For those who are joining our programming in medias res, this series is looking at the story of the Adulterous Woman in the Fourth Gospel from a narrative-critical standpoint. The first installment dealt with the theory of narrator reliability and the second with various narrative techniques. This one has to do with the challenges inherent in a narrative-critical approach to a story of uncertain authenticity.
The Text-Critical Situation
The story of the Adulterous Woman is now found in Jn 7:53-8:11. But was it always there? Probably not. The traditional exegetical approach divides the pertinent data between the categories of external and internal evidence.
If bizarre manuscript references are not your thing, you can accept my conclusion, that the story of the Adulterous Woman was not originally part of the Fourth Gospel, and move on down to the paragraph heading “Narrative Coherence.”
The external evidence for this story is very weak. Codex Bezae, a 5th or 6th century manuscript (mss) featuring Greek and Latin on opposing pages, is the only Greek mss earlier than the 8th century to show this story in its now-familiar place. And Bezae is [in]famous for its…um…creativity. For example, Bezae leaves out the cup during the narration of the Last Supper! Is it a boo-boo? Or did Bezae come from a tradition in which the Lord’s Supper was celebrated solely with bread? Enquiring minds want to know…
So Bezae is not such a reliable witness. What else? Well, Bezae is joined by a whole slew of Old Latin mss, all of which also relate this story in its accustomed place. This combination suggests that the western church (Latin) was invested in the story, but that the eastern tradition (Greek) was not. And in fact, there are a fair number of 8th century Byzantine (eastern) mss that do contain the story, but display hesitation about its status by marking it in some fashion. But before that, there’s nothing in the eastern tradition.
The real bottom line is this: the story is missing in just about every important Greek mss. It is not found in the papyri P66 and P75, nor in the uncials Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Regius, Purpureus Petropolitanus (written in silver on purple vellum, in case you were wondering), Borgianus, Washingtonianus (yup, in the Freer in DC, no less), Monacensis, Sangallensis, Koridethi, and Athos Laurae. It’s also missing in the early versions, to wit, the Syriac and both the Sahidic and Bohairic dialects of Coptic.
And what, you ask, about Alexandrinus and Ephraemi? The pages involved are missing in both, but a measurement of the absent sections shows that the amount of room left is insufficient. So it’s not attested even indirectly in either of those very significant mss, either.
The internal evidence for our story is likewise weak. For example, it appears in different places. In MS 225, it’s after Jn 7:36, while it’s at the end of the Gospel in family 1 (mss 1, 18, 131, and 209). In some Georgian versions it’s after 7:44 and family 13 (13, 69, 124, 230) puts it in after Lk 21:38, while the corrector’s hand of 1333 has shifted it to Lk 24:53. So there are some early and important witnesses that suggest that the story is none too tightly bound to its current location.
It’s also a bit awkward in context. It sits at the end of John 7, in which Jesus is supposed to be at the Feast of Tabernacles. However, reads like something from the passion narratives, in which Jesus goes back and forth each day from the Mount of Olives. Jn 8:9 has Jesus alone, but Jn 8:12-13 has a crowd. And if it were omitted you’d never suspect the loss! Go read it yourself!
Finally, the grammar and diction are also distinctive with respect to the rest of the Gospel. About fourteen of the section’s eighty-two words or phrases are not considered characteristically Johannine. For example, the expression “the scribes and the Pharisees” is found only here in John, but is quite characteristic of the Synoptics. And sentences in vv. 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10 and 11 are connected with the Greek particle de, while the rest of the Gospel shows a distinct preference for oun.
The upshot of all this is that the story of the woman taken in adultery is probably not authentic in the sense that it was not composed for its present location. But the fact that it’s not nailed into a single location does not preclude the possibility that it’s an ancient story. There are two witnesses that do suggest that our story is rather old.
The first of these witnesses is rather circumstantial. Eusebius quotes Papias about a reference in the Gospel according to the Hebrews that talks about a woman who was accused of many sins before the Lord. If this is the same story, then it has an early Palestinian origin. The second is the 3rd century Didascalia Apostolorum. This work very clearly relates our story. So it’s probably very old, but not part of the NT.
What to do, what to do?
There are two issues here. First off, stories known to be inauthentic are not always summarily cut out of the text. One passage with equally weak external attestation is this italicized section of the passion narrative in Luke:
After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” 43 (And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him. 44 He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.) 45 When he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples, he found them sleeping from grief. (Lk 22:41-45)
Like the Adulterous Woman pericope, this passage remains in the text of the critical edition, albeit marked off with double brackets. This is what Metzger has to say on the matter:
The absence of these verses in such ancient and widely diversified witnesses as P(69vid), 75 aa A B T W syrs copsa, bo armmss geo Marcion Clement Origen al, as well as their being marked with asterisks or obeli (signifying spuriousness) in other witnesses (Dc Pc 892c mg 1079 1195 1216 copbomss) and their transferral to Matthew’s Gospel (after 26:39) by family 13 and several lectionaries, strongly suggests that they are no part of the original text of Luke. Their presence in many manuscripts, some ancient, as well as their citation by Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Eusebius, and many other Fathers, is proof of the antiquity of the account.
On grounds of transcriptional probability it is less likely that the verses were deleted in several different areas of the church by those who felt that the account of Jesus being overwhelmed with human weakness was incompatible with his sharing the divine omnipotence of the Father, than that they were added from an early source, oral or written, of extra-canonical traditions concerning the life and passion of Jesus. Nevertheless, while acknowledging that the passage is a later addition to the text, in view of its evident antiquity and its importance in the textual tradition, a majority of the Committee decided to retain the words in the text but to enclose them within double square brackets. (Metzger, Textual Commentary, 151)
Sometimes it is stated that the pericope was deliberately expunged from the Fourth Gospel because Jesus’ words at the close were liable to be understood in a sense too indulgent to adultery. But, apart from the absence of any instance elsewhere of scribal excision of an extensive passage because of moral prudence, this theory fails “to explain why the three preliminary verses (vii 53; viii 1–2), so important as apparently descriptive of the time and place at which all the discourses of c. viii were spoken, should have been omitted with the rest” (Hort, “Notes on Select Readings,” pp. 86 f.).
Although the Committee was unanimous that the pericope was originally no part of the Fourth Gospel, in deference to the evident antiquity of the passage a majority decided to print it, enclosed within double square brackets, at its traditional place following Jn 7:52. (Metzger, Textual Commentary, 189)
In the end, we shall find out that the story of the adulterous woman is most definitely not about adultery. But first things first…
From a text-critical perspective, Metzger and his committee declared the story of the adulterous woman inauthentic, but elected to retain it because of it ancient origin. It is therefore duly marked it off with double brackets in the critical edition. This is good news, because if it were deleted it would almost certainly be lost. Nevertheless, this brings us to the second issue, the matter of actually reading the story.
Clearly, the real author of the story of the adulterous woman is not the same person as the real author of the rest of the Gospel. How about the implied author? Is the narrator consistent? Are the Pharisees of our story characterized pretty much the way the Pharisees in the larger Gospel are portrayed? In the Fourth Gospel Jesus is a larger-than-life omniscient, reliable, character. But what’s he like in this story? Is it a good idea to use the picture of Jesus we have built up over the earlier chapters of the Gospel to help us interpret him in this story?
Fortunately, this situation is not unique to Biblical narrative. The english dorks have to deal with it as well, in older stories that were composed before the printing press got its death grip on narrative variation. So there are a loose set of concepts about how to handle these situations, grouped under the heading of narrative coherence.
(I would not wish to excite your anticipation that a large number of English dorks work with these ideas. Most narrative theorists seem to be concerned with more modern challenges such as what Virginia Woolf was doing in that room by herself.)
At one level, this coherence simply tests whether the story of the adulterous woman “fits” within the larger story of the Fourth Gospel. But on a more detailed level, issues such as genre, form, themes, motifs, characterization, narration, plot, rhetoric, diction, and grammar must be addressed.
Some of these items have already been addressed. The diction and grammar are quite distinct from the larger Gospel. But of the enumerated elements, diction and grammar are perhaps the least important. In a narrative, the most important items are probably theme, narration, characterization, and form.
Thematically, the story of the adulterous woman fits rather nicely. It can be read as an illustration of certain sayings of Jesus, namely “I pass judgment on no one” (8:15), or “Can anyone convict me of sin” (8:46). The theme of admissibility of evidence, which plays a big role in Derrett’s theory of malicious witnesses, comes up in 7:15 and 8:13. So from a thematic standpoint, our story is quite at home.
Testing the narration and characterization, however, is a far larger undertaking. To compare the Jesus-character of the larger Gospel to the Jesus-character in the story, the reader must work through the Gospel and compile:
1) The words of Jesus
2) The actions of Jesus
3) What the narrator says about Jesus
4) What other characters say about Jesus
and then test these conclusions against the portrayal of Jesus in our story. The reader must repeat this process for the Pharisees/scribes and then consider how the author of the Fourth Gospel handles his flat/stock characters in order to evaluate the woman herself. Finally, the narrator’s contributions with respect to norms, values, and worldview must be considered in detail.
To the best of my knowledge, this work has never been done in detail. There are, however, some interim conclusions. The narrator and Jesus are both portrayed as omniscient and reliable and should be read that way unless striking evidence to the contrary can be identified. In this, they fit well with the Johannine text. In particular, the majestic Jesus rendering judgment is one of the Fourth Gospel’s most repeated and striking images.
The Pharisees are a slightly different matter. They do, in fact, engage in direct confrontation with Jesus on two occasions, one of which immediately follows the story of the adulterous woman (Jn 1:24; 8:12-13). (This may partially explain why we find our story where we do in John.) But their more common approach is through intermediaries. More importantly, they do not interact with Jesus on the subject of the law elsewhere in John. (Brown, John, 336)
This interaction with the law brings up the matter of form. The form of our passage is a conflict story over the law. In this, it is far more at home in the Synoptics than in John. And the picture so created of Jesus, as a gentle, merciful, figure, is the equal of any other such imager in Luke. Since the narrator and Jesus are likewise omniscient and reliable in Luke, perhaps we should read this story in the wider Lucan context?
What to do, what to do?
And yet, most mss put this story in John. For some reason, that seemed more suitable to far more people than the location in Luke. We’re very unlikely to have a definitive understanding of their decision, but there is something of a competition lying underneath many stories in John that pits one approach to the law against another. This dialectic plays out perhaps most fully in the story of the woman taken in adultery.
In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus operates under the two commands he received from his Father. The first was a command about what to say in 12:46. Jesus spoke in a manner pleasing to God, by repeating what the Father had taught him. The second command was the directive to lay down his life and take it up again (10:18). Every other action, including obedience to the first command, was predicated on the requirements of the second.
The disciples, naturally, had two commands as well. First, they were to keep Jesus’ word (e.g. 14:23-24) and second, they were to love each other as Jesus had loved them (13:34). The genius of these commandments, that despite their stark simplicity they totally enmesh the life of a disciple with that of God, has long been recognized. But the way this would have played out in the day-to-day life of a Johannine disciple is not so obvious.
It would seem that Johannine Christians neither hewed to the dictates of the Mosaic Law, nor struck out on their own. Clearly, the interpretation of the law promulgated by the Pharisees was corrupt, but that did not mean that the law was to be done away with. The law was both a witness to Jesus (5:39) and a source of divine “command” that still had a place in a life of faith. As Craig R. Koester writes, “the new commandment’s emphasis on love was a Christological recasting rather than a rejection of the traditional emphasis on love as the basis and emphasis of the Torah.” (Koester, Symbolism, 265-67).
So…perhaps this recasting explains why our story, the only law-centered conflict story in John, found its home where it did. Perhaps. In any case, the next and final installment will read the story of the adulterous woman from within the context of the Johannine narrative world as a Christological recasting of the proper emphasis and interests of the law.