Not In Earliest Manuscripts?

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Does John 7:53-8:11 Actually Belong In Our Bibles?

That is a great question and has been around ever since John’s gospel came into existence. In our English Bibles there is a little heading at the top that reads “[The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11].” Since we are journeying through the Gospel of John here at Living Stones Churches, we thought it would be appropriate to address this briefly here on our blog.

New Testament scholar, Gerald Borchert says it this way “from my perspective [it is] a text looking for a context.” [1]  Not only in John’s gospel does it appear to be misplaced but it even shows up in some early manuscripts of Luke’s gospel and there it also feels out of place (Luke chapter 21). Some would say “it just needs a home.” Others would say, “leave it out.” And still other notable New Testament scholars say that it should be treated as an appendix.[2]  What gives rise to these different responses? This is because the story of the woman caught in adultery simply interrupts the flow of the gospel of John, it's also different stylistically from the rest of John, and even the words selected just sound unlike from anything else in John’s gospel.

"This passage takes the reader from studying a theological debate with Jesus to the streets, literally."

Our New Testament was written in koine (common) Greek and we have thousands of ancient manuscripts that are identical copies. However, this passage is not only missing from some of our earliest Greek texts, but also the Syriac and Coptic texts as well. Nine centuries went by before anyone in the the Eastern Church even commented on this passage. It is not directly quoted by any of the church fathers before Irenaus, “and then only in the Latin version, which was translated possibly as late as the fourth century.”[3]  Yet, some of the more famous Church Fathers from the West such as Augustine (354-430 AD), Ambrose (337-397 AD), and Jerome (347-420 AD) do in fact, make mention of the text and appear to treat it as Scripture.  Augustine went as far as to suggest that those who had weak faith or “hostile to true faith”[4] actually tore the passage out of the early manuscripts due to the radical nature of grace presented, thus it would create a community of antinomian/grace abusers. Many scholars believe that it was not apart of the original text of John but was added later. This does not mean, however, that the story did not happen. It could be that someone under John’s authority or John himself added the text later, after the gospel had been written.

As the Pastors of Preaching, Pastor Harvey and I are of the conviction that this account in fact belongs in our New Testament canon based on the fact that (1) it has all of the distinguishing details of an authentic event in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is a story where John sheds the spotlight on the Jews, who are consistently depicted as those who oppose Jesus throughout his gospel and shows that their bloodthirsty fueled by religion came long before Good Friday.  (2) Though the story certainly appears to interrupt the “flow” out of chapter seven and into chapter eight, we can’t dismiss the immediate context of the preceding chapters that contains a few of the debates between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.  This passage takes the reader from studying a theological debate with Jesus to the streets, literally. The reader is no longer reading about Jesus’ divinity and Lordship over the Sabbath. Now, the text all of a sudden has another layer of texture to it as it is a shocking, stomach turning scene in which a [presumably] naked woman is dragged out in the street by an angry mob who are ready to crush her with heavy stones and take her life for committing adultery.

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  1.  Borchert, Gerald L. John 1–11. Vol. 25A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996.
  2. Ibid. “Many scholars have noted that this text should be treated like an appendix, interpolation, or excursus including Barrett, Beasley-Murray, Bernard, Brown, Carson, Hoskyns and Davey, Lightfoot, Morris, Schnackenburg, and Westcott. Bultmann does not discuss the pericope.”
  3. Tenny, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: John, 91.
  4. Joel C. Elowsky, Anceint Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament IVa, John 1-10, 272.