You notice that John 7:53 to John 8:11 is either set off in brackets or is in a footnote. The reason for this is that most New Testament scholars do not think it was part of the Gospel of John when it was first written, but was added centuries later.
For example …
I think they are right. And this gives us a chance to spend a little while on the branch of Biblical Studies behind these judgments called Textual Criticism, and its implications for the trustworthiness and authority of the Scriptures. So let me summarize the reasons these scholars give for thinking this the story of the woman taken in adultery was not originally part of John’s Gospel, and then give some general thoughts about the science of Textual Criticism that helps make sense of the arguments.
The evidence goes something like this:
Now saying all that assumes a lot of facts that many of you simply don’t have at your fingertips. And nobody expects you to. This is a hugely technical field of scholarship that at the upper levels requires not only the ability to read ancient languages, but the ability to read them in kinds of ancient handwritten scripts that are very demanding. So let me give you just enough so that you can make sense of these reasons.
The New Testament that we know was originally written in Greek. The first printed Greek New Testament—that came off a printing press—was published by Erasmus in 1516. It turned the world upside down. If you want a great glimpse of this period and the heroism it produced, read David Daniell’s biography of William Tyndale.
This means that for 1500 years, the manuscripts of the biblical books were passed down to us through handwritten copies. This is how we have access to the actual words that the New Testament writers wrote with their very hands. None of those first original manuscripts is known to exist. Which is probably just as well, since we would probably turn it into an idol and charge money for people come worship.
So the books of the New Testament were preserved for us by faithful, hardworking copyists. Some of these copies were in a script called uncials (referring to manuscripts with all capital Greek letters), others were in a script called minuscule (referring to manuscripts with small Greek letters). A smaller number are called papyri because they are very early and written on the special paper-like material made from the Papyrus plant that was prevalent in the Nile Delta. One last group of manuscripts is the lectionaries—which were collections of texts for reading in public worship.
Now here is what’s amazing. The abundance of these manuscripts of the New Testament, or parts of the New Testament, as compared to the number of manuscripts for all other ancient works is simply staggering.
Compare those numbers with the manuscripts and partial manuscripts for the New Testament. These numbers are from the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Muenster, Germany, which is the most authoritative collection of such data in the world. There are 322 uncial texts, 2,907 minuscule texts, 2,445 lectionary portions, and 127 papyri, for a total of 5,801 manuscripts. These are all hand-written copies of the New Testament or parts of the New Testament preserved in libraries around the world and now captured electronically. No other ancient book comes close to this kind of wealth of diverse preservation.
What that wealth does is create problems and solutions at the same time. These copies do not all agree on what the wording was in the original manuscripts. So the more manuscripts you have, the more variations you find. On the other hand, the more manuscripts you have, the more control you have over which readings are the original ones. The more manuscripts you have, the more variations you find, and yet the more they tend to be self-correcting.
For example, if you had only two ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of John and one has the story of the woman taken in adultery and the other doesn’t, you would be hard put to choose. But if you have a hundred manuscripts of John, even though you may find more variations, you will be able to tell by the number and age and geographical diversity of the manuscripts whether the story was there or not. This is what the science of Textual Criticism has done with hundreds of variations in the manuscripts.
Here’s the way F. F. Bruce put it a generation ago: “If the great number of manuscripts increases the number of scribal errors, it increases proportionately the means of correcting such errors, so that the margin of doubt left in the process of recovering the exact original wording is … in truth remarkably small” (The New Testament Documents, p. 19).
But what is most significant for the reliability and authority of the New Testament is that the variations that Textual Critics are unsure of are not the kind that would change any Christian doctrine. For example, in our passage from John 7:53–8:11, no truth that this Gospel teaches is changed by omitting this story. Bruce says, “The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affects no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice” (The New Testament Documents, p. 20).
Nothing on this score has changed in the last generation since F. F. Bruce wrote in 1943, except, perhaps, that people like Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina, have become very popular in questioning the reliability of our New Testament to give us what the original authors wrote.
In 2006, Paul D. Wegner reaffirmed F. F. Bruce’s assessment (A Student’s Guide To Textual Criticism of the Bible, Downers Grove: InterVarsity): “It is important to keep in perspective the fact that only a very small part of the text is in question …. Of these, most variants make little difference to the meaning of any passage.”
Then he closes his book by quoting Fredric Kenyon: “It is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these discoveries and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God” (Frederic G. Kenyon, The Story of the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), p. 113, quoted in Wegner, p. 301).
So when I agree with the vast majority of scholars that the story of the woman taken in adultery was not in the Gospel of John, you should not think: “O my everything is up for grabs now.” Or: “How can I count on any text?” On the contrary, you can be thankful that God has, in his sovereign providence over the transmission process for 2,000 years, ordered things so that the few uncertainties that remain alter no doctrine of the Christian faith. That is really astonishing when you think about it, and we should worship God because of it.
Now the question is: What should I, the preacher, do with this story? Both Don Carson and Bruce Metzger think the story probably happened. In other words, they think this is a real event from Jesus’s life, and the story circulated and later was put in the Gospel of John. Metzger says, “The account has all the earmarks of historical veracity” (Textual Commentary, p. 220). And Carson says, “There is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred” (The Gospel According to John, p. 333).
- John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (2000–2014) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2014).