Lecture 33: Some Famous Textual Problems: John 7:53-8:11 | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 33: Some Famous Textual Problems: John 7:53-8:11

Course: Textual Criticism

Lecture: Some Famous Textual Problems: John 7:53-8:11


A. John 7:53

This is the most famous textual problem of the Bible; the story of the woman caught in adultery. This is known to scholars as the periscope adultery. This is in John 7:53-John 8:11. It is twelve verses long and I would call this my favorite passage that isn’t in the Bible. It is regarded by many people as their favorite passage in all of Scripture. We are going to look at this historically and why it is important to do this. A distinction needs to be made between what is canonical and what is historical. Is it possible that a story about history be true without it being part of the New Testament? What we often get among evangelical scholars is a lack of trust because something isn’t considered inspired. So, they think that the only thing that is true is what is inspired. If I don’t have an inspired Bible, then the Bible is untrustworthy. I think this is a silly position to hold. Josephus isn’t inspired, yet we regard a lot of what he has to say as historically accurate. It means that we have to do more work on these things. But, if John 7:53-8:11 isn’t part of inspired Scripture, then we need to historically examine it. Respect for the author requires that we investigate dubious passages seriously. If John didn’t write this then to put this in the Gospel would be an offense to him. Some authors are extremely particular about changing their text. J.R. Tolkien was famous for that; even the spelling of some of the words he had made up. No, you can’t spell it that way; this is how it has to be written. Other authors are particular in this way also. To add a dozen verses in the middle of John’s Gospel which he didn’t write; if that is the case, this would be a serious affront to the respect of the human author and therefore to the divine author, for the Scriptures have dual authorship. Information of Jesus Christ gives us a methodological imperative to do serious historical research. One of the things that we have in the evangelical community is often a pitting of incarnation versus inspiration. It is Christ versus the Bible. All too often, Christ comes out the loser in the way we approach the text, because the incarnation says let’s examine this stuff historically. Let’s really do rigorous research in this. In the end, he says, ‘hands off my Bible’, don’t ask those tuff questions. I hold to inerrancy and I’m not allowed to think that the Bible might have an error in it. What we are allowed to think and so we have to do this historical research.

This is not an issue that even affects inerrancy but it does effect whether these verses are inspired or not. The intertwining of how we think of our theological priorities is weighted in this passage significantly. There is a lot of emotional baggage that is attached to the pericope of this passage compared to any other passage in the New Testament. If it isn’t part of the New Testament, what do we actually lose? Do we lose Jesus forgiving people? No, of course not for he forgives people in other places. We do lose a fascinating story about him forgiving either a prostitute or at least a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. This pericope may be true historically even if John didn’t write it. So, we need to examine the evidence to see.

1. External Evidence 

In terms of external evidence, this passage is missing in our two oldest manuscripts for this portion of John: P66 and P75. There is no way you could accidentally add these twelve verses or omit them. So for them to be missing from these two papyri is very important. It is also missing in aleph and B; I don’t know if there is any place where P66 and P75 and aleph and B agree without any corrections done that I would disagree with that reading. I think that is so solid, it is virtually the end of the discussion. You don’t always have them to agree; infrequently do they agree on everything. For Codex A which in the Gospels is a Byzantine manuscript. It is Alexandrian outside the Gospels. So, we have our earliest Byzantine manuscript that lacks this story. Then, Codex C which is a secondary Alexandrian also lacks it and in addition, almost all manuscripts through the 8th century lacks this story. So for the first eight hundred years of the church, this story is only represented in a handful of manuscripts; altogether there are only three to this date. These are majuscule manuscripts out of the 322 manuscripts which actually have this passage. The earliest and best versions lack it. Even the Syriac, Coptic and others of the 3rd century didn’t have it. So, we have this early and widespread lack of these twelve verses. Then we have a lack of patristic comments on this passage until the 12th century. It isn’t until the eleven hundreds that you get anyone to comment on this text. Are we going to insist that these verses are authentic when they aren’t in the early versions, the early fathers and in the most important manuscripts? Of those manuscripts that do have it; several of them have an asterisk in the margin which indicates doubts about the passage. This asterisk used as such an indication goes back to the Alexandrian manuscripts.

Maurice Roberson tries to argue that this asterisk indicates that it isn’t part of the lexicon reading. He even says in one place that the earliest manuscripts we have that had asterisks in them were from the 8th century. This isn’t really true; we find them in Codex Clair-Montana where the asterisk definitely means that a message is probably doubtful. Codex Clair-Montana is a 6th-century manuscript. I know it has the asterisk because I examined that manuscript three years ago. It is a Codex D of Paul and the Epistles; a different Codex D that the one for the Gospels and Acts. So, this asterisk occurs in these earlier manuscripts as well. Then we have corruptions within the pericope adulterous. What I mean is; the text itself isn’t stable. This has been called the most corrupted passage of any pericope in the Gospels. What exactly are these twelve verses saying? The earliest manuscript, Codex D that has it is not at all like the Byzantine manuscripts; there are a lot of changes that take place. You have Jesus writing in the dirt in all of the manuscripts of course. Some of the manuscripts tell us what he wrote and then there is a dispute as to what he wrote. The fact that we have so many corruptions within this pericope adulterous tells us that this may well be a floating oral story that got spread about in different forms for quite some time. Speaking about floating, it is a floating text as far as the New Testament is concerned. This passage has shown up in three different places in John 7. It isn’t just John 7:53 but a couple of places earlier. In some manuscripts it appears as a separate pericope at the end of all four Gospels. It is just tacked on at the end. In some manuscripts, it stands as an independent pericope between Luke and John. Is it stable in this place; it’s not and this suggests that this passage is trying to get into the Bible in several different places that is, if you can personify this. So, it eventually ended up as John 7:53. It seems to be now in the most logical and coherent place. It fits into the text well and yet there are still serious issues about it. It also occurs in one manuscript after John 8:12. This is Codex 115; interestingly it sheers off in the middle of John 11. The scribe that copied out this manuscript gets to this pericope, but the manuscript he is copying from, does have some Western readings. All of a sudden, it skips this pericope of the adulterous woman.

This scribe doesn’t catch it until he writes the verse after this pericope. He then realizes that the story is supposed to go there. So, he goes and puts that manuscript down and picks up another one that has the story and writes it out. He places this after John 8:12 and is the only manuscript showing this. So, when he writes out this story, did he go back to his original manuscript or does he stay with his new manuscript? This would be a good master’s dissertation for a student to do to find out what actually happened here. So, this is a floating text and what is really interesting, it comes after Luke 21:38 in some manuscripts which is the Passion Week for the Lord. John 8 is actually an earlier time for Jesus. We will talk about the significance of being after Luke 21:38 later. I have long suspected that if this passage is authentic that is actually where it belongs. Sometimes you see scribes that get very upset if the passage isn’t put in where they expect it to be. We have a medieval parchment manuscript that we photographed some years ago. You have this paper leaf that was stitched into the next parchment leaf; not into the binding. The evidence here seems to indicate that the scribe is angry that this manuscript doesn’t have the story of the woman caught in adultery. So he stitches a page into the manuscript and on the backside of it, you have a child’s handwriting of the story of the woman caught in adultery right after it. I suspect that this could have been a pastor who got upset because the story wasn’t in the manuscript. You really see the humanity of these scribes in these manuscripts.

Well, as I mentioned, some of these manuscripts have an asterisk which indicates a certain text isn’t authentic. Here, in Codex 1424 we see asterisks in the margin of this text. So, you have the text written out but then you have an asterisk saying that it isn’t authentic or that they have doubts about it. This is a manuscript that the Lutheran School of Theology has which we photographed a few years ago. It is a very important manuscript.

2. Internal Evidence 

The vocabulary, syntax, and style don’t belong to John. You can see this if you have perhaps a year or a year and a half of Greek. Students have told me after reading through their New Testament in Greek and especially in John with this particular story; they immediately see the different style. It just doesn’t feel like John. You can even see it in the use of conjunctions which is different that John’s. There is no other pericope in John’s entire Gospel that is so anomalous in terms of vocabulary, syntax, and style. I wrote an article that got published in New Testament Studies some years ago about reconsidering this story. I was arguing that the internal evidence suggests that this was a disruption to the style in John’s Gospel. The language is much more similar to Luke’s Gospel than it is to John’s Gospel. This brings me to an article that just got published by one of my former students, Kyle Huge in one of the most important Journal’s for the New Testament published in Holland. His article was called the Lukan Special Material and the traditional history of the pericope adultery. This was a paper that Kyle originally did for me as a Master’s student in Dallas Seminary in the course of Advanced Greek Grammar. He was trying to get into a decent doctrinal program. This has been a back-burner topic of mine for years. I thought that this passage had more of Luke’s style than that of John. I also wondered whether Luke had access to a form of this, but not exactly these twelve verses. I told Kyle that there were certain approaches that one had to go through to do this. He did a rather exceptional job on this paper and he got into a good doctrinal program because of it. I think the mystery of its origin may have been discovered through this work. Recent excavations revealed two different verses of this particular story that ended up getting conflated in the 3rd century; one was in the east and one was in the south. Now, these two stories are what get put into our Gospel.

The question that Kyle asked was whether Luke had access to one of these stories. There are several features in this that is found in Luke’s special material. This is material that we know that he used which he didn’t write, designated as L. He talks about unnamed women who are in direr straights. Luke, himself, simply avoids the historical presence; that is using something in the present tense when you are talking in narrative. For example in John 4; Jesus says to the woman and the woman says to him. This is the historical present. We have a hundred and fifty-one uses of the historical presence in Mark’s Gospel. We have eighty in Matthew and only thirteen in Luke. There are three in this particular pericope. I told Kyle that this is one problem that I have with this passage; I don’t think that we are dealing with something Luke would have written because he doesn’t like the historical present. What Kyle discovered was that all of the use of the historical presence was from his special material that he used. So, if Luke had a form of this and he could have put it into his Gospel which would have been right after Luke 21:38. Why didn’t he include it into his published Gospel? This is a good question. He has a special emphasis on women and God’s grace toward women; why didn’t he include this? I take it that the reason he didn’t is because we are dealing with a passage that in Luke’s form, it was blander than what we have in the conflated form. Most likely, the Pharisees didn’t peel off from the oldest to the youngest. Most likely, this woman wasn’t caught in adultery; she was caught in some kind of sin. Almost surely Jesus did write something on the ground precisely because the scribes were guessing as to what it was. The ambiguity in the text suggests that it is authentic. There was actually a doctrinal dissertation done at the University of Edinburgh by Christopher Keith where he argues that this pericope which was put into John’s Gospel, was to show that Jesus knew how to write. This was because that the early Christian faith was often criticized because it was filled up with people who were illiterate who couldn’t read or write. I think Keith is probably correct in this.

3. Conclusion 

The pericope of the adulterous woman is almost surely not authentic. When we begin to think about it in comparing Mark 16 and John 8, the two longest passages of doubtful authenticity; people prefer to keep John 8 over Mark 16. Yet, when you compare the manuscript evidence for these two, especially against Mark 16 being authentic, the evidence against John 8 being authentic is overwhelming. Twenty percent of all our manuscripts don’t have it. Virtually all of them through the 8th century don’t have it. We don’t have any patristic commentary to the 12th century. The evidence just goes on and on. Our two earliest manuscripts don’t have Mark 16 but virtually all the others do. The evidence here for the authenticity of John 8 is not compelling at all. Mark 16 is much more so. So, on the basis of evidence, if I had to choose one of the two, Mark 16 would be in the Bible whereas John 8 would not be. Years ago my pastor gave us a sermon one time on this story. I wrote to him telling him that I didn’t think that this was an authentic passage. He agreed and said that there was some doubt about it, but it is such a great passage that I wanted to preach on it. I will pray that earlier manuscripts will be discovered. I used to have that kind of attitude also. It was like, dam history, full speed ago; that sort of thing. Let’s hope that things are different from what we know them to be. The evidence is so overwhelming that it isn’t authentic and as much as we want it to be. It reminds me of Gibbin’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. When he wrote this, he was a man who didn’t like Christians or Christianity. In his book, he has a section on the Trinitarian Formula, 1st John 5:7. He rattled the British when he said that this passage wasn’t authentic, it isn’t in the earlier manuscripts. That was the late seventeen hundreds.

This is what Ehrman has been doing with his book ‘Misquoting Jesus’ and what he has done in interviews on radio and TV, etc. He almost always uses the story of the woman caught in adultery as his very first story. He does this as a calculated shock effect. People grasp when they hear him say that. It shows that people aren’t reading their Bibles. If you look at any modern translation and it will say that most ancient authorities don’t have that passage. I really think that the passage needs to be relegated to the footnotes. You need to hear these things from believing professors who can explain it.

Let me give you an epilogue that deals with the incarnation and inspiration. As Christians, our priorities should be on Jesus, but nowadays, things have gotten muddled. Partly, we can’t know Jesus apart from the Scriptures. Say that even if the Bible wasn’t inspired it would not be historically worthless. So, here is a text that I don’t think is inspired, but I think it is largely historically true. The incarnation demands us to do historical research, but many evangelical views of inerrancy argue against this. Textual criticism is one of those areas where we are really examining these things and it can brother us in so many passages that we have looked at. It can be a little shocking to your system and yet we are trying to deal with the evidence honestly because ultimately we are trying to honor Christ in the whole process. I want him to triumph in the end. The evidence and historical realities of what the text is about ultimately glorifies him and honors him in ways that are unimaginable. We cannot be the kind of people who say that we are going to hold with this form of text because I like these verses better. That doesn’t honor Jesus Christ and that is what we should be all about.

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