St. John, the adulteress and me

I was asked to speak in Sacrament Meeting on a scripture that has helped me understand Christ. As I thought about it, the same idea kept coming to me: John 8:1-11, the story of the woman taken in adultery (aka Pericope Adulterae).
What strikes me is the focus on mercy and the charity and patience with others that the atonement requires of us. We focus on the issues of obedience (which are necessary) to the degree that we forget about the quality of mercy that this story reinforces. I’m deeply moved as I contemplate Christ offering mercy to her and by extension, me. I like the idea of seeing ourselves and others in the way that Christ and the Father do: defined not by our sins, but by our potential to be like Him because of the Atonement.
But there’s a complication: there is some question if this section is was originally part of the book of John. Briefly, it is missing from early manuscripts and there were marks on some manuscripts some analysts believed indicate a interpolation. Other scholars have seen textual consistencies with the rest of John. (At least one writer suggests it was part of John and was taken out so nobody would use it to justify adultery.) Adding to the confusion is the doctrinal inconsistency. Like our Kevin writes in his New Testament Footnotes for Latter-day Saints, ‘[I]t seems incongruent in light of some of his other sayings,’ contrasting it with Mark 7:9-13.

What to do?

1. Find a new scripture. The textual evidence is weak, and I don’t want to risk claiming something as the actions and words of Christ which may not be. It might be authentic, but when dealing with questions of divine authorship, one ought to be careful.

2. Use it, but don’t be too literal about it. After all, the principles of mercy and avoiding judgment can be found elsewhere in the doctrines of Christ. Use the story as a springboard for talking about those principles and their relationship to the Atonement, but skip the discussion about the woman as a historical person and the lessons that might come out of that exploration.

3. It’s all good. If it weren’t part of the ‘real’ Bible, Joseph Smith would have said so, right? And if it’s good enough for Monson, Hinckley, other church leaders and this guy, it’s good enough for me.

I guess my question is this: how much should I worry about the textual criticism of the Bible? Should I consider some sections stronger than others, based on my understanding of the imperfections of the book, or do I accept it as the word of God unless told otherwise by authorized leaders?


  1. What is “the word of God,” in any case? Sounds flippant, perhaps, but the question is serious. It seems unlikely that many of the New Testament narratives have verbatim accounts of Jesus’s conversations, so that can’t be what we mean by “word of God.” Indeed, some of the text was certainly interpolated or even created whole cloth to favor specific positions in early Christian theological debates. So if we want to base authenticity in dating back to Jesus’s day, we probably shouldn’t be very confident of any of it. But other meanings are certainly available. If we consider, for example, the word of God to be those texts that believers over the millennia have held sacred and found useful in accessing God’s spirit, then the passage in question is certainly the word of God, no matter what its provenance.

    The tension of this passage with other passages seems, by the way, a relatively unhelpful criterion. The New Testament surely has various passages that reflect diverse traditions in at least some tension with each other. We have to make our choices, to be sure, but such tension is only to be expected.

  2. As far as I’m concerned, once you start tossing out parts of the Gospels for use because of possible interpolation, you might as well chuck all four books. That’s not to say that faithful Christians shouldn’t confuse themselves with such matters – whether to wade into the shark-infested waters of Biblical textual criticism is a matter for personal reflection, but for my part I couldn’t imagine doing without it – but I think in the end, when it comes to preaching from the Gospel you really just have to take it as it comes. Christians have been using that story for nearly 2000 years, so whether it’s “authentic” or not, it’s an important part of our understanding of Christ.

  3. For the record, I plan to go with choice 2 generally, basically for the reasons J and banky mention.

    I like this intepretation, which I found in The Adam Clarke Bible Commentary:

    We never find that Christ wrote any thing before or after this; and what he wrote at this time we know not. On this the pious Quesnel makes the following reflections:-

    “1. Since Jesus Christ never wrote but once that we hear of in his whole life; 2. since he did it only in the dust; 3. since it was only to avoid condemning a sinner; and, 4. since he would not have that which he wrote so much as known; let men learn from hence never to write but when it is necessary or useful; to do it with humility and modesty; and to do it on a principle of charity. How widely does Christ differ from men! He writes his Divine thoughts in the dust: they wish to have theirs cut in marble, and engraved on brass.”

  4. It’s all good, imho.

  5. there is some question if this section is was originally part of the book of John

    Actually, there’s more than some — it’s half a step short of a dead certainty.

    That being said, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to separate the devotional use of the scriptures from textual criticism. In church, it’s basically all devotional use (except for the occasional comment in Sunday school).

    So, in your position, I would use the story of the woman taken in adultery. It may not be original to John, but I still think it teaches good lessons, particularly in the false self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.

  6. FWIW, one of my favorite talks uses the story beautifully. I know the speaker somewhat, and would assume that he was aware of the textual controversy (obviously he still felt there was value in the story, whatever its critical status).

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    What Mike said. I would have no problem using this passage as the basis for a talk or lesson in Church, even though I’m aware of the textual issues surrounding it.

  8. Julie M. Smith says:

    There are some “scriptures” that I won’t use, such as the long ending of Mark. But this isn’t one of them. While the textual evidence is absolutely horrible, that doesn’t mean the story didn’t happen.

    A nice analogy for Mormons is Jesus reminding the Nephites that they left out the part about Samuel the Lamanite. (So: the textual evidence for that story being original is horrible, but it is still good and true.)

  9. a random John says:

    I wish my ward assigned topics for talks that were half as interesting as that. Instead we recycle conference talks.

    My question is: is this the scripture that has best helped you understand Christ? If so then I don’t really see the problem. If your answer were Song of Solomon then maybe I’d have a different answer.

  10. Who cares about accuracy when we have Article of Faith #8? *grin*

  11. Kevin Christensen says:

    One effect that the controversy about whether the story in John was originally in the gospel is to distance the readers from the importance of the story. We being discussing editors, and the story slips away.

    A very good antedote to that circumstance is the chapter on “The Horrible Miracle of Apollonius of Tyana” in Rene Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightening. Girard describes an account of the horrible miracle, which involved Apollonions getting a crowd to stone to death an outcast beggar, and then claiming that the beggar was a demon who was responsible for the troubles of the city. In direct contrast, Girard says “Saving the adulterous woman from being stoned, as Jesus does means that he prevents the violent contagion from getting started. Another contagion in the reverse direction us set off, however, a contagion of nonviolence. From the moment the first individual gives up stoning the adulterous woman, he becomes a model who is imitated more and more until finallu all the group, guided by Jesus, abandons is plans to stone the woman.”
    “Our two texts are as opposed to one another as possible in spirit, and yet they resemble each other since they are examples of mimetic escalation. Their independent origin makes this resemblence very significant. The texts help us better understand the dynamic of crowds that must be defined, not primarily by violence or by nonviolence, but by imitation, by contagious imitation.” (Girard, 57)

    Girard continues to refer to the overwhelming significance this story has for the Western culture, just via the presence of a simeple phrase, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Because of the story, we hesitate to condemn because we reflect on our own guilts; we are more inclined to be merciful.

    Reading Girard convinced me that even if the story was not originally in the text (something of which I am not convinced), it unquestionably belongs there. It’s not a trivial story, but one of profound significance.

    Kevin Christensen
    Bethel Park, PA

  12. Boy, I wouldn’t let a little scribal quibbling deter you from using that wonderful story. If you’re concerned that such questions about authenticity may create doubt as to the true character of Jesus, remember there are plenty of other occasions wherein he condemns (either explicitly or implicitly) the very same brand of hypocrisy. Also (at the risk of coming across a little preachy), remember that while the Sermon on the Mount does indeed condemn adultery and anything like unto it, it also exalts the virtues of forgiveness, compassion, witholding judgment, etc.

  13. LDS Anarchist says:

    3- So, I should write my daily journal in the dust to emulate Jesus?

  14. Well, yes, the best scholarship indicates that it was not part of the original Gospel of John, but also that it was a well accepted and part of the original narrative of Christ that was given a home in John.

    I wouldn’t let it bother you. Much of the scriptures that we have did not start in the form they are in. Heck, the entire Book of Mormon was heavily edited (by Mormon). No one complains about that.

  15. One of my favorite talks used the story; I’m sure the speaker knew of the textual “problems,” but that didn’t keep him from using it beautifully.

  16. Sorry about the duplicate comments–when I came back on the 21st I swear the first hadn’t posted yet, hence #15 …

  17. The Mormon answer is of course:

    It doesn’t matter if some medieval monk made up the whole thing from notes he took on the back of a napkin after getting drunk on the communion wine.

    Gordon B. Hinckley said it in General Conference.

    That makes it scripture. ;)

  18. Seth-OUCH!

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