If you open your Bible to the Gospel of John, and turn to chapter 8, you are most likely to find a bracketed paragraph at the beginning, with a footnote saying: “the oldest manuscripts do not contain 7:53-8:11,” or something to that effect. This section of John’s Gospel is often called “the pericope of the adulteress,” (or, in Latin, pericope adulterae), and has been the subject of intense discussion since the time of St. Augustine.
As shocking as it may sound, most students of the New Testament today do not believe that this passage (or pericope) was originally part of this Gospel. Conservative scholar, D.A. Carson, writes matter-of-factly, “modern English versions are right to rule it off from the rest of the text (NIV) or to relegate it to a footnote (RSV).”
There are three reasons usually cited as to why this passage is not authentic to the Gospel of John. First, it seems to breakup the narrative flow between 7:52 and 8:12, as we briefly noted last Sunday. Secondly, the style and vocabulary of the story is uncharacteristic of the rest of John. For instance, we read of the “scribes” alongside “the Pharisees” – a typical duo in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, but never occurring in John. Thirdly, and most importantly, “the textual evidence,” Leon Morris writes, “makes it impossible to hold that his section is an authentic part of the Gospel.”
What is meant by “textual evidence”? Think of the Bible as a massive water reservoir on top of a mountain, with rivers and smaller streams flowing downhill in a vast and tangled variety of channels, that in turn fork into smaller streams and tributaries at various points as the water flows down toward the valley. The reservoir is analogous to the original documents of Scripture, as they were penned by the inspired authors (2Timothy 3:16). The diverse rivers, streams and tributaries represent the branches of various “manuscript traditions,” reflected in the copies, fragments, citations/quotes, and other “witnesses” to the biblical text throughout the centuries. These constitute the “textual evidence.” Each channel forks off into many branches at multiple points as they are transmitted through history. Some channels are more “stable,” while others splinter into a myriad, tiny streams/trickles. Or, to switch metaphors for a moment, think of a deep root system underground, or an elaborate family tree.
Here’s the problem, however. We don’t have direct access to the original documents (the so-called, autographa). As far as we can tell, they’re simply no longer in existence. Textual criticism is the scholarly work of reconstructing the original documents, to the best of our ability, by analyzing all the roots and offshoots of the family tree.
How many Greek manuscripts do we have to consider in New Testament (NT) textual criticism? Nearly 6,000! How many total manuscripts? The latest count is currently 24,000! And this doesn’t included the million plus references in the writings of the church fathers. This means the integrity of the New Testament has a remarkable and unprecedented support. This also means that NT text criticism has its work cut out.
Going back to John 7:53-8:11, the oldest manuscript evidence we have for this pericope as located in our modern Bibles is the so-called Codex Bezae (D), dating to the fifth century. That isn’t very old for NT text criticism. To make matters more complicated, there are other witnesses that locate our passage elsewhere in the Gospels: namely, after John 7:44, another after 7:36, another at the end of John’s Gospel (21:25), and still another places it after Luke 21:38.
All the variety strongly suggests to scholars that the passage is not an original part of John’s Gospel. However, scholars also acknowledge that the account of Jesus and the adulteress is ancient (possibly reflected in writings as early as the second century). More than that, there is an undeniably authentic “ring of truth” to the account, resulting in the conclusion of many that it is of “ancient character and undoubtedly historic truthfulness,” as NT scholar Merrill Tenney put it. In fact, many believe that early copyists introduced and preserved the passage because it was originally part of the primitive (oral) gospel tradition, stemming from the first century. Morris concludes: “Through out the history of the church, it has been held that, whoever wrote it, this little story is authentic.”
So, is 7:53-8:11 original to the Gospel of John? It would seem not. Is it an authentic account of Jesus’ life and ministry? We don’t know for certain. But it sure sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it?
Want to dig deeper? See here