and his opponents. All of the conversations in chapter 7 center on Jesus’ identity and people’s reaction to Jesus, and Jesus’ teaching places him in conflict with his Jewish conversation partners in chapter 8. However, the immediate context 7:53-8:11 also illustrates the confrontation and conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. Although the story is not originally Johannine, we can see that it has its own role in this text.
The immediate context 7:53-8:11 has three scenes. The first scene is 7:53-8:6a: the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus to judge. The second scene is 8:6b-8:7: Jesus writes on the ground and addresses the Scribes and the Pharisees. The third scene is 8:8-11: Jesus writes again on the ground and speaks to the woman (O’Day 1992: 297).
The Mount of Olives (8:1) is a frequent resting spot for Jesus in the synoptic tradition [Mt 21:1; 24:3; 26:30; Mk 11:1; 13:3; 14:26; Lk 21:37; 22:39] (O’Day 1995: 628). Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives and it reflects Lk 21:37. Thus, many exegetes think that the story is a piece of Lucan material (Perkins 1993: 965). And the temple setting (8:2) also reflects Jesus’ Jerusalem ministry in Lk 20:1. And this temple setting influences its canonical location in John 7-8 (O’Day 1995: 628). Jesus was addressed as a teacher (8:4) and it was a common form of address for him in the synoptics ( e.g., Mt 8:19; 12:38; 19:16; 22:16; Mk 9:17, 38; 19:17, 20, 35; 12:14, 19; Lk 3:12; 7:40; 10:25; 20:21, 28, 39). And if the Pharisees hope to undermine Jesus’ teaching (8:2) with their question, the address here has an ironic tone (O’Day 1995: 628).
Chapter 8:5 reflects Deuteronomy 22:23-24 which prescribes stoning a married woman who commits adultery. However, there are several irregularities in the legal case in 8:5. Firstly, they provide no witness to sustain the case since the woman was caught in the very act of adultery (cf. Deut 17:6; 19:15). Secondly, they did ignore the fate of her male sexual partner while the Mosaic law makes explicit that both the man and the woman involved stand under the death penalty (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22). And furthermore, the fundamental concern of the Mosaic adultery law is the protection and stability of men’s property and the law is worded to focus primarily on men [If a man commits adultery ...] (O’Day 1995: 62). And thirdly, there was no information as to whether the woman was married or single or betrothed. If the woman was a betrothed virgin who is sexually unfaithful to her fianc, a punishment was meted out to both sexual partners (Deut 22:23-24); if the woman was married, death is prescribed for all unfaithful wives and their lovers without prescribing the mode of punishment. The two cases are differentiated in the Mishna (Sanhedrin 7:4). The first instance is death by stoning and the second case has punishment by strangling (Carson 1991: 33).
There are some questions why the Scribes and Pharisees brought the woman. Joachim Jeremias’ (1950: 148-150; Brown 1996: 337) suggestion is that she had been judged and convicted by the Sanhedrin, and Jesus was only asked to decide the punishment. But Raymond Brown says in verse 10 “Hasn’t anyone condemned you?” seems to go against Jeremias’ explanation. And others believe that the woman had not been tried because the Sanhedrin lost its right in capital cases (There is a tradition that the Romans took away the right of the Sanhedrin to impose capital punishment about the year 30). If John 18:31 contains correct information that the Romans had deprived the Jews of their right to carry out the death penalty, then the trap may have been similar to the story in Mk 12: 13-17 [the tribute money story] (Brown 1996: 337).
The warning in Jesus’ words “first to throw” (8:7) may have carried a reference to the law (Deut 13:9 and Acts 7:58). Deut 17:6-7 says those who are witnesses against an accused person have special responsibility for that person’s death, a basic principle of testimony aimed at discouraging perjury (Perkins 1993: 965). Here, we also see that sin is linked with action in the words of Jesus; “the one without sin, first throw the stone.” It is unusual in the Fourth Gospel that sin is linked with action. The more Johannine understanding of sin is linked with a person’s refusal to recognize Jesus as the Logos (8:24; 15:22-24). And “Jesus did not answer their legal question but moved beyond the legal argument to the more encompassing issue of sin” (O’Day 1995: 629).
There are some interesting hypotheses on Jesus’ writing on the ground. First, it indicates his refusal to answer the question of the Scribes and the Pharisees which reflects the custom in the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ time (Carson 1991: 335). Secondly, the long standing interpretation in the church was that Jesus wrote part of Jeremiah 17:13; “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of the living water” (Perkins 1993: 965). Third is T.W. Manson’s suggestion that Jesus was imitating the practice of the Roman magistrates who wrote their sentence first and then read it (Carson 1991: 335). Fourth is Derrett’s suggestion: the first time Jesus wrote “Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness” (Ex 23:1b), and the second time he wrote “have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty” [Ex 23:7] (Carson 1991: 335).
Chapter 8:8 indicates that Jesus is finished with their question and 8:9 shows that everyone has sinned (O’Day 1995: 629). The first scene that that woman was directly addressed by Jesus is in 8:10 and his form of address, woman (gynai), is respectable (Carson 1991: 336). Chapter 8:11 reminds us that Jesus came not to condemn but to save and he has a right to forgive sin (Carson 1991: 337).
As we have seen above, John 7:53-8:11 does not originally belong to the Fourth Gospel. It may be closer to the synoptic tradition and especially to the Lucan tradition. However, the study shows that the passage not only has a canonical status but also has its function in the Johannine gospel within chapters 7-8. The passages 7:53-8:11 function to depict the increased tension between them by the thematic connection, by the story of judgement and by illustration of the confrontation and conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.
Aside from its function in the Fourth Gospel, there is some evidence to show that the event occurred as described. Since the story is an authentic piece of Jesus’ tradition, our Lord’s own voice closely stirs up our ears and his gentleness touches women readers. His forgiveness certainly moves our feelings of gratitude towards him. And his action assures us that women are precious and valued in God’s eyes and in Jesus’ eyes.
While we read the story, the passage challenges the double standard life where the man can escape from the adultery situation. It also challenges the law and the people in authority who interpret the law. It further suggests that capital punishment is forbidden. Jesus’ grace and mercy to sinners bring freedom not only to the woman but also to the Scribes and the Pharisees. It is an invitation to enter a new way of life and leave the old way of life. Thus, I conclude with Gail O’Day’s opinion: The story is about Jesus’ relationship to the law and the religious establishment rather than as a morality tale. Jesus places his authority to forgive and to offer freedom over and against the religious establishment’s determination of the categories of life and death (1995: 630). This is good news for Korean women in an oppressive Confucian society.
1.See Brown 1993: 104, also 1996: 335 and Barret 1978: 589.
2.See the critical apparatus of Aland 1975.
3.NRSV - New Revised Standard Version
4.See “The Gospel According to John I-XII,” The Anchor Bible (New York:Doubleday & Company, 1966), 335.
Aland, Kurt et al.
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Barret, Thomas C. K.
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Brown, Raymond E.
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1991 The Gospel According to John. England: Inter-Varsity Press.
1960 The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship.
1950 “Zur Geschichtlichkeit der Verhors Jesu Vordem Hohen Rat.”ZNW 43.
O’Day, Gail R.
1992 “John” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, eds. Carol A.Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe. Kentucky: John Knox Press.
1995 “The Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol IX.Nashvile: Abingdon Press.
1993 “The Gospel According to John” in The New Jerome BiblicalCommentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer andRoland E. Murphy. London: Cassell Publisher Ltd.
1952 “Die Perikope von der Ehebrecherin in der FruhkirchlichenTradition.” Svensk Exegetika Arsbok 17.
1955 The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress, ATR 37.
Young, Brad H.
1995 “Save the Adulteress: Ancient Jewish Response in the Gospel.”New Testament Studies, Vol 41.