The Woman Caught in Adultery: Nothing But a Charade?

I have heard it said that the account of the adulterous woman in John chapter 8 was nothing more than an elaborate charade.  That is, as the claim goes, there never was an act of adultery committed; the whole scenario was a fabrication designed to entrap Jesus.

That the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman before Jesus for no other purpose but to entrap Him, there can be no doubt, for the Apostle explicitly records that their motives were that of testing Jesus, that they might have some charge to bring against Him (v. 6).  That being said, I believe the view which ascribes to this passage the recording of nothing but a fanciful charade to be a forced and unnatural reading of the text.

This view really has only two facts upon which to base the supposition that there was no act of adultery: 1) there is no sign of the male adulterer (and we all know that it takes two to tango), and 2) the scribes and Pharisees were notorious for their attempts to trap Jesus by their false accusations (Mark 14:55-57 is often offered as substantiation of this second point).

As for the first assertion, that there was no man brought before Jesus, I must ask, what does this actually prove?  From the fact that the male adulterer was not brought forth, it does not necessarily follow that there was therefore no act of adultery committed.  The fact proves nothing more than that the male was not brought before Jesus, which, when viewed in light of what is said about the scribes and Pharisee’s motives in verse 6, better illustrates the priorities of the scribes and Pharisees, namely, that they were not concerned with maintaining the purity of God’s law, but rather, they were intent on living out their hatred for Jesus, and taking advantage of any and every scenario in order that they might find some way to condemn the Christ.

As for the second assertion that there was no actual case of adultery because the scribes and Pharisees were notorious for their attempts to entrap Jesus as revealed in Mark 14:55-57, it must be pointed out that the proof-text only says that “many bore false witness against him” (v. 56; emphasis added).  This fact obviously severs any connection between the two texts, as Mark 14 records that many bore false witness against Christ, while in John 8, the scribes and Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus in His words by (allegedly) bearing false witness against a woman.  Mark 14 in no way supports the conclusion that the adulterous woman was not, in actuality, adulterous.

On the other hand, and in support of the view that the woman was truly adulterous, is the plain reading of the passage.  Let us consider:

» John the Apostle records that the “scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him [Jesus]…” (Jn. 8:3-4a; emphasis added).  John’s choice of words would seem to indicate that he accepted that the woman was indeed an adulteress.  Had the Apostle believed that the woman was being falsely accused, or had the Holy Spirit intended to convey the idea that the woman was being falsely accused, would it not be reasonable to suppose that a more unambiguous choice of words would be in order?  Perhaps something along the lines of: ‘The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who was allegedly caught in the act of adultery…’?

» If this whole scenario was nothing but a fanciful charade, the woman would have to have been privy to it.  If this was nothing but a charade, and the woman wasn’t in on it, surely the charge of adultery would have 1) taken her by surprise, and 2) been objected to.  Yet nowhere in the text do we read of the charge taking the woman by surprise, nor do we read of her objecting to the charge.  This leaves two possibilities: 1) this was a charade, and the woman was privy to it (her actions would thus be in the manner of ‘playing along’ with the charade), or 2) there was no charade, and the woman not being surprised, nor objecting to the charge is indicative of her guilt.  I believe that the interpretation which better fits the context is that the woman’s actions (or lack thereof) indicate her guilt.

» In verse 9, we read that the scribes and Pharisees went away one by one.  Evidently, they recognized 1) the futility of trying to entrap Jesus, and 2) their own consciences were condemning them.  What’s more, we read that after the scribes and Pharisees had left, “Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him” (v. 9).  As pointed out above, it is only reasonable to conclude that if this entire scenario was nothing but a charade, then the woman herself would surely have been in on it.  If it was a charade, and she was in on it, then why would she stay even after the scribes and Pharisees are gone?  Would it not be reasonable to suppose that, after everyone else has realized the futility of such a charade, the woman (who would have to have been privy to the charade) would also have departed from Jesus?  If this was a charade, and the woman was in on it, there is no reason for her to have stayed; the attempt to entrap Jesus had failed miserably.  The fact that she stayed behind is indicative of three things: 1) this scenario was not a charade, 2) therefore, by necessity, this woman was not in cahoots with the scribes and Pharisees, for there was no charade for her to be a part of, and 3) the woman recognized her guilt, as evidenced by her silence (i.e., she did not object to the charge of adultery).

» When it was apparent that no one had stayed to condemn the adulterous woman, Jesus dismisses her with the solemn words, “go, and from now on sin no more” (v. 11).  He says nothing to the woman that indicates that she can now depart without any stain or blemish on her character.  Quite the opposite, in fact, for our Lord’s words “go and sin no more” clearly imply that the woman had sinned, and was in fact, guilty of adultery.  Jesus’ choice of words indicates that He accepted that the woman had indeed committed an act (or possibly acts) that needed to be repented of.

In summing up, then, the reasons why I believe that this passage is recording Jesus’ dealing with an actual adulteress, and not an elaborate charade, are as follows:

» John’s choice of words in verse 3 indicates that he accepted that the woman was indeed an adulteress.

» If the whole scenario was nothing but a fanciful fabrication, then the woman would surely have to have been in cahoots with the scribes and Pharisees, yet her actions tell a different story.

» Jesus’ choice of words in verse 11 indicates that He accepted that the woman was indeed guilty of adultery, hence the command to repent.

3 thoughts on “The Woman Caught in Adultery: Nothing But a Charade?

  1. Steven Mathes May 13, 2013 / 12:43 pm

    It is a great story about everyone is a sinner and Jesus forgives sins. Well the truth is, it is not in the early manuscripts. Most scholars today would argue that this story is inauthentic, added fairly early on in the transmission history of the text, largely because it is so moving and speaks of the compassion of Jesus. It’s a favorite story that’s not in the Bible. There is much emotional baggage associated with these twelve verses, but the truth must win out over emotion. And for this reason many scholars and preachers are both adamant that this text is not authentic and simultaneously silent on the matter in the pulpit.

    The vast majority of the nearly 1700 manuscripts that have John’s gospel in them have this story wedged between John 7:52 and 8:12. Although they represent the majority, almost all of these manuscripts are late. Relatively speaking, there are very few manuscripts that do not have the passage at all, and an even smaller number that have it but place it at the end of the four gospels. The manuscripts that lack it number about 250; of this number, only 111 are manuscripts without commentaries. To this number can now be added one more manuscript, Albanian National Archive 15, an 11th–12th century minuscule manuscript that contains the four gospels. At John 7:52, the scribe simply continued on to write John 8:12. A later scribe, incensed at what he thought was an oversight, took a piece of paper and carelessly stitched it into the front of the next parchment leaf (using only five stitches!) and scribbled the passage on it!

    Even though most translators would probably deny John 7:53–8:11 a place in the canon, virtually every translation of the Bible has this text in its traditional location. Some modern translations put in a marginal note that says something like, “The oldest manuscripts lack these verses.” But such a weak and vague statement is either missed or ignored by readers of the Bible. How, then, has this passage made it into modern translations? In a word, there has been a longstanding tradition of timidity among translators. One twentieth-century Bible relegated the passage to the footnotes, but when the sales were rather lackluster, it again found its place in John’s Gospel.

    The following was added in response to a friend’s posting concerning this article. He says:

    “Ok from what I’ve read from your notes and a bit of Googling tells me that the story was added late but is not necessarily untrue. If you don’t believe the story should be included in the Bible because of it’s timeliness I can understand that. But to go as far as saying that the story is untrue, I can’t find any research that proves that.”

    In researching this story of the woman caught in adultery, we first need to know who we are getting our information from. We need to know if there are any biases to the story or not. An example, anyone that is Catholic has a bias toward the story being authentic because it is in the manuscripts that they hold as being accurate and true. You take someone like Dr. James White (is the director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, a Christian apologetics organization in Phoenix, Arizona), Darrell Bock (a New Testament scholar and research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas), and even the former Christian, now the apostate atheist Bart Ehrman (a New Testament scholar), who have no biases on this story, but only what the truth of the writings are. With their observations and testimonies you can have more faith in their sayings that the former or anyone else’s that do not have their credentials. By the way, you can watch all three of these men speak on the authenticity of the NT on YouTube.

    Catholic tradition has accepted the woman caught in adultery story for almost two thousand years. Leon Morris says that, “Throughout the history of the church, it has been held that, whoever wrote it, this little story is authentic.” [Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, Revised, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 779]. Tradition holds that this is an “authentic” story. Within the Catholic scope of tradition, many doctrines have been “revealed” to the Church over the centuries. For example, there is the veneration of Mary, her immaculate conception and her bodily assumption into heaven. There is also the apocrypha, transubstantiation, praying to saints, the confessional, penance, purgatory, and more. But tradition, which is held higher than the Bible by the Catholic Church, doesn’t prove anything other than it has been around for a long time.

    Many scholars, like the ones I listed, acknowledge that adultery story does not belong in John’s gospel. Along with that, there is no evidence that this story is true or any reason to believe that the story was an actual event in the life of Jesus. So there is no reason to believe that this story is necessarily untrue. And if by chance it were true, it would fall into the Apocryphal writings and would not be included in the Bible that we hold today because John did not write it. Scholars say that the style of the writing of this story does not fit John’s style. Bart Ehrman says, “The story about the women taken in adultery, now found in John 7:53-8:12 was not originally a part of any of the gospels but was added by scribes. Scholars who work with the manuscript tradition have no doubt of this. Scholars call this an “orphan” text since it seems to float around. Some scribe placed it after Luke 21:38 at one time.” If you want to include this story that “might” be true then let’s do that and let us also add in the book of Barnabas, which we know to be true and filled with good instructions. As well as all the other early church father’s writings that are known to be true. The bottom line is that John didn’t write it and we are not to add to God’s Word.

    This story is not found in any of the earliest surviving Greek Gospel manuscripts; neither in the two 3rd century papyrus witnesses to John; nor in the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. The first surviving Greek manuscript to contain the story is the Latin/Greek diglot Codex Bezae of the late 4th or early 5th century. It is also the earliest surviving Latin manuscript to contain it; 17 of the 23 Old Latin manuscripts of John 7-8 contain at least part of the story. So you can see that a scribe hundreds of years later added this story to John’s gospel. Where did he get the story? Maybe church traditions or maybe from Gnostic writings. Again, the bottom line is John didn’t write it and we are not to add to God’s Word.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t end with the woman caught in adultery. There are other scriptures added by scribes.

    • Arminian May 14, 2013 / 1:02 pm


      Thanks for the reply, but I can’t help thinking that you’ve missed the point. The post has nothing to do with the alleged authenticity, or lack thereof, of the passage as it pertains to the question of whether it should be regarded as a legitimate inclusion in the Scriptures or not.

      The purpose of the post is to deal with an argument that I’ve heard many times before from Bible teachers (Ken Gentry comes to mind straight away) that the whole scenario of the woman caught in adultery was nothing but a fanciful charade.

      My argument is that when the passage is considered in context (whether or not the passage is to be considered ‘authentic’), the most straight-forward conclusion is that the scenario was NOT a charade.

      You Said:

      “If you want to include this story that “might” be true then let’s do that and let us also add in the book of Barnabas, which we know to be true and filled with good instructions. As well as all the other early church father’s writings that are known to be true. The bottom line is that John didn’t write it and we are not to add to God’s Word.”

      This illustrates perfectly that you’ve missed the point, in that nowhere in the post do I talk about what books or passages should be considered ‘authentic’, and thus included in the Canon of Scripture. That is another topic altogether.

      Kind regards,

  2. Stephen July 27, 2013 / 2:24 am

    I can’t remember where I heard or read this, but I heard (or maybe read, but again, I can’t remember) that the Pharisees knew exactly where to go to find these sexual activities taking place, because they themselves were patrons of these women. Presumably, it was a brothel or a prostitute and the Pharisees themselves would avail themselves of these services and that is how they knew where to go to find this activity taking place. And perhaps the male offender was one of the accusing Pharisees, or, as you say, they really had no interest in justice as much as in entraping Jesus. I’m not sure if that theory is correct or not, but I do remember hearing/reading it somewhere.

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