The earliest texts, the earliest translations and the earliest church fathers all lack any reference to the story of the woman caught in adultery. Two hundred and sixty-seven ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament make no mention of the story of the woman caught in adultery. However, it is found in 1,495 manuscripts; none of these are the earliest or most reliable manuscript. Hence, despite its power and its deep place in ancient Christian tradition, it has been viewed with some suspicion.

It is impossible to know why this small tale is missing from the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life. But, it is interesting to speculate.

It seems probable that, like all the other stories and the teachings of Jesus, this story was told verbally and passed around from community to community. But, when the process of recording these familiar stories in writing was begun somehow this particular piece of the picture was left out.

It is not hard to imagine that the earliest compilers of the Jesus tradition might have looked a bit askance at this account of a woman “caught in the very act of adultery”.  The Christian faith has a long tradition of being deeply moralistic especially around sexual matters. And of all the sexual “sins” adultery ranks pretty close to the top. It was a violation of the sacred marriage covenant and a dangerous denial of the convention of monogamy which became so deeply entrenched as part of the Christian self-identity in the earliest years of the Christian community.

The early church would almost certainly have wanted Jesus to condemn this woman in the strongest possible terms. His gentle admonition at the end of the story that she should

Go your way, and from now on do not sin again (John 8:11),

 may have seemed a trifle mild for the righteous gate-keepers of conventional behaviour who were seeking to protect their flocks from the rampant immorality in the surrounding culture. Surely, a more robust denunciation of the despicable sin would be more appropriate.

Forgiveness is all very well; but surely this is taking it a bit too far.

In reality, this story sets a perfect context for Jesus’ statement just a few verses later when, in 8:15, he says simply,

I judge no one.

How tragic that the Christian church has so often failed to follow in the footsteps of its master and instead sided with the judgmental and hypocritical scribes and Pharisees.