Monday, July 29, 2013

The Story that Was Caught In Adultery (John 7:53-8:11)

If you’ve been following the Paula Deen scandal, in which she is being accused of making racial slurs, you may have heard Paula tearfully saying on the “Today” show, “If there’s anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back, if you’re out there, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me. … If you have never committed a sin, please pick up that rock, pick up that boulder and hit me as hard as you can.”[1] Where did she get that? She got she got it from this passage. Judging by how often we hear that statement quoted, we would have to conclude that this is one of the most cherished stories in all the Bible.

But, what if it was never supposed to be in the Bible in the first place? You might be surprised to know that there is a big discussion amongst biblical scholars – conservative, Bible believing ones, about whether or not this story belongs in the Bible. Now, immediately, someone will protest and say, “It’s there, and I like it, so that ends the discussion.” However, that is not how we engage biblical studies. We do so by looking at evidence, and we follow that evidence in pursuit of truth, no matter where it takes us, even if it leads us down an uncomfortable path. We know this text as “The Story of The Woman Caught in Adultery,” but the real question is have we actually caught the story itself in the act of adultery? By that, I mean, has the original text of God’s Word, the Bible, been adulterated by the addition of material that shouldn’t be there? I have attempted to break the issues down into four related “sub-questions,” in the hopes that as we answer them, we will understand what is going on here in our Bibles, how God intended for us to read and understand this portion of John’s Gospel, and what all of this means for us, being that we claim to believe that the Bible is the completely true, inerrant Word of God.

I. Question #1: What’s the problem with this story?

Perhaps you have noticed in your Bible that there are (in most versions) some notations or irregularities about these verses: lines that divide this story from the rest of the text, square brackets around it, along with footnotes or marginal notes that say something to the effect that, “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.”[2] Take a moment and see if your Bible has those notations or not. If you are using the King James or New King James versions, you probably will not find that notation, but that is another issue for another day. Now, when we encounter notations like these, we are prone to react in protest: “Don’t you go taking things out of my Bible!” But a related question is, “Would you allow someone to add a single word to your Bible?” I hope your answer is no. If you wouldn’t, then how would you feel if someone added twelve entire verses to your Bible? Hopefully, that would not set well with you. And yet, that may well be what happened with this story.

Some of you may remember a discussion similar to this when we were going through the Gospel According to Mark and came to the final passage, Mark 16:9-20. The issues there were similar to these. It has a questionable origin in the early manuscripts. It would be really nice if there was a vault somewhere that contained all the original documents that were written by the Apostles and their associates, but we do not. God, in His wisdom and providence, has not seen fit to preserve them. But we do have an amazing paper trail of manuscripts that helps us understand with a high degree of certainty what those original documents said. Modern English translators have access to 5,600 Greek manuscripts and fragments, and over 19,000 early translations of the New Testament, in addition to the writings of the Church Fathers which are so saturated with Scripture, that it has been said that even if we were to lose all of the New Testament manuscripts and translations, we could reconstruct the original text using only the quotations of the Fathers.[3] And on that basis, we have confidence that our Bibles are accurate and reliable, and when we read them, we are reading the Word of God. The translators who produce them are highly skilled at weighing manuscript evidence, and do a remarkable job at reconstructing the original text. But, there are issues like the one involving these verses that do arise. Most of the time, it is a word or phrase that is in question. Only twice, 12 verses here and 12 verses in Mark 16, do we have large chunks of text that are questionable. So how does this happen?

Variations arise most often by accident. Bear in mind that in the history of the world, the printing press is still a relatively modern invention, being less than 600 years old. So, before that time, Bibles and other works of literature were meticulously copied by hand. As any one who has ever tried to copy something by hand can attest, sometimes the eye jumps to the wrong line on the page, and information is omitted; a word may be copied twice instead of once, or once instead of twice; letters or words might get transposed. These are human errors, and they happened not infrequently. But, there were other times when intentional variations happened to the text. Now, this is not a case of malicious monkeying with the Word of God. Most often, the scribe was simply trying to be helpful, adding a word or an explanation, or making a change that would help the reader. Their motives were good. Unfortunately, their methods were not. But, the paper trail of manuscripts that we have available to us today, not to mention the plethora of manuscripts that have been lost to history, have always been able to provide a “check and balance” system to catch those variations and correct them when they arose, so that we have a well-preserved Scripture.

So, what happened with the story of the woman caught in adultery? Well, if we go back to the earliest manuscripts we have, quite frankly, the story isn’t there. In those oldest documents, the next verse after John 7:52 would be John 8:12. John 7:53-8:11 is entirely missing, and that is pretty much across the board in all of the early Greek manuscripts and the early translations. The first Greek manuscript that we currently possess that contains the story of the woman caught in adultery is from the sixth century, and is known to be an inaccurate manuscript with a lot of problems. We have reason to believe that there were some, albeit a few, manuscripts before this time that had the story in it (even though we do not possess those manuscripts today). It is referred to by Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine before that time. In fact, Augustine went so far as to formulate a theory as to why it was missing in so many manuscripts. He proposed that there were some scribes who thought that the passage was scandalous because Jesus was considered to be too easily dismissive adultery, and for that reason, the text was omitted. However, there are problems with Augustine’s theory. First, if that is the case, it would be the only case known in which scribes deleted an entire passage on moral grounds. Second, Jesus’ words, “Go and sin no more,” can hardly be considered easily dismissive, especially when compared to the story of the woman at the well. There, once Jesus identifies the woman’s adulterous sin, no more mention is made of it. Third, even if scribes were prone to remove morally questionable passages (which they were not), it would make more sense for them to remove the text beginning at John 8:2, because there is no issue of morality at stake in John 7:52-8:1.

Once the story begins to show up in the manuscripts, it seems to spread very slowly, only becoming common in the standard manuscripts around the turn of the tenth century.[4] Thus, in addition to all of the known manuscripts before the sixth century, a vast majority of those prior to the eighth century lack the story. In most of the manuscripts that did contain the passage, the scribes inserted symbols to indicate that they were uncertain of the authenticity of the story.[5] We might call that piece of evidence “exhibit A.” But it doesn’t stand alone. Add to this what we might call “Exhibit B,” the fact that none of the church fathers who wrote a verse-by-verse commentary on John’s Gospel deal with the story. All of them, without exception move immediately from John 7:52 to 8:12. There is mention and some discussion about the story in the writings of a 4th century theologian from Alexandria (Didymus the Blind), but it is found in his commentary on Ecclesiastes (of all places). One of the earliest known commentaries on the passage as it is situated in John was by a 12th Century monk, and even he noted that in the more exact manuscripts he consulted, the passage was not found, and where it was found it was marked with symbols to indicate questions about its authenticity. The evidence we draw from the fathers certainly aligns with that of the manuscripts – that the origins of the passage look suspicious. That’s “exhibit B.”

What we might call “exhibit C” concerns the placement and wording of the passage. In the manuscripts that contain the passage, it does not always occur here after John 7:52. In fact, there are no less than five different locations where the passage is found, with some placing it in Luke, and others placing it in at least three different contexts in John. It seems that no one was really sure where it belonged. And as Leon Morris notes, “if they could not agree on the right place for it, they could not agree either on the true text for it.”[6] Within this relatively brief story, there is wide variety of wording among the manuscripts that contain it. This is unusual for John’s Gospel, which apart from this story has fewer textual variations than most other New Testament books. So, we’ve got a mess among the manuscripts as to where the passage belongs and what it is actually supposed to say. That’s problematic compared to the rest of Scripture.

Now we come to “exhibit D”: the grammar and vocabulary of the passage. Every verse of the story of the adulterous woman (with the exception of 8:5) contains at least one word that does not occur anywhere else in the five books of the New Testament written by John. So the vocabulary is not completely that of John; nor is the style. There are a number of grammatical structures and even vocabulary preferences that are prominent in John’s writings that are absent from this story. If we were to find this passage laying in the desert somewhere and had to find a place in the Bible to put it based on style and vocabulary alone, we would find more similarities with Luke than with John.

So, we have looked at four pieces of evidence: the manuscripts, the fathers, the variations in placement and wording, and the grammar and vocabulary issues. All of them lead us to the same conclusion. This story was not originally a part of John’s Gospel. Those little footnotes and explanations in your English Bibles do not indicate that anyone is trying to rip an authentic passage of the Bible. Rather, the evidence suggests that somehow an inauthentic passage got inserted into the Bible. Thankfully, it’s a relatively harmless one; no one is going to be led astray into error or sin by reading, believing, or following it. Had it contained grossly erroneous information, there is no way it would have ever survived – but it is an adulterated text nonetheless. That’s the problem.

II. Question #2: Where did this story come from?

It is pretty easy to conclude from the evidence that the story is not original to John. It is much harder to discover where it did come from. An easy solution would be to just say that someone made it up. But, this doesn’t seem like the kind of story that would have been invented out of thin air. The stories that were invented along the way were either attempts to fill in gaps of Jesus’ life that were not recorded by the Gospels (i.e. stories about His childhood), or else those which put words in Jesus’ mouth that were intended to add credibility to divergent doctrines (which we find in the Gnostic writings). This story doesn’t do either of those things. The things that Jesus says and does here are in harmony with what we find Him saying and doing elsewhere in the Gospels. It has a ring of truth to it, and while we cannot prove that it is an actual historical account of a true historical event, neither can we disprove it.

We know that we do not have a complete record of everything Jesus ever said or did. John tells us this. In John 20:30, he says, “many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book.” In John 21:25, he writes, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” So, it is entirely possible that there were stories floating around – true stories based on the recollections of eyewitnesses – about things that Jesus said and did which are not recorded in the Gospels. For example, in Acts 20:35, Paul says, “remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” But that statement is not found anywhere in the Gospels. It was likely part of a true story about Jesus that was floating around and widely known in the first century.

While our evidence shows us that the story was not a part of John’s gospel originally, there are traces of evidence that show that the story existed in other writings. There was an early church father named Papias, who may have been an acquaintance of the Apostle John. We have lost all of his writings, but the Church historian Eusebius notes that Papias had related the “history of a woman who had been accused of many sins before the Lord, which was also contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews.”[7] It is important to note that neither Papias or Eusebius claimed it was from the Gospel of John (or even of Luke) but from “the Gospel according to the Hebrews.” Now, this is not the book of Hebrews that is in our Bibles. It is a writing that circulated during the second century, which (like the writings of Papias himself) has also disappeared, portions of it being preserved in the writings of the Fathers. So, we do not know for certain that the story Papias mentions from the Gospel According to the Hebrews is the same story as that one here in John 8. After all, the only sin that she is accused of before the Lord is adultery, while Papias says that she was accused of “many sins.” So, if the story refers to the same event, it is obvious that there were variations in detail. The same is true of the story related by Didymus the Blind near the end of the fourth century. He relates a variation of the account in his Ecclesiastes commentary, but there are differing details. And then there is another version of the story found in a third century writing called Apostolic Constitutions, or Didaskalia, which is similar to but not an exact duplicate of the account here in John 8.

Of course, there is also the possibility that the account as we have it here in John was an independent witness to the same event, which was floating around orally before being written down at some point by someone. By whom? Some have suggested that the story as we know it was written by Luke, given the stylistic and grammatical similarities between this story and Luke’s Gospel. Perhaps in his thorough research, which he describes in Luke 1:1-4, Luke encountered this story, wrote it down, and then for some reason, left it on the cutting room floor before finishing his Gospel. Then again, Luke’s use of Greek is the finest in the New Testament (not surprising given that he was both a native Greek speaker and highly educated). To say that something is “Luke’s style” might just mean nothing more than it was written in very good Greek.

This leads us to conclude with some degree of certainty that there were multiple versions of this story, or else several similar stories, floating around – some, perhaps even all, of which may have been true stories. It seems at least plausible, if not probable, that at some point, someone made an effort to harmonize these various stories into a single account that preserved the best details of each one. This explains why there are so many variations in wording among the manuscripts that contain the story, and presents a possible scenario that explains the existence of the story in other early documents. But ultimately, we have to say that it is all theoretical at this point, and we may never actually know the true origins of the passage as we here have it. We can affirm that the story might have actually happened, in a way identical or somewhat similar to what is recorded here. But, for reasons of His own choosing, God did not see fit to inspire any of the Gospel writers to include this narrative in their writings. It was only later that some scribes decided that it should be put in somewhere, perhaps influenced by Augustine’s suggestion that it had been taken out at some point. Though they could not agree exactly on where or what version of the story to include, by medieval times, it had become part and parcel with the biblical narrative.

III. Question #3: What are we left with if we remove this story? 

Let’s suppose that your copy of John’s Gospel in your Bible was directly translated from the earliest known manuscript we have of it. It would not contain John 7:53-8:11. Now, aside from a couple of pithy quotations, what would be lost? Would we have lost the fact that the Pharisees were hypocritical, judgmental legalists who sought to condemn everyone other than themselves, while at the same time setting traps for Jesus? No. We have plenty of other Gospel stories that teach us those things. Would we have lost the fact that Jesus condemned hypocrisy and self-righteousness with equal intensity as sins like adultery? No. This is commonly seen in all four Gospels. Would we have lost the fact that Jesus was willing to befriend sinners and offer them the opportunity for repentance and new life? No. We have plenty of stories that teach that. Would we lose the fact that Jesus loves sinners but hates sin? By no means. We see it often elsewhere in Scripture. So, what would we lose? In short, we lose nothing that isn’t found elsewhere in the Gospels.

What would it do to the flow of the passage, or to the meaning of John’s Gospel? First, as to the flow of the passage, if you read John’s Gospel in one sitting, you will notice that it flows pretty well with the passage in place. But you would actually discover that it flows even better without it. Remember that the surrounding context of this narrative is the events that transpired at the Feast of Tabernacles, about six months before Jesus was betrayed, arrested, and crucified. By the time of Jesus, two ceremonies had evolved in this festival which were not prescribed in the Mosaic Law, but which were the highlights of the event for most of the people. The first was the daily water ritual, in which water was drawn from the pool of Siloam and carried in procession back to the Temple where it was poured out on the altar. On the last day, “the great day” of the feast (cf. Jn 7:37), this was carried out with extra emphasis and jubilation. The Hebrew Mishnah said that “he who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of water-drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life.”[8] It was in the wake of this ritual that Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the fount of living water (7:37-39).

The other ritual which had arisen over time that was so popular with the people was the ceremony of illumination. Ancient Jewish sources describe how the Temple court was illuminated on the first night of the Feast of Tabernacles, and every night thereafter, with lamps that burned so brightly that every courtyard in Jerusalem was lit up by the glow.[9] It is fitting that in this context, Jesus would proclaim the words of John 8:12, “I am the Light of the World; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

Without the story of the woman caught in adultery, we have a smooth flow of context with Jesus reorienting the water ritual (7:37-39), followed by private disputes about His nature and claims (7:40-52), then followed by His reorienting of the illumination ceremony (8:12), and lastly by a public dispute about His nature and claims (8:13ff). This is in keeping with John’s stated purpose for his Gospel: “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” The material in John’s Gospel from Chapter 5 through Chapter 11 revolves around a yearlong cycle of Jewish Festivals. In Chapter 5, there is an incident which involves the Sabbath. In Chapter 6, the scene shifts to Passover. The setting for Chapters 7-9 is the Feast of Tabernacles. Chapter 10 finds Jesus in attendance at the Feast of Dedication (which we more commonly refer to as Hanukkah). Then, Chapter 11 begins to lead into the following Passover, which will culminate in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. So this entire section of John’s Gospel from Chapter 5 to Chapter 11 deals with Jesus confronting and reorienting these observances in such a way that He is seen as the ultimate fulfillment of them. In the present context, the Feast of Tabernacles is at the center of attention. John seems to have chosen two specific incidents that occurred as the Feast of Tabernacles was drawing to a close as a way of driving home his point that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

The story of the woman caught in adultery does not help the flow of the narrative or further the argument that John is making with the Festival Cycle, but rather interrupts the flow of what would otherwise be a powerful presentation of John’s stated purpose for writing. So, while it is “good” the way we have it, it seems that it is “better” without it. However, we would not even suggest such a thing if the case for it not being authentic was not so strong. And that brings me to my final question.

IV. Question #4: What does this mean for the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible?

In 2 words, very little. We are not here claiming that we have the authority to go through and remove passages anywhere and everywhere in our Bibles for any or no reason. Let’s not make the mistake of liberalism and excise from our Scriptures any passage that is remotely uncomfortable or challenging. This passage is neither. As I said, were it not for the evidence, no Bible-believing Christian would make such a suggestion about this or any other passage of Scripture.  When we claim to believe in a Bible that is infallible and inerrant, we are not claiming that our English translations or any other particular version is completely free from error. What we are claiming, in the words of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, is “that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture,” that is, the original document as penned by the original human writer under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.[10] The evidence of our manuscript paper trail affirms that the overwhelming majority of our Bibles are without question the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. But that same evidence points out to us a word or phrase here and there, and (in the case of John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20) two lengthier sections of twelve verses each, which were almost certainly not original in the autographic texts. Whether intentionally or accidentally, they crept in at various points in Church History and leave us, at least in the case of this passage, with a story that has been caught in the act of Scriptural adultery. Given the evidence that we have, we need not be ashamed, nor feel that we are being hypocritical, when we say we affirm the truthfulness of the entire Bible, while maintaining that this passage (for example) is not inspired Scripture, and while it may be true, we do not insist that it be considered so.

It is not likely that we will ever see a day when the passage disappears from our Bibles. I think if that day were coming, it would have already come. But, it will (hopefully) continue to bear notations to indicate that it is not original or authentic, and we need to take those statements seriously. Believe me, the critics of the Bible are aware of these issues, and my personal opinion is that it is better for the average church-going Christian to hear about the issues from friends rather than enemies. We are, after all, to be a truth-loving people, and therefore we cannot stick our heads in the sand to ignore plain evidence, even when it leads us to conclusions we would rather avoid. But integrity demands that we recognize, acknowledge, and deal with the issues when they arise.

Again, to reiterate, of the 7,956 verses in the New Testament, there are only 24 (the 12 here and the 12 at the end of Mark) which seem to be inauthentic. That is slightly less than 1/3 of 1% of the New Testament. In other words, 99.997% of the New Testament as found in your Bible is assuredly original and authentic. I can affirm with a clear conscience that the Bible I hold in my hand is God’s Word to humanity. It is, according to Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3, “able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus,” because it is an inspired Scripture that is breathed-by God through human authors, and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” We can affirm, with our Baptist Faith and Message, that the Bible is a perfect treasure of divine instruction, having God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Trust your Bibles. It was given to you from God Himself. But it came down to us through human scribes and translators who sometimes made mistakes. While God has not left us with the original documents, He has preserved for us a body of evidence that is only increasing, which helps us know with certainty what the originals said. And by and large, overwhelmingly so in fact, they said exactly what your Bible says. We never have to fear or hide from the truth. The truth is on our side. Jesus said, “I am the truth” (Jn 14:6). He prayed to His Father for us, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (17:17). And these things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31).

[1] Accessed July 8, 2013. Relevant remarks begin at 11:58 and 13:16.
[2] This notation is found in the NIV.
[3] David Alan Black, New Testament Criticism: A Concise Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 24.
[4] Darrell Bock, Jesus According to Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 462.
[5] Daniel Wallace, “My Favorite Passage that’s Not in the Bible.” Accessed June 5, 2013.
[6] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 883.
[7] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, iii.39.17. This quotation is from the new updated edition translated by C. F. Cruse (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998), 106.
[8] Sukkah 5:1. Cited in Daniel Fuchs, Israel’s Holy Days in Type and Prophecy (Neptune, NJ; Loizeaux Bros., 1985), 76.
[9] Mishnah, Sukka 5.2; Talmud Jer. Sukk. 55b; Sukk. 53a. Cited in Aflred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993), 589; Bock, 464.
[10] Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article X. Accessed July 10, 2013. 


James E. Snapp, Jr. said...

What was the basis for your conclusion about Mark 16:9-20?

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.

Russ Reaves said...

Hi James. My work on Mk 16 is found here:

Russ Reaves said...

James - I thought your name looked familiar ... I think we swapped a few messages when I posted about Mk 16 on this Blog several years ago.