The Pericope Adulterae: A Floating Tradition?

Pericope Adulterae Floating Tradition

The “floating tradition” argument against the authenticity of the Pericope Adulterae (PA), John 7:53-8:11, is summarized well by Bruce Metzger in 1964, “The pericope is obviously a piece of floating tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western Church. It was subsequently inserted into various manuscripts at various places” (Text Of The New Testament, p. 320). The argument attempts to capitalize on the fact that the woman caught in adultery passage is located in various places in a few manuscripts. A group of manuscripts believed to be copies from the same source called “Family 13” places the PA after Luke 21:38, manuscript 1333 places it between the books of Luke and John, one manuscript places it after John 7:36, and a few others place it after 7:44 or 21:25.

The following are four reasons to reject the floating tradition interpretation of this evidence:

1) PA relocations are very late

No manuscript prior to the late 9th or 10th century relocates the PA, all the manuscripts which contain it have it in John until a few very late manuscripts relocate it. Additionally, Dr. Chris Keith pointed out that “Ambrose confirms a Johannine location while Jerome and Augustine confirm the specific location of John 7:53-8:11” (The Initial Location of the Pericope Adulterae in Fourfold Tradition, p. 10). But, as Dr. Keith demonstrates, the context that Ambrose speaks of the PA within John, makes it “a sound assumption” (p. 12) that Ambrose knew of the PA in the traditional location. So not only is there no manuscript evidence that it was “floating around looking for a home and landing in multiple spots,” patristic testimony flatly contradicts the theory. Having considered this, Dr. Keith asks, “If John 7:53-8:11 is demonstrably the majority location, and demonstrably the earliest location (and only narrative location in the extant evidence until the tenth century), how is it that PA came to be lodged from that position?” (p. 14).

2) Lectionary and Feast Days

The relocation of the PA is due to lectionary-related issues, primarily so that the PA would not be the reading for Pentecost, but also because it is more appropriate for another Greek Orthodox feast day. “The location of the PA in Family 13 [none earlier than the 11th century] is a blatant example of the influence of the Byzantine lectionary system on the text of the New Testament. Luke 21:12-19 is to be read on 7 October, the feast of Saints Sergios and Bakchos; the day after, on 8 October, the PA is to be read on the feast of Saint Pelagia” (Keith, p. 21). Saint Pelagia the Harlot was a notorious prostitute in the 4th or 5th century who repented and became a Christian at the preaching of Saint Nonnus. Thus it is apparent how her hagiography came to be associated with the woman caught in adultery and why that passage would be read on such a holiday. The “PA’s presence in these locations was therefore not due to confusion but to a deliberate scribal choice” (Keith, p. 22), i.e. simplifying the lector’s task of reading straight through rather than skipping around in the text.

3) “From out of John”

Manuscript 1333, also a late manuscript, places the Pericope Adulterae between Luke and John and explicitly states “ΕΚ ΤΟΥ ΚΑΤΑ ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ” [i.e. from out of John], therefore it can hardly be counted as evidence for the “floating tradition” (Robinson, Preliminary Observations Regarding the Pericope). “It is misleading when writers or apparatuses claim that in MS 1333c the PA appears ‘at the end of Luke’ or ‘post Lk 24:53’ (which makes it appear as though it were a portion of the Lukan text). Such a claim is clearly negated both by its placement location as well as the introductory phrase that identifies the pericope as coming ‘from that according to John.‘” (Robinson, Addendum).

4) PA not the only passage found at various places

The Pericope Adulterae is not the only passage “inserted into various manuscripts at various places.” Dr. Keith notes that some of these same manuscripts shift many passages around for lectionary readings on certain Greek Orthodox saint/feast days. For example, he cites a scholar who “shows how the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13:3-17 occurs in MS 225 in its normal location and after Matt 26:20, ‘because the Byzantine liturgy prescribes the reading of this pericope both for the ceremony of foot-washing on Maundy Thursday and as part of the ordinary lesson of that day’” (f.n. 81, p. 20). That is just one example of many. Even the most weighty manuscripts for the Critical Text are not immune. Ironically, John 19:26 is inserted at Matthew 27:49 in both Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (David C. Parker, Codex Sinaiticus, pp. 102-103). Are any of these examples absolute proof that those passages were floating around looking for a home and therefore we should reject them as belonging to Scripture? Certainly not.


The reader is encouraged to read Dr. Chris Keith’s thorough refutation of the floating tradition argument in his article The Initial Location of the Pericope Adulterae in Fourfold Tradition, Novum Testamentum 51, (2009). Dr. Keith is not a Textus Receptus advocate and does not even believe that the Pericope Adulterae is authentic, but he has demonstrated that the floating tradition argument is a baseless theory. Additionally, the reader can see Majority Text advocate Dr. Maurice Robinson’s article “Preliminary Observations Regarding the Pericope” in Filologia Neotestamentaria 13, (2000). One would think that after several years of these journal articles being published, this naive floating tradition argument would cease to be made.

See also Why the Story of the Woman Caught in Adultery Belongs in the Bible by Dr. E.F. Hills

Word Magazine #51: Review: James White on Text on Apologia Part 3 by Dr. Jeff Riddle

The Pericope Adulterae: A “Floating Tradition”? by Dr. Jeff Riddle

John 7:53-8:11: Why It Was Moved – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 by James Snapp Jr.

Pericope Adulterae, The Gospel of John and the Literacy of Jesus by Dr. Chris Keith


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