If you turn in a Bible to John 7:53, you’re very likely to see something like this:
This is a screenshot of the ESV, but most translations do something very similar: there’s a bracket or some other way to offset the passage, and then there’s a note indicating something like “the earliest manuscripts do not include” these verses.
What’s going on here? Should this passage not be in the Bible?
The goal of this article is to explain a few simple claims, one by one:
(1) There’s a strong possibility the passage wasn’t originally written by John. (2) Nevertheless, I’m convinced the story is accurate and true, as the passage can be traced all the way back to the first century, before the Gospel of John itself. (3) Additionally, Christians from the earliest times have trusted this story. Because of all of this, I’m convinced it should be treated as authoritative like the rest of the Bible.
But before we get there, we need to understand just a little bit about how the New Testament came to be.
A little background: how the New Testament was written and copied
When the 27 books of the New Testament were written, they were written by hand, each as a standalone document. Then they were each copied by hand as they circulated among the churches. As it made sense, the documents were grouped together to facilitate circulation. Eventually, the books were grouped all together in something like we now have as our New Testament. (We covered this process in slightly more detail in a sermon last October which you can find here.)
Whether they were single books or collections of books, up to and including the whole New Testament, these handmade copies are referred to as “manuscripts”. Knowing the great importance of their work, the copyists or “scribes” were typically very careful to preserve the text as exactly as possible. Of course, in such manual but detail-oriented tasks, errors are inevitable. But the rate of such errors was very low, and the vast majority of errors in these manuscripts are obvious typos. Furthermore, the errors are usually easy to spot and correct, especially when we have multiple manuscripts to compare.
However, sometimes there are larger discrepancies between manuscripts, harder to make sense of than a small typo. Thankfully, these discrepancies are very rare in the books of the New Testament, and when they do occur, we have such an enormous number of high quality, early manuscripts that we have very little dispute over what the original manuscript must have said.
In a very small number of places, there are whole passages in question. In fact, there are two in the New Testament. The very end of the Gospel of Mark (16:9-20) probably shouldn’t be in our Bibles. And then there’s the passage we’re talking about here, John 7:53-8:11. In these cases, comparison of the manuscripts plays a key role too.
We do not have the original copy of any book of the New Testament. However, we have thousands of these copies to compare against each other, with some of the copies dating from shortly after the books’ original composition. For other ancient authors, much of their work completely disappeared. For those whose work survived, we’re lucky when we have 20 partial copies, often coming from centuries afterwards. Excluding the New Testament, the work with the most surviving copies is Homer—we have about 1,000 copies of him. In comparison, we have over 5,700 copies in Greek of the New Testament, with dozens of them dating from the second century, not to mention the 10,000+ copies in Latin, or the multitudinous copies in Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, and Arabic, or the hundreds of thousands of quotations that help us corroborate exactly what the original text said.
(To compare all of these manuscripts like this, pastors and scholars use what’s known as “NA28”, the 28th and most up-to-date edition of Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece. NA28 is a printing of the New Testament, in Greek, that has copious footnotes detailing every place that the various extant manuscripts differ. It’s not much use to you if you can’t read Greek, but if you’re ever interested in seeing a hard copy, I’ll happily show you mine.)
Claim 1: This passage was probably not written by John
We know that this passage probably wasn’t written by John or included in the original version of his Gospel because in the very earliest surviving manuscripts of John, this passage is absent. Furthermore, many scholars think the style of this passage (e.g., grammar, vocabulary, syntax) doesn’t sound quite like John. This is why our print Bibles often have brackets and explanatory notes around this passage.
Claim 2: The passage is accurate, true, and from the first century
This passage doesn’t occur in the very earliest manuscripts, and even in the later manuscripts it floats around a bit. Sometimes it doesn’t occur at all. Sometimes it’s in John. Sometimes it’s in Luke. And when it is in John, it occurs in at least 4 different places (at the end of chapter 7 like it’s printed in most Bibles today, in two different places in the middle of chapter 7, or at the very end of the book). Moreover, when the manuscripts do include the passage, they often include notes from the scribes indicating their awareness of the questions surrounding the passage.
However, whenever the passage does occur in the manuscripts, it occurs as a unit, in this form. It doesn’t say something different or alter the story of what Jesus does or anything like that. This implies that the passage comes from somewhere—it was floating around, being circulated by early Christians, along with other documents and stories that eventually came to make up the New Testament.
Additionally, this story is known by a few other very early sources, including Papias (a church Father from the end of the first century and beginning of the second—he was old enough that he knew John, whose Gospel we’re discussing here) and the Didascalia (a third century Christian book). And recently there has been scholarly discussion tracing the genealogy of the written form of this passage back to the middle of the first century, to one of the sources Luke used in writing his Gospel. (Good historians always use sources. Luke and the other Gospel writers are no different, as Luke himself mentions in Luke 1:1-2.)
All of this together points to the fact that the story behind this passage really happened. Jesus really forgave a woman caught in adultery. And the story was circulated by the church, in some form or fashion, whether orally, in writing, or in both, from its very earliest days.
For a detailed and helpful, if technical, discussion of all this, see this journal article.
Claim 3: The church has always trusted the passage
When it comes down to it, we trust the New Testament because of the history of the church. We want to trust Jesus, so we trust His apostles and what they wrote about Jesus in the New Testament. We trust that the teachings of the New Testament came to us from them, and not from some impostor, because of the witness of the church. (For example, they knew the difference between John the apostle of Jesus and, say, Valentinus, not just because their works were so different but also because they literally knew John and Valentinus as people, or at least as people who were known in their circles.) And we trust that the 27 books collected in the New Testament belong in a category all their own, as "Scripture", because the church has always and everywhere seen their unparalleled truth and usefulness.
Of course, there are other helpful things we can say about why we trust the New Testament, such as that we find the documents historically reliable, being confirmed by a multitude of sources. And as we study them, we find them reasonable and true. More than that, we're able to see firsthand the results that the New Testament promises, with regard to transformation, comfort from God's Spirit, etc.
But in a significant way, when we trust the New Testament, we're trusting the historical church's judgment regarding these documents. And if we can trust the church with, say, the Gospel of John, then we can trust the church with the passage about the woman caught in adultery, even when questions about exactly who wrote it persist.
From the very first century, the followers of Jesus told this story as a way to illustrate the radical love, forgiveness, and inclusion of Jesus. They told it because it was true. They told it because it was powerful. They told it because it shows Jesus as He really was and is. They told it because we can trust it, even today.