This message is the kind I may give once every decade or so. The reason it’s so rare is that the situation with our text is so rare. In most of your Bibles, you notice that John 7:53–8:11 is either set off in brackets or is in a footnote. The reason for this is that most New Testament scholars do not think it was part of the Gospel of John when it was first written, but was added centuries later. For example,
Don Carson, who teaches at Trinity, and is in my view one of the best New Testament scholars in the world, writes, “Despite the best efforts . . . to prove that this narrative was originally part of John’s Gospel, the evidence is against [them], and modern English versions are right to rule it off from the rest of the text (NIV) or to relegate it to a footnote (RSV).” (The Gospel According to John, 333)
Bruce Metzger, one of the world’s great authorities on the text of the New Testament until his death in 2002: “The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the periscope of the adulteress is overwhelming.” (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 219)
Leon Morris: “The textual evidence makes it impossible to hold that this section is an authentic part of the Gospel.” (The Gospel According to John, 882)
Andreas Köstenberger: “This represents overwhelming evidence that the section is non-Johannine.” (John, 246)
And Herman Ridderbos: The evidences “point to an unstable tradition that was not originally part of an ecclesiastically accepted text.” (The Gospel of John, 286)
I think they are right. And this gives us a chance to spend a little while on the branch of biblical studies behind these judgments called textual criticism and its implications for the trustworthiness and authority of the Scriptures. So let me summarize the reasons these scholars give for thinking this story of the woman taken in adultery was not originally part of John’s Gospel, and then give some general thoughts about the science of textual criticism that helps make sense of the arguments.
Why This Section Isn’t Original to John’s Gospel
The evidence goes something like this:
The story is missing from all the Greek manuscripts of John before the fifth century.
All the earliest church fathers omit this passage in commenting on John and pass directly from John 7:52 to John 8:12.
In fact, the text flows very nicely from 7:52 to 8:12 if you leave out the story and just read the passage as though the story were not there.
No Eastern church father cites the passage before the tenth century when dealing with this Gospel.
When the story starts to appear in manuscript copies of the Gospel of John, it shows up in three different places other than here (after John 7:36; 7:44; 21:25), and in one manuscript of Luke, it shows up after 21:38.
Its style and vocabulary is more unlike the rest of John’s Gospel than any other paragraph in the Gospel.
“The books of the New Testament were preserved for us by faithful, hardworking copyists.”
Now saying all that assumes a lot of facts that many of you simply don’t have at your fingertips. And nobody expects you to. This is a hugely technical field of scholarship that at the upper levels requires not only the ability to read ancient languages, but the ability to read them in kinds of ancient handwritten scripts that are very demanding. So let me give you just enough so that you can make sense of these reasons.
The Science of Textual Criticism
The New Testament that we know was originally written in Greek. The first printed Greek New Testament — that came off a printing press — was published by Erasmus in 1516. It turned the world upside down. If you want a great glimpse of this period and the heroism it produced, read David Daniell’s biography of William Tyndale.
This means that for 1,500 years the manuscripts of the biblical books were passed down to us through handwritten copies. This is how we have access to the actual words that the New Testament writers wrote with their very hands. None of those first, original manuscripts is known to exist. Which is probably just as well, since we would probably turn it into an idol and charge money for people come worship.
So the books of the New Testament were preserved for us by faithful, hardworking copyists. Some of these copies were in a script called uncials (referring to manuscripts with all capital Greek letters), others were in a script called minuscule (referring to manuscripts with small Greek letters). A smaller number are called papyri because they are very early and written on the special paper-like material made from the Papyrus plant that was prevalent in the Nile Delta. One last group of manuscripts is the lectionaries — which were collections of texts for reading in public worship.
Now here is what’s amazing. The abundance of these manuscripts of the New Testament, or parts of the New Testament, as compared to the number of manuscripts for all other ancient works is simply staggering.
There are ten existing manuscripts of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (composed between 58 and 50 BC). And all of these date from the tenth century or later.
There are twenty manuscripts of Livy’s Roman History written roughly during the time when Jesus was alive.
Only two manuscripts exist for Tacitus’s Histories and the Annals, which were composed around AD 100 — one from the ninth and one from the eleventh century.
There are only eight manuscripts of the History of Thucydides who lived 460–400 BC.
Compare those numbers with the manuscripts and partial manuscripts for the New Testament. These numbers are from the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Muenster, Germany, which is the most authoritative collection of such data in the world. There are 322 uncial texts, 2,907 minuscule texts, 2,445 lectionary portions, and 127 papyri, for a total of 5,801 manuscripts. These are all hand-written copies of the New Testament or parts of the New Testament preserved in libraries around the world and now captured electronically. No other ancient book comes close to this kind of wealth of diverse preservation.
Problems and Solutions
What that wealth does is create problems and solutions at the same time. These copies do not all agree on what the wording was in the original manuscripts. So the more manuscripts you have, the more variations you find. On the other hand, the more manuscripts you have, the more control you have over which readings are the original ones. The more manuscripts you have the more variations you find, and yet the more they tend to be self-correcting.
For example, if you had only two ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of John and one has the story of the woman taken in adultery and the other doesn’t, you would be hard put to choose. But if you have a hundred manuscripts of John, even though you may find more variations, you will be able to tell by the number and age and geographical diversity of the manuscripts whether the story was there or not. This is what the science of textual criticism has done with hundreds of variations in the manuscripts.
Here’s the way F.F. Bruce put it a generation ago:
If the great number of manuscripts increases the number of scribal errors, it increases proportionately the means of correcting such errors, so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is . . . in truth remarkably small. (The New Testament Documents, 19)
No Doctrine Threatened
But what is most significant for the reliability and authority of the New Testament is that the variations that textual critics are unsure of are not the kind that would change any Christian doctrine. For example, in our passage from John 7:53–8:11, no truth that this Gospel teaches is changed by omitting this story. Bruce says, “The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affects no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice” (The New Testament Documents, 20).
“God has ordered things such a way that any uncertainty alters no doctrine of the Christian faith.”
Nothing on this score has changed in the last generation since F.F. Bruce wrote in 1943, except, perhaps, that people like Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina, have become very popular in questioning the reliability of our New Testament to give us what the original authors wrote.
A Reason to Worship God
In 2006, Paul D. Wegner reaffirmed F.F. Bruce’s assessment (A Student’s Guide To Textual Criticism of the Bible): “It is important to keep in perspective the fact that only a very small part of the text is in question. . . . Of these, most variants make little difference to the meaning of any passage.”
Then he closes his book by quoting Fredric Kenyon: “It is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these discoveries and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God” (301).
So when I agree with the vast majority of scholars that the story of the woman taken in adultery was not in the Gospel of John, you should not think: “Oh my, everything is up for grabs now.” Or: “How can I count on any text?” On the contrary, you can be thankful that God has, in his sovereign providence over the transmission process for 2,000 years, ordered things so that the few uncertainties that remain alter no doctrine of the Christian faith. That is really astonishing when you think about it, and we should worship God because of it.
What’s a Preacher to Do?
Now the question is: What should I, the preacher, do with this story? Both Don Carson and Bruce Metzger think the story probably happened. In other words, they think this is a real event from Jesus’s life, and the story circulated and later was put in the Gospel of John. Metzger says, “The account has all the earmarks of historical veracity” (Textual Commentary, 220). And Carson says, “There is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred” (The Gospel According to John, 333).
Perhaps. I would like to think so. Who doesn’t love this story? But that does not give it the authority of Scripture. So what I will do is take its most remarkable point and show that it is true on the basis of other parts of Scripture, and so let this story not be the basis of our authority, but an echo and a pointer to our authority, namely, the Scriptures, that teach what it says.
The Most Remarkable Point
The most remarkable point of this story is that Jesus exalts himself above the Law of Moses, changes its appointed punishment, and reestablishes righteousness on the foundation of grace. I don’t doubt that this is why the story was preserved. It is an amazing story. Let me show you where I get that lesson and why I think it is a faithful echo of the rest of the New Testament.
The woman is caught in adultery and brought to Jesus. In verses 4–5, the scribes and Pharisees put Jesus to the test. We have seen this before in the Gospels. This has the ring of truth. Here’s what they say, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” So this is a blatant test to see if Jesus will contradict the Law.
Pharisees Taking Aiming at Jesus
The law said, “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die” (Deuteronomy 22:22; see Leviticus 20:10). There is already something fishy going on here that only the woman is brought forward. There is no such thing as adultery where only one party is guilty. But there she is and no man. So how committed are these scribes and Pharisees really to the law? Or is the law a pretext for their prejudice against Jesus?
Verse 6 makes explicit what their motives were, and so we don’t expect a great deal of justice: “This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.” They were using her, and using the law, to get rid of this troublemaker.
The Law Fulfilled in Love
In verse 7, Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Now of course, that won’t work as a basis for social justice. No criminals would be brought to justice if judges had to be sinless. That’s why I said Jesus is going to reestablish righteousness. He’s going to do it on the foundation of grace. For now, there is zero grace, zero humility, zero compassion. Which means there is zero law-keeping.
Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus standing against the Pharisees’ view of the law and saying in effect, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13; 12:2). Or: “If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?” (John 7:23). In other words, “the Law is fulfilled in one word: Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Galatians 5:14; compare with Matthew 7:12).
Jesus Reestablishing Righteousness
So Jesus forced them to expose their own misuse of the law. They all walked away. The point is not that judges and executioners must be sinless. The point is that righteousness and justice should be founded on a gracious spirit, and if it’s not, what you get is the heartlessness and hypocrisy of Pharisaism. That’s the point throughout the Gospels, not just here.
“We are called to be holy as God is holy.”
When they are all gone, Jesus ends the story saying to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (recall John 5:14). Not: Neither do I condemn you, so it doesn’t matter if you commit adultery. But: I am reestablishing righteousness in your life — and the for Pharisees, if they will have it — on the basis of an experience of grace. Don’t commit adultery anymore. Not mainly because you fear stoning. But because you have met God, and have been rescued by his grace — saved by grace!
Come for Grace — And Sin No More
The story may not belong to John’s Gospel. In fact, the story may never have happened. But this point of the story is unshakably true. This is the pervasive message of the New Testament. Jesus exalted himself above the Law. He wrote it! Jesus altered some of its sanctions. He pointed to its main goal of Christ-exalting love. And he reestablished righteousness on the basis of an experience of grace.
The story points us to the message of the whole New Testament: we are called to be holy as God is holy. God hates sin. But pursuing holiness without a profound experience of grace in our own lives produces hypocrisy and doctrinaire cruelty. Jesus came into the world to provide that grace through his cross, and to establish holiness, righteousness, and justice on the foundation of our experience of his grace. So come to him for grace, and set your face to sin no more.