Put popular biblical story of woman caught in adultery in footnote, says theology prof

A pastor and theology professor says the story of the woman caught in adultery isn’t part of the original Gospel of John and shouldn’t be preached in pulpits.

By Bob Allen

A Southern Baptist pastor and seminary professor says the story of Jesus forgiving a woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John is not in the earliest texts, belongs in a footnote and should not be preached in pulpits.

james hamiltonJames Hamilton, pastor of Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and associate professor of biblical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says Bible translators should remove John 7:53–8:11 from the Gospel text and put it in a footnote the way that modern Bibles treat verses at the end of Mark about snake-handling.

The English Standard Version of the Bible sets the verses off in brackets with a footnote explaining they are not in some early manuscripts and appear in others in different contexts.

Hamilton, who has a Ph.D. from Southern Seminary and taught previously at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s satellite campus in Houston, says translation committees should do pastors a favor and move both passages to footnotes.

“Those passages do not belong in the text and should not be preached from pulpits,” Hamilton argued in a blog. “The snake-handlers are woefully mistaken. They should not think there is any warrant in the New Testament for such a practice.”

“Similarly, those who cry that no one should throw stones anytime sinners are called to repentance have misunderstood this interpolated passage (Jesus does tell the woman to stop sinning in 8:11), but still the passage has no business in the text,” he continued. “It was not written by John, and it should not be there interrupting the flow of thought between 7:52 and 8:12. Put it in a footnote.”

The passage describes a confrontation between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees over whether a woman caught in the act of adultery ought to be stoned. Jesus pauses, writes with his finger on the ground and answers in the King James Version, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

Hamilton says it’s the only place in John where Jesus’ adversaries are identified as scribes. While that designation occurs in other books of the New Testament, he says, elsewhere in John they are identified simply as Jews.

He says the placement of the story doesn’t make sense. The passage says Jesus’ opponents are setting a trap in order to accuse him, but three chapters earlier they were already seeking to kill him for breaking the Sabbath and blasphemy.

Preaching from John 7:53-8:29 in his Sunday morning sermon at Kenwood Baptist Church March 30, Hamilton skipped over the part about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.

“I don’t think John wrote this passage,” he explained to the congregation. “I’m certain he didn’t put it here, and therefore I’m not going to preach it.”

“The reason I’m not going to preach it is because I believe I am supposed to preach the scriptures here in this pulpit, and I come to the conclusion that this is not part of the scriptures,” he continued. “It’s not part of what John wrote.”

“That should not bother you,” he counseled. “You should not be troubled by that. In fact you should be encouraged that we have enough evidence on the contents of John’s Gospel to come to a conclusion like that, because there are many, many documents from the ancient world that we would never be able to determine like that, because we just don’t have enough copies and we can’t be certain about what was originally there.”

At some point, he explained, the story “entered into the manuscript tradition” of Bible transmission.

“We’re thinking about a world prior to the printing press,” he said. “Prior to the printing press in the 1400s, people copied manuscripts by hand. At some point this section — John 7:53 through 8:11 — started being copied, but it was copied at different places, and we’re confident that it’s not original to John’s Gospel.”

Hamilton said a couple of spurious texts should not undermine confidence in the Bible.

“You shouldn’t start thinking something like, ‘Oh, well, what other parts of the New Testament?’” he said. “Just pay close attention to the book in front of you, and it will have these brackets right here. We’ve got this passage and we’ve got Mark 16. Those are the two big ones.”

Hamilton has been preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church since 2008. Elders include Associate Pastor Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, and Owen Strachan, assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College and executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.