Was the Pericope Adulterae (Woman Caught in Adultery) Original or Added?

“Forgive” by Yongsung Kim

In John chapter 8, there’s a story of a woman who was caught in adultery and brought before Jesus.  Her accusers want to trap Jesus, who writes in the dust and then says the man with no sin should throw the first stone (to stone her, the penalty for adultery in the Mosaic Law).  After all her accusers leave, Jesus tells the woman to “go and sin no more”.

It’s an often repeated story about Jesus’s mercy, and even has its own name: the “Pericope Adulterae“.  (“Pericope” means a story pulled from a larger document, and “Adulterae” obviously references adultery.)

However, did the Apostle John write this passage?

There’s a debate which rages on this topic, and we’ll examine the debate in this article.  We’ll start by looking at possible reasons for its inclusion/non-inclusion, then look at the external evidence from manuscripts and the early church fathers, and then look at the internal evidence in the text itself.

We’ll also look at an iron-clad argument pertaining to this verse, which I’ve literally never seen someone else mention.

I don’t know why no one talks about this, but it’s powerful evidence all by itself.  In my mind, it solves the debate all by itself with no other evidence needed… and again no one talks about it.

Here we go.

Reasons it might’ve been added/removed

Before we discuss the evidence, we’ll take a look at the possible reasons for its addition/removal.

  1. If it is original, why was it removed?
  2. If it isn’t original, why was it added?


Possible Reasons for Removal

Nearly every resource I can find says that the most likely reason for its removal (if it’s original) is because the church felt it made Jesus too “soft” on the topic of adultery.  While I agree that this the most likely reason for removal, it would mean the earliest copyists were wicked men.  As we discuss in my article on What’s the Best Bible Translation? And More Importantly, Why?, God commanded that we not change His words.

For them to have intentionally done so strains credulity.  It’s not impossible, but it seems extremely unlikely.


Possible Reasons for Addition

The most common explanation I can find for its addition (if it wasn’t original) is that it was an oral tradition that circulated in the early church.  That is, they believed it was an accurate historical account of something that Jesus actually did, but it wasn’t originally in the text of scripture.

The theory goes that eventually it was added because they believed it was authentic.

This seems much more likely, because it doesn’t make the early copyists out to be wicked men.  There’s a vast gulf between removing something you don’t like, and adding something that many believed was accurate history.

One man even has a long-ish article arguing for this exact thing.  He points out there there are actually three versions of the story; two shorter ones with different details, plus the third, longer version that we know today which combines the two shorter narratives.  (He suggests that one of the shorter versions might’ve been written by Luke, who then decided not to include it his gospel.  The evidence is quite interesting, even compelling in places.)

Now we’ll turn to manuscript evidence.


External (Manuscript) Evidence

To say the external evidence in inconclusive would be an understatement of, well, Biblical proportions.  I did a lot of research, and found no shortage of scholarly articles on both sides arguing that evidence for their side was conclusive.

I haven’t found that to be true.

There’s a complicated set of evidence with many layers to unpack.  We’ll give the external evidence a cursory look, but not an exhaustive one because there’s stronger evidence in the text itself. For those who wish to read more, I’ll link to longer articles.


“Floating” Text

The text of the Pericope Adulterae is found in several locations.  Some have cited this as evidence it wasn’t original to John, but was added later and different scribes added it in different places.  I personally find this strange, but there are explanations.

Now, it is true that the Pericope Adulterae is found in different places in some manuscripts.  In fact, a total of fifty-eight manuscripts have the Pericope Adulterae in other locations – which means that an overwhelming majority of 95.9% have it at the standard location after John 7:52.[67]  Furthermore, based on the manuscript and Patristic evidence, the standard location is both the overwhelmingly attested location and the earliest recorded location.[68]

Source. (emphasis original)

Opinions vary on how reasonable all these locations are.  I still find the “floating text” a bit suspect, but not enough to provide strong evidence either way.  James Snapp Jr.’s (excellent) website “The Text of the Gospels” has a four-part article series dealing with this in detail.  (Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4)

However, an explanation being required at all seems a bit…   suspect.  That’s not to say that the “floating text” means it was added, but it is…  odd.  (Even if there’s a reasonable explanation.)

One explanation is in this article that I linked to earlier.  It argues that a portion of the Pericope Adulterae was originally written by Luke, but ended up not being included in his gospel.  If this was the case, it would help explain the floating text aspect.  Further, as the article points out, it fits much better with Luke than John from a grammar/style standpoint.  This is especially interesting considering that a few manuscripts do place it in Luke’s gospel.


Omission from many early manuscripts

The following quote is again from James Snapp Jr.’s (excellent) website on textual Criticism: The Text of the Gospels.  He believes the Pericope Adulterae is original to John and says:

More recently, Dr. Maurice Robinson has confirmed that although 270 manuscripts do not include these verses, they are supported by 1,500 manuscripts. That is a ratio of 85 to 15, in favor of the inclusion of the passage.

It should be noted that the vast majority of the manuscripts from that 1,500 number are late manuscripts.  However, the sheer volume of late manuscripts mean you can’t simply dismiss them out of hand.  Further, while the late manuscripts are nearly unanimous for its inclusion, the early manuscripts argue strongly for non-inclusion.

However, a lot a of early manuscripts don’t have any part of John’s gospel, so the sample size is rather small.  Again, the Text of the Gospels has an article on this topic which concludes:

  • First:  the evidence strongly supports the view that the text of John used in Egypt in the 200’s did not contain the passage after John 7:52.
  • Second:  codices L and Δ should be considered witnesses for non-inclusion and for inclusion.
  • Third:  the testimony of most of the major Greek manuscripts that support the non-inclusion of the pericope adulterae in chapters 7 and 8 is not nearly as clear or one-sided when they are asked to testify about the passage’s presence or absence following John 21; on this question, most of the early Greek manuscript-evidence is open to interpretation.

Like I said, the evidence is multi-layered and inconclusive.


Patristic (Early Church fathers) Evidence

Here again we find a mixed bag.

Nearly all the quotes which would argue for the Pericope’s inclusion are from the 9th century or later.  There are some earlier quotes, but rarely before the 4th century, still hundreds of years after it was written.  You can find many of these quotes in this article. (by someone who believes the Pericope Adulterae should be included)  The quote by Jerome is especially interesting.

In Contra Pelagius 17.4 (384 AD) Jerome writes:

“Next in the Gospel of John in many codices both Greek and Latin is found the (story) of the Adulteress Woman, who was accused before the Lord”

Obviously this refers to the Pericope, but how many is “many”?  A majority?  A minority, but still “many”?  If most manuscripts included it, then why not say “most” instead of “many”?

He doesn’t say, and I could take that quote either direction as far as evidence.

(Note: As I was proofreading this article, I realized that I had used “Omission from many early manuscripts” as a headline.  According to my usage there, “many” is about 15%.  The word “many” is truly an ambiguous word.)

As already mentioned, one article points out there were a few different versions of the story according to the early church fathers.  They might’ve been combined to make the version we’re now familiar with.  I think the article is well worth a read, and you can’t tell because this is the third time I’m linking to it in this article.


Eternal Evidence Conclusion

Like I said, the external evidence is – in my opinion – inconclusive. I would give a slight nod to non-inclusion based on the manuscript/pastristic evidence, but only slight.  Again, the evidence from the text itself is stronger.

That said, there’s one more piece of external evidence we’ll examine just before the conclusion.  It fits better there, since the internal evidence debate lends some necessary context.  This piece of external evidence seems much stronger than what we’ve examined so far.

We’ll look at it just before the conclusion of this article.


Internal Evidence

While the external evidence is inconclusive, some of the internal evidence is – in my opinion – absolutely conclusive…  but only some.  We’ll briefly touch the inconclusive evidence first, then move to the conclusive evidence where we’ll spend the rest of this article.


Stylistic considerations

Some contend that the grammar and style of the Pericope Adulterae is unlike the rest of John, proving that it was added.  They say that the style, form, and words used are very unlike the apostle John. Andreas Köstenberger, summarizes the internal/stylistic evidence in The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible: The Gospels and Acts, this way:

  • “Fourteen out of eighty-two words used in this pericope (or 17 percent) are unique to John” [Ed. Note: He means to say that these fourteen words appear nowhere else in the Gospel According to John]
  • Each of verses 8:1-4 and 8:6-11 contains hapax legomena (i.e. words appearing only once in this Gospel)
  • “Standard Johannine vocabulary is conspicuously absent”
  • “only two of John’s standard style characteristics” are found in this pericope, “a ratio of 21:1.”

Yet later, the same author writes:

An examination of these 14 words used only here in John’s Gospel by itself is less than conclusive.  First, the issue of adultery is not addressed elsewhere in the Gospel, which could explain why the verb and noun for ‘adultery’ are limited to the present context.  Second, three closely related words describing Jesus’ bending down and straightening up may likewise be unique to the present passage.  ‘Without sin,’ too, may be explained as unique to the present situation.  Thus, only a handful of words remain that may suggest non-Johannnine authorship.

As any writer will attest, this argument is far from convincing.  Sometimes writers – myself included – will intentionally change their style/form for a section for various reasons. (Often to affect the reader differently.) This argument is also highly subjective, and thus isn’t evidence in any true sense.

Further, a sample size of 12 verses is hardly statistically significant enough to draw any meaningful conclusions from small differences.

However, as already mentioned, there’s some interesting evidence that Luke might’ve written part of this story…


Convincing Evidence: holes in the story created by inclusion/exclusion

This has been cited by both sides as evidence for their respective positions.  However there’s one hole I’ve seen that literally no one else mentions.  That’s not to say no has ever mentioned it, just that I haven’t seen anyone mention it.  Oddly, it seems to be the most obvious and convincing hole that’s right there in the English text – no Greek required (though it helps) – yet no one ever talks about it.

I have no idea why.

We’ll look at both sides, starting with the holes created by excluding the Pericope first, then the holes created by including it.  (And no, I won’t tell you which has the bigger hole upfront. You’ll just have to read and see, and totally not skip down to the article’s conclusion where I give it away. 😉 )

Because this is such a large variant, we’ll need to back up a bit to get enough context fully understand it.  Thus, I highly recommend you read all of John chapters 7 and 8. You don’t need to, but more context is almost never a bad thing.


Holes created by NOT including the Pericope Adulterae

Relevant verses for context first.

John 7:32 & 37

32 The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering these things about Him, and the chief priests and the Pharisees sent officers to seize Him.

37 Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.

Now, it’s important to notice that the officers were sent on one day, but they didn’t approach Jesus that day.  There’s no record of them approaching Jesus until the last day of the feast.

Verses 37-44 record Jesus saying something controversial, plus the crowd’s reaction to it.  I’ve added an indent to show a relevant section, and notice the jump from 7:52 to 8:12.

John 7:44-52  &  8:12-13 (the passage without including the Pericope Adulterae)

44 Some of them wanted to seize Him, but no one laid hands on Him.

45 The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and they said to them, “Why did you not bring Him?”

46 The officers answered, “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.”

47 The Pharisees then answered them, “You have not also been led astray, have you?

48 “No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he?

49 “But this crowd which does not know the Law is accursed.”

50 Nicodemus (he who came to Him before, being one of them) said to them,

51 “Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?”

52 They answered him, “You are not also from Galilee, are you? Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.”

<The Pericope Adulterae goes here>

12 Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

13 So the Pharisees said to Him, “You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.”

(NASB ’95)

Notice the abrupt change from 7:52 to 8:12 without the Pericope present.

Many have argued that this means it should be included.  Now, they are 100% correct about it being an abrupt jump.  It’s a somewhat jarring change from where we last left Jesus in 7:38 to where we meet Him again in 8:12.

However, one explanation I’ve heard is that the section from verse 45 to  verse 52 with the pharisees should be taken as parenthetical.  That is, John departs from Jesus in verses 45-52 to tell us what’s happening with the pharisees, then returns to Jesus afterward.

Removing that  section and not including the Pericope Adulterae would look like this:

John 7:37-43  &  8:12-13

37 Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.

38 “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’”

39 But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

40 Some of the people therefore, when they heard these words, were saying, “This certainly is the Prophet.”

41 Others were saying, “This is the Christ.” Still others were saying, “Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee, is He?

42 “Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the descendants of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was?”

43 So a division occurred in the crowd because of Him.

44 Some of them wanted to seize Him, but no one laid hands on Him.

<The Pharisee interlude and Pericope Adulterae go here>

12 Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

13 So the Pharisees said to Him, “You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.”

That makes perfect sense to me. 

Jesus makes a controversial statement in verses 37-38.  Then we see the crowd react in verses 40-44, mostly being divided about Him.  Then – after the parenthetical with the pharisees – we see Jesus’ response to the crowd’s reaction in chapter 8 verse 12.  (The response that Jesus gives is pretty typical of Him too, responding to skepticism with something even harder to believe.)

The Gospel of Mark does this kind of thing regularly.

In fact, Mark does it so often that it has a name: the “Markan sandwich”.

Readers of the Gospel of Mark are familiar with the Second Evangelist’s convention of breaking up a story or pericope by inserting a second, seemingly unrelated, story into the middle of it. A good example occurs in chapter 5 where Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, importunes Jesus to heal his daughter (vv 21-24). A woman with a hemorrhage interrupts Jesus enroute to Jairus’ house (vv 25-34), and only after recording the woman’s healing does Mark resume with the raising of Jairus’ daughter, who had died in the meantime (vv 35-43). Another example occurs in chapter 11 where Mark separates the cursing of the fig tree (vv 12 -14) and its subsequent withering (vv 20-21) with Jesus’ clearing of the temple (vv 15-19). This technique occurs some nine times in the Gospel:

Mark begins story A, introduces story B, then returns to and completes story A.


There’s no reason John couldn’t be doing something similar.

If you take the section with the pharisees in verses 45-52 as a parenthetical interlude, the passage makes perfect sense without the Pericope Adulterae.

Now, this isn’t evidence that the Pericope doesn’t belong.

Not at all.

It only means that the passage makes perfect sense with the Pericope absent. That’s neither evidence for its inclusion or its non-inclusion.  However, it does mean the Pericope Adulterae’s non-inclusion does fit with the text, and fit well.

Now we’ll look at its inclusion.


Holes created by INCLUDING the Pericope Adulterae

We’ll look at the whole Pericope to get the context, plus a couple verses afterward which are relevant.

John 7:53 – 8:13

7:53 [Everyone went to his home.

8:1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

2 Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them.

3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court,

4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.

5 “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”

6 They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.

7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

8 Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.

9 When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.

10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”

11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”]

<The Pericope Adulterae ends here>

12 Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

13 So the Pharisees said to Him, “You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.”

Before we get to the reason those words above are highlighted in red, let’s look at two words in verse 12: “Then” and “Them”.



The Greek word translated “Then” in verse 12 is the word “οὖν” (oun).  It means:

3767 oún (a conjunction) – thereforenow thenaccordingly so. 3767 (oún) occurs 526 times in the NT and is typically translated “therefore” which means, “By extension, here’s how the dots connect.”

Our English word “then” occasionally has this connotation – for example “if ABC, then XYZ” – but it more commonly means “then” in the sense of time, meaning “afterward”. Therefore, it should be translated “therefore” in this passage.



The Greek word translated “them” in verse 12 is the word “αὐτός” (autos), and it is the Greek 3rd person pronoun. (he/she/it/they/them).

Definition: (1) self (emphatic) (2) he, she, it (used for the third person pronoun) (3) the same
Usage: he, she, it, they, them, same.

It does mean “them” in this verse, but what’s important is the form.  The endings of some Greek words will change to tell you the number and gender of the word. (If you want a short, fun explanation, you can read my article: A Few Fun Things About Biblical (Koine) Greek).

The important part is this:

The word “them” in verse 12 is both masculine and plural.

That is very important.

In verse 12, Jesus “spoke to them”; “them” being a word that’s both plural and masculine, meaning Jesus was speaking to at least two males.

But which males was he speaking to?

Verse 13 makes it clear that at least the Pharisees were there.  You know, the ones who were trying to trap Jesus and who left the room in verse 9.


What this means:

We’ll look at the passage again and I’ll highlight a few words.  Notice what those words mean when they’re all put together.

9 When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.

10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”

11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”]

<The Pericope Adulterae ends here>

12 Then Therefore Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

Remember the word “them” in verse 12 is both plural and masculine, meaning Jesus was speaking to multiple males.  Keep that in your head and ask yourself this:

What males were in the room?

According to verse 9, didn’t they all leave?  Doesn’t verse 9 say that Jesus and the woman were completely alone?  That being the case, which males was Jesus speaking to?  (For hadn’t they all left?)  If all the males had departed and only Jesus and the woman were there, which males could He speak to?

We know from verse 13 that it includes the Pharisees, but where did they come from?  Hadn’t they just left? 

Don’t forget that verse 12 begins with “therefore” (not “then”) so we aren’t talking about some time later.  The word “therefore” seems to indicate this was immediately after.

Also notice the word “again” in verse 12

Whoever Jesus spoke to in verse 12, it wasn’t the first time He’d spoken to them because He was speaking to them “again”. The Greek word translated “again” is “πάλιν” (palin) and it’s perfectly translated; it means “again”.  So this is the same crowd He was speaking to earlier.

Let me repeat that: it’s the same crowd.

The only way this could make sense with the Pericope Adulterae included is if the men – including the Pharisees – left the room long enough for Jesus to tell the woman to sin no more, and then they all came back into the room immediately afterward.

Does that make sense?

I suppose it’s possible, but it’s certainly not stated in the text.  It’s not even hinted at.

As we’ve already seen, the passage makes sense without the Pericope Adulterae included.  Further, starting verse 12 with  “Therefore Jesus again spoke to them” also makes sense.  It makes even more sense if you consider the chunk with the pharisees as parenthetical (a interlude in a larger story).

But with the Pericope included…


I see a major problem.

In fact, it looks like including the Pericope actually introduces an error into the Bible. 

No joke.

By saying “Therefore Jesus again spoke to them“, you’re directly contradicting verse 9 which specifically says there was no “them” (multiple males) for Jesus to speak to.  All the males (except Jesus) had just left the room, so there were no males (“them“) for Jesus to speak to.

Jesus can’t have “them” (multiple males) to speak to because ever single male except Jesus had just left the room!

It’s not possible…

…so wouldn’t that be a error?

This is the reason why I don’t consider the Pericope Adulterae to be scripture: because it introduces an error so blatant that I’m not sure how anyone – much less a brilliant writer like John – could’ve missed it.  And we haven’t even talked about the inerrancy of scripture…

I don’t see the Pericope as original.

Not at all.

The error is just too big.


One more thing:

While doing research, I’ve found several people who don’t consider the Pericope Adulterae scripture, but do consider it historical.  That is, they believe it should be taught from because they believe its something Jesus actually did, but don’t believe it’s scripture.  The trouble with that is it becomes a several hundred year old “telephone game”.  That is, a story repeated through word of mouth tends to change over time, and hundreds of years is a lot of time.

Further, there are actually three different versions according to noted textual scholar Bart Ehrman:

“By the fourth century there were actually three extant versions of the PA: (1) the entrapment story which Jesus freely pardons a sinful woman, known to Papias and the author of the Didascalia, (2) the story of Jesus’ intervention in an execution proceeding, preserved in the Gospel according to the Hebrews and retold by Didymus in his Ecclesiastes commentary, and (3) the popular version found in MSS of the Gospel of John, a version which represents a conflation of the two earliest stories.”

Source: “Jesus and the Adulteress,” pg 37

Again, I recommend you read this article for more information.

However, since there are several versions of the story, we can’t know which version is original/historical/accurate, if any of them are.  We don’t know; we can’t know.  Since we can’t know, I see no reason whatsoever to take this story as authoritative in any way.  I would not teach from it, and I would ignore any teaching that springs from it.

I would give this story no more weight that the apocryphal books that the Catholics include in their Old Testament, which neither the Jews nor Protestants accept.  I might even give the Pericope less weight, because at least there’s a long transmission history with those books, whereas we don’t know where this story came from.   (And if you want more information on those books, I have an article on why they shouldn’t be included in the Bible.)



While the external/manuscript evidence isn’t firmly conclusive, the text itself seems decisive.  With the Pericope Adulterae not included, everything makes perfect sense.  There’s one jump that’s a tad jarring, but even that completely smooths out if you take the bit with the pharisees as parenthetical.

However, if you include the Pericope, a blatant and obvious error is created. 

In verse 9 with the Pericope included, we’re told that Jesus and the woman were alone.  Yet without any explanation, Jesus is addressing “them” (multiple males in Greek) in verse 12, even though Jesus is explicitly stated to be the only male in the room according to verse 9.  Further, He’s addressing them “again”, meaning they were the same people as before.  Even more problematic, we know from verse 13 that the Pharisees – who had just left after failing to trap Jesus – were there.

This error is so large, it’s hard to imagine an absolutely brilliant writer like John making it. 

It’s just too big.

Further, this error would completely destroy the concept of the inerrancy of scripture, because then it would have a clear and obvious error.  Obviously, something with an error can’t be inerrant.  Therefore:

Admitting the Pericope Adulterae into the text of scripture means admitting that the scriptures aren’t inerrant.

Further, there’s evidence that two other, shorter versions of the story were combined to create the current version.  This story might’ve happened – its doubtful, but I suppose possible – but there’s simply no evidence for it, not when it’s actually a conflation of two other shorter stories.

It’s a nice-sounding story, but nothing else and it’s certainly not scripture. 

It almost certainly was introduced into the the text of scripture after having been written by men.  Like everything else written by men, it’s prone to error.

I would treat it as such.

(And if you’re interested in textual variants, you might be interested in my article on the Johannine Comma, or my article: Majority Text vs. Critical Text vs. Textus Receptus – Textual Criticism 101)


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