Increasingly many Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, are reciting, teaching and popularizing the Pericope de Adultera (Latin for "the passage of the adulterous woman"), set forth at from John 7:53-8:11. In the story a mob surrounds a woman to stone her for adultery, and ask Jesus what they should do. Jesus is describing as writing in the ground, and eventually beseeches those who have not sinned to cast the first stone. The crowd then disperses, beginning with the eldest first. This apocryphal passage is a favorite of liberals who oppose those who stand up for Christian values, as when the left-leaning Bill O'Reilly cited this passage to criticize the star of Duck Dynasty for standing up against homosexual conduct.
The movie The Passion of Christ -- which initially even omitted the Resurrection -- includes flashbacks to a scene based on this passage; Bartleby's quotations include its famous line, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone"; and sermons are increasingly based on it. Arguments against the death penalty often cite this passage.
The account is as follows (NIV version):
- (7:53 Then each went to his own home.) 8:1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" 11 "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." 12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." 13 The Pharisees challenged him, "Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid."
If the adulteress story is removed, then the passage reads more naturally as follows:
- (7:53 Then each went to his own home.) 8:1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. ... 12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." 13 The Pharisees challenged him, "Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid."
Nearly all modern scholars agree that this Pericope de Adultera is not authentic. Bruce Metzger, a leading biblical scholar, put it this way:
- The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming. It is absent from such early and diverse manuscripts as Papyrus66.75 Aleph B L N T W X Y D Q Y 0141 0211 22 33 124 157 209 788 828 1230 1241 1242 1253 2193 al. Codices A and C are defective in this part of John, but it is highly probable that neither contained the pericope, for careful measurement discloses that there would not have been space enough on the missing leaves to include the section along with the rest of the text. In the East the passage is absent from the oldest form of the Syriac version (syrc.s. and the best manuscripts of syrp), as well as from the Sahidic and the sub-Achmimic versions and the older Bohairic manuscripts. Some Armenian manuscripts and the old Georgian version omit it. In the West the passage is absent from the Gothic version and from several Old Latin manuscripts (ita.l*.q). No Greek Church Father prior to Euthymius Zigabenus (twelfth century) comments on the passage, and Euthymius declares that the accurate copies of the Gospels do not contain it.
This disputed passage is inconsistent in style and sequence with the remainder of the Gospel of John. This story is not found anywhere else, and its claim of Jesus bending down "to write on the ground with his finger" is found nowhere else. The account of the eldest leaving first, as though the eldest are holier or more sinful than younger persons, is found nowhere in any of Jesus' teachings. In no other story do the people give Jesus as much authority as this story recounts, with every single person accepting His teaching in this story. Two sentences later, the Pharisees challenge Jesus' authority.
One thorough analysis concludes, "Biblical scholars are nearly all agreed that the Story of the Adulteress (also known as the Pericope Adulterae or the Pericope de Adultera) usually printed in Bibles as John 7:53-8:11 is a later addition to the Gospel. On this page I present some extended quotations from scholarly works that explain the reasons for this judgment."
The conservative, evangelical translation of the Bible (NIV) flatly says, "The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11."
A Jewish scholar pointed out multiple absurdities in the story:
- That a woman taken in the act of adultery should have been brought before Jesus (and apparently without witnesses of her crime); that such an utterly un-Jewish, as well as illegal, procedure should have been that of the "Scribes and Pharisees"; that such a breach of law, and of what Judaism would have regarded as decency, should have been perpetrated to "tempt" Him; or that the Scribes should have been so ignorant as to substitute stoning for strangulation as the punishment of adultery; lastly, that this scene should have been enacted in the Temple, presents a veritable climax of impossibilities.
Some defend continued inclusion of the passage based on a fear of a "slippery slope," that other passages will be questioned or removed if this one were. But there are very few other passages in the New Testament that are even questioned, and none of these have any doctrinal significance.
Amid this scholarship, why is the emphasis on this passage increasing? The answer lies in its liberal message: do not criticize or punish immoral conduct unless you are perfect yourself. Liberals cite this passage to oppose the death penalty, a misuse that has been criticized. But one need not be perfect before he can recognize wrongdoing in himself. The Mosaic laws clearly state death as a punishment for sin. So the argument that an individual must be perfect is not relevant. The God-ordained government has the responsibility for punishment. Civilized society may not depend on stoning to deter immoral crimes, but it does depend on retribution enforced by people who are themselves sinners.
Jesus Acts Out of Character
Jesus forgives the adulteress, who is not explicitly repentant. John 8:11 states: "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." This passage tells us that Jesus forgives the adulteress, since he does not "condemn" her. However, forgiveness without repentance is not taught elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, it is by repentance only that we are saved and forgiven; in Luke 13:3, Jesus states, "I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." Thus, Jesus acts out of character in the adulteress story by forgiving a sinner who is not repentant.
Jesus seems to be following the actions of the teachers and Pharisees. John 8:9-11 states: At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. In these passages, Jesus does not condemn her because the teachers and Pharisees have not condemned her. This is illogical and out of character for Jesus, since He is the Son of God and should not be acting by following the actions of sinners.
The statement in John 8:7, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her," is not in keeping with the rest of the Bible. The phrase "without sin" only appears two other times in the New Testament: in Hebrews 4:15: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.", and in 1 John 1:8: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." These instances of the phrase "without sin" are quite different from the adulteress story. First, neither of these quotations are from Jesus, making the adulteress story the only instance in which Jesus uses the phrase. Second, the phrase has very different meanings from that of the adulteress story; in Hebrews, it is describing Jesus's glory, and in 1 John, it is a warning to how we view ourselves. Neither instance uses the "without sin" as a phrase to persuade people against judging or condemning others.
There is an incongruity pertaining to the concluding sentence of the story. John 8:12 states, When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." This sentence in no way relates to the scene with the adulteress; Jesus did not tell the adulteress to follow him, or that he was the light of the world.
- Dr. Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, ii. 163.  (emphasis added).