This week as we continue our series through the Gospel of John, you might notice that we have skipped over the story of “The Woman Caught in Adultery” (John 7:53-8:11). You may even be disappointed as this is one of your favorite stories about Jesus. I’m with you! I love this story because it presents so vividly both Jesus’ compassion and boldness. Yet even though I like the story in this Scripture passage, we will not be preaching from it. Let me explain why by first giving some background about Scripture , and why we have confidence in the Bible as God’s Word.
What is the Bible?
Christ Community Church and the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), the broader association of churches to which we belong, believes that God inspired the words human authors wrote that have been gathered together into the Bible. According to our statement of faith, “We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings….”
We believe this because Jesus, as the truest revelation of God (John 1:14-18; Hebrews 1:1-3), endorsed the entire Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) as God’s Word that will never become void (Matthew 5:17-18; John 10:34-35). He even identifies the voice of the human author in Scripture as God’s own voice (Matthew 19:4-6; Mark 12:36). Jesus also authorized His disciples to produce authoritative teaching in line with His message that became our New Testament (John 10:27; 14:26). His earliest followers agreed in identifying all Scripture as originating in God and containing absolute truth (1 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). These biblical writings demonstrate themselves to be God’s Word. They were received as such by the earliest Christians, even as early as Peter viewing Paul’s writings to be as authoritative as the Hebrew Bible (1 Peter 3:15-16). From the beginning, to be a follower of Jesus is to build your life on God’s Word as found in the Bible. This book becomes the center of our gathered worship experience as we hear it read, sung, prayed, and preached over all of us together.
How do we know what is the Bible and what is not? This is why the original writings are so important. John’s Gospel is viewed as Scripture because it was written by an apostle, showed itself to be God’s Word, and was received by the early church as authoritative. If I added my own thoughts to the end of John’s Gospel, those additions would not be seen as part of the Bible and would not be viewed as God’s Word, no matter how insightful I might think they are! In a similar way, if people, even with good intentions, added extra stories or comments to a part of Scripture after it was already written and received by the church, those sections should not be considered as Scripture. Otherwise, the Bible wouldn’t distinctly be God’s Word.
How do we know what the original writings are?
We do not have John’s or any other biblical author’s original manuscript. That does not mean we have no clue about what their original writings included. We have many copies made by Christians throughout history that can be used to determine this. An entire field of scholarly study called “textual criticism” exists and people use their God-given talents to serve the broader church by comparing these manuscripts to determine which readings are more likely to be the original. To make a really complex discipline way too simple, when discrepancies between different copies are found, the reading that is found in the majority of the older copies is more likely to be the original reading. When this comparison is done, it becomes apparent which changes were done, either accidentally or intentionally. Even many of the intentional changes can be seen as misguided instead of malicious; a copyist simply wanting to add a brief explanation to help readers or include something they mistakenly believed was originally in Scripture.
But before you start getting uneasy about whether we can still trust Scripture if there have been so many errors in copying it down throughout history, know this: after a few hundred years of serious scholarly criticism and discoveries of thousands of new manuscripts from centuries earlier and closer to the time of the early church, the changes to the Bible have been miniscule. There are only a handful of places (this passage, 1 John 5:6-7, and Mark 16:9-20) where a new discovery has substantially changed how a passage is read, and not a single Christian doctrine has been affected by these discoveries. So, we can be reasonably confident that the Bible we have is a trustworthy reflection of the original writings. Far from this scholarly inquiry and reason harming our faith, it has actually bolstered it, with the Bible displaying a much more reliable transmission history than any other ancient text.
What about “The Woman Caught in Adultery”?
Looking back at John 7:53-8:11, it is clear this story was not in John’s original gospel. Your Bible likely has brackets around this story with a note that says something like “The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11.” This is because the only manuscript before the ninth century to include this story was one from the fifth century found in western Europe (further from where John wrote) and also deviates from earlier manuscripts in other key areas. Other copies from the tenth century onward that have it, often place it, or variations of it, in different places throughout the gospels. It only became more common in its current form and location in manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages.
On the other hand, every other early manuscript omits it, notably including two of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts, called Papyrus 66 and Papyrus 75 that date from the second or early third century and were found in Egypt (closer to where John wrote). Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete copy of the New Testament (c. 325 CE), does not include it either. No pastor or theologian from the eastern side of the early church references it until the tenth century. In their commentaries and sermons, they go directly from John 7:52 to 8:12 (keep in mind that current chapter and verse breakdowns were added later). Finally, all the earliest translations of the Greek New Testament (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Old Latin, and Georgian) skip this story as well.
Then how did it get in the Bible?
It is probably a true story about Jesus that His early followers passed around orally, but was not written down in one of our four gospels. This should not surprise us! John himself says that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book” and this could be one of those (John 20:30). Papias of Hierapolis, a pastor who lived from 60 to 130 CE in Turkey, records a similar story in his writings that he had heard from others. As this story was told and retold between Christians, probably a scribe in the west really appreciated it (like me and so many others!) and sincerely or disingenuously thought it should be included in a biblical gospel. He or she probably added it to John 8 because it fits with Jesus not judging (verse 15). At the end of the chapter Jesus is about to be stoned (verse 59), so Jesus can be seen as taking the place of the sinful woman. Due to both a compelling story and sparse access to early copies of John, eventually it became the dominant reading by the time of the first English Bible translations.
What should we do with it?
There are so many stories of God working in the world that can encourage, challenge, and inspire us. These include writings by the Jewish people between the Old and New Testament, early Christian writings, church history, and experiences that you and I have today. There is nothing wrong with cherishing and learning from these stories. Most of them are probably true! According to the evidence we have, “The Woman Caught in Adultery” fits into this category.
However, as disciples of Jesus, we make a distinction between these stories, which may contain errors, and God’s Word that is without error in its original writings. The former stories certainly can be read privately and even referenced in public teaching, but they should not be read and affirmed as God’s Word by Christians gathered together. They are not a part of the Bible we build our life on, that is uniquely “to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.”
Evangelical Convictions: a Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America. Minneapolis, MN: Free Church Publications, 2011.
Blomberg, Craig. “The Reliability of the New Testament”. The Gospel Coalition.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991.
Hill, Charles. Who Chose the New Testament Books? Deerfield, IL: Christ on Campus Initiative, 2018.
Thank you, Caleb, for an illuminating essay on this passage of scripture. I was interested to see that you have used CE (Common Era) instead of AD. I realize that this is now common among secular scholars, but had not seen it used in the Church.
Thanks Bruce for reading and engaging with this! I don’t have a strong preference between CE and AD since they both reflect Jesus’ life as the turning point of history (though perhaps AD makes that more explicit). But for the purposes of this blog I used CE since that’s what the sources I used did. Also, since one of goals for this blog was to show a thoughtful skeptic the plausibility of trusting scripture even though there are manuscript variants, I wanted to be accommodating in my language towards that person.
Appreciate your thoughtful biblical exegesis on this passage of scripture. If the general consensus is this interaction most probably did not occur why do you believe it is still found in scripture?
If one of your goals was to show you can still trust scripture regardless of manuscript variants then why avoid the
Thanks Ken! Glad you found this helpful. This story is still found printed in our Bibles because it’s a common textual variant. Most modern Bibles want to show common variants so that people can see that Bible translators aren’t hiding variants and so that you can read the passage if someone references it. However, modern translations (ESV, NIV, NLT, CSB, see here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%207%3A53-8%3A11&version=NIV,NLT,ESV,CSB) put this passage in brackets and say something like “the earliest manuscripts do not include these verses.” The reason it’s not in the footnotes like other variants is because it is such a long passage. Like I mentioned in the blog, according our EFCA statement of faith, our inerrant view of scripture is limited to the original writings of the biblical authors, so we would not consider a variant added later as scripture. This makes sense considering that there are thousands and thousands of New Testament textual variants and they can’t all be scripture. However, since there are so many manuscripts and quite a few very early copies, we are able to have a lot of confidence that we possess scripture in a form extremely close to what the original writing was. Most of those variants don’t matter, because in less that 1% of the NT is it not clear what the original wording was, and even many of those disputed variants do not change the meaning of the passage they are in. However, The Woman Caught in Adultery story is one of the variants clearly shown not to be original, and so we wouldn’t consider it scripture, even though Bibles print it as a possible variant to “show their work.” Of course we could still teach on it as church, but considering we can’t explain every verse fully from John’s gospel on a Sunday morning, we decided to spend our time focusing on those verses that were clearly in John’s original gospel, and explain this passage in a blog. Hope that helps clear things up!
Nice explanation, Caleb!
I think that your argument was sound and convincing. My only suggestion would be to include a few counterarguments for the “full canonicity” of John 7:53-8:11. (although I know you did not have the space and time to include them). Overall, well done!
Thanks Farshad! That’s a good point to bring up. There are others who make those arguments, though from my perspective such arguments are more about should we have the discipline of textual criticism to determine the original manuscript wording or should we just unquestionably accept the “received text” from the Reformers. As I see it, and how the EFCA and most evangelicals who affirm the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy would as well, fully using textual criticism is indispensable if we affirm scripture as inerrant only in the original manuscripts. Also, I think the Reformers would also agree with textual criticism because of their insistence that we should go “to the sources” as we are seeking to understand scripture, rather than passively relying on tradition.
Good point, Caleb! I think that textual criticism should become a discipline for all Christians, although it is a complex and arduous discipline. Unfortunately, some people find it arcane and irrelevant, while others are afraid of it, thinking that it would raise unnecessary questions leading to distrust about the accuracy of the Bible.
I think that for every argument, there is a counterargument. It’s always useful to include the opposing views’ argument and then reaffirm yours as the most logical one. Concerning the interpolation of “pericope adulterae” in John’s gospel, several historical shreds of evidence would support John 7:53-8:11 as original and part of the autographs. I don’t know if you are a fan of James Montgomery Boice, but his second volume commentary of John’s gospel shares a different perspective of the story of the adulterous woman. God discussion brother! keep up the good work.