This past Sunday at Grace, we looked at the fascinating passage in John 8 where Jesus encounters a woman caught in adultery. He also encounters a bunch of self-righteous Pharisees. Both were in need, though from very different backgrounds and for somewhat different reasons. We saw in that passage that to encounter Jesus is to be exposed for all that you are and to reach out in embrace for all that He is.
But that passage comes with a major caveat, namely its debated authenticity as a part of inspired Scripture. To be clear: few people doubt that the event occurred as summarized in John 8:1–11. Few people doubt that its message from Jesus and its historicity match what we find elsewhere in the Bible. But many people doubt whether it belongs as holy Scripture in this part of John, in the Gospels, and indeed in the Bible itself. Those people are scholars with a high view of Scripture, so their cautions have credence. It’s worth our look, but some background is in order…
Our Bible, and our excellent English translations, are the product of God’s superintendence. That means we believe in His guiding hand as the written Scriptures were compiled and consolidated into the written form we now have. In many ways, the Bible represents an anthology, a Book of books. Specifically, we believe the Holy Spirit directed early congregations in the Church as they accepted and used certain writings as divinely authored. Their leaders later affirmed the 27 “books” (Gospels, Acts, letters, Revelation) of the New Testament as Scripture. That process and conclusion refers to the “canon” of the Bible, which means “to be accepted as standard.”
The New Testament is staggeringly unique among all ancient documents. All other ancient (Greek) manuscripts of famous works are numbered in the dozens or even single digits. Unlike those writings, today we have access to literally thousands of manuscripts — both whole and partial — containing New Testament writings. That means we have an abundance of source material which points to and validates the original New Testament documents which are no longer in existence. “No other ancient book comes close to this kind of wealth of diverse preservation.” 1 By comparing those documents, scholars are able to determine with a great degree of confidence what those original documents said, down to the “jot and tittle.” This comparison and conclusion of manuscripts is the science of “textual criticism.”
But a byproduct of having numerous manuscripts is that, well, you have a greater measure of diversity. From the time of the New Testament until the invention of the printing press — a span of about 1,500 years — all manuscripts were copied repeatedly by hand, thus increasing the likelihood for divergent readings. In other words, copyists made minor mistakes by leaving out or accidently adding letters, words, or even sentences. In rare cases, copyists may have inserted additional material — whether words, phrases, or sentences — in order to fit their emphases. With greater diversity comes more variants. But, providentially, we have so many manuscripts that such insertions, deletions, or mistakes are fairly easy for scholars to identify, explain, and remedy.
There are two places in the New Testament where a small minority of manuscripts insert a larger passage into the text of Scripture. Most manuscripts, including the most reliable ones, do not have those sections. We find that in the last part of Mark 16 (verses 9–20) and in the first part of John 8. The latter passage is our concern here.
In most of our Bibles, we find John 8:1–11. But we also find a caution for that section. In the New International Version, the note reads: “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53–8:11.” The text is even italicized to differentiate it from the rest of John. In the English Standard Version, the note reads: “The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53–8:11.” In the Holman Christian Standard Bible, we read: “Other manuscripts omit bracketed text.” These all highlight important textual problems with this passage. In short, most Greek manuscripts (copies), and the manuscripts of highest quality, do not have John 8:1–11.
So why is it there? Good question. I find the most convincing explanation as follows: The King James Version (1611) included this text based on the Greek manuscripts known and relied upon at the time. Even today, the King James Version has a pride of place as the “original” English translation of the Bible. It has the weight of tradition. But since then, scholars have found many more and far older New Testament manuscripts. The vast majority of scholars, including biblically conservative ones, have concluded that John 8:1–11 was not in the original writing of John. Even the grammar used in the passage isn’t consistent with the normal vocabulary that John used. That doesn’t mean the story didn’t happen. It almost surely did. That doesn’t mean the story is insignificant. It teaches a most important set of truths. It simply means that it probably doesn’t belong in John or even in our Bible as God-inspired Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). Noted evangelical scholar Don Carson concludes: “Modern English versions are right to rule it off from the rest of the text or to relegate it to a footnote.” 2
It appears that well-meaning scribes, and a few later Church leaders, thought the story to be so profound that they inserted it in the place where they thought it best fit. Profound the passage is. God-inspired Scripture it is probably not. To briefly summarize, the English Standard Version Study Bible says it well: “It seems best to view the story as something that probably happened during Jesus’ ministry but that was not originally part of what John wrote in his Gospel.”
So why even read it? Why preach it? Here’s why: the passage is, in all likelihood, the summary of a true story. The setting and doctrine of the passage is highly consistent with the rest of Scripture. The main point — that Jesus is full of grace and truth and calls all sinners to the grace and truth of God — comports splendidly with John’s Gospel and all of the New Testament. It provides a vivid illustration of the nature of God and the desperate, deep need of humanity. When we look at another, textually-undisputed passage like Luke 7 (as we did on Sunday), we see those same themes taught. In short, John 8 leans on other New Testament teachings for textual authority, but it stands up well as a reflection of Jesus’ character, pointing to His divine nature.
Finally, a word about our confidence in the Bible:
The original autographs are inerrant, but none of the original autographs are extant (in existence). What we have today are thousands of ancient documents and citations that have allowed us to (virtually) re-create the autographs. The occasional phrase, verse, or section may come under scholastic review and debate, but no important doctrine of Scripture is put in doubt due to these uncertainties. That the manuscripts are the subject of ongoing scholarship does not prove there is something wrong with God’s Word; it is a refining fire — one of the very processes God has ordained to keep His Word pure. A belief in inerrancy underpins a reverent, careful investigation of the text.3
You can trust the Bible you hold as God’s Word. And you can be grateful for stories that affirm it.
Mike Yoder and his wife, Letitia, moved to Columbus in 2011. He became the lead pastor after a decade of missionary service in Berlin, Germany and later working in cross-cultural leadership training. Mike has educational background in sociology and communications (Grace College), theology (Grace Seminary), and intercultural studies (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). In his free time, Mike enjoys basketball, water sports, travel, and being a news junkie. He also roots for all Chicago sports teams including the Chicago Cubs! The Yoders have four children.
2 Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 333.