If you have been paying attention to more recent translations of the Gospel of John, you will have noticed that John 7:53–8:11—the story of the woman caught in adultery of whom Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her”—has been getting some interesting treatment by the scholars. The TNIV (Today’s New International Version), for example, tells us very forthrightly that our earliest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John do not include these much beloved and belabored verses. If text determines canon, by which I mean the original inspired text of that gospel is what should be in the canon, then John 7:53–8:11 ought not to be in our Bibles.
The evidence that it was not an original part of this gospel is clear. The verses are absent from a wide array of early and diverse witnesses (papyrus 66, papyrus 75, Aleph [Codex Sinaiticus], B [Codex Vaticanus] and a host of others), and there is evidence that some manuscripts of John place these verses after John 7:36, some after John 7:52, some after John 21:25, and one manuscript even has it in the Gospel of Luke after Luke 21:38! This text was so beloved that numerous later scribes were trying to find an appropriate gospel home for it. But this is not the end of the story.
It was the judgment of Bruce Metzger and his textual committee, which produced the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament in various editions, that “the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity.”1 I quite agree. In fact this story not only reflects Johannine style, it reveals to us the character of Jesus—his way of balancing mercy with justice that we know from other passages not in doubt as to their original place in a canonical gospel. This surely is one of the “many other things Jesus did” referred to in John 21:25. There just wasn’t room to include them all on the original papyrus scroll of the Fourth Gospel.
Translators are notoriously conservative. They tend to follow like sheep the example of what previous translators have done about including this or that disputed bit of the New Testament, even when they know it is textually dubious. Such is the case with John 7:53–8:11. You will be hard-pressed to find any English translation that leaves this story out—despite its textual history—though increasingly the translators are warning us (as in the TNIV) that it was not in the original text. In a parenthesis that is right in the text, it says, “The earliest manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53–8:11.” This is what you call truth in advertising, but if it is not in the original, why didn’t they put these verses in a footnote or in the margin?
What do I, a practicing Christian and New Testament scholar, do with this story when it comes to teaching and preaching it? On the one hand I think it is historically authentic, dealing with a real episode in the life of Jesus, and on the other hand I know it did not make the cut when the original author or editor compiled this wonderful gospel. Well, for me, since I am only supposed to be preaching “the Word of God,” by which I mean what is clearly in the canon, I will not preach on this text, because text determines canon. I will, however, use the story to illustrate some other gospel text I am preaching on, to reveal the compassionate nature of Jesus. In a teaching setting where the issue is what Jesus actually did say and do, I am free to use it for historical, theological and ethical purposes.
Finally, some may be wondering, “Why all this fuss over one text? Why do I need to know this wasn’t an original part of the Gospel of John?” My answer is that if one believes that the Bible is concerned with truth, then one needs to be honest about that truth, about what we do know about it, and what we don’t. I don’t think it much helps the church, the synagogue or anyone to hide the truth, on the assumption that “they can’t handle the truth!” If memory serves, Jesus thought otherwise. He trusted the judgment of his audience, and so should the translators of the New Testament. This is not a matter of liberal or conservative, and it’s not part of a conspiracy to deprive someone of a beloved historical story. It’s about being faithful and honest about and to the one who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
If you have been paying attention to more recent translations of the Gospel of John, you will have noticed that John 7:53–8:11—the story of the woman caught in adultery of whom Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her”—has been getting some interesting treatment by the scholars. The TNIV (Today’s New International Version), for example, tells us very forthrightly that our earliest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John do not include these much beloved and belabored verses. If text determines canon, by which I mean the […]