Is it part of the Gospel of John?

Most Bibles have some sort of note explaining how this story is not found in the earliest existing copies of John’s gospel.

The oldest fragments of the original Gospel of John, date to as early as 150-250 A.D. There’s a teensy scrap of this gospel, about the size of a business card, that dates back to maybe as early as 100-150 A.D. And the story does not seem to be included.

Is there any early evidence of this story?

Well, yes, actually.

Didymus the Blind (ca. 313-398 AD) referred to this story and established its presence in fourth century renditions of John’s gospel.

But even earlier, Papias of Hierapolis (ca. 60-130 AD) mentioned a story in the “Gospel of the Hebrews” about Jesus and a woman accused of many sins. Maybe a hundred years later, a quote from this story shows up in a Syriac document called the Didascalia Apostolorum.

Why was it omitted?

So why is this story placed right here, even if older fragments do not have it?

Well, for one thing, one of the oldest full versions of the Christian Testament, the Codex Vaticanus (written in Egypt)—which dates to about 300 to 325 AD—has a little mark in it where this story should go. In other words, the Codex Vaticanus does not have the story of the woman caught in adultery, but it indicates that something was omitted where that story would have been.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) offered a reason why, writing “Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord’s act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if he who had said, Sin no more, had granted permission to sin.”[1]

In the spirit of narrative criticism, I intend to read this story as belonging right here, where we find it, and where the Codex Vaticanus indicates it was placed in other copies of the gospel 1,700 years ago.

She was disheveled, rumpled clothes half thrown on, her long hair caught up in the hot wind that constantly blew in the Mediterranean. Two men, angry and sweaty, gripped her as they dragged her up the massive steps of the temple, and into the middle of the outer courtyard. Other men shouted and shoved through the gathering crowd.

Together, they thrust the woman in front of the grubby itinerant preacher everybody seemed to like so much. If their plan worked, that would all change soon.

One of the men, a Pharisee, barked out his challenge.


The men and women already gathered around Jesus looked up, startled by the loud interruption.

“What are you going to do with this woman, here? She was caught in the act.”

Jesus looked at the woman, her arms held so tightly there were already bruise marks forming around the fingers that sunk deep into her arms. Her head hung low, hiding her face.

One of the scribes now spoke, “The Law of Moses,” his voice was sharp, loud, hard-edged, “commanded us to stone such women.” Without looking, he spat towards her feet.

The rest of the Pharisees and scribes looked about at their growing audience, haughty and self-righteous, pleased with the stir they were causing. Passersby, curious, came near to listen, and many reached to pick up jagged stones that lay in the periphery.

But Jesus had given them only the briefest glance when they spoke. His eyes were back on the woman, silently shuddering with stifled sobs. The louder and more strident their voices grew, the less Jesus seemed inclined to answer. Instead, he remained seated, bent over, running a finger through the dust that lay across the marble tiles of the temple’s outer courts.

Finally, the rabbi stood.

“Go ahead and throw stones,” Jesus told them.

Some gasped. Others tightened their grip on the rocks they had picked up. Hot wind blew without mercy across the white marble pavement, scorching eyes and burning lungs.

The religious rulers’ eyes glinted with triumph! The plan was working, for now Jesus would be hated by the people, exposed as a betrayer of the downcast and the downtrodden. Of course, he had had no choice. As the self-proclaimed spokesman for God, Son of God indeed, he had to uphold and obey the Law of God.

They readied themselves to drag the woman to the side of the temple’s immense square, when at the last moment Jesus raised a hand.

“Only those who have never done anything wrong may cast the first stone.” Then looked down where he had been writing, his other hand inviting them to look as well.

Reluctantly, first one, and then another from the crowd came to see what Jesus had written, as already the rabbi was once again bent over, once again moving his finger in the dust.

For a while, only the wind made sound, flapping robes and sighing through the high alcoves of Solomon’s Porch, as Jesus’ finger moved.

The first stone slipped from the fingers of an aged scribe, his face white with what he had read. Then another, a Pharisee this time, dropped his stone, starting at the loud crack it made as it hit the ground, small puffs of dust rising around it. Slowly at first, but with increasing pace, the stones clattered and fell all around Jesus, as he continued to draw his finger across the dust, softly and silently.

Until all had gone, and only the woman and the rabbi remained, the wind swirling through the dust he had been writing in, all that he had done now swirling up in flurries and whirls, now spread like a fine mist over the whole temple complex.

At last Jesus straightened himself, brushed his hands, and looked at the woman. She had been standing all this while as motionless as prey might do, only trembling. Her arms were wrapped tightly around herself, holding her robes together, hair sticking to her tears, her bare feet dirty and cut.

“Woman,”[2] he said, his voice filled with dignity.

Her face broke out in wonder. How could he call her that?

He smiled, and it was as though golden rays of joy beamed from him. “Where are they?”

He made as though to look for the scribes and Pharisees, and the people they had stirred into such righteous indignation. Holding his hand up to his eyes to block the sun’s glare, he craned first this way, then that. After a moment, he looked back at her, dropped his hand, then spread both arms out wide.

“Has no one condemned you?” Again he was smiling, for they were sharing something wonderful.

“No one, sir,” she said, smiling back, her gratitude bringing fresh tears.

“Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus said, only now his voice was filled with such power her body vibrated with the sound. The wind hot and strong that had been tugging her unbound hair, tugging her half-clasped garments, parching her eyes and mouth, now eerily stilled.

“Go.” His voice was gentle, but his command was given with unquestionable authority. As she nodded in obedient humility, turning to leave, Jesus’ last words surrounded her. “From now, this moment, do not again sin.”

She did not feel shame. She felt hope. For her savior had released her, he had freed her to live free—free of her accusers and tormentors, free of condemnation, and also free of the sin that had held her in its grip.

[1] “Sed hoc videlicet infidelium sensus exhorret, ita ut nonnulli modicae fidei vel potius inimici verae fidei, credo, metuentes peccandi impunitatem dari mulieribus suis, illud, quod de adulterae indulgentia Dominus fecit, auferrent de codicibus suis, quasi permissionem peccandi tribuerit qui dixit: Iam deinceps noli peccare, aut ideo non debuerit mulier a medico Deo illius peccati remissione sanari, ne offenderentur insani.” Augustine, De Adulterinis Conjugiis 2:6–7. Cited in Wieland Willker, A Textual Commentary on the Greek Gospels Archived 2011-04-09 at the Wayback Machine, Vol. 4b, p. 10.

[2] The word “woman” here is “gunai,” which can mean “woman” or it can mean ”wife.” I imagine, if translated in an older version of English we might have said “mistress,” which is condensed to “Mrs.” these days. We should really read this word as one of warm respect,

[Jesus writing in the dust | James Tissot / Public domain]

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