Why We Are Skipping the Woman Caught in Adultery

by Lindsay Kennedy

Posted on: January 3, 2020

Open any Bible to John 7:53–8:11 and you will most likely encounter something unusual. The ESV, for example, brackets out the section and comments that “the earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53–8:11.”

What does this mean?

As the early church grew rapidly, so too did the copying and transmission of scripture. There was no centrally-organized oversight of this process, and so, the quality of these copies—and copies of copies—would naturally vary. While scribes were usually extremely fastidious, many copies of scripture were made by those who were illiterate and simply attempted to mimic the shapes of the letters.

The result: discrepancies in the manuscript copies of the New Testament.

None of this would be a problem if we had access to the original writings. For example, if we had the original John’s Gospel, then all copies could be compared to the original. However—as is extremely common with other ancient writings—we don’t have the original. Thus, scholars do their best to reconstruct the original form of the text. This is known as textual criticism.

Textual Criticism and Why it Matters

Textual criticism deals with the discrepancies, or variants, in the many manuscripts we have.

Mistakes: The vast majority of these discrepancies range from inconsequential to minor. Most arise from typos, word-order switches, or other small mistakes.

These are easily spotted and make no difference to our theology.

Additions or Deletions: Other discrepancies come through added or deleted words. For example, one manuscript of a certain passage in Paul’s letters may say “Jesus,” while another copy of the same passage may say “Lord Jesus,” and a third manuscript may say “Lord Jesus Christ.”

Trying to find the original in these instances is more complicated. Which is Paul more likely to have written, and what theory makes most sense of the variations? Is it more likely that over history, scribes would have added or deleted these words?

Larger Discrepancies: Finally, there are a very few examples of large discrepancies that cover several verses. The two most prominent examples are Mark 16:9–20 and John 7:53–8:11.

Does John 7:53–8:11 Belong in the Bible?

At least four reasons have caused scholars to suggest that this story is not original to John’s Gospel

  1. This passage is entirely missing from all manuscripts of John before the fifth century AD. Since it is missing in the earliest manuscripts, it seems more likely that this story was added, rather than deleted very early and then re-added later.
  2. When this passage does appear in manuscripts, it is not always in the same place, after John 7:52. It has shown up at ten different places across various manuscripts. In fact, it has appeared in some copies of Luke’s Gospel!
  3. The passage is never referenced by any early Christian writers until the fourth century AD. It is possible that they were unaware of it because it was not found in their copies.
  4. This passage sits awkwardly in John. Not only does it contain different vocabulary in the Greek, but the Gospel flows naturally if we skip the story and read from John 7:52 to John 8:12.

What Does All This Mean?

For these reasons, it seems that while this story must have been treasured by the early church, it is not written by the Gospel writers.

This raises certain questions:

  1. Did this story ever happen? There is no good reason to think that this event never happened. As John himself says, there are many stories of Jesus not recorded in the Gospels. This story, even if not part of John’s Gospel, is ancient and stands as a witness to the event. One scholar calls it his favorite story of Jesus that’s not in the Bible.
  2. Is this a slippery slope? If we “delete” a story from scripture then will we remove others like ones that we don’t like? Not at all. The doubt about this passage is not based on preference or skepticism. It is due to historical evidence, and while many scholars are not believers, others are driven by faith in Christ and are not troubled by this.
  3. Does this undermine scripture? This should not cause us to question the reliability of scripture. Rather, on the whole, the findings of textual criticism have shown the opposite: scripture has been preserved reliably and we can trust that our Bibles are faithful to the original writings.
  4. Does Imprint Church question God’s word? By not preaching this passage, is Imprint questioning the inspiration of God’s word? Not at all. In fact, it is due to our conviction that God’s Word is unique—wholly different to the words of man—that we are not preaching from this text.

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