BMCR 2019.10.07

To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story

, , To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019. xix, 440. ISBN 9780691169880 $45.00.

The story of the woman caught in adultery ( pericope adulterae, hereafter PA) has sparked devotion, art, and scholarship throughout the Christian ages. Even though it has traditionally been located in the Gospel of John, the account has an abnormal transmission history. Because of this, the story has been at the center of many debates involving the text and canon of the Gospels.

To Cast the First Stone codifies the results of more than ten years of research into the transmission and reception history of the PA by Jennifer Knust, Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University, and Tommy Wasserman, Professor of Biblical Studies at Ansgar Teologiske Høgskole in Norway. The work is comprised of an introduction, four sections containing eight chapters, and some “Concluding Reflections.”

Part I is composed of chapter 1 only which surveys modern scholarship on the PA. The emergence of modern methods of textual criticism and critical approaches to the study of the Gospels have often centered on this account. Even though modern textual criticism regards the story as not originally Johannine, scholars, pastors, and teachers continue to study and draw theological principles from the passage.

Part II consists of chapters 2-4 and discusses the development of the “Gospel book” and its connection with the gospel message. It is clear that the PA was not originally contained in the Gospel of John, and was not connected with any of the other canonical Gospels. Yet this did not prevent the account from being highly popular which resulted in its preservation. Whatever its origin, considering the scribal culture of the time, it is highly unlikely that the PA was deliberately suppressed or deleted from a gospel book.

Part III comprises chapters 5-6 and analyzes the preservation of the PA in the manuscript tradition and its representation in the art and teaching of the late antique and medieval periods. The evidence tells against the popular notion that the account was marginal to Christian belief. This section also considers Greek manuscript evidence such as the Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, and the canon tables of Eusebius which do not contain the account. The Latin tradition, however, such as Codex Bezae, and the Latin fathers Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, accepted the story as authentically Johannine. All of this reinforces the knowledge that, even in the post Constantinian age, there were different Gospel texts circulating, those that included the passage and others that did not.

Part IV contains chapters 7-8 that consider the residue of the story that is located in the paratextual notes, headings and marginal comments in the Old Latin and Byzantine manuscript traditions. In the Old Latin, the paratextual features indicate the PA’s earlier absence from tradition, even though the account is retained in most Latin manuscripts. In the Greek tradition, the story is mentioned in chapter headings in late antiquity revealing that the PA was revered even in Greek contexts. The liturgical history of the account in the Latin and Greek traditions is also analyzed in this section. The liturgy ensured the PA’s textual preservation in both the Roman and Byzantine manuscript traditions.

There is one potentially confusing aspect of the book. At the end of chapter 1 the authors state clearly that they do not intend to solve “the textual standing of the passage” (46). This report appears to contradict their ‘Concluding Reflections,’ however, where Knust and Wasserman assert that “it is almost certainly correct that the story cannot be Johannine in its initial framing” (343). A little later they give a lengthy summary of the data, stating that, “Our survey of the evidence has convinced us that the story was interpolated into a Greek copy of John in the West,” and concluding that “the story was not actively suppressed on theological grounds, . . . despite the custom among some Byzantine scribes and scholars of identifying the passage as spurious.” (344).

Readers who are looking for a decision on the historical authenticity of the passage will be disappointed. Knust and Wasserman explain that, in the same spirit as Chris Keith’s treatment of the pericope, their book does not address the account’s canonicity or historicity (46).1 Yet there are hints that the passage may have emerged as an apocryphal account. This is because “the story of Jesus and the adulteress would have had a wide currency that could have served ancient Christians quite well, as the extensive second- and third-century Christian appreciation of the story of Susanna also demonstrates” (139).

The extent of Knust and Wasserman’s research is wide ranging, and space prevents a thorough overview of all the beneficial features. Thus, the following paragraphs will merely highlight a few examples that stood out as innovative to this reviewer.

The overview of the history of modern scholarship is rich in detail to such an extent that even Hitler and the Nazis receive a mention in a footnote discussing the scholarship of Walter Grundmann (37, n. 73). Knust and Wasserman insightfully compare the reception of the PA and the Longer Ending of Mark (hereafter LE) in modern scholarship. For example, though Samuel Tregelles viewed both the PA and LE as not original to the Gospels, he opted for treating both passages differently (18-19). The LE was inauthentic, yet “canonical,” and the PA was a “true narration” and a valid source for the “historical Jesus” (19). As modern criticism progressed into the mid-twentieth century, these attitudes became more widespread, the PA was increasingly viewed as a legitimate source for the “historical Jesus” and the LE was regarded as less and less historical (40). Because the LE contains material more difficult to assess historically, such as miracles and prophecies, this passage was “far less attractive” for those scholars reconstructing the “historical Jesus” (40). This comparison between the reception of the PA and the LE highlights the ways in which scholarly desires, such as a search for an “historical Jesus,” can deeply affect research outcomes.

Along with an overview of modern scholarship, book history and scribal practices are employed in reconstructing the history of the PA. Ancient book making, publication, circulation, borrowing, and collecting practices have rarely been brought to bear in discussing individual variation units. In a refreshing look at the evidence, Knust and Wasserman consider the private, and ad hoc circulation of books within Christian communities and the impact this would have had on the transmission of the story (70-76). Other features of Christian book making are examined as well, such as nomina sacra, and the early Christian preference for the codex format for their Gospel books (78-82). These features reveal that “convention, consensus, and the setting for which a book was produced” affected its “final form apart from any institutional check” (82). Even though an understanding of Christian book culture does not solve the mystery of when the account became Johannine, this knowledge “has helped us understand a book culture where such an event could have taken place” (83-84). Knust and Wasserman demonstrate that an understanding of Christian book culture can and should take an essential role in the study of textual variants and reconstructing a transmission history.

The scholarship of Origen is ingeniously utilized in order to test the plausibility of the PA being intentionally omitted from John (122). It is possible that the account was removed in late antiquity during the process of correcting (διόρθωσις) an edition (ἔκδοσις) of John (122). In his commentary on Matthew, Origen indicates that it was his practice not to delete a textually suspect passage from his edition of the Greek Old Testament, rather, he would retain variant readings and indicate where they were sourced, the Hebrew or other Greek editions (130). Origen’s response to Julius Africanus’s enquiry into the history of the Susanna story in Daniel is particularly relevant to the PA in John. Though the account of Susanna was indeed spurious, Origen was reluctant to athetize the story from his own Greek edition of Daniel because the account had a long standing in Christian worship (131-134). Knust and Wasserman rightly see this as evidence against the theory that the PA was deliberately removed from some additions of John.

One of the more fascinating elements of the book is the discussion centering on the liturgy, both in the Latin West, and in the Greek East and its role in shaping the text of John’s Gospel. In Byzantine manuscripts of John, the account is often marked with the indication “υπ(ερβαλε) (skip), identifying it as external to the Pentecost lection” (269-270). In the Greek tradition the Pentecost reading ran from John 3:37 to John 7:52, at which point the “skip” notation jumps over the PA and continues the lection at John 8:12 (269-270). This “skip” lection likely indicates that the story did not “enter Byzantine copies of John until the close of the fourth century, or even later” (299). The oldest Latin capitula known, “Type Cy,” has an abbreviated summary of the PA which stands in contrast to the other lengthier summaries (263). This feature may or may not indicate a later addition to these Latin capitula; it could also suggest that the story was present in contexts where Greek-Latin diglots were used (263-266). Along with this, Family 1 manuscripts, Codex 1 and 1582, give evidence of Greek kephalaia that included the PA as early as the 5th century (279-284). Though much more could be said in this review, Knust and Wasserman reveal that the Greek liturgy is a mine rich in data that assists in locating when an important textual reading may have entered into the Gospel of John.

To Cast the First Stone manages to be both exact in detail and broad in its use of data. Readers will both gain a deeper understanding of the transmission history of the PA and be exposed to a breadth of information on early Christian book culture, scribal and scholastic conventions, and lectionary practices. Knust and Wasserman’s work is a model of seemingly disparate elements being brought together in order to carefully examine an important textual variant.

This study differs from other books on the PA, such as Chris Keith’s, The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus, in that Knust and Wasserman do not attempt to answer the question of origins of the PA, as Keith’s work attempts to answer. To Cast the First Stone also does not engage in an exegetical analysis of the theology or vocabulary in the text of the passage.

This work will appeal to a wide audience. Christian historians, theologians, textual scholars, and interested lay readers may find the work helpful. In the book can be found careful historical analysis of early Christian; attitudes towards “sinning” women and their influence on receiving or rejecting a passage of “scripture;” scribal culture and the probability of theologically motivated textual changes; and the role of book production and publication in shaping the text. This book will likely become the standard reference for the textual history of the story of the woman caught in adultery. ​


1. Chris Keith, The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus (New Testament Tools, Studies, and Documents 38; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2009).