This Sunday (June 18, 2017), our passage from God’s Word is John 8:12-30. Some of you will notice right away that the previous week we stopped at John 7:52, which means we are going to move past John 7:53-8:11, the account of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery.
Your Bible probably has this scene in brackets with a note that says “The Earliest Manuscripts Do Not Include 7:53-8:11” or something like that. It should probably say more than that. We have over 5,000 manuscripts that contain some part of the NT in Greek. Of those, for any given book, certain manuscripts are of greater value because of their antiquity, their contents, or their historical circumstances. When we look at the manuscript evidence, we conclude without doubt that John 7:53-8:11 was not part of the gospel of John as the Apostle wrote it.
In the case of John 7:53-8:11, here are the specifics:
1. It is not found in a wide diversity of manuscripts from the early Christian world.
2. It is not found in the earliest manuscripts of the gospel of John. These manuscripts aren’t perfect, but they are a powerful witness as to the text of John in the 2nd century AD. And it’s not even close- the earliest manuscript that has it included was written in the 400s AD.
3. It is not found in “significant” manuscripts. These are manuscripts that have proven to be very helpful in the study of the history of the text of the NT.
4. It was inserted into John and sometimes Luke in the 5th century AD (350 ish years after the writing of John).
There are contextual indications that John 7:53-8:11 is out of place in John:
1. In the original, 8:12 reads “Jesus spoke to them again…” To whom? 8:20 clarifies- he was teaching in the temple near the treasury. His audience was the religious leaders who had been listening to him at the Feast of booths in 7:10-52 (cf. 7:45, 48, and 8:13).
2. John 8:12-20 is a direct rebuttal by John of the Sanhedrin’s claim that no prophet would come from Galilee in John 7:52. When Jesus refers to himself as the light of the world, there is an allusion to Isaiah 9:1-2, which explicitly refers to God’s Messiah shining as a light in Galilee.
3. In 8:14 Jesus tells the leaders they don’t know where he is from, referring to their ignorance that he was born in Bethlehem, and that he is ultimately from Heaven. This all flows directly out of the controversy on the Temple Mount during the Feast of Booths from chapter 7.
How Did It Get in There?
Both the manuscript and contextual evidence are clear: John 7:53-8:11 was not part of the Spirit inspired gospel of John. It likely was an oral tradition that eventually was inserted in John (either here or after John 21:25) or in Luke after Luke 21:38.
Because it was found in the manuscripts available to Bible translators in the 16th century, especially those who worked on the King James Version, it has been a part of English Bibles from the beginning.
The earliest modern experts on the text of the Bible did not print this passage in their Greek New Testaments. Many commentators, including evangelical experts on John, do not comment on this passage but instead include it as an appendix in their commentaries.
This event where Jesus shows compassion on a woman caught in adultery, which may or may not have happened, is consistent with the character of Jesus in the rest of the gospels. That is to say, there is nothing in the passage that would be considered anti-gospel or heretical. In the passage, we find the following on display:
Compassion for sinners
First of all, we know Jesus often responded to people thought of as the worst of sinners with grace and compassion. Consider the woman at the well from John 4:1-42 or the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-48.
Rebuke of hypocrisy
Second, we know Jesus often rebuked the hypocrisy and judgmental attitude of the religious leaders he encountered. Indeed, this is a major theme of Jesus’ ministry. After he healed the man born blind in John 9 Jesus confronted the spiritual blindness of the leadership in John 9:35-41.
Call to changed life
Finally, we know that Jesus called people who put their faith in him to a new life marked by saying no to sin. When he healed the invalid at the pool of Bethesda in John 5 he told him to sin no more (John 5:14).
Why Is John 7:53-8:11 Still In There?
So if we know for sure this shouldn’t be in the Bible, why is it still in my Bible? There are at least two reasons for this:
1. Bible translators understand that some pastors, churches, and denominations are fiercely committed to this passage. By including it with a note, translators let pastors/elders lead their congregations. In this case, I think this is the wrong decision, because pastors aren’t always at your side when you’re reading the Bible.
2. Tradition is hard to fight when it comes to the Bible. Bible publishers have the difficult task of reaching many different expressions of Christianity, and this is an unfortunate side effect of that reality. The first edition of the RSV in 1952 did not include this passage, but by 1971, due to popular outrage, it was put back.
Can I Trust My Bible?
So, what other parts of my Bible shouldn’t be there? There are a very small number of passages that we are confident aren’t original and yet persist in Bible translations. A few of those that are well known would be this passage (John 7:53-8:11), 1 John 5:7 (the longer version), and the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20).
None of these passages teach a contrary gospel. Knowing that they are not original does not change our faith in any way. Nonetheless, it is important to use the resources God has given us to be sure that we are preaching the inspired Word of God.
The fact that so few passages are in this category, and that they do not impact the content of the gospel, means that we can have absolute confidence in the message of the Bible.
A Bible translation is the Word of the God to the degree that it accurately translates the original text of the books of the Bible. Our English translations in general are clear, accurate, and complement each other well. But the nature of translation is why pastors need training in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.
Unless we have a blind presupposition that John 7:53-8:11 must be original, we have to conclude that it is a later addition to John. It is interesting, it is consistent with what we know of Jesus, and may have happened, but it is not the inspired Word of God. For all of these reasons, this Sunday we will move right along to John 8:12.