To Cast the First Stone

The Transmission of a Gospel Story

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Jennifer W. Knust, Tommy Wasserman
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , November
     464 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many readers first encounter the complicated reception history of the pericope adulterae when they stumble across the double brackets that enclose John 7:53-8:11 in many modern English translations. At the bottom of the page, these readers find a brief note: according to the best manuscript evidence, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery is not original to John’s gospel.

To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story narrates the complex history of transmission and reception that lies behind these brackets and behind the ongoing inclusion of this narrative in a book that does not appear to have first contained it. Unlike comparable volumes, this co-authored study is not primarily invested in questions about the textual standing of this passage (whether this narrative is historical but not canonical, or canonical but not historical). Nor do these authors advance the minority view that this text was in fact original to John’s gospel but was later suppressed—an idea first advanced by Augustine and later revived in the 19th and 20th centuries. Instead, To Cast the First Stone takes up the questions posed by the “shifting textual fortunes of the pericope adulterae” (35) as an invitation to consider the larger  “culture of book production and storytelling” (9) that incorporated this narrative into the text of John’s gospel, as well as the cultures of modern biblical scholarship that have, on occasion, tried to remove it. 

The story that Knust and Wasserman tell about the transmission and reception of this text is remarkable—particularly in its effective combination of its authors’ disciplines (late antique history and textual criticism, respectively). It will be of broad interest to scholars in a variety of different disciplines, and of particular interest to scholars who don’t ordinarily find textual criticism particularly interesting.

The authors begin their study in part I by considering the significance of the pericope adulterae to the development of modern biblical scholarship, reexamining debates over whether modern editions of the New Testament should reflect the traditional text or be amended toward what new evidence suggests might be closer to the “original.” Part II challenges many of the assumptions behind these debates with a study of Gospel production and citation in the second and third centuries that foregrounds “the active shaping of gospel traditions and books by the communities that received them” (54). Here, Knust and Wasserman address various misconceptions about Gospel production in general and the reception of the pericope adulterae in particular, building a case against narrow understandings of textual “corruption,” as well as against theories of suppression that rely on the unfounded assumption that a story about an adulterous woman would have scandalized early Christian communities. In fact, “stories about sinning women were immensely popular” (137). Part III turns to late antique and early medieval manuscripts, taking up variations within Greek and Latin copies of John’s gospel. The authors argue that inconsistent incorporation of the pericope adulterae into the text of the gospel in the Greek and Latin speaking worlds points to the fluidity of gospel texts and traditions during this period, as well as the enduring power of a narrative which, once embraced, was rarely removed from its place in the canon. Part IV considers the afterlife of this story in art, liturgical practice, and theological reflection, examining the ways in which the “use” of this text in public worship (more than the “critical preferences of literate scholars”) influenced its full incorporation into the scriptural tradition (310).

“To tell the history of the pericope adulterae well is to tell the history of the Gospels” (9). The history these authors present pushes the boundaries of the form of inquiry we’ve come to call “reception criticism” (though the authors never use this term). Knust and Wasserman effectively show how rival textual traditions and the critical scholarship that tries to make sense of them are themselves part of a text’s history of reception. In their reading, textual variants and complex histories of transmission are not simply “problems waiting to be solved.” Instead, the diverse fates of the pericope adulterae in ancient manuscripts and modern critical editions of the Bible are recast as “witnesses to the kaleidoscopic and ever-changing character of human communities and the stories they tell”—and in particular to the ever-changing sensibilities around the nature and boundaries of the texts these communities call scripture (12).


About the Reviewer(s): 

Ashleigh Elser is Assistant Professor of Religion at Hampden-Sydney College.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer W. Knust is Associate Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Boston University. Her books include Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire.

Tommy Wasserman is Professor of Biblical Studies at Ansgar Teologiske Høgskole in Norway. His books include The Epistle of Jude: Its Text and Transmission.


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