I recently was on a plane to Indonesia for about 16 hours. One of the most joyful two hours of the trip was sitting beside a good friend from my church family discussing various things the Bible taught. One question we discussed at length was the passage about the woman who was caught in adultery in John’s Gospel (7:53-8:11). I dare say that this is one of the most famous stories of Jesus found in John’s Gospel. In my earlier days growing up, I heard more sermons on that passage than I can recount. My friend recently noticed that his Bible bracketed the passage off and included the following description: “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.” He wondered what to do with such a reality in light of our belief that the Bible is completely and wholly true. In this blog, I’d like to offer a few thoughts. First, I’d like to discuss why most modern translations include such a bracket around these verses. Second, I want to discuss how the inclusion of that story does not affect the truthfulness of the Scriptures.
Why are the brackets present in most modern translations? The answer is actually quite simple. This passage was not part of original copy of the Gospel of John (called the autograph). How do we know that? We know that for various reasons. First, while this story is present in many Medieval Greek manuscripts, it is almost completely absent from all earlier manuscripts. The earliest and best copies of the New Testament simply lack this story. Second, early copies of the New Testament in other languages exclude this story (Old Latin, Old Georgian, Syriac, and Armenian). Third, almost every early Church Father omits this narrative in sermons, homilies, devotions, and commentaries. They pass from 7:52 to 8:12 without mention of this story. Fourth, the story creates a huge chasm in the flow of John’s Gospel. 7:52 ends where 8:12 picks up. The story simply interrupts John’s Gospel and what he is trying to show about Jesus. Fifth, the story appears in different locations in later manuscripts of John (7:44, 7:36, and 21:25) and even appears in some manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel (after Luke 21:38). Sixth, many later manuscripts include textual markers and asterisks around the story to indicate that the narrative is likely not authentic. Last, and maybe most important, the style and syntax of the Greek text indicate that it likely isn’t from John’s hand. It reads and sounds different than the rest of his Gospel.
For the aforementioned reasons, it is safe to conclude that the story about the woman caught in adultery likely does not belong in John’s Gospel, especially where it is located. While the story is likely not a part of John’s Gospel, this does not mean that the story is inauthentic or untrue. Don Carson, a scholar who is an expert in John’s Gospel, writes, “There is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred.” Even the great textual critic, Bruce Metzger writes in his Textual Commentary, “The account has all the earmarks of historical veracity.” The tenor, tone, and teachings of the passage truly sound like they’re from Jesus. Similar stories floated around early Christian communities after the time of Jesus. The woman caught in adultery is an example of agrapha. Agrapha are sayings and stories of Jesus that are not found in the four Gospels. John himself records that Jesus said and did more than could be written down in one or even four Gospels (John 20:30, 21:25). Oral traditions of Jesus not contained in the Gospels occasionally were written down and said during sermons, homilies, lectionaries, and commentaries. Even other books of the Bible contain Agrapha. Paul quotes Jesus in Acts 20:35 saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The Lord’s Supper tradition Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 11:22 goes beyond the exact wording found in the Gospels. These two sayings are either absent from the four Gospels or add to them. Were they said? Of course. There’s no reason to doubt them. It makes sense that the early church would hold on to sayings of Jesus that weren’t written down in the Gospels.
Does the inclusion of the woman caught in adultery story mean the Bible isn’t true? Hardly. Honestly, why would it? The presence of extra-canonical sayings and teachings of Jesus does nothing to raise doubts of whether or not the Bible is true. We believe that the Bible is true because its writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit to communicate all that humanity needs to understand salvation and the character of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The original autographs of the Bible were completely errorless because the Holy Spirit superintended over the writing of the documents. God communicated what He so desired for people to know. The Bible is from God. It has authority. Just how is any of that affected if some sayings and stories of Jesus were not written down in the four Gospels? It does need to be said though that the story does not carry the same authority as the Bible. Yet, what the story teaches, other passages teach even more explicitly. Jesus is forgiving. Jesus is compassionate. The Jewish leadership is a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites. Jesus is the final and truest interpreter of the Law. Jesus has the sole right to judge people for their sin. We ought to avoid sin. These truths are taught by Jesus all throughout the Gospels. For these reasons and more, I have no problem with this episode being included within our Bibles, despite it being absent from the earliest manuscripts. I don’t think it poses a huge challenge for those who believe and teach (for good reason) that the Bible is true.