Burge on John 8:1-11 (1984)

A review of: Gary M. Burge,
A Specific Problem in the NT Text and Canon: The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11),
JETS 27/2 (June 84) pp.141-148

Page Index

Section 1: - Introduction
Section 2: - Burge's Article; some quotations
Section 3: - Nazaroo's Footnotes

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Gary M. Burge
Professor of New Testament,
Faculty of Wheaton College, Illinois

Ph.D., New Testament
King's College, The University of Aberdeen, Scotland, 1983
M.Div., Theological Studies
Fuller Theological Seminary, 1978
B.A., Political Science
University of California, Riverside, 1974


Mr Burge provides a brief but enlightening sketch of himself on his faculty website:

However, his importance and our interest only derives from his article published (in 1984 appropriately enough), in JETS, June /84, pp. 144-148.

Even this would perhaps not be so remarkable, except that a certain Mr. Palmer, in the process of defending his own online translation of the Gospel of John, sans the Pericope de Adultera (John 7:53-8:11), has quoted Burge's article as an authority for the position that the verses are not authentic, and should be expunged from the Gospel.

Thus Burge's article has received an exposure and perhaps currency it would not otherwise have achieved in its original context. This on its own would not have merited a review, except for the fact that the article is riddled with factual errors that unfortunately give the impression that the evidence against the passage is conclusive.

In fact, just as with most other major variants in the NT text, this passage is hotly disputed, and so it is important to correct and clarify any factual errors in the debate, in order that the actual evidence can be scientifically evaluated in a more sober and balanced manner.

Both Mr. Palmer and Mr. Burge take a public position that 'the Bible' is the inspired word of God. Both also however categorize the story of John 8:1-11 as a later addition to the Gospel.

They differ however, in that while Mr. Burge would argue that the passage should perhaps have a status as authentic and canonical tradition, Mr. Palmer would reject the verses as wholly unauthorized and spurious in the same way that S.P. Tregelles would have argued in 1852.

It is important to note then that while Palmer has given Burge's pronouncements an 'expert' status for the purpose of categorizing the verses as non-Johannine in authorship, Palmer completely rejects Burge's other opinions and concerns regarding the canon of the NT.

So Palmer has not been entirely up front and clear about Burge's views regarding this passage.

The question remains as to whether Burge has in fact made an accurate and scientific statement of the facts regarding the authenticity of the verses, since this is what Palmer has appealed to in order to reject the verses.

We will not quote the article in its entirety, but rather give some substantive and representative quotations from Burge's work. This will be both to show his own approach, and also for the purpose of examining his evidences.

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Burge on Jn 8:1-11

A Specific Problem in the NT Text and Canon:
The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11)
27/2 (June 84) pp.141-148


"Is this 'lost pearl of ancient tradition' original to the text of the 4th gospel? ...Is it an authentic story from the gospel tradition itself? The aim of this paper will be a discussion of these problems as they relate to the problem of canon. We shall hope to employ this pericope as an example of the difficulty of canon studies in the NT. " (p. 141)


I. The Authenticity of the Text

1. External Evidence: The only major Greek MS antedating the 8th century and providing us with the story in its traditional location is Codex Bezae (D [105], 5th or 6th century), a MS noted for its interpolations. 1

While many 9th century Byzantine MSS include the text, a good number of scribes expressed their reservations about it by writing in an obelus (so [codex] S) or an asterisk ([codices] E(6th cent.), M (9th cent.), Λ (9th cent.) ) in the margin. 2

Significantly, in all of the major Greek MSS we find the account absent: p66, p75, Aleph, B, L, N, T, W, X, Δ , Θ , Ψ , (and a host of miniscules). 3

This gives us a general picture that the text was introduced very late and was known for the most part in the West. No significant texts of Eastern provenance support the reading. 4

... In the East, no Greek father mentions the passage for one thousand years. Euthymius Zigabenus (12th cent.) mentions it first, but even he deems it an insertion. 5

...In his commentary on John, Origen (d.253) moves directly from 7:52 to 8:12. 6

...To sum up, our text is absent from all early Greek MSS of note. 7

...In short, our most reliable and important external witnesses (P66 p75 Aleph B) are completely silent about the text until the 7th or 8th century. 8

2. Internal Evidence: ...Internal factors give substantial proof that the section is foreign to the 4th gospel. This is initially indicated by MSS that locate the passage in a diversity of places. 9

Further, if the section were omitted the discourse of Tabernacles would flow smoothly from 7:1 to 8:49. 10

This awkwardness of placement must surely explain the massive number of textual variants in these 12 verses (line per line, one of the highest in the NT). 11

The text must have floated unattached to any canonical authority and in this process suffered many changes. 12

A final factor makes the unjohannine nature of the incident certain. Numerous terms, while common in the synoptics, appear nowhere else in John. * Unconcious syntax stands out as well. Sentences are connected with de in the pericope (vv 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11) and this is unparalleled in John (for every 5 uses of in Matthew, John has two). 13

Together these items result in a concensus of opinion among scholars. The internal evidence makes it clear that the passage is foreign to its present setting and interrupts it. Most likely, it is not even Johannine. 14

4. Summary: We have in our passage a story that is quite foreign to its Johannine context. While it was known in the Latin West in the 4th century, it did not appear in a Greek codex until 3 or 4 centuries later. Possibly it hybernated in Syria. (cf. the Didaskalia). 15

II. The History of the Text

What happened to this text for almost 350 years? ....How can we explain the temporary disappearance of our story? (p.146)


1. The Ethos of Early Chrisitanity: From the earliest days of the Church, Christian communities took seriously their ethical perfection. This is even clear in the NT where lists of sins are found rendering violators disqualified from fellowship. ... In 1st Clement repentance must be accompanied by tears and moving prayers. This underscored the severe jeopardy one might encounter if he violated the laws of the Church.

2. Sexual Sin and Discipline: Both the NT and the patristic writers demonstrate that some sins called for special warnings and discipline. ...For [Paul sexual] immorality should not even be named among the saints (Eph.5:3), and in one case he calls for a man's excommunication because of it (1st Cor.5:5).

... The patristic fathers were unequivaocal in their judgment on adultery. ... It may have even been the case that adultery (along with homicide and apostasy) was treated in some areas as irremissible. This is at least true for Tertullian (c. 200), Origen (c. 250) and Cyprian: Sexual sins were especially heinous and without forgiveness.

Its against this background that we find our pericope struggling for recognition. Jesus refusal to condemn the woman would have stood at odds with the mainstream of Church teaching. How could even a lengthy penance be reconciled to such an immediate act of forgiveness? While the early doctrines of penance were being formulated in the early 2nd century, our text was left out. It was not removed from the NT, but rather never gained access once it emerged.

On the other hand, one wonders if its original home was in Luke (so Cadbury [1917] and Becker, cf. fam.13) - but no evidence of an elision from the 3rd gospel [Luke] here will ever be forthcoming. Some however, might point to another story in Luke about an adulteress [sic!] in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). Why was this story preserved in the tradition? Here we have elements that could be readily adapted to teaching on penance (the alabaster flask, tears, kneeling). Our story in John makes no such allowances.

3. The Fourth Century: It was not until the 4th century that the Church was firmly established in society...Bishops were admonished to demonstrate mercy. ... In this era our text emerges as a model for the penitent adulteress and is embraced by the leading fathers. On St. Pelagia's Day (Oct.8) our story became the [chosen] gospel text in most 5th century lectionaries honoring a seeming variety of women martyrs who either preserved their virginity through martyrdom or repented and led a life of chastity.

III. The Problem of Text and Canon

For Roman Catholics, the canonical status of our text is quickly decided. ...in 382 it received universal recognition. ...This poses an important question for Protestants: Is the tradition of the Churhch in any fashion authoritative in doctrinal matters? We [Protestants?] accept the results of the earlier councils (Nicea etc. ) but imply that God had quite abandoned later medieval Catholicism.

For most of us then, the matter is more difficult. ...

If our notion of canonical authority rests in the books of the Bible themselves - that is, in those literary units called gospels and epistles penned by inspired authoritative authors (so Irenaeus) - then our passage cannot be a part of the canon. The textual evidence confirms what a literary study suggests: The passage is an insertion.

On the other hand, scholarly criticism points to the antiquity and authenticity of the text. And a cursory study of the patristic history gives a good explanation for our text's disappearance. Furthermore, the story edifies the Church and has often become a vehicle through which the Holy Spirit works. Are these the grounds of the Protestant canon? If so, the passage should remain firmly anchored in the NT.

But if the more objective criterion of textual witnesses is upheld, it should slip into the margin as an edifying agraphon of Jesus.

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Footnotes by Nazaroo:

1. The codex Bezae, a 5th century Greek uncial manuscript is one of the most important witnesses to the passage. It clearly confirms that the passage was included in at least some Greek manuscripts as well as Latin ones, just as the early father Jerome had claimed possibly 50 years earlier.

Even if codex Bezae is 'noted for its interpolations', this can hardly be an acceptable sketch of the situation. The other readings for the most part only consist of short explanatory glosses and clauses. Whatever the story is behind these other interesting readings from codex Bezae, the Pericope de Adultera cannot be placed in the same category of such 'scribal glosses'.

Secondly, no scholar today believes that the important readings of codex Bezae were originated by the copyist himself. The text reflects a significantly older archtype or exemplar that likely goes at least back to the time of codex Aleph or B.

2. Not only does Burge erroneously lump all the manuscripts with marginal markings together, he assigns a meaning to the marks impossible to sustain from the evidence.

The Asterisk was used by Christian scribes to indicate important passages of interest, while the Obelus had the function of marking the point of insertion for an accidental omission caused by haplography. The missing text would be placed in the margin. See for instance the first column of John in codex Vaticanus.

Diacritical Marks in Manuscripts <-- Click Here for Article

3. Who decides which early MSS are the 'major' ones? This convenient device allows Burge to avoid listing entirely the many MSS which contain the verses, normally cited in more honest reviews of the evidence.

For instance, an important group of uncials is formed by D, E, (F), G, H, K, M, U, Γ, Π, 28, 700, 892, al, etc. all of which include the verses without any indication of doubt or interpolation. This also ignores the approximately 1,250 Greek cursives and perhaps 1,000 evangelistaria which include the passage. These range from all over the early Byzantine and Holy Roman empire, and represent hundreds of independant lines of transmission reaching back to 3rd or 4th century.

Another minor but annoying inaccuracy is caused by Burge grouping 'codex X' (10th cent. ms. 033, Munich) with these other early uncials. Although it is written in uncial script, it is in fact just a public commentary on some Gospel texts, not a copy of the Gospel of John at all. Nor is it a 'major early manuscript'.

4. "No significant texts of Eastern provenance support the reading."

The problem with this statement is that for the majority of Greek manuscripts, including the ancient uncials, we simply don't know their origin. Many are likely 'Eastern' in provenance, both those which omit and those which include the passage. The majority of Byzantine MSS are just that, Eastern, and reach back to the 4th century or earlier, while including the verses.

5. "In the East, no Greek father mentions the passage for 1000 years."

This is a new variation on an old propaganda theme. Initially, rejectors of the verses claimed that "no early father mentioned the verses". When Ambrose (c. 360 A.D.), Jerome (390 A.D.), and Augustine (400 A.D.) were brought out, they changed their tune to "No GREEK early father mentions the passage".

But Besides the testimony of Eusebius concerning Papias in the East, in 1952 the commentaries of Didymus the Blind (340-380 A.D.) came to light. This GREEK father repeatedly referred to the Pericope de Adultera in passing while commenting upon the Old Testament, in GREEK. Hort can be excused for not knowing this in 1886.

But Burge writing in 1984 has no excuse for such blatant inaccuracies. To cover himself he modifies the gagline further: "no Greek father in the East". Technically, its true that Didymus was not a father from the East. But this is a construction clearly designed to mislead, as can be seen by the context.

Where will the goal-posts be moved next, if a half-dozen Greek or Syrian fathers from the East are found to have quoted the verses as scripture?

6. Again, the old 'hide and seek' game of Tregelles is recycled here. The real evidence of Origen is complicated by several factors.

(1) Origen's commentary on John is actually completely missing for these chapters.

(2) The claim for his 'ignorance' of the verses is made based upon an incomplete summary of the contents of Origen that may not even have been written by him.

(3) Origen's commentary is designed to follow the public reading traditions of the early lectionary system. He only comments upon verses which are publicly read during the Pentecostal service.

(4) Origen used a variety of text-types in his writings, and seems to have uncritically switched to a 'Caesarian' text later in his life. We simply don't know what Origen's true opinion on the verses might have been at any stage of his life.

Tregelles' Bloopers <-- Click Here

7. "To sum up, our text is absent from all early Greek MSS of note."

Again, the language is designed to obscure and simplify the evidence, rather than deal with the hard facts that the manuscript evidence is actually ambiguous.

Depending upon what model of the history of transmission we choose, (and several remain plausible), much of the evidence will remain contradictory in many places. Who decides which manuscripts are "manuscripts of note"?

8. There are two important caveats here:

(1) The four manuscripts in question are variously rated, and by many critics are not considered the 'most reliable and important' ones by any stretch of the imagination.

(2) Three out of four of these texts are not 'silent' at all about the text, but rather show clear signs of a knowledge of its existance.

Photos of Sinaiticus, Vaticanus and P66 showing critical marks:

Significantly, P66 and Aleph show exactly the same style of mark, indicating the omission of the passage, and a knowledge of the existance of the variant.

9. Unfortunately, the manuscripts which place the passage at various other locations are all extremely late manuscripts, (10th century and later), and only indicate the confusion in late medieval times caused by attempts to re-insert the missing passage. These MSS were made from copies that were previously mutilated, or copied from defective exemplars.

This late evidence gives us nothing other than a snap-shot of just how ignorant individual scribes in this late period were of both the content of the gospels, the correct readings for the text, and sensible textual restoration practices.

10. Again, a simple examination of the context of John shows that the narrative doesn't "flow smoothly" in any meaningful sense, even without the passage. For instance, we leave off in the evening at verse 7:52 with the people divided and in a state of confusion and doubt. Suddenly, we are back in the Temple where Jesus is giving another sermon completely impossible to connect to the previous events.

The Lectionary text only works when it excludes the passage, because the Lesson stops at 8:12. This, line, although not connected to the previous sections (chapter 7), is so general and universal a saying that it can stand alone anywhere, and closes the lesson on a high note.

11. The awkwardness of the passage's placement has no bearing whatever on 35 out of 38 variation units in these eleven verses. Only the first and last variants are explainable as modifications to allow the passage to stand alone as a 'Lectionary' pericope and function as a self-contained story.

No one has ever shown that the other 90% of the variants in this passage have anything to do with its context in John. Here Burge is just talking through his hat.

12. The fanciful conjecture of a 'floating pericope' is wholly unsupported by the manuscript evidence. For the first 400 years, it is unclear if the pericope stood in John in the majority of manuscripts. For the next thousand years the passage sat in John at 7:52 and only there in the majority of manuscripts and versions, including the Syriac and Latin.

The 'variable location' for the passage only occurs in the final late period (10th to 15th century). The whole picture therefore does not support any special period where the story 'floated'.

13. This is the section of Burge that is quoted by Palmer. And it makes no sense at all. Theories of 'unconscious syntax' and a preference for 'de' over 'oun' are simply unsupportable from a careful examination of John.

'De' and 'oun' <-- Click Here for article

The comparison of John's use of 'de' with Matthew is out of the blue and can have no intelligent connection to the argument at all. What can Burge possibly be talking about?

14. All that can be said here is that again we have a popular apologist for the rejection of the passage making extravagant claims about 'scholarly support' for his pet views. But sadly the real world just continues to refuse to conform to the wishful thinking of naive attackers of John's Gospel.

There is no concensus of scholars on this or any other major textual question. There are only varying splits among the many workers in the field.

Secondly, the 'internal evidence' hardly makes it clear that the passage is 'foreign' to John at all. The problem is, a closer look at the internal evidence he presents shows it to be indecisive. The many self-contradictory elements continue to be weighted variously by scholars.

Yet perhaps more importantly, a thorough look at the real and complete internal evidence actually strongly favours the Johannine authorship and integrity of the verses.

15. "our passage was known in the Latin West in the 4th century, [but] it did not appear in a Greek codex until 3 or 4 centuries later."

This can only be described as a lie of convenience, or else an academic 'error' of the gravest kind. Earlier in his own article he discusses the Codex Bezae, a 5th century Greek manuscript that includes the verses. That would be at least two centuries earlier right there.

But again, other critical evidence is either dismissed or ignored. Ambrose (350 A.D.), Jerome (380) and Augustine (400) all testify that the passage is authentic to John and/or is found in "many MSS both Greek and Latin". To accept the statement of Burge, we simply must dismiss Jerome and Augustine as childish liars or confused fools. But is that a scientific or even a plausible way to handle the evidence of these three early writers?