Unfathomable mercy

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  • Sunday 5 in Lent, Year C.
  • First Reading ‡ Isaiah 43:16-21 I am doing a new thing and I will give drink to my people.
  • Responsorial ‡ Psalm 125 The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
  • Second Reading ‡ Philippians 3:8-14 Because of Christ I look upon everything else as useless in order to gain him.
  • Gospel ‡ John 8:1-11 Let the person without sin be the first to throw a stone.

John 8:1-11 // Stoning the woman caught in adultery

“To many, this is one of the loveliest and the most precious stories in the gospels; and yet it has great difficulties attaching to it.

The older the manuscripts of the New Testament are, the more valuable they are. They were all copied by hand, and obviously the nearer they are to the original writings, the more likely they are to be correct. We call these very early manuscripts the Uncial manuscripts, because they are written in capital letters; and we base the text of the New Testament on the earliest ones, which date from the fourth to the sixth century. The fact is that out of all these early manuscripts this story occurs only in one, and that is not one of the best. Six of them omit it completely. Two leave a blank space where it should come. It is only in the late Greek and medieval manuscripts that we find this story – but then it is often marked to show that it is doubtful.

Another source of our knowledge of the text of the New Testament are the translations into languages other than Greek. This story is not included in the early Syriac version, nor in the Coptic or Egyptian version, nor in some of the early Latin versions.

None of the early Greek fathers seem to know anything about it. They never mention it or comment on it. Origen, Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia and Cyril of Alexandria do not mention it.

Where, then, did this incident come from? Jerome certainly knew it in the fourth century, for he included it in the Vulgate. We know that Augustine and Ambrose both knew it, for they comment on it. We know that it is in all the later manuscripts. It is to be noted that its position varies a great deal. In some manuscripts, it is a little earlier in John 7, others put it at the end of John; and in others, it is inserted after Luke 21:38. The language is much more like Luke than John.

But we can trace it even further back. It is quoted in a third-century book called The Apostolic Constitutions, where it is given as a warning to bishops who are too strict. Eusebius, the Church historian, says that Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis, tells a story ‘of a woman who was accused of many sins before the Lord’ — and Papias lived not very long after AD100.

What are the facts? This story can be traced as far back as very early in the second century. When Jerome produced the Vulgate, he, without question, included it. The later manuscripts and the medieval manuscripts all have it. And yet none of the great manuscripts includes it. None of the great Greek fathers of the Church ever mentions it. But some of the great Latin fathers did know it, and speak of it.

What is the explanation? We need not be afraid that we shall have to let this lovely story go; for it is guarantee enough of its genuineness that we can trace it back to almost AD100. But we do need some explanation of the fact that none of the great manuscripts includes it.

Augustine gives us a hint. He says that this story was removed from the text of the gospel because ‘some were of slight faith’, and ‘to avoid scandal’. We cannot tell for certain, but in the very early days the people who edited the text of the New Testament thought that this was a dangerous story, a justification for a light view of adultery; and they therefore omitted it. After all, the Christian Church was a little island in a sea of paganism. Its members were apt to relapse into a way of life where chastity was unknown, and were forever open to pagan infection. But as time went on the danger grew less, or was less feared, and the story, which had always circulated by word of mouth and which one manuscript retained, came back.

It is not likely that it is now in the place where it ought to be. It was probably inserted here to illustrate Jesus’ saying in John 8:15: ‘I judge no one.’ In spite of the doubt that the modern translations cast on it, and in spite of the fact that the early manuscripts do not include it, we may be sure that this is a real story about Jesus, although one so gracious that for a long time people were afraid to tell it.”

This introduction is a lightly edited version of William Barclay, The Gospel of John. Vol. 2. The New Daily Study Bible. Louisville, KY: Edinburgh, 2001, pp 337-339.

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