Day 296: Making Sense of the Footnotes (John 8)

Through the Bible: John 7-8

The story of the woman caught in adultery is one of my favorite stories in the Gospels. So it causes me a lot of angst to read the big honkin’, all caps, bracketed statement in my ESV bible: THE EARLIEST MANUSCRIPTS DO NOT INCLUDE 7:53-8:11.

Noooo! Don’t take out my favorite story!

However, the tiny text footnote at the bottom of the page clarifies that it’s not that the story of the woman caught in adultery didn’t happen, but that it belongs somewhere else in the narrative.

The footnote gives three options for where else the story might fall. Some manuscripts have the story at the end of John. But this makes no sense narratively, because it places it after the resurrection, and would make the awkward jump from Galilee (where Jesus reinstated Peter, see Day 293).

One logical possibility is after Luke 21:38, placing it between the statement that Jesus taught early in the morning in the temple and the Pharisees plotting with Judas to kill Jesus.

Other manuscripts place the story after John 7:36. In this arrangement, 7:53-8:1 would come right after John 7:36. Thus, it would read:

36“What does he mean by saying, ‘You will seek me and you will not find me,’ and, ‘Where I am you cannot come’?”” Then they each went to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early the next morning…

Narratively, this seems to make more sense. It’s a logical thought progression from “where I’m going, you can’t come” to “so they went home.”

But second, imagine you are reading straight from 7:52 to 8:12, without the story of the woman. The Pharisees say, in 7:52, “Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” If you move the story of the woman caught in adultery, the next verse would be, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.””

Here’s why this matters. The Pharisees knew their scriptures. So they would know Isaiah 9 was the only time the prophets mentioned Galilee. Isaiah 9:1 reads,

“But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭9‬:‭1-2‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Follow the line of thought: the Pharisees claim that no prophet comes from Galilee. Jesus follow this up with the declaration that He is the light of the world, which would have reminded them of what was said the one time the prophets mentioned Galilee— that those who walk in darkness have seen a great light.

Jesus seems to be saying to the Pharisees, Guys, I’m from Galilee, and I am the light of the world. And if you follow Me, you won’t walk in darkness, but the Light will shine on you.

So again, don’t get me wrong: I love the story of the woman caught in adultery. And I am so glad that it is preserved in Scripture. But I agree that it is in the wrong place. If you move it back a few verses, it’s easier to see the connection between John 7:52 and John 8:12.

This doesn’t change the truth of the scripture AT ALL, and it shouldn’t in any way shake your confidence in the inspiration of Scripture. I just know that sometimes when we see text footnotes like this, it can be really confusing. So if that textual note caused you any heartburn, I hope this helped.

Author: James

I pastor Glynwood Baptist Church in Prattville, Alabama. I read a lot, write a little, and drink lots of coffee. I have three callings in life: surrender to Christ, be a husband to Trish, and be the best father/grandfather I can be. Everything else is an assignment, because everything else can be done by someone else.

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