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.