passage in the Gospel of John (John 7:53-8:11)
At the onset, it must be emphasized that no variant of Scriptures, including the aforementioned and few major ones such as this passage in John, introduce or contradict any doctrine of Scriptures. As such, with or without the passage, every doctrine of Scriptures can be taught utilizing other passages. This alone displays God's hand in preserving His word and making sure that we got the meaning and intent of all He wanted us to know. The Bible is a result of the action of a God who is sovereign over time and history, a God who could have once-for-all engraved His word on the side of Mount Everest, but instead chose to use fallible humans throughout time. In so doing, the infallible and perfect God shows that His word transcends time and fallen creation - rooted in His unchangeable self.
Some modern scholars and translators easily and readily dismiss this passage in John as if it has no valid history or place in Scriptures. By some of these textual critics, you would wonder why anyone would still have this passage in their Bible. In fact, some modern translations have functionally abandoned this passage in John, at best relegating it to a footnote. This is precisely why a detailed consideration of the evidence is in order. The following charts are heavily focused on materials of the 5th century and earlier, with some additional references spanning the centuries which followed. Even more are located in the footnotes...
Evidence against John 7:53-8:11 (Manuscripts without)
Evidence for John 7:53-8:11 (Manuscripts including, or referring, to this passage)
Evidences for being unsure about John 7:53-8:11
The New King James Version, while acknowledging that some dispute this passage, tries to turn their footnote into a reason for inclusion.
The NKJV claim of more than 900 supporting manuscripts must be properly understood; there certainly are that many but a majority of them are not the oldest as can be seen from the evidences presented earlier. Likewise, not all of them have the passage appearing in the same location after John 7:52.
If the Roman Catholic Church had stayed the predominate church there would likely never have been a question over the inclusion of this passage in John, even though they held a number of manuscripts that did not have it, or called it into question. Why? That church for more than a thousand years had used manuscripts based on Jerome's Latin vulgate, which included the account. Ironically, it was the Protestant Reformation, with its call for people to read Scriptures, and its subsequent drive to make sure that the Bible was translated properly into common languages such as German and English that led to searching out manuscripts in the original languages.
The 16th century saw many Western European scholars, both Protestant and Catholic, working to recover the most correct Greek texts of the New Testament, rather than relying any longer solely on the Latin Vulgate translation. All quickly noticed that a number of early manuscripts lacked this portion of John's gospel and than many more manuscripts were marked to note the dubious stature of its inclusion in John. Moreover, it was also noted that in the lectionary of the Greek Church, the weekly reading for Pentecost was set for John 7:37 to 8:12 but omits the twelve disputed verses. All this evidence restarted a debate that appears to have existed many times throughout history and certainly in the minds of specific scribes and translators.
The primary question remains: is this passage true and is it to be accepted as Scriptures? Certainly the internal evidence display characteristics of being a true story; most will agree with this.
People who make up stories tend to have way too many details or are completely vague with virtually no specifics. Here this passage has all the details that one would expect from an eye-witness. For example, someone on the sidelines would record Jesus writing on the ground, but not specifically what He was writing. Certainly this account is in harmony with how Jesus is characterized and acted throughout the gospels. It is most probable that this was an authentic episode in the life of Jesus.
If this passage was a forged or invented account, a huge question would be "why?" Unlike the Gnostic and heretical forgeries that arose in the time of the apostles and continued into the first centuries of the church, this account does not contain any new and aberrant doctrine, nor does it contradict any other teaching of Scriptures. In fact, if it was created by a heretic, it has never surfaced in any heretical or alternative gospel. There is no evidence that it is a fraud. As a true account, the next question is whether it belongs in Scriptures or not.
John makes it clear that Jesus did other things that were not recorded in His gospel, indeed in any gospel. The purpose God had in having some events recorded was to give us sufficient information so that we could know about and believe in Jesus. Our passage, under consideration, does not reveal anything more about Jesus than what we can establish elsewhere in canonical Scriptures.
Church tradition is the number one appeal made by many in fierce opposition to those who would remove this passage from Scriptures. "Our Bible has had this for so many years, this tradition must stand." If we use this as a valid reason, why shouldn't apocryphal books also be accept by those who treasured them for many years? Tradition is a fallible interpreter of what is Scriptures, prone to being misused by emotion and self-serving purposes. There must be a higher standard. And there is...
The basis by which New Testament books were recognized as being God's word, part of the canon of Scriptures, was a four part measure or test:
While this test was normally applied to complete books, exposing many Gnostic works and forgeries and fraudulent works to not be part of God's word, the unusual nature of this specific account requires the test to be applied separately to John 7:53-8:11. Consider, again, that historical evidence has this account being circulated apart from John, in various places within John, in Luke, and perhaps earliest of all in Matthew.
As for part one of the test, what do we know of the authorship of this passage? The earliest evidence attributes it to an apostle, specifically Papias may be referencing Matthew (see End Note 2), but unquestionably it was attributed and accepted as being apostolic. This apostolic attestation is unwavering throughout the early church fathers that knew of the passage. Though it appears that many did not know of it, theirs is an argument from silence. This cannot be considered as valid evidence against as those fathers may have merely been unfamiliar with it, as was common to many New Testament works, in some parts of the church, in the early days.
Though this fragment has been attached to the gospel of John, throughout most of church history, it does not detract from the understanding that it is apostolic. In fact, as an untitled un-autographed work, it is no different than the book of Hebrews, which is still accepted as having apostolic origin even though there are many who now question who the author was. The earlier church, until the reformation, uniformly held it to be Paul. (We consider the book of Hebrews in our seminar on the Bible!) It's the earlier evidence that became the basis for a passage's initial acceptance and must also be for this addition to John.
Part two of the canonical test easily vindicates John 7:53-8:11. It unquestionably does not contradict any earlier Scripture, indeed all other Scripture, and displays all the attributes of being a true account.
Before considering part three, part four of the test can also be easily affirmed. This account of Jesus and the sinful woman unquestionable shows itself to be different from other literature, a beautiful account, in harmony with the authoritative accounts of the apostles which revealed the person of Jesus Christ. It bespeaks of the authority of Jesus in administering God's grace and Law.
This leaves part three of the test... Was it recognized by all of God's church, east and west? Papias was in the area of modern Turkey, in the Eastern Church, yet it appears that this pericope first circulated mostly in the Western church, perhaps carried there at an early date by an influential traveler. It's acceptance in the Western Church became widespread and indeed virtually universal in the centuries which followed. In this, it deserved consideration and acceptance by the whole church within the test. Though its acceptance was fragmentary in the Eastern Church, it increased throughout the centuries, certainly taking longer than the acceptance of whole books, but it did gain that acceptance in all but some very small branches of the Eastern Church End Note 3. I believe that this qualifies as acceptance of the church, as a majority of the church, East and West, did accept and include the passage End Note 9.
Later questioning of Erasmus, Calvin End Note 4, and many post reformation Bible scholars, must not detract from the fact that this passage met the test of being canonical Scriptures. If a passage is Scriptures, it is always Scriptures. Some will always arise, for various reasons, who will dispute portions and books of Scriptures. Unlike the longer form of 1 John 5:7, which does not have valid history or meet the canon test, this passage is Scriptures.
It is regrettable that this account has been moved about in its position within Scriptures, but book order or positioning was never part of the Canon or inspiration. Book order and division has changed repeatedly throughout history and it does not detract from the message of God's word. Perhaps it would have been far better that this account had been held as a separate document from the very beginning. It may have been so small that it was added to gospels to keep it from being lost, and there was early knowledge that it had come from a gospel author. Regardless, its present traditional position within the gospel of John does not alter the message of the passage, or the passages prior and following.
I believe that is safe for Bible publishers to specially mark the passage, as it has been in many manuscripts throughout history, if for no other reason that to show that it likely was not part of John's gospel at this location in the original. Unfortunately, most readers lack understanding of the issues behind this passage, and therefore do not understand what the marking or comments mean. Notations that state "no early manuscripts", or "the best manuscripts", to not have this passage cause a majority of readers to doubt that it should be included at all. Perhaps a better system of noting this passage must be developed or, in the least, a more comprehensive write-up should be given.
At one seminar I was publicly asked, "Would you preach from this passage in John?" My answer is unquestionably "yes!" It's God's word - I stand by the evidence and the canonical test.
1. The physical manuscripts of A and C are damaged in regards to this piece of the Gospel of John; but it is certain, from the precision with which the quantity of text in each page of these manuscripts can be calculated, that they could not have contained these twelve verses.
2. According to Eusebius, we are told that Papias transmitted a similar account; "Papias also put forth another history concerning a woman accused of many sins before the Lord; and this history is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews." (Ecclesiastical History 3.39). This was not an obscure reference to some pseudo or Gnostic gospel, rather it may have been a general references to the gospels as a whole beginning with Matthew (as the primary one), or, perhaps, to the gospel of Matthew in specific.
Eusebius, who didn't care for the unlearned format of Papias' writings, does note that Papias used the gospels written under the authority of the Apostles: "The same writer used quotations from the first Epistle of John, and likewise also from that of Peter, and has expounded another story about a woman who was accused before the Lord of many sins, which the Gospel according to the Hebrews contains." He also elsewhere recorded that Papias stated "Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language". This makes it probable that Papias was attributing the account of Jesus and sinful woman specifically to the gospel of Matthew.
Irenaeus in his work, Against Heresies (circa 180 A.D.), likewise says "Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church." Modern scholars lightly dismiss these early claims, to the gospel of Matthew having been written in Hebrew, because it "was written in Greek." This assertion is based on their best calculations and observations. Some have gone so far as to say that the present gospel of Matthew could not have been by Matthew, since they accept that his was written in Hebrew and this one, in Greek, could not be a translation of that one.
The evidence of the early church is that Matthew's gospel was an early one, written in Hebrew and later circulated in a Greek edition. Beyond Papias and Irenaeus, as mentioned above, others testified to the same:
Origen (lived 185-254 A.D.) wrote in his commentary on Matthew that he accepted "the traditional view of the four gospels which alone are undeniably authentic in the church of God on earth. First to be written was that of the one-time excise-man who became an apostle of Jesus Christ - Matthew; it was published for believers of Jewish origin, and was composed in Hebrew letters/language. Next came that of Mark, who followed Peter's instructions in writing it ... Next came that of Luke, who wrote for Gentile converts ... Last of all came John's." (Cited in Ecclesiastical History 6.25).
Jerome (circa 392 A.D.), in chapter three of his De Viris Illustribus says "Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered, a city of Syria, who use it."
Jerome also mentions that he made translations of the Hebrew gospel of Matthew into Greek and Latin. Some have speculated that this was a completely different gospel than the one we have today, yet, if this was true, Jerome would have been diligent to note this and list it either among the canonical books or the multitudes of non-canonical books that he was aware of. Indeed, the second chapter of Jerome's commentary on the canonical book of Matthew states that the Hebrew copy of Matthew and the Greek edition were of the same subject, something that modern scholars, with an absence of the texts to examine, presumptuously assure us to be in error.
Other church fathers, such as Athanasius (lived circa 293-373) in his Synopsis of Sacred Scriptures and Epiphanius (lived circa 310 or 320-403) in his Panarion (also called Against Heresies), also speak of Matthew first being composed in Hebrew. Significantly, some of the earliest fragments of this gospel in Greek show a Jewish influence. The name of name of Jesus was written in an abbreviated form, as Jews commonly did with God's name in Hebrew. Certainly this implies that the author of Matthew was Jewish and the gospel was of a very early date (as this was not common practice in the gentile church).
Internal evidences also show a close affinity to Hebrew thought. For example, Deuteronomy 6:5 divides man into "heart, soul and might". Matthew alone retains this Hebraic three-fold imagery (Matthew 22:37), with later writers Luke (Luke 10:27) and Mark (Mark 12:30) utilizing a Greek four-fold imagery to full translate the sense and meaning for Gentile readers. As an apostle of Jesus, Matthew had no need to copy from Mark, as many scholars now widely speculate; he wrote with more and very specific Hebrew detail as one who was there. Others have written of this in more detail so I will end by merely listing a few of the passages where a more Jewish emphasis exists in Matthew's gospel: Matthew 24:20 versus Mark 13:18; Matthew 5:18 versus Luke 16:17; Matthew 10:5; Matthew 15:24; Luke 20:46 and Mark 12:38-39 versus Matthew 23:2 onward).
3. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses a New Testament based upon the Byzantine type text, meaning it includes John 7:53-8:11. The Syrian Orthodox and Maronite Churches, have never included John 7:53-8:11; their translation is based on Peshitta manuscripts that did not have it from antiquity.
Codex Regius (L) from the 8th century, Codex Athous Laurae (Psi, circa 800 A.D.), Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus (N), Codex Macedoniensis (Y), Codex Sangallensis (Delta) and Koridethi (Theta, from the 9th century) and Codex Monacensis (X, from the 10th century); Uncials 0141 and 0211; Minuscules 3, 12, 15, 21, 22, 32, 33, 39, 63, 96, 124, 134, 151, 157, 169, 209, 228, 297, 388, 391, 401, 416, 431 (added by a later corrector), 445, 470 (added by a later corrector), 565, 578, 584, 703, 723, 730, 731, 741, 742, 768, 770, 772, 776, 777, 788, 799, 800, 827, 828, 843, 896, 1100, 1178, 1230, 1241, 1242, 1253, 1333, 1424 (added by a later corrector), 2193 and 2768; a majority of lectionaries
9th century Codices Boreelianus (F), Seidelianus I (G), Seidelianus II (H), Cyprius (K), Campianus (M) and Nanianus (U); Codex Tischendorfianus (Lambda) from the 9th century; Minuscule 28, 318, 700, 892, 1009, 1010, 1071, 1079, 1195, 1216, 1344, 1365, 1424 (as corrected), 1546, 1646, 2148, 2174; the Byzantine majority text; lectionaries 79, 100 (John 8:1-11), 118, 130 (8:1-11), 221, 274, 281, 411, 421, 429 (8:1-11), 442 (8:1-11), 445 (8:1-11), 459; some ancient Syriac manuscripts, most Bohairic Coptic manuscripts, some Armenian manuscripts, and ancient Ethiopian manuscripts.
7. Ambrose (circa 374), in a sermon on David's sin, said: "In the same way also the Gospel lesson which has been read, may have caused no small offense to the unskilled, in which you have noticed that an adulteress was brought to Christ and dismissed without condemnation . . . Did Christ err that He did not judge righteously? It is not right that such a thought should come to our minds..."
9. The Eastern Church selected nine of the twelve verses from this passage in John to be publicly read on St. Pelagia's day each year, October 8. This practice dates back to the earliest written records of the practices of this church. Obviously the Byzantine type text that included this passage was known to the people from quite an early period, regardless of the general silence of most early Greek scholars on this passage or lack of use at Pentecost.
10. Spanish father Pacian (c. 370) appealed to this pericope when protesting against excessive severity in discipline. "Are you not willing," he asked, "to read in the Gospel that the Lord also spared the adulteress who confessed, whom no man had condemned?"
11. That some Lectionaries have the passage in part, in full, or not at all, cannot be taken as definitive proof that the passage was known or not known. Many churches read the passage surrounding this, in John, at Pentecost. Obviously the account of Jesus and the sinful woman did not fit into the theme of Pentecost. In many Lectionaries, it is probable that there was an intentional omission of this passage to suit the theme for that Sunday. This may also explain why some of the Greek fathers did not comment on the passage, as they commenting primarily on the surrounding passage in light of Pentecost, as practiced in their churches.
12. Augustine, after citing the phrase of Christ, "Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more," wrote: "This proceeding, however, shocks the minds of some weak believers, or rather unbelievers and enemies of the Christian faith: inasmuch that, after (I suppose) of its giving their wives impunity of sinning, they struck out from their copies of the Gospel this that our Lord did in pardoning the woman taken in adultery: as if He granted leave of sinning, Who said, Go and sin no more!" (Augustine, De Adulterinis Conjugiis) Another has translated part of this foregoing statement as: "Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord's act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if he who had said, Sin no more, had granted permission to sin."
13. A living language is one that is still in use and spoken by a diverse group of people. A dead language is one that no longer is spoken as a day-to-day language. Living languages continue to evolve and change over time, even as the English language has changed dramatically over the past 500 years. A dead language no longer changes and all words are defined by their original or former usage.
Article by Brent