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Reconstructing the Earliest Account of Jesus and an Allegedly Sinful Woman

We have looked at the episode of the purportedly sinful woman who sought out Jesus while he was dining at the house of a Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50 and how Luke may have transferred to it a few elements from the different account of another woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany in the other three New Testament Gospels. We also saw the Patristic reports (i.e. Papias, the Didascalia Apostolorum, Didymus the Blind) describe how Jesus pardoned a woman accused of plural sins or a single sin, though the sin was not identified as “adultery” until the “pericope adulterae” and Rufinus’s Latin translation (ca. 402 CE) of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History.

It is possible that these are two completely separate incidences. In one account, Jesus shows compassion towards an unnamed woman in a Pharisee’s house; in the other account, Jesus intervenes when an unnamed woman was accused of some transgressions that could have severe consequences. On the other hand, it may be possible that Luke and Papias were referring to the same basic story about a single woman, though Luke has edited the story to fit in to its new literary context, and that this story continued to be developed over the centuries into the accounts attested in the Didascalia Apostolorum, in the commentary of Didymus the Blind, and in John 7:53-8:11.

What was the original version of this story? I can think of three possibilities. First, it may have always been an account about how the scribes and Pharisees sought to test Jesus by bringing a woman before him who had been unofficially (but not legally under Roman law) charged with a capital offense against the Torah; all the sources selectively rehearsed or altered details (e.g. the setting, the challenge, the climatic pronouncement of Jesus) based on each author’s theological concerns. Second, there may have originally been two separate stories – in one story the scribes and Pharisees left the accused woman for Jesus to make a judgment against her in a private setting or in the temple courts and in the other story Jesus actively rescued a woman about to be lynched by a mob – and both were combined in the “pericope adulterae” in John 7:53-8:11. Third, the original version was a simple pronouncement story in which Jesus evaded the trap that the scribes and Pharisees set for him by absolving a maligned woman with a witty response (e.g. Luke, Papias, Didascalia) but, as this oral anecdote was retold over the centuries, new details were created including the charge of adultery and the threat of a public stoning that Jesus stopped. I favour this third option. For an alternative reconstruction, see the following blog posts from Kyle R. Hughes and this blog response from Chris Keith. I will also provide a brief bibliography of sources if you want to research this question in more detail, though I could add further sources on each of the texts listed (e.g. Luke, Papias, Didascalia, Eusebius, Didymus the Blind, the Jewish Christian Gospels labelled as “the Gospel according to the Hebrews”).

  • Black, David Alan and Cerone, Jacob N. The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. “Jesus and the Adulteress. New Testament Studies 34 (1988): 24-44.
  • Hughes, Kyle R. “The Lukan Special Material and the Tradition History of the Pericope Adulterae.” Novum Testamentum 55.3 (2013): 232-251.
  • Keith, Chris. “Recent and Previous Research on the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11).” Currents in Biblical Research 6 (2008); 377-404.
  • Knust, Jennifer Wright. “Early Christian Re-writing and the History of the Pericope Adulterae.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 14 (2006): 485-536.
  • Kok, Michael J. “Did Papias of Hierapolis Use the Gospel according to the Hebrews as a Source?” Journal of Early Christian Studies 25.1 (2017): 29-53.
  • Lührmann, Dieter. “Die Geschichte von einer Sünderin und andere Apokryphe Jesusüberlieferungen bei Didymos von Alexandrien.” Novum Testamentum 32 (1990): 289-316.
  • MacDonald, Dennis. Two Shipwrecked Gospels: The Logoi of Jesus and Papias’s Exposition of Logia about the Lord. Atlanta: SBL, 2012.
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