Michael Boling – Aporia: The Story of the Adulteress, John 7:53-8:11

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As noted by author Gary Burge, the concept of aporia was developed by theologian Edward Schwartz in 1907 in an attempt to categorize what have been labeled as literary seams in the Gospel of John. These aporias, more commonly known as literary seams, are located throughout John’s Gospel creating for many scholars a conundrum as to their exact purpose and arrangement within the gospel text. Many esteemed theologians have sought to establish sound hermeneutical raison d’être for the aporias found in John’s Gospel, in particular why they have been assimilated over time into the Johannine text. One particular aporia, the story of the adulteress or pericope de adultera, located in John 7:53-8:11, is a story that lucidly evinces the divinity and compassion of Christ compared with the legalistic coldness of the Jewish religious leaders. There are admitted difficulties in ascertaining the original source of this aporia, most notably the glaring absence of this particular text in many of the oldest and respected manuscripts. Nevertheless, the story of the adulteress is an integral part of the surrounding context and thus is not in conflict with the holistic purpose of John’s Gospel.

Scholars D.A. Carson, Sir Edwyn Hoskins and William Hendrikson have contributed exceptional exposition on the story of the adulteress. These three renowned theologians clearly explain to their readers why the story of the adulteress has continued to be an accepted part of the canon throughout church history with diminutive argumentation on the part of the theological community. Their exposition chiefly revolves around addressing the exclusion of this text by ancient manuscripts and the early church fathers, its diverse placement within the context of John’s Gospel, and the atypical Johannine flavor of this aporia.

As noted by Carson, the efforts of theologians such as Zane Hodges to prove the merits of the inclusion of the story of the adulteress in the original Johannine autograph have been confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Carson rightly denotes that John 7:53-8:11 is “present in most of the Medieval Greek miniscule manuscripts”, but is “absent from virtually all early Greek manuscripts that have come down to us, representing great diversity of textual traditions.” Hoskins avers the recent inclusion of this pericope in the Latin Vulgate but recognizes its omission from much earlier manuscripts. He notes that “in the Greek Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, and in the Washington and Koridethi manuscripts, the text of the Fourth Gospel runs continuously from 7:52 to 8:12, without any sign of a break.” Additionally, he asserts that “no Greek commentator on the gospel before Euthymius Zigabenus (twelfth century) makes any reference to the passage, and even Euthymius judges it to be an insertion, since the accurate copies either omitted it or marked it with obelisks.” Hendrikson states that the “oldest and best manuscripts do not have this story. It makes its first appearance in Codex Bezae. It is found in the later uncials (the so-called Koine text) and the cursives based upon them.” Hoskins lucidly notes that “whereas the passage is authentic in the theological and doctrinal sense of the word, its authenticity as part of the original Gospel of Saint John is a matter of free critical investigation.”

The overwhelming concurrence and more importantly, the significance given by these writers to the exclusion of this pericope in the most ancient manuscripts is notable. While they certainly do not assert that the story of the adulteress should be omitted from scripture, they accurately recognize and address the lack of manuscript evidence for this story to have been included in the original Johannine text. For many, the inclusion of a passage in scripture that is excluded from the most respected ancient manuscripts is disconcerting if not cause for alarm. Hoskins addresses this point of concern by relaying the overall lack of significant debate at the Council of Trent regarding the inclusion of this pericope in the current canon thus providing support by a legion of church fathers of the importance of this passage to the stated purpose of John’s Gospel. The support of numerous church fathers for this text is certainly not concrete evidence for it being part of the inspired canon given the propensity for the church fathers to accept doctrine that later proved to be antithetical to the teaching of scripture as well as religious texts that are generally viewed as apocryphal in nature. However, the support given by church fathers is significant considering the relatively close proximity of many church fathers who supported this text to that of the Apostle John himself.

Hendrikson elucidates his support for this passage by referring to the knowledge of this pericope by Papias, a disciple of the apostle John. Hendrikson provides support from the commentary of noted church historian Eusebius who stated lucidly that Papias expounded in his teachings about a woman accused before God of various sins. It should be noted that though Papias was aware of the story and utilized it as a point of instruction, it was not a part of the original Gospel of John resulting in the continued present deliberation on the origins of the adulteress narrative. In response to this dilemma, Hendrikson refers to the assertion by the church father Augustine that “certain individuals had removed from their codices the section regarding the adulteress, because they feared that women would appeal to this story as an excuse for their infidelity.”

While the contention of Augustine in this regard can be construed as merely an attempt to include a passage which has historically been unaccounted for in the ancient texts, his comments nevertheless imbue that the church fathers perceived the story of the adulteress to contain nothing deleterious to the message of John’s Gospel. Hoskins also questions why noted church fathers such as Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome would provide substantive commentary on a passage that was not germane to the original Johannine text. Ultimately, Hoskins strongly asserts that the inclusion of this passage should be based on the notable fact that not only was “the story known in the third century, but that it possessed authority as belonging to the authentic tradition concerning Jesus.” This is arguably the strongest historical support provided for the inclusion of the story of the adulteress in the Johannine text superseding all other argumentation against its inclusion. While the manuscript evidence is strong against John 7:53-8:11 as being part of the original text, church tradition nevertheless is abundant in its support of this passage as a valid portion of scripture.

Interestingly, only Hoskins provides a comprehensive review of the doctrinal and theological import of the story of the adulteress. Additionally, it is further intriguing that Hoskins is the only one to clearly delineate the applicability of this pericope to the audience of the 1st century believer as well as the spiritual usefulness of forgiveness and humility that is the core of this particular text. Perhaps Carson and Hendrikson choose to focus on other elements of the background and purpose of the adulteress story, however, it is unfortunate that the doctrinal import of such a story is overlooked in favor of a lesson in the history of ancient manuscript evidence. While focusing on the manuscript evidence has its merits, an explication of doctrinal and theological issues is an approach that would be expected from such learned theologians such as Carson and Hendrikson. Carson does aver in his introductory comments on this pericope, that the “reason for its insertion here may have been to illustrate 7:24 and 8:15 or, conceivably, the Jews’ sinfulness over against Jesus’ sinlessness.” Hendrikson ascribes this passage as “fitting well into the present context. It can be viewed as serving to prepare for and to elucidate the discourse of the Lord in 8:12ff.” While arguable speculative in nature, these assertions do provide valuable exegesis on the pericope de adultera and are in keeping to a large degree with the current scholarly research on this passage. Additionally explication on the merits of the story of the adulteress in its present context would have been helpful, especially considering the support of theologians for its omission from the text proper. Considering the support among church fathers of the theological merits of this passage, only Hoskins provides ample commentary on the spiritual importance and applicability; ultimately the strongest argument in favor of its inclusion in the canon.

The internal evidence, while equally difficult in its own right, provides additional support for this pericope as being a genuine depiction of a typical discourse of Christ. Most notably, it is a story replete with spiritual doctrine and applicability to believers throughout the centuries. While John 7:53-8:11 has all the appearances of an aporia, as noted by its abrupt disruption of the surrounding context and arguably atypical Johannine flavor, these factors do not provide sufficient evidence for this story being deleterious to the holistic message of John’s Gospel. Carson, Hendrikson, and Hoskins provide ample support for this assertion by addressing the various literary elements of the adulteress narrative in their respective commentaries. Very little debate emerges from the pages of the commentaries by Carson, Hoskins, and Hendrikson concerning the merits of the story of the adulteress. There is consistent reference to the synoptic gospels, in particular the usage of various Greek words in John versus similar situations in the synoptic tradition. However, the continual discussion of the synoptic tradition in relation to this pericope is merely an attempt to provide background to the meaning of Greek words that are presented in this somewhat atypical Johannine narrative and is nothing more than a point of comparison between the various gospel texts. Such comparison only serves to provide further support for the story of the adulteress as typical of Jesus message and his encounters with the religious leaders.

As to the abrupt nature of the flow of the adulteress narrative, Carson asserts that it is “reminiscent of Jesus’ pattern during the week before his passion, the week in which Jesus spent the nights in Bethany, traveling to and from Jerusalem each day, with pauses along the way at the Mount of Olives. That is as plausible a setting for this incident as any other suggestion.” Hoskins notes that the “general situation is similar to that described in the synoptic tradition. During the last days before the Passover at which Jesus was crucified, He was wont to spend the day in Jerusalem, and especially in the Temple, and to retire each evening out of the city to Bethany.” As was typical in the daily life of Jesus, a crowd began to gather around Jesus and he then began to teach them. Carson notes that several expressions in John 8:2 are more typical of what one would find in Luke than what is the norm of the Johannine text ; however, it was not out of the ordinary for Jesus to come to the temple court to instruct those who would gather around him. The scene of Christ’s teaching is interrupted by a group of scribes and Pharisees seeking to obtain from Jesus judgment in the matter of an adulteress woman whom they have brought before him as a further point of emphasis. The efforts of the religious leaders to trap Jesus in aversion to various points of the law occurred throughout his ministry. It is not shocking then to note yet another attempt to question the merits of Christ’s teaching during a period of heightened efforts by the religious establishment to establish grounds to arrest Jesus.

Carson denotes that the purpose of this story is a reminder that “Jesus came not to condemn but to save.” Hoskins brilliantly adds that the “main theme of the story is the living theme of the whole New Testament, including the Fourth Gospel.” This hearkens back as well directly to the purpose of John’s gospel revealed in John 20:31. Thus, it can be concluded that the inclusion of the story of the adulteress in the Gospel of John is neither an accident nor a mistaken interlude of the life of Christ inserted incorrectly by a scribe somewhere along the pathway of church history. Despite the undeniable verity that this particular pericope is absent from many of the most respected ancient manuscripts, the story of the adulteress has received overwhelming acceptance by many respected church fathers; a point repeatedly referred to by Carson and Hoskins in particular.

As was the custom in much of Jesus’ instruction on morality and in particular the underlying purpose of the Law, Christ denotes lucidly in this passage that despite her sins, he did not “cast aside this woman (the adulteress) or condemn her as unfit for the kingdom. For adulterers and adulteresses there is, indeed, a place in the kingdom.” Christ by no means approved of her sin. Instead, a clear depiction of the mercy and forgiveness of God is presented to the reader. As noted by Hoskins, the adulteress is “faced by the call of God to righteousness, and sent forth as the object of the mercy of God, who has passed over her sin. Here then the mercy of God and His truth meet.” Ultimately, the story of the adulteress, while an aporia, is nevertheless supported by church tradition and is consistent with the stated purpose of John and the modality by which he presented his case that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who came that we might have life and forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice he made on the cross.

The story of the adulteress is a salient demonstration of the message of the entirety of Scripture and it is this message which all three commentators presented wholly support as veridical. As noted by Burge, it is the cumulative effect of the aporia that is important and the story of the adulteress unequivocally meets this criteria. Furthermore, this story supports the divinity of Jesus by asserting that he, as God, has the right to forgive sins. Discourse on the divinity of Christ is a hallmark of the Gospel of John and the story of the adulteress is entirely in keeping with this overall theme presented throughout this gospel. Nothing that is depicted in the story is of such theological ilk as to recommend its sudden omission from our modern biblical text. Perhaps Hendrikson provides the most salient support for the inclusion of this aporia: “The Christ pictured here (7:53-8:11) is entirely in character; as he is described here so he is pictured elsewhere.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Burge, Gary. Interpreting the Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992.

Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Hendriksen, William. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953.

Hoskyns, Edwyn. The Fourth Gospel. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1947.

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