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!
There are a lot of reasons scholars give for this, and John Piper does a masterful job of explaining it all in this 2011 sermon. Briefly:
- It doesn’t appear in any of the manuscripts from before the fifth century AD.
- The style of the Greek doesn’t match the rest of John.
- It breaks up the flow of the text.
However, the tiny text footnote at the bottom of the page in the ESV 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:
At the End of John?
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) to Jerusalem.
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. If you put it there, the flow would be:
“And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.”
Luke 21:38 ESV
[insert John 8:1-11 material]
“Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to put him to death, for they feared the people.”
After John 7:36?
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.”
Here’s another reason this makes sense: 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.””
The Pharisees knew their scriptures. So they would know Isaiah 9:1 is the only time the prophets mention Galilee. Isaiah 9:1 reads,
“…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
Without the interruption of the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus seems to be saying to the Pharisees, Guys, I’m from Galilee, and I am the light of the world. If you follow Me, you won’t walk in darkness, but the Light will shine on you.
For John Piper and high-level scholars, the conclusion is that this beautiful story is not authentically part of John’s gospel, but instead is part of an oral tradition that was preserved for hundreds of years before it was inserted into the text. Basically, it really happened, it’s just that none of the gospel writers wrote about it. Its truth is consistent with the rest of Scripture, and its portrait of Jesus matches up with everything else we know about Him.
Now, if you are still with me after such a long and technical blog post, let me share where the Holy Spirit took me as I was thinking about this:
This is a story about a woman who is in a place she doesn’t belong. She is humiliated, shamed, possibly naked, surrounded by Pharisees and teachers of the law—men who are ready to stone her. She has no name, no history, no context. We know nothing about her except that she sinned. And these men interrupt Jesus’ teaching to try to make a point. Jesus doesn’t argue with them. His actions are His apologetic. His actions say to the woman and her accusers, I’m not concerned with your background or your context. No matter what has happened up to this point, you belong. Neither do I condemn you.
It fits, then, that modern day teachers of the law argue that her very story is in a place where it doesn’t belong. That it is an interruption without context. So they don’t want her story to be there.
Scripture doesn’t argue with the scholars. It simply presents the story without questioning whether or not it belongs. Her story, like the woman herself, belongs exactly where it is. Not in spite of the interruption, but because it is an interruption.
A glorious, grace-filled, redemptive interruption.
I think that’s the point.
For further reading:
Piper, John. Neither Do I Condemn You. Desiring god.org