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Question:  In John 8:1-11, Jesus seems to subvert the enforcement of the law of God (Deut. 22:22), in apparent contradiction to his support for the law recorded elsewhere in the Gospels--e.g., Matt. 5:17-20.  Should John 7:53-8:11 even be included in the Bible, since this section does not appear in the earliest known Greek manuscripts?

Answer:  It is true that John 7:53-8:11 is not included in our earliest Greek manuscripts of John's Gospel, and there is general agreement that John was not the author of these verses.  Their style is more like that of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  In particular, note the mention of ``scribes and Pharisees'' in John 8:3, a designation that is used often in the Synoptics but appears nowhere else in John.  In fact, some New Testament manuscripts that include these verses place them in the Synoptics---e.g, at the end of Luke 21 (see [1, page 333]).  In light of the similarity between Luke 21:37-38 and John 8:1-2 and the rather similar challenges posed to Jesus in Luke 20, these verses seem to fit well at the end of Luke 21.  They also have possible connections with the rest of John 8, as we shall see.

Despite questions about the authorship and proper placement of this passage, however, John 7:53-8:11 does come down to us through a long tradition, which is a point in favor of its historical authenticity.  On the other hand, if the passage is inconsistent with other recorded teachings of Jesus, that inconsistency would speak against its inclusion in the Bible.  For insight into the issue of consistency, it will be very helpful to examine the biblical statutes relevant to the situation described in John 8:1-11, along with what can be known about the prosecution of adultery in first-century Judea. 

First of all, John 8:5 states that those who brought the woman to Jesus said to him, ``In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?''(NIV).  Looking in the Pentateuch, we find that the death penalty is prescribed for both partners in cases of adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22).  These verses say nothing about stoning, but stoning is specified in Deut. 22:23-24 as the means of execution in a case where the woman is engaged to be married to someone else.  Perhaps the woman brought to Jesus fell into this latter category.  It is also very possible that stoning had become the means of execution for adultery in general by Jesus' time.  The Mishnah (compiled 150-200 years after Jesus' time) does explicitly mention stoning as the penalty for some of the other sexual sins listed in Lev. 20:10-16 (Sanhedrin 7.4).

In any event, the prosecution of a capital crime required at least two witnesses (Deut. 17:6), and those witnesses were to take the lead in carrying out the execution (Deut. 13:9; 17:7).  Moreover, to qualify as a witness, one had to be a disinterested party of good character (see e.g. [2, p. 307]).  T.D. Lancaster [3, p. 763] notes that ``judges were expected to attempt to disqualify the testimony of the witnesses through vigorous cross-examination,'' much as the prophet Daniel was said to have done in the story of Susanna.

In Jesus' time, it was also the case that capital punishment couldn't legally be carried out without the approval of the Roman authorities (John 18:31).  This fact may help explain John 8:6, which says that those who asked Jesus the question in John 8:5 did so ``as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.''  If Jesus said that the woman should be stoned, he could be accused of promoting rebellion against Rome.  On the other hand, if Jesus said that the woman shouldn't be stoned, he could be accused of advocating lawlessness.

Considering the conditions that had to be satisfied in order for a suspect in a capital crime to be tried and executed, it is likely that few adulterers were put to death in Jesus' time.  Indeed, the Mishnah (Makkot 1:10) says that ``a Sanhedrin which executed a person once in seven years was called murderous.''

The above information sheds light on the reply that Jesus gave to the woman's accusers:  ``If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her'' (v. 7).  Jesus' statement is often paraphrased, ``If any one of you has never committed any sins, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.''  However, it would be impossible for an earthly judicial system to operate under such a requirement, given that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23).  A more likely paraphrase is, ``If any one of you is a qualified witness, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.''  In this reading Jesus plays the role of the judge who checks the credentials of the witnesses, except that he doesn't cross-examine the potential witnesses directly.  Instead, he allows the witnesses to be cross-examined by their own consciences.  This may have been a case of entrapment, with the woman being ``set up'' by her accusers.

After giving his reply, Jesus ``stooped down and wrote on the ground'' (v. 8).  Perhaps he did so as a way of giving the men time to think about their deeds and motives.  A number of other possibilities have also been suggested (see e.g. [3, p. 764]).  One such suggestion has Jesus writing the names of the accusers in order to remind them of the words of Jer. 17:13:  ``O LORD, 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.''  In any case, the men soon departed, and Jesus sent the woman away with an admonition to leave her sinful ways behind (vv. 9-11).

This reading of John 8:1-11 fits well with John 8:12-20, where Jesus' own testimony is called into question.  It is also consistent with both Jesus' respect for the Torah and his compassion for sinners.  There is thus no need to remove these verses from the Bible.


1.  D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991.

2. A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud, E.P. Dutton \& Co., New York, 1949.

3. D.T. Lancaster, Torah Club 4: B'sorat HaMashiach (The News of the Messiah), First Fruits of Zion, Littleton, Colorado, 2002.