Should that story be in my Bible?

Asking American Evangelicals to read their Bible at all may be asking a lot, so inviting you to read the fine print might sound ridiculous. And yet, this is exactly what I am inviting you to do. Why do some scholars and translators of the Bible believe that John 7:52-8:11 should not be in the Bible? To answer this question, we need to do a little investigative work and a lot of honest critical thinking.

It seems that most Christians simply read right over the translator’s notes in their Bibles. For the average Evangelical, thinking about how the words contained in the Bible got to be “in the Bible” is out of bounds or something only liberals do. However, your Bible (whatever translation you have) was compiled by someone (probably a group) who made analytical decisions about what would be included and what would not.

Some Christians are inclined to investigate these things further, and many non-Christians are all-too-happy to use the discipline of textual criticism against the Bible. My goal in this essay is provide an introductory discourse for the average Bible-reader, and maybe it will benefit the two groups mentioned above as well. Please open your Bible, and let’s consider John 7:53-8:11 (technically known as the pericope adulterae).

First, this story is recorded and well-attested outside of Scripture. In fact, this story is uniquely validated in ancient writings. Whether it is authentic to John’s Gospel, it is almost certainly an accurate record of an event that really took place. Kyle Hughes has done some great study on this matter, and he says,

“We can affirm the essential historicity of the event recorded in PA (or pericope adulterae) to the extent that it is preserved in the Didascalia (a first-through-fourth century compilation of various Christian traditions), since identifying the account with the L source (the source documents from which Luke formed his Gospel) places it into the middle of the first century.”[1]

Here we have a genuine story of Jesus’ interaction with a sinful woman. The grace shown toward her is  incredible, and Jesus is the picture of wisdom. His thoughtful dealing with both the sinner and her accusers is astonishing, and we may all marvel fittingly.

Second, everything in this passage is supported by other Bible verses and passages. This means that we learn nothing new in this story about Jesus, humanity, first-century Pharisees, adultery, Mosaic Law, forgiveness, walking in holiness, grace, obedience, Jesus’ teaching role, prideful rebellion, or humiliating shame.

  • Jesus teaches in the temple (8:2), and He does the same in John 7:28 and numerous times elsewhere.
  • Scribes and Pharisees oppose Jesus and abuse others (8:3-4), and this is nearly the same interaction recorded in John 5:10-16.
  • Jewish leaders try to pit Jesus against Mosaic Law (8:5-6), and they did the same (judging Jesus guilty of blasphemy) in John 10:31-33. There they even tried to stone Jesus to death.
  • Jesus gives grace to the humble and justice to the proud (8:7), and He tells a parable about this very thing (the tax collector and the Pharisee) in Luke 18:9-14.
  • The angry crowd loses interest when Jesus holds His ground (8:9), and this same thing occurred a few times in the previous chapter (Jn. 7:25, 30, 44).
  • Jesus graciously forgives and authoritatively commands obedience from those who believe (8:10-11), and He does the same in John 8:31-32. He also used the same language of “Go, and sin no more” on another occasion, talking to the crippled man (seemingly an unbeliever) in John 5:14.

In short, the passage is a potent story, exemplifying in vivid form what we already know from the Bible’s teaching elsewhere. This means that the story is not essential to the teaching of John’s Gospel or the Bible as a whole. Now that does not necessarily mean the passage does not belong; it merely reminds us that we may conclude the passage is inauthentic without also jettisoning critical biblical teaching.

Third, there is nothing crucial to Christian doctrine or history in this passage. As stated above, nothing in this story is unique or critical to the biblical record. We learn nothing new here, and no essential (or even peripheral) Christian doctrine hinges on the inclusion or exclusion of this passage.

Fourth (this is the more controversial stuff), we must take note of the textual variant. In my ESV translation there is a brief statement included in the biblical text: “Some manuscripts do not include 7:53–8:11;” and the footnote below also says, “other [manuscripts] add the passage here or after 7:36 or after 21:25 or after Luke 21:38…”[2]

If you are like most Christians, this is enough to make you want to stop reading immediately. This kind of thing is scary, and only those people who hate the Bible want to emphasize things like this, right? On the contrary, I love the Bible, and I believe the Bible is tenaciously reliable. But, I believe we must start from a posture of open-eyed honesty.

Furthermore, we all must make a decision that will inevitably reject the testimony of at least some biblical manuscript copies. Yes, that’s right… your decision to accept John 7:53-8:11 as authentic to John’s Gospel will necessarily be a rejection of those manuscript copies that do not include this story. Or, your decision to reject John 7:53-8:11 and inauthentic to John’s Gospel will also be a rejection of those manuscripts that do include the story.

Either way, you are rejecting at least some manuscripts of the biblical text and accepting others. There is no decision that doesn’t require a critical assessment of the biblical text we have received from those who copied what they believed to be the original text of the New Testament.

Fifth, scholars and theologians are mixed on their assessment of this passage. Some say it is authentic and others say it is not.

For example,

A.W. Pink said, “The one who is led and taught by the Spirit of God need not waste valuable time examining ancient manuscripts for the purpose of discovering whether or not this portion of the Bible is really a part of God’s own Word… The internal evidence…and the spiritual indications…are far more weighty than external considerations.”[3]

On the other side,

D.A. Carson said, “The diversity of placement [of this story in various manuscripts] confirms the inauthenticity of the verses.” And, he said, “even if someone should decide that the material is authentic, it would be very difficult to justify the view that the material is authentically Johannine (or written by John).”[4]

While some pastoral theologians are inclined to label the passage as authentic, I am unaware of any textual critical scholar who wants to make a case for it. In fact, some textual critical scholars are so convinced it is unauthentic that they are calling translators to stop including this passage among the biblical text.

Daniel B. Wallace said, “I am calling for translators to remove this text from the Gospel of John and relegate it to the footnotes. Although this will be painful and will cause initial confusion, it is far better that laypeople hear the truth about scripture from their friends than from their enemies. They need to know that Christ-honoring, Bible-believing scholars also do not think that this text is authentic, and that such a stance has not shaken their faith one iota.”[5]

So, what is the technical case that motivates such a strong statement from Dr. Wallace?

Here are five points to argue against the authenticity of John 7:53-8:11.

  1. It is absent from the earliest and best manuscripts (copies of NT text). It does not show up in the manuscripts of John’s Gospel until the fourth or fifth century.
  2. It is sporadically introduced in the manuscript copies. When it does come into the manuscript tradition of John’s Gospel it is placed here, after Jn. 7:44, 7:36, or 21:25; some place it after Luke 21:38.[6] Daniel Wallace says it is “a story looking for a home.”
  3. None of the earliest church fathers (those who followed immediately behind the Apostles) commented on this passage in their biblical commentaries – they go straight from 7:52 to 8:12.
  4. The internal structure of the storyline John 7:52 to 8:12 is clearer and more sensible without the addition of an interval of a day (8:1-11). Jesus’ statement in 8:12 is particularly potent because it coincides with the activities of the “great day” of the feast (7:37).
  5. It contains several phrases and sentence constructions which more resemble Luke’s writings than John’s. In fact, at least one textual scholar thinks the story may well have been part of Luke’s source material from which he wrote his own Gospel (see Kyle Hughes’ note above).

For a more detailed treatment, see the NET Bible’s Textual Critical note.[7] In short, the editors conclude that the passage is unoriginal and unauthentic.[8]

No doubt, there are good and faithful Christians (even some much more scholarly and thoughtful than myself) who accept this story as authentic to John’s Gospel. This issue is not something that must divide Christians, but it is also not something unimportant to Christians. On the contrary, the matter is of great importance to anyone who believes God has spoken. Since God has spoken, we must be very careful to pay attention to what He has said, and we must also be very careful to guard our mouths against claiming divine authority for only those words that have actually come from God.

Wherever you land in this discussion, may God help us all to give effort and consideration to His holy word.

 


For the interested reader, I have also written an article in defense of the reliability of the Bible. You may see it HERE. Thanks for reading.


 

[1] See Hughes’ full article here: https://danielbwallace.com/2013/06/26/where-is-the-story-of-the-woman-caught-in-adultery-really-from/

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] Pink, A. W. (1923–1945). Exposition of the Gospel of John (p. 417). Swengel, PA: Bible Truth Depot.

[4] Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 333). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.

[5] See Wallace’s full article here: https://bible.org/article/my-favorite-passage-thats-not-bible

[6] “Although most of the manuscripts that include the story place it here (i.e. at 7:53–8:11), some place it instead after Luke 21:38, and other witnesses variously place it after John 7:44, John 7:36 or John 21:25.” He concludes, “The diversity of placement confirms the inauthenticity of the verses.” Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 333). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.

[7] “This entire section, 7:53–8:11, traditionally known as the pericope adulterae, is not contained in the earliest and best MSS and was almost certainly not an original part of the Gospel of John. Among modern commentators and textual critics, it is a foregone conclusion that the section is not original but represents a later addition to the text of the Gospel. B. M. Metzger summarizes: “the evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming” (TCGNT 187). External evidence is as follows. For the omission of 7:53–8:11: 𝔓66, 75 א B L N T W Δ Θ Ψ 0141 0211 33 565 1241 1424* 2768 al. In addition, codices A and C are defective in this part of John, but it appears that neither contained the pericope because careful measurement shows that there would not have been enough space on the missing pages to include the pericope 7:53–8:11 along with the rest of the text. Among the MSS that include 7:53–8:11 are D 𝔐 lat. In addition E S Λ 1424mg al include part or all of the passage with asterisks or obeli, 225 places the pericope after John 7:36, f1 places it after John 21:25, {115} after John 8:12, f13 after Luke 21:38, and the corrector of 1333 includes it after Luke 24:53. (For a more complete discussion of the locations where this “floating” text has ended up, as well as a minority opinion on the authenticity of the passage, see M. A. Robinson, “Preliminary Observations regarding the Pericope Adulterae Based upon Fresh Collations of nearly All Continuous-Text Manuscripts and All Lectionary Manuscripts containing the Passage,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 13 [2000]: 35–59, especially 41–42.)… But before one can conclude that the passage was not originally part of the Gospel of John, internal evidence needs to be considered as well… Internal evidence against the inclusion of 8:1–11 (7:53–8:11): (1) In reply to the claim that the introduction to the pericope, 7:53, fits the context, it should also be noted that the narrative reads well without the pericope, so that Jesus’ reply in 8:12 is directed against the charge of the Pharisees in 7:52 that no prophet comes from Galilee. (2) The assumption that the author “must” somehow work Isa 9:1–2 into the narrative is simply that—an assumption. The statement by the Pharisees in 7:52 about Jesus’ Galilean origins is allowed to stand without correction by the author, although one might have expected him to mention that Jesus was really born in Bethlehem. And 8:12 does directly mention Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the world. The author may well have presumed familiarity with Isa 9:1–2 on the part of his readers because of its widespread association with Jesus among early Christians. (3) The fact that the pericope deals with the light/darkness motif does not inherently strengthen its claim to authenticity, because the motif is so prominent in the Fourth Gospel that it may well have been the reason why someone felt that the pericope, circulating as an independent tradition, fit so well here. (4) In general the style of the pericope is not Johannine either in vocabulary or grammar (see D. B. Wallace, “Reconsidering ‘The Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery Reconsidered’,” NTS 39 [1993]: 290–96). According to R. E. Brown it is closer stylistically to Lukan material (John [AB], 1:336). Interestingly one important family of MSS (f13) places the pericope after Luke 21:38. Conclusion: In the final analysis, the weight of evidence in this case must go with the external evidence. The earliest and best MSS do not contain the pericope. It is true with regard to internal evidence that an attractive case can be made for inclusion, but this is by nature subjective (as evidenced by the fact that strong arguments can be given against such as well). In terms of internal factors like vocabulary and style, the pericope does not stand up very well. The question may be asked whether this incident, although not an original part of the Gospel of John, should be regarded as an authentic tradition about Jesus. It could well be that it is ancient and may indeed represent an unusual instance where such a tradition survived outside of the bounds of the canonical literature. However, even that needs to be nuanced (see B. D. Ehrman, “Jesus and the Adulteress,” NTS 34 [1988]: 24–44).”

[8] The NET Bible editors concluding Scriptural Note: “Double brackets have been placed around this passage to indicate that most likely it was not part of the original text of the Gospel of John. In spite of this, the passage has an important role in the history of the transmission of the text, so it has been included in the translation.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s