Should ‘Let He Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone’ Be in the Bible?

This text is a significant example of a textual variant, a portion of Scripture that is not included in all of the original manuscripts. Despite its fit alongside Jesus’ other teachings and actions, its authenticity is disputed.

Lucas Hagen
Man Cast the Stone

John 7:53-8:11 is one of the most common textual variants in the Bible. A textual variant is a passage of Scripture with disputed validity.

It is included in some of the original manuscripts, but not all manuscripts. Does this mean the text is not actually Scripture?

Did these events not actually happen? Should Christians even read these verses? This article will answer all of these questions and more. Let’s dive in!

The Meaning of the John 7:53-8:11

John 7:53-8:11 is the story of the woman who was caught in adultery. Jesus had gone to the Mount of Olives in the night to pray and rest. Early in the morning, a crowd of people approached Him, and he sat and began teaching.

Then the religious leaders, including scribes and Pharisees, brought Jesus a woman who had been caught in adultery, acknowledging that Old Testament law commands adulterers to be stoned.

Jesus responded to them saying, “Let him who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The crowd slowly began to disperse, one at a time, as everyone recognized that they were not sinless.

Everyone left until it was only Jesus and the woman standing together. Jesus and the woman acknowledged that no one was left to condemn her. He concluded by saying, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”

This text seems like a straightforward example of Jesus showing love, grace, and forgiveness to an outcast of society.

This woman was sentenced to death, yet Jesus came to her aid. This is a prime example of Jesus seeking and saving the lost, which He declared was His mission in Luke 19.

This text also aligns with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught,

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

Before judging others for their sins, it is vital to consider one’s own sins. Jesus’ reminder of humility in the Sermon on the Mount is demonstrated in this example with the adulterous woman. Jesus knows that she made a significant mistake, one with a death sentence.

However, He knows that her accusers are no better. They sin just as much as she does, and He reminds them of that and calls them to humility rather than condemnation.

However, this text is a significant example of a textual variant, a portion of Scripture that is not included in all of the original manuscripts. Despite its fit alongside Jesus’ other teachings and actions, its authenticity is disputed.

Did John Actually Write This?

Whether John is the one who wrote this passage is debated. If you find this section in your Bible, it is likely italicized or marked off in some way. You may see a note that says it is not included in the earliest manuscripts. Why does this matter?

The scriptures were spread through making copies. Our English translations are made by using the oldest copies of the original Greek that we can find. Why use the oldest?

Because the older the copy means the less time has passed between its writing and the original writing of the letter.

Therefore, the older copies tend to be more reliable because there has been less time for any changes or legendary stories to be added to it.

It is rather consistent that the oldest, most reliable manuscripts of the Gospel of John do not include this story. While many manuscripts do, the best manuscripts do not.

This means that is it likely that John 7:53-8:11 is most likely not something that the Apostle John actually wrote. It was likely added on later by a scribe or redactor.

However, unlike other textual variants such as Mark 16:9-20, there is nothing in this text that contradicts or seems to be unsuitable for the Gospel of John. With the Mark example, the words attributed to Jesus clearly do not seem like something Jesus would have said.

However, in John, this really does seem like something that would have happened. There is nothing here that is out of line with Christian doctrine, theology, or the other events of the gospels.

While this text is almost certainly not something that John wrote, that does not mean it never happened. In fact, many experts believe that this event really did take place. It could have been a part of the oral tradition of Jesus’ life among Christians at the time.

It is possible that the truth of this event was widely agreed upon, and a certain scribe or editor, who found this event to be particularly meaningful decided to add it to the Gospel of John so that more people could hear of this wonderful example of Jesus’ grace and mercy over a woman condemned to death.

What Should We Make of This Story?

While this event may have happened, it is still important to know that it is probably not an original part of John’s gospel. Therefore, it cannot, in good faith, be considered Scripture.

As there is no way to be sure, it is wise to take caution when teaching God’s Word to God’s people.

For further reading:

Does John 7:53-8:11 Belong in the Bible?

Is John 7:53–8:11 an Original Part of the Bible?

Neither Do I Condemn You

What Is the Sermon on the Mount?

What Is Adultery?

Does God See All Sin Equal to One Another?

How Much of the Bible Was Transmitted by Oral Tradition?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Tuba Acik


headshot of author Lucas HagenLucas Hagen is a freelance writer, recently graduated from Taylor University with majors in Biblical Literature and Youth Ministries. When he is not writing for Crosswalk, you can find him reading great books, playing guitar, competing in professional disc golf tournaments, and spending quality time with his lovely wife, Natalie, and their fluffy cat, Woodward. You can read more of his writing at habitsofholiness.com.


Originally published December 17, 2020.