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NOTE: At the end of the article, we will explain why these twelve verses were not in the original and should not be in the main text of our modern Bible, even in square brackets like the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) have them. John 7:53-8:11 should be in a footnote with an explanation because the verses are early. It is an account that sounds very much like an incident Jesus would have been involved in. As John tells us at the end of his Gospel, Jesus did many things, which no book could hold all, and far more of what Jesus did was passed by oral tradition and was not chosen by the Holy Spirit to be in the original Gospels. But that does not mean that this one cannot be in a footnote.
First, we are going to share the text of John 7:53-8:11 itself, which will then be followed by some questions from a Facebook poster, Moises Rodrigues Coimbra, with my responses, and then Old Testament Bible scholar Gleason L. Archer will address the capital punishment aspect. Lastly, a link to an extensive article on whether John 7:53-8:11 was an original reading.
John 7:45-8:17 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
45 The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” 46 The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” 47 The Pharisees answered them, “You have not also been deceived, have you? 48 Not one of the rulers or of the Pharisees has put faith in him, have they? 49 But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” 50 Nicodemus, who had come to him before, and who was 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 and said to him, “You are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”
7:53–8:11 —— 
We have added 7:53–8:11 into the footnote (see below), not the main text because it is a spurious passage. Single brackets [ ], are used to indicates that the translator(s) had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text. Double brackets [[ ]], are used to indicate a spurious passage that has been added to the text. However, because of its early history, it has been included within double brackets.
12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. He that follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your witness is not true.” 14 Jesus answered and said to them, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my witness is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. 16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, because I am not alone, but the Father who sent me is with me. 17 Also, in your Law it is written that the witness of two men is true. 18 I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.”
 John 7:53–8:11 is included in NA28 and UBS5 enclosed within double square brackets. WH has it after John’s gospel. It is included in TR as 7:53–8:11. The following witnesses omit 7:53–8:11, P39vid P66 P75 א Avid, B, CVid L N T W Δ Θ Ψ 0141 33 ita,f syrc,s,p copsa,bo,ach2 geo Diatessaron Origen Chrysostom Cyril Tertullian Cyprian MSSaccording to Augustine
The following witnesses included 7:53–8:11, D (F) G H K M U Γ itaur,c,d,e syrh,pal copbomss Maj MSSaccording to Didymus; E 8:2–11 with asterisks; Λ 8:3–11 with asterisks; f1 after John 21:25; f13 after Luke 21:38; 1333c 8:3–11 after Luke 24:53; 225 after John 7:36.
[[53 So they went each one to his own house,
8 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 Not the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and standing her in their midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they were saying to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. But Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to asking him, he stood up and said to them, “Let the one who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And bending over again he kept on writing on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older men, and he was left alone, and the woman that was in their midst. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]
 This combination of two Greek negative particles οὐ µή (ou mē) and the aorist subjunctive with reference to a future event is the strongest negation possible in Greek, meaning absolutely not at all, in no way, by no means in any way to something in the future, this being known as the Subjunctive of Emphatic Negation.
First, the adulterous account is exceedingly early and is likely a part of oral tradition. It is not a part of any original manuscript, though.
JOHN 21:5 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.
QUESTION: If this woman was caught in the act of adultery, for example, where is the man she was caught with?
RESPONSE: The whole purpose of this account is to make a point and teach a lesson. The Jewish leaders and Jewish men of this time were kind of like the Afghan Muslims in the way they treated women. You could divorce a woman for a poorly cooked meal. A woman could be stoned for adultery while the man was not even seen as being guilty. John primarily focused his attention on the Pharisees and Chief Priests, not the Scribes, who were teachers of the Law. Again, yes, the Law demanded the execution of both but the oral traditions and what was practiced were not always in alignment with the actual meaning of the Law. In addition, we do not want to get lost in the weeds of dissecting every aspect of an account because when a historical account or parable is being told, it is usually to make one point and so every detail is not filled in for us. Who knows maybe the man guilty of adultery was right there, but the woman was the one being dragged forward, so she gets all the press in the retelling of the account?
STATEMENT: Both of them are to be stoned, according to the law of Moses (see Lev. 20:10).
RESPONSE: While true, the Jewish religious leaders were going beyond the Law, they were developing oral traditions, and lastly Jesus was to be the end of the Law once executed, and a new way of doing things was underway. Each account and each parable was to make one specific point. The point, ‘who are you to be judging,’ ‘you will be judged as you are judging,’ ‘who is without sin,’ ‘even serious sin?’ Points such as this. The account isn’t negating the fact that they are still under the Mosaic Law because they were.
QUESTION: Moreover, when Jesus writes on the ground – what exactly was he writing? (According to one ancient tradition, he was writing the sins of the accusers, who seeing that their own transgressions were known, left in embarrassment!)
RESPONSE: Repetition for emphasis. We do not want to get lost in the weeds of dissecting every aspect of an account because when being told, it is usually to make one point and so every detail is not filled in for us. What was being written on the ground is really irrelevant in this account. The Byzantine scribes altered the text in their attempts at making things clearer and adding material to complete what they felt was left unsaid or not covered to their satisfaction.
STATEMENTS/QUESTION: And even if Jesus did teach a message of love, did he really think that the Law of God given by Moses was no longer in force and shouldn’t be obeyed? Did he really think sins shouldn’t be punished at all?
RESPONSE: It isn’t that Jesus thought or taught that the Law was already removed. First, Rome had removed capital punishment from Jewish courts, this is why the Jews had to go to Pilate to get Jesus executed. If they were really seeking her death, they would have had to take her to the Roman official. Thus, the Jews were likely testing Jesus as to whether he supported Roman law or the Mosaic Law.
What was the purpose of telling the account? Was it to highlight the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in that they too sinned egregiously? Was it to highlight that the Pharisees were tempting Jesus? Was it to highlight the hypocrisy that the Pharisees were obeying the Law to execute the woman but not obeying it to execute the man? Was the point to expose the Pharisees in their effort to trap Jesus in what they felt was no good, right response, making him look bad regardless? Was the account trying to highlight that the Pharisees couldn’t care less about the Law or this woman, they only cared about accusations against Jesus? It could be all of these for they are just nuances of the general point, or just one, but let’s not get bogged down in the weeds of details that were irrelevant to the point.
This spurious interpolation, oral tradition placed at John 7:53-8:11 is likely a real historical account, which certainly contains no doctrinal error and indeed fits with the character and the teachings of Jesus, but it most certainly was not in the original text. However, that does not mean that it never happened.
Gleason L. Archer The Capital Punishment Aspect
How can John 8:11 be reconciled with Romans 13:4 in regard to capital punishment?
In Romans 13:4, the apostle Paul, speaking of the authority of human government, says, “It is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (NASB). This verse makes it perfectly clear that the God-inspired author taught that capital punishment (for the “sword” is not used for imprisonment or for releasing killers on parole) is ordained of God and intended by Him for the protection of human society against those who would unjustly deprive others of their right to life.
Some students of Scripture, however, have found difficulty in reconciling Christ’s treatment of the adulterous woman in John 8:3–11 with the imposition of the death penalty for capital crime. To be sure in this particular case the offense was marital infidelity rather than first-degree murder. But adultery was defined by the Mosaic Law as a heinous crime, punishable by death—normally by stoning (Deut. 22:22–24). Nevertheless it has implications for other capital crimes, such as murder and treason. Did Jesus intend to abolish the death penalty altogether by taking this action of releasing the guilty woman in the way He did?
The evidence of the earlier manuscripts of the Gospel of John suggests that this particular passage was not included by John himself in the original text of his gospel. The earliest surviving witness to this episode seems to be the sixth-century Codex Bezae, although it was received into the Koine or Byzantine family of manuscripts, on which the Textus Receptus (and the KJV) are based. Nevertheless, it appears to be an authentic account of an episode in Christ’s ministry, and it is written in characteristically Johannine style. Therefore it should be reckoned with as an authoritative word of Christ, despite the uncertainty of its relationship to the Gospel in its earliest form.
In this incident, Christ is portrayed as responding to a challenge by His adversaries, who wish to catch Him on the horns of a dilemma. If he condemns the adulteress according to the law of Moses, He will tarnish His image as a merciful and kindly messenger of God’s love. On the other hand, if He refrains from condemning her to death, He will be open to the charge of annulling or revoking the law of God—contrary to His own affirmation in Matthew 5:17. This was an entrapment device somewhat similar to the question later put to Him concerning the obligation of the Jewish believer to pay tribute to Caesar (Matt. 22:17). Whichever way He answered, He could be chargeable with opposing either the holy law or the duly constituted government of Rome.
At the close of the hearing in this particular case, Jesus found Himself alone with the woman; and He said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on sin no more” (John 8:11, NASB). What did He mean by this? Did He mean that the woman was not guilty of the offense as charged? Hardly, since the defendant herself made no effort to deny that she had committed adultery and had been caught “in the very act” (v.4). In that sense, of course, the Lord Jesus did condemn her; His words “sin no more” indicate that she was indeed guilty of the capital crime with which she was charged. But the Greek term katakrinō (“condemn”) carries with it the connotation of imposing a sentence on the defendant with a view of its execution. Compare Mark 14:64: katerkrinan auton enochon einai thanatou (“They condemned Him as being worthy of death,” i.e., speaking of the Sanhedrin’s sentencing of Jesus to death on the cross). Katakrinō in other contexts might mean only defining the nature or gravity of the offense charged, but in this forensic setting it involved the actual imposition of sentence and the authorizing of her penal death by stoning.
As we analyze the situation faced by Jesus in this particular confrontation with His enemies, we must take into account the special factors that tainted the whole process with illegality. First, the law of Moses require both offenders to be dealt with on an equal basis. Leviticus 20:10 states: “If there is a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife …, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (NASB). Deuteronomy 22:24 indicates that both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman herself. Thus, this entire process in John 8 was legally defective because the woman’s accusers had not brought forward her male partner-in-sin. Without him there could be no valid action taken against her.
Second, such an action as this has to be taken before a duly constituted court of law, such as a panel of elders near the gate of the city, whose duty it was to hear cases. What this group of accusers had undertaken was not a lawful court action, therefore, but a lynching. Since Jesus of Nazareth was no official judge in criminal actions, even as He made clear in an attempted civil case (the settling of a probate dispute in Luke 12:14: “Who has appointed Me a judge over you?”), this attempt to remand the case to Him was an obvious farce, devoid of legal justification, and intended only to embarrass the Teacher from Nazareth whom they hoped to discredit.
Third, by their own admission, not even the Sanhedrin had the right under the Roman government to execute the death penalty. While they had authority to impose a sentence, capital punishment could not be carried out except under the authorization of the Roman governor. Thus we read in John 18:31: “Pilate therefore said to them, ‘Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law.’ The Jews said to him, ‘We are not permitted to put any one to death.’” Therefore, it follows that this proposal to Jesus to have the guilty woman stoned to death right there before Him was itself a flagrant violation of the law of Rome. Our Lord would have no part in this. As a law-abiding citizen, Jesus could have no part in such a lynching.
Nevertheless, the question raised was whether the woman deserved to die. “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” (John 8:5, NASB). Jesus might have pointed out that they had violated the law of Moses by failing to bring along her male partner. But Jesus pursued another tack because He saw that the accusers themselves needed to realize that they also were very guilty before God, and that they therefore were hardly in a position to carry out the penalty that they demanded of their prisoner. We are told that He stooped down to write on the sand or dust of the ground. What He wrote convicted them of their own sins—sins that they had hoped would remain hidden and unknown to all but themselves. Since He had ruled that the witness who was “without sin” had the responsibility of casting the first stone at the guilty woman, it was essential for at least one of them to have a completely clean conscience before God’s law. But not one of them could honestly claim to be free from sin before the Lord, and all the accusers suddenly found themselves accused and guilty. Hence, they took their leave, one by one, until not one of them was left.
As we study Jesus’ response to this challenge, we must clearly observe that He neither covered over the guilt of the accused (as if adultery was not, after all, really heinous enough to require the death penalty—in that modern-minded, enlightened first century A.D.); nor did He suggest that death by stoning was no longer the proper way to deal with this offense. He plainly implied that the woman was guilty enough to die, and that the legal mode of execution was by stoning. The point He raised was that the accusers of the woman were themselves guilty under the law, and that they were hardly competent to carry out the sentence. Certainly, they had all become guilty of an attempted lynching, completely contrary to the law of the Roman government to which they were all subject. Hence, the whole process was voided by their incompetence and illegality.
In this episode of the adulterous woman, Jesus was hardly affirming that capital punishment was no longer to be imposed, nor that He was revising the Law of Moses in favor of a new policy of compassion toward those who had incurred the penalty of death. On the contrary, He upheld the continuing sanction of execution for capital crime; but He brought home to His countrymen—and, indeed, to all mankind—the solemn truth that before the Lord every man is guilty of death—eternal death—and that He had come for the express purpose of paying that penalty in the sinner’s stead.
 Gleason L. Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Zondervan’s Understand the Bible Reference Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 371–373.
Further Reasoning Why It Was Not In the Original and Should Not Be In Modern Bibles
This familiar story of the adulteress saved by Jesus is a special case. These dozen verses have been the subject of a number of books, including Chris Keith, The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus (2009, Leiden & Boston, E.J. Brill); David Alan Black & Jacob N. Cerone, eds., The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research (2016, London & NY, Bloomsbury T&T Clark); John David Punch, The Pericope Adulterae: Theories of Insertion & Omission (2012, Saarbruken, Lap Lambert Academic Publ’g.), and Jennifer Knust & Tommy Wasserman, To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story (2019, NJ, Princeton Univ. Press). The principal problem affecting this paragraph is that, although it appears in many ancient manuscripts, it does not consistently appear in this place in chapter 8 nor even in the Gospel of John. Moreover, in the various manuscripts in which the passage appears, it presents a much greater number of variations than an equal portion of the New Testament – so much so, that it would seem that there are three distinct versions of the pericope.
By its own context, this paragraph appears misplaced; in the verse preceding this pericope (namely verse 7:52) Jesus is conversing or arguing with a group of men, and in the verse following this pericope (verse 8:12), he is speaking “again unto them,” even though verses 8:9–10 would indicate he was alone in the Temple courtyard and also that a day has passed. It would seem possible that, originally, 7:52 was immediately followed by 8:12, and somehow this pericope was inserted between them, interrupting the narrative.
The pericope does not appear in the oldest Codexes – א, A B C L N T W X Δ θ Ψ – nor in papyri p66 or p75, nor minuscules 33, 157, 565, 892, 1241, or ƒ1424 nor in the Peshitta. Scrivener lists more than 50 minuscules that lack the pericope and several more in which the original scribe omitted it, but a later hand inserted it. It is also missing from the Syriac and Sahidic versions and some Egyptian versions. The earliest Greek Codex showing this pericope at all is D (Codex Bezae), of the 5th or 6th century – but the text in D has conspicuous variants from the Textus Receptus/KJV version, and some Old Latin manuscripts no older than the 5th century, and many subsequent Greek and Latin MSS all at the familiar location following John 7:52. The first Greek Church Father to mention the pericope in its familiar place was Euthymius, of the 12th century.
Westcott and Hort summarized the evidence as follows:
- “Not only is [the section on the Woman taken in Adultery] passed over in silence in every Greek commentary of which we have any knowledge, down to that of Theophylact inclusive (11th–12th centuries); but with the exception of a reference in the Apostolic Constitutions (? 4th century), and a statement by an obscure Nicon (10th century or later) that it was expunged by the Armenians, not the slightest allusion to it has yet been discovered in the whole of Greek theology before the 12th century. The earliest Greek MSS containing it, except the Western Codex Bezae [5th century], are of the 8th century. … It has no right to a place in the Fourth Gospel, yet it is evidently from an ancient source, and it could not now without serious loss be entirely banished from the New Testament.”
However, one minuscule (ms. 225) placed the pericope after John 7:36. Several – ƒ1 – placed it at the very end of the Gospel of John, and Scrivener adds several more that have so placed a shorter pericope beginning at verse 8:3. Another handful of minuscules – ƒ13 – put it after Luke 21:38. Some manuscripts – S E Λ – had it in the familiar place but enclosed the pericope with marks of doubt (asterisks or some other glyph), and Scrivener lists more than 40 minuscules that also apply marks of doubt to the pericope.
Some scholars have suggested that the pericope is not written in the same style as the rest of the Fourth Gospel, and have suggested it is written more in the style of the Gospel of Luke, a suggestion supported by the fact that the ƒ13 manuscripts actually put the pericope into the Gospel of Luke. For example, nowhere else does the Fourth Gospel mention by name the Mount of Olives, and where a new place is mentioned in the Fourth Gospel, some explanatory remarks are attached, nor does the Fourth Gospel mention ‘the Scribes’ elsewhere. A theory shared by several scholars is that this pericope represents some very early tradition or folktale about Jesus, not originally found in any of the canonical Gospels, which was so popular or compelling that it was deliberately inserted into a Gospel; a variant on this theory is that this anecdote was written down as a note for a sermon, perhaps in the margin of a codex or on a scrap inserted between the pages of a codex, and a subsequent copyist mistakenly incorporated it in the main text when working up a new copy. Its source might be indicated by Eusebius (early 4th century), in his Historia Ecclesia, book 3, sec. 39, where he says, “Papias [2nd century] … reproduces a story about a woman falsely accused before the Lord of many sins. This is to be found in the Gospel of the Hebrews.”
This pericope was framed with marks of doubt in Johann Jakob Wettstein’s 1751 Greek New Testament, and some earlier Greek editions contained notes doubting its authenticity. The evidence that the pericope, although a much-beloved story, does not belong in the place assigned it by many late manuscripts, and, further, that it might not be part of the original text of any of the Gospels, caused the Revised Version (1881) to enclose it within brackets, in its familiar place after John 7:52, with the sidenote, “Most of the ancient authorities omit John 7:53–8:11. Those which contain it vary much from each other.” This practice has been imitated in most of the English versions since then. The Westcott & Hort Greek New Testament omitted the pericope from the main text and places it as an appendix after the end of the Fourth Gospel, with this explanation: “It has no right to a place in the text of the Four Gospels, yet it is evidently from an ancient source, and it could not now without serious loss be entirely banished from the New Testament. … As it forms an independent narrative, it seems to stand best alone at the end of the Gospels with double brackets to show its inferior authority …” Some English translations based on Westcott & Hort imitate this practice of appending the pericope at the end of the Gospel (e.g., The Twentieth Century New Testament), while others simply omit it altogether (e.g., Goodspeed, Ferrar Fenton, the 2013 revision of The New World Version). The Nestle-Aland and UBS Greek editions enclose it in double brackets. The two ‘Majority Text’ Greek editions set forth the pericope in the main text (varying slightly from each other) but provide extensive notes elsewhere attesting to the lack of uniformity in the text of the pericope and doubts about its origin.
Caspar René Gregory, who compiled a catalog of New Testament manuscripts, summarizes the situation: “Now I have no doubt that the story [of the adulteress] itself is as old as the Gospel of John or even older, and that it is a true story. But it is no part of that gospel. That is perfectly sure.”