Yet many early manuscripts do have the story, and several of the early church fathers regarded it as authentic. The passage certainly appears to be authentic in style, and everything about the section is in keeping with the character of the scribes and Pharisees who repeatedly tried to trap Jesus (Matthew 16:1; 19:3; 22:35; Mark 8:11; 10:2; 12:15; Luke 10:25; 11:16). Given this conflicting situation, we must look at the problem more closely.
Almost every one of the disputed verses in John 8 gives some indication that they were not composed by the apostle John. Consider a few examples that use vocabulary that is never used anywhere else in John’s writings:
In verse 1 we are told that Jesus “went to” the Mount of Olives – a phrase that is never found in John’s Gospel apart from in these contested verses – and the place name “Mount of Olives” is likewise never used by John (see, for example, John 18:1 where John simply refers to Jesus going to “a garden.”).
In verse 2 the expression “came early” is never used by John, nor is the phrase “all the people.”
In verse 3 the scribes are mentioned – John nowhere mentions the scribes.
In verse 6 the word “tempting” is used in the sense of trying to trap Jesus in a difficult situation. John never uses this word in this way.
In verse 9, the word “conscience” is never used by John.
In verse 10, the word translated “but” or “except” is never used by John.
Considering the combined evidence of all the verses in this section, it is difficult to believe that these words were written by John. Why would the apostle suddenly use totally different vocabulary than that which he used throughout his Gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation?
An Alternative Possibility
But just because it seems unlikely that John composed the verses we call John 7:53-8:11 does not necessarily mean that they are not authentic. When they do appear in early manuscripts, these verses sometimes appear in the Gospel of Luke, and so we should consider the possibility of their Lukan origin.
When we look at this possibility, we find that every one of the expressions considered above, that never appear anywhere else in John’s writings, can be found – often on numerous occasions – in the writings of the Evangelist Luke. For example, consider the phrase “all the people” that appears in verse 2. Although this expression was not used by John, it is a characteristic phrase used by Luke – it appears some twenty times in his writings. Even the word “people” by itself is used only twice by John, but over fifty times in the writings of Luke. In a similar way, the mention of the “scribes” in the “scribes and Pharisees” in verse 3, although never used by John, is found multiple times in Luke.
These facts should make us seriously consider the possibility that “John 7:53-8:11” originated not in manuscripts of John’s Gospel, but in the Gospel of Luke. But if that were the case, why are they not in the earliest manuscripts and why the confusion as to where they belong?
We must remember that Luke, perhaps more than any other Gospel writer, collected a great number of eyewitness accounts in composing Luke and Acts. John reminds us that Jesus did many other things that could have been included into the Gospel narratives (John 21:25), and this doubtless applies especially to the situation with Luke’s many sources. Ancient books were written on scrolls, of course, and Luke doubtless had to select his material carefully to make it fit on a fairly standard scroll. This would mean that the story of the woman caught in adultery may well have had to be put aside along with other excess material that could not fit in the production of Luke’s Gospel.
This could easily have led to a situation where the story surfaced and “floated” within the early Christian community for some time before being included in the Gospel manuscripts. This would explain why it appears in manuscripts of several different Gospels and in different places.
Interestingly, if the story was recorded by Luke, it fits very well where it appears in some manuscripts – after Luke 21:38. But although it fits well there, it would have broken the development of Luke’s account of the Passion narrative, giving another reason why he may not have included it.
So despite the seemingly conflicting manuscript evidence, a great many biblical scholars feel that this story represents an actual episode in the ministry of Jesus. The late renowned textual critic Bruce Metzger, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton University, concluded that “… the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity” (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. London, England: United Bible Societies , 220).
The story of the woman caught in adultery fits well with Luke’s constant interest in the place of women in the Gospel narrative. The consistent Lukan vocabulary makes it highly likely that it was recorded by that evangelist, and the story’s acceptance by early church fathers – despite its uncertain location – all suggest the likelihood of authenticity, and that the woman caught in adultery does indeed belong in the text of our Bibles.