In Layman’s Terms: The Pericope Adulterae

The term “pericope adulterae” may be unfamiliar to some, but it’s simply a traditional way of referring to the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). This brief story (or “pericope”) has a unique and complex history shrouded in a fair amount of mystery – as far as biblical studies go, it’s a real puzzle. As almost every Bible translation notes before or after John 7:53-8:11, “our earliest and best manuscripts do not contain John 7:53-8:11.” Indeed, Codex Bezae (5th c.) is the first manuscript of John’s Gospel to contain this story, which the majority of copies of John’s Gospels have followed, to this day. To complicate matters, other, later manuscripts place the pericope after John 7:36, John 21:25, and Luke 21:38. The only comparable textual problem of this magnitude in the NT is the so-called “longer ending(s) of Mark” (16:9-20). So what do we make of this?

Almost all scholars agree that John 7:53-8:11 is not original to John’s Gospel: apart from the manuscript evidence, the story interrupts John’s narrative and features lots of non-Johannine language. Yet many scholars believe that the story does represent a (more or less) real event in the life of the historical Jesus. The story does exist in different forms prior to the fifth century. More than 20 years ago, Bart Ehrman’s article “Jesus and the Adulteress,” NTS 34 (1988): 24–44 argued that the form of the story that ended up in Codex Bezae was in fact a conflation of two earlier stories involving Jesus and a sinful woman. These earlier forms were likely in touch with an early tradition – but how much earlier? My article argues that the most important of these earlier forms can in fact be traced back to the first century, significantly increasing the odds that the majority of the pericope adulterae goes back to early oral tradition.

Why, though, was this story eventually placed after John 7:52? In a recent book (The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus, NTTSD 38; Leiden: Brill, 2009), Chris Keith has argued that this story, perhaps the only one in the Jesus tradition that shows Jesus writing (on the ground), was included in the Gospels to counter the claims of critics who charged that Jesus was illiterate and therefore unworthy of honor or worship. The pericope’s subsequent dislocation to other places in the Gospels can reasonably be explained by the influence of the lectionary system in combination with the confusion resulting from the story’s late addition to the Gospel of John. It’s impossible to say, but it seems to me that Keith’s explanation is the best advanced thus far.


About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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4 Responses to In Layman’s Terms: The Pericope Adulterae

  1. Clint says:

    Heard of your paper from an interview of Dr. Wallace. You might interested in this related issue of Luke’s reason for writing. If his thesis is correct (as well as a German scholar he mentions in his list at the end of the book of scholars’ theses put forward on the topic), then I think the case is strengthened for Luke being behind PA, ultimately.

    Luke was the necessary background to the defense brief of Acts, written for Theophilus, the Roman official responsible for pre-trial investigation for Paul’s trial in Rome. Therefore, Luke is portraying Jesus as unwilling to break Roman law, i.e. interfering with their prerogative on meting out capital punishment, as the Jewish leaders were challenging him to do.

    “John Mauck, Paul on Trial

    It is not often that a non-specialist gets some special insight, but here we have one example. Mauck, an attorney, looks at Acts (and Luke) through his attorney’s eyes and comes away (informed by much, but slightly not enough yet not contrary, Biblical scholarship) with the idea that this book was written as a sort of evidentiary document to defend Paul in his trial at Rome.

    This has important implications for proving several traditional arguments (the early date of Luke-Acts), affirms the argument that Rome did indeed take a major interest in Christianity (to the point of doing a special investigation), explains why Luke wrote some things that others did not, and in ways they did not (including why he did not mention Paul’s letters — they would have been legally useless, partly because they amounted to self-declarations of the accused), and adds a few surprises that make sense (Theophilus was NOT a Christian, but a Roman investigator).

    Mauck ties in other points neatly (such as the character of Nero, and of his aides Seneca and Burrus) that glue the puzzle together in a way that is astounding. Most of the book goes through Acts section by section, showing how what Luke reported defended Paul from the indicated charges (preaching an illicit religion, stirring up riots). This is a very clever thesis, one critics will be hard-pressed to countermand, and the average reader will appreciate Mauck’s understandable prose. We recommend Paul of Trial as a highly readable apologetic resource.”

  2. Pingback: Reconstructing the Earliest Account of Jesus and an Allegedly Sinful Woman « The Jesus Memoirs

  3. mmendis says:

    I do not have access to Keith’s article, so I have not read it, but with regard to his thesis that the Pericope Adultrae (PA) was written specifically to counter accusations that Jesus was illiterate, there are several considerations that militate against it, some of which I shall attempt to outline below.

    First, if that was indeed the purpose of the PA, then its author would more likely have not merely recorded that Jesus wrote, but go further and record what it was that he wrote. This would have been easy enough to do (there have, from early on in the history of commentaries on the PA, been all sorts of conjectures as to what it was that Jesus wrote on the ground, among which are quotations from the Old Testament, the sins of the woman’s accusers, and so on), and it would have been far more convincing to skeptics and detractors. Merely saying that Jesus wrote on the ground does not necessitate that he wrote words. One can “write” squiggles or scribbles, as a young child who has not yet learned to write might do when given a writing implement. One can doodle; one can draw geometric forms or pictures. In fact, Strong includes the following note: “καταγράφω imperfect 3 person singular κατέγραφεν; to draw (forms or figures), to delineate: John 8:6 manuscript D etc. which T Tr WH (txt.) would substitute for R G ἔγραφεν. (Pausanias 1, 28, 2. Differently in other Greek writings) (Perhaps it may be taken in John, the passage cited in a more general sense: to mark (cf. Pollux 9, 7, 104, etc.).)”—which indicates that some manuscripts of the PA use the word for “draw” (κατέγραφεν), instead of the word for “write” (ἔγραφεν) in John 8:6. Several early commentators (you will find them on Bible Hub) were of the opinion that Jesus was not writing anything in particular on the ground during the incident narrated in the PA. A common explanation in these commentaries is that pretending to write on the ground was a common way in the Graeco-Roman world of signifying lack of interest or a desire to remain uninvolved or detached from the main action of the event in question. An instance from Classical literature is cited of a boy doing just this to appear innocent of a prank he had just engaged in. So, the leap from writing or making marks on the ground to demonstrating literacy is a leap too far.

    Second, if the purpose of the PA was to demonstrate Jesus’ literacy, we have to ask: At what point in the history of the Early Church was Jesus’ literacy questioned, and what is the evidence on which the claim that it was questioned is made? Perhaps Keith has provided the evidence in his article, but I would like to see it, since I have not, prior to this, heard that such an issue was raised in any of the polemical writings against Christianity. Furthermore, if Keith’s thesis is true, then we have to ask why the concern with Jesus’ literacy was not raised during the first few hundred years of the history of Christianity. The interpolation appears to have been made sometime during the 4th century C.E., and we have to ask why Jesus’ literacy became an issue after over 300 years of Christianity.

    Third, we have to ask why the Gospel of John was chosen as the gospel in which the PA would be inserted. Would any of the other three gospels not have done for the purposes of proving Jesus’ literacy? If not, why not? Some Biblical scholars have argued that the PA is more in keeping with the spirit and style of the Synoptic Gospels (and affinities to the Gospel of Luke have been extensively explored).

    Fourth, we have to ask why the author of the PA chose to create a story involving adultery and a trap set for Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees simply to prove that Jesus was literate. It seems like an excessively elaborate infrastructure for something as simple as the issue of literacy, given that the writing on the ground has no crucial role to play in the story and seems quite superfluous to it—without anything concrete in the account to connect the writing specifically to the woman’s adultery or the accusations of the scribes and Pharisees. Surely, there is a simpler plot that would have demonstrated Jesus’ literacy and done it more effectively. Besides, the account in Luke 4:16-21 of Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath day already demonstrated his ability to read, and that is half the battle with regard to demonstrating literacy. The other half, the ability to write, would hardly be called into question, since the ability to read is usually accompanied by at least a rudimentary ability to write, since the two are (and were, even back then) generally taught together.

    Perhaps Keith has addressed these questions in his article, but I doubt that one can provide an adequate defense for the thesis that Jesus’ literacy was the fundamental issue in the creation and insertion of the PA into the Gospel of John.

    Mike Mendis

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