Deep Dive: Textual Concerns in John 8:1-11
To start, you should know that tons of research has been done about this specific passage, and plenty of faithful Christians see this story as either the authoritative Word of God (such as RC Sproul) or, at the very least, as an account of an actual event (with John Piper, D.A. Carson, and Tim Keller among them). Based on scholarly consensus, though, we’re reasonably sure that 1. the Apostle John did not include this story in his original Gospel account and 2. this was an actual historical event documented by early Christians and included in John’s Gospel sometime later.
To take a step back, we need to know how something could get into a book of the Bible without coming from the author in the first place. In the days before the printing press literature was reproduced by hand, being copied over by scribes and, later, monks and nuns. It’s easy to understand how copy errors could occur, mistaking a “their” for a “there”, for instance. These were unintentional changes. Additionally, some scribes were sometimes inclined to make intentional changes to the text. Most often these were light edits to make reading easier; they would sometimes clean up “bad” grammar, or clarify just a bit the things they thought were unclear. We should see in this that, the vast majority of the time, they were trying to help people understand God’s word more fully.
Now, if the possibility of having mistakes and edits in scripture makes you a little concerned, we should take encouragement with just how productive all these scribes were throughout the years. Many of our other ancient works, like Thucydides’ History or Plato’s Republic, only exist in a few dozen or a few hundred manuscripts at most, and often times these manuscripts are from many hundreds of years after the originals were written. In contrast, we have something around 5,800 manuscripts of the New Testament, some from within a century or two of the original composition. As Piper points out in his sermon on John 8, “No other ancient book comes close to this kind of wealth of diverse preservation.”
All of those copies help us keep up with where the copy edits and changes have happened, which are well known and documented. Not only that, we have writings from early church leaders, some of whom were direct disciples of the Apostles, that include scriptural quotes which verify our understanding. As RC Sproul puts it in a sermon, believing that such changes gives us an unreliable Bible is like saying a bomb set off in the Department of Weights and Measures in Washington, D.C. would ruin forever our knowledge of how long a yard is. There are sufficient yard sticks in our country, fashioned off the standard from the one in D.C., that we could figure it out. That is to say, the wealth of manuscripts and early writings helps us be sure that what we have in our hands is a reliable copy of God’s Word. Over and above this careful scholarship, we have Sovereign God in control of every step along the way, guiding our careful attention to his word.
Now, maybe this type of scholarship is a little dry to you, but it comes in real handy when you come up against issues like this. We can all be thankful for the hundreds of years of scholarship that has gone into producing our Bibles.
So maybe you’re wondering, how could a full story getting added into the Gospel of John? That’s quite a bit more than a copy edit. As far as we can tell, this is a story taken from an oral account passed down by Jesus’ disciples that was not originally a part of John’s Gospel account. Which, John himself addresses how something like this could be left out in the very last verse of his Gospel. John 21:25, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did.” None of the four Gospels are an exhaustive account of Jesus’ life. Out of Jesus’ 33 years on earth we only have a selection of the things he did and said, a selection picked by the Gospel writers to most clearly articulate who Jesus was. So this story was originally left out of the four original Gospels along with countless other stories, as John explains.
Now, there are a lot of signs that point to the story of the woman caught in adultery as having been a real event. Firstly, two early church sources, Papias and the Didascalia, reference this story, and Papias was a fellow disciple alongside Polycarp, who was a direct disciple of John the Apostle. Second, this story has all the hallmarks of being consistent with Jesus’ ministry and Scripture as a whole; Jesus’ care for the woman, his careful turn of phrase in verbal combat, and his pattern of teaching in the Temple courts all reflect his ministry, and the story is in fulfillment of the prophecy about the Messiah that “a bruised reed he will not break” (Isaiah 42:3). Lastly, this story resembles other stories from Jesus’ actual ministry by the details. A fictional story tends to include details that are either metaphorical or explained. It is very like a Gospel story to include details like Jesus writing in the dirt without explaining any further. In this case we don’t have any given reason or explanation of what exactly he wrote, but the detail is still included (twice). This passage brings with it all the telltale signs of being a real account from Jesus’ life.
This story was most likely recorded early on and handed down by the early church. Remember, the Bible has only been a bound book for part of the church’s history; early Christians were working with copies of letters and scrolls, oral readings, and later on would often break out parts of scripture for specific devotionals through the year (usually in lectionaries). So sometime likely in the 4th or 5th century the early church decided to include this story, which had been handed down to them by eye-witnesses, in John’s Gospel here in chapter 8. Beyond that we can only speculate as to what happened. So while this story was most likely not part of John’s original Gospel, and thus it exists outside the canon of inspired scripture, as best we can tell this story still displays the authentic Jesus and is worth our time and attention. Thankfully, this story doesn’t present any challenge or change to major doctrines (Jesus doesn’t say, “Adultery is fine!” for instance), so it’s pseudo-authoritative state doesn’t harm our theology or belief in any way.