Reviews of

To Cast the First Stone

In Garrick V. Allen, Jennifer Knust, John, Manuscript Studies, Pericope adulterae, Princeton University Press, Textual Criticism, Tommy WASSERMAN on September 6, 2019 at 8:12 pm


2019.9.9 | Jennifer Knust and Tommy Wasserman. To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.

Review by Garrick V. Allen, Dublin City University.

This meticulously researched and deeply engaging volume on the pericopeadulterae(PA) is a prime example of the value of collaborative research in the humanities, encompassing an impossibly broad range of data and illustrating the influence and use of this gospel story in many contexts. To Cast the First Stoneis a triumph of textual and historical scholarship that injects nuance and breadth of detail into the many critical discussion surrounding the PA. The way the Knust and Wasserman are able to present complex technical information and in-depth analyses of scholarship into a narrative form make this book a model for scholarship in the humanities writ large.

The book begins with a short introduction, laying out the plan of the study and tracing preliminarily the transmission of the PA from its first appearance in the Didascalia apostolorumto the writings of the modern Irish poet Seamus Heaney. The critical realisation that the PA was not “original” to the Gospel of John, but added a later date by an interpolator raises for Knust and Wasserman a set of guiding critical questions. The PA, they argue, cannot be expunged from the Gospel tradition, nor can it be viewed as native to the Gospel of John, but its transmission and multifaceted morphologies can be traced across time, from the third to the twenty-first century. “To tell the history of the pericope adulterae is to tell the history of the Gospels, and vice versa” (p. 9).

Part 1 of the book (“A Case for Textual Corruption?”) contains one chapter (“The Pericope Adulterae and the Rise of Modern New Testament Scholarship”) that traces the history of the treatment of the PA in critical editions, twentieth-century commentaries, and other critical analyses. The PA’s sceptical acceptance as canonical and Johannine by the early humanists becomes rejection as uncanonical in some strands of “Enlightened” nineteenth-century (Protestant) philology, even if many still interpreted the PA as a genuine historical memory of Jesus. Changes in text-critical praxis and edition-making have fundamentally changed the ways that readers engage with the PA and other contested gospel texts (see pp. 30-31). Chapter 1 sets the stage of Knust and Wasserman to reconsider wider aspects of the PA, “the gospel,” book culture, and “sinful women” in Christian tradition more broadly.

Part 2 of the book (“The Present and Absent Pericope Adulterae”) opens with a chapter that analyses the earliest transmission of the PA in the context of gospel books in the second and third century (“The Strange Case of the Missing Adulteress”). Knust and Wasserman focus on four aspects in particular: (1) practices of citing gospel texts in Patristic sources (offering a substantial sample of quotations and allusions to the PA in early sources); (2) copying practices, scribal habits, and manuscript production (with special attention to the extant early papyri manuscripts of John); (3) the relationship among scribes, editors, and associates; and (4) the importance of the transmission of Jesus traditions beyond the bounds of the canonical gospels. They conclude that the PA was a beloved story, but not known in the context of the Gospel of John. Therefore, the best way to view the PA’s relationship to John is that it was interpolated at a later date, not supressed. This interpolation is part of a larger process of gospel shaping and not necessarily to be viewed as a negative phenomenon or corruption. At some point, the PA became Johannine.

The next two chapters are devoted to analysis of the theory that the PA was initially composed as part of the Gospel of John and suppressed at an early stage. Chapter 3 (“Was the Pericope Adulterae Suppressed? Part 1: Ancient Editorial Practice and the (Un)likelihood of Outright Deletion”) examines the question of the PA’s deletion from the perspective of textual transmission in antiquity. Tracing the suppression theory from Augustine (with special attention to Marcion and Origen), the authors argue that it is improbable that the PA was deleted from John based on editorial, scribal, and transmissional habits. Chapter 4 (“Was the Pericope Adulterae Suppressed? Part II: Adulteresses and Their Opposites”) makes a similar case, but based on the ubiquity of stories about adulterous women in Jewish and Christian antiquity. It raises the question: why would the PA be suppressed based on its subject matter while many other similar traditions about adulterous women circulated widely?

Part III (“A Divided Tradition? The Pericope Adulterae East and West”) begins with a chapter that explores the PA’s relationship to the developing fourfold gospel in the increasingly sophisticated scholarship on the gospels in the Greek, Syriac, and Coptic east in late antiquity (“‘In Certain Gospels’? The Pericope Adulterae and the Fourfold Gospel Tradition”). Knust and Wasserman’s painstaking analysis of a surfeit of sources, like the fourth-century Greek text of John, paratextual cross-reference systems, Patristic sources, Pachomian material, and material artefacts, leads them to conclude that the PA, while popular in pre-Constantinian times, was first incorporated into the Gospel of John in the Latin West. This conclusion is further supported by Chapter 6 (“‘In Many Copies’: The Pericope Adulterae in the Latin West”), which explores the transmission of the story with great perspicacity in this context. By the fifth century, the presence of the PA in John in both Greek and Latin contexts is undeniable.

The final part of the book (“Liturgical and Scholarly Afterlives of the Pericope Adulterae”) turns first, again, to the transmission of the PA in late antiquity (“A Pearl of the Gospel: The Pericope Adulterae in Late Antiquity”). This chapter demonstrates that, despite its variegated treatment in the Greek manuscript tradition, versions of the PA were not ignored or disregarded. Instead, there was a rich tradition of exegetical engagement with this story in both the West and East. For example, Knust and Wasserman point to the PA in various liturgies, its treatment in the Eusebian systems in specific manuscripts, titles associated with the passage, and other paratextual features.

The book’s final chapter (“Telling Stories in Church: The Early Medieval Liturgy and the Reception of the Pericope Adulterae”) explores the reception of the PA beyond late antiquity, suggesting that the public performance of this text in liturgical contexts had a decisive impact on its largely positive reception – scribal and scholarly scruples are no match for traditions of social and religious practices.

To Cast the First Stone is an exemplary triumph of scholarly energy, collaboration, and skill. It digests in an almost unfathomable way all pieces of evidence relevant to understanding the production and reception of the PA from the second to the twenty-first century, adding important nuance to critical discussions of the authenticity, authority, and canonicity of a well-known gospel story. For those who work with textual variation, John, or gospel traditions more generally, this book is an important interlocutor. But it is also significant because it demonstrates the value of turning to the details of manuscripts and other aspects of material culture – titles, paratextual systems, book covers, images, lectionaries. When combined with incisive analysis of literary works, these oft-overlooked features of the tradition offer a more substantial picture of the riddle of the PA. Knust and Wasserman have managed to construct a scholarly picture of great detail, charting one possible course for further engagement with the New Testament as a set of material objects that reveal the contexts of their production and use.

Garrick V. Allen
Dublin City University
garrick.allen [at]


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