Should We Preach John 7:53-8:11?

Leonidas HerodotusImagine a Sunday morning at your local church. The band are leaving the stage while the reader makes her way up to the pulpit. She reaches the microphone and announces the passage, “This morning’s reading will be from Herodotus’ The Histories, 7:220-221.” After a brief pause, she says again, “The reading will be from Histories, book 7, verses 220 through to the end of 221.”

Yes, I know it’s hard to imagine the reading being so clearly prefaced, but this is a hypothetical situation. The reader continues, “You can find that on page 492 of our provided Herodotus, the 2003 Penguin edition.” After the passage is read your reader reminds the congregation, “This is the Word of God,” to which the congregation loudly respond, “Thanks be to God.” Then your pastor gets up, thanks the reader and begins, “Good morning Redeemer Church Muizenberg, today we will be continuing with our series in The Histories.” He introduces the three points from the passage just read:

  1. Leonidas had to persevere with his task
  2. Leonidas knew there was greater glory ahead
  3. Leonidas died to save his people

Unpacking these points from the text over the next 40 minutes, the pastor delivers a moving sermon on how the Christian must not give up, but keep striving forward. For we can know – as Leonidas did – that eternal glory and immortality is promised for those who persevere. Finally, all of this was achieved and secured for us by his prophesied death, which he went to willingly to save us. The problem that I hope you have with all of the above is that The Histories is not in the Bible. Sure, it might make for a great sermon. If I’m honest, I’m pretty pleased with my three points. Furthermore, if we ignore Leonidas, the sermon would be consistent with biblical truth. You could make all of those points from biblical texts. For all of these reasons, and a few more I will outline below, I think Herodotus’ Histories is a good analogy for why we should not preach John 7:53-8:11.

In a previous post on John 7:53-8:11, with the assistance of what is considered the best commentary on John’s Gospel ever written, I probed some of the concerns regarding this text’s authenticity and its inclusion in John. The first significant problem that must be faced is that the short narrative is found in a variety of textual locations, in both John and Luke. This raises serious questions over its reliability and Johannine pedigree. If we put that aside, because it does actually appear after John 7 more than anywhere else, we must answer another serious concern: the literary shape and argument of John 7 through John 8. In both chapters Jesus is involved in heated conversations with those who rejected his messianic claims, particularly the Pharisees. These two chapters of John are remarkably polemical, creating a quite unique unit within John’s Gospel. This makes the story about the woman caught in adultery awkwardly out of place—a misfit. Added to this, and here we must defer to Greek scholars, in just 12 verses we encounter a handful of constructions and expressions found nowhere else in John. To explore these arguments in more detail see my linked post (above).

When all of the above is considered, there is still no consensus about whether this story is part of John or Luke. The evidence we have is inconclusive. Despite the growing agreement that this passage is  actually native to Luke’s Gospel, based on its literary nature, the weight of documentary evidence still places it in John. This uncertainty is not inconsequential, especially for expository preaching that places a high value on literary context. Michael Gorman writes in Elements of Biblical Exegesis, “Context is so crucial to interpretation that it is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that if you alter the context of a word or sentence or paragraph, you also alter the content of that text.” Therefore where we place this short episode shapes how it should be read and understood. The insurmountable problem is we are not even sure it is currently in the correct Gospel.

Perhaps you can put these issues aside. Maybe you are hanging onto the fact that John 7:53-8:11 is historical. After all, significant and reputable New Testament scholars believe the evidence we have indicates that John 7:53-8:11 really took place. It bears the marks of an authentic historical event. The problem is, the church does not gather to hear about history but from God. Mentions of Jesus of Nazareth can be found in Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger and Tacitus, all of whom wrote towards the end of the 1st century CE, which is likely the dating for John. But we don’t preach sermons from those texts. I’ve heard the argument that, in addition to being historical, John 7:53-8:11 resonates with so much of Jesus’ teaching. But then so does Seneca the Roman philosopher and statesman. Historical pedigree is not the mark or measure of canonicity.

Should we preach John 7:53-8:11? No. You would not read the authors mentioned above and exegete their writings as Scripture, as God’s Word to his people. Despite liking the outline, I would not preach my three point sermon from Herodotus’ Histories. Similarly, which has been the contention of this post, we should not treat or handle John 7:53-8:11 as Scripture—this is not because of questions over its credibility but rather its canonicity.

Doodle: Did Jesus Decriminalise Sex Work?

Decriminalise sex workJust over a year ago, Central Methodist Mission (CMM), in partnership with a local organisation for sex workers, printed and hung a large yellow banner that read: ‘Jesus was the first person to decriminalise sex work (John 8:7)’. In case you are wondering, the verse goes, “As they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’”

As a student of theology I have encountered a fair share of embarrassingly specious proof texts yet this is arguably one of the best—and by “best” I trust you know I mean worst, not to mention one of the most laughable. Yes, I am aware that a church that officially offers outspoken support of prostitution is almost certainly unconcerned about what the Bible actually says. Yet I worry that their misreading of the biblical text and misappropriation of Jesus in support of something unequivocally unbiblical has resulted in some confusion. Briefly below I intend to offer some clarity to an issue where ideology and virtue signalling has eclipsed the truth about Jesus Christ. This will be done by thinking a little more about John 8:7.

Firstly, John 7:53-8:11 is a canonically disputed text. In other words, many of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts either do not include it or place it elsewhere, in both John and Luke. I know that issues surrounding manuscripts are prickly for those in the know and bemusing for those who are not. Basically, there are questions around the authority and place of this text. This should immediately cause us to raise questions over its use. But we might ignore these textual critical squabbles. If we treat the text as not only historical – which it might be – as well as inspired can we argue from it that Jesus decriminalised prostitution?

When we look at the text and read it as a whole we arrive at a second important point. In John 8:3 we are told that this woman was “caught in adultery” explaining why this text has traditionally been called the pericope adulterae. We might infer from the text that she was a prostitute but the argument is weak because the New Testament has another word for prostitute (see Matthew 21:31-32; 1 Corinthians 6:16). That word is not used here.

Thirdly, and the reason I used the word “laughable” earlier, in the last verse of this section Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (8:11). Yes, Jesus does not condemn the woman. However, even if she was a prostitute – which is unlikely – Jesus does not condone her lifestyle; he calls it sinful. One of my favourite authors often refers to “delicious irony,” and I am sure that citing John 8:7 to support the decriminalisation of sex work qualifies for that honour. By loading the text with very improbable details the end result is Jesus calling sex work or prostitution a sin that must be stopped. Remarkable.

This post is longer than I initially set out to make it. For that I apologise. Please allow me to make one final point, in conclusion. Writing in the 20th century, German theologian Karl Barth referred to God’s action as “disruptive grace.” It is an arresting phrase. Today grace seems to be treated by many as something God sprinkles over our lives, however we choose to live them. We think of it as a dismissive wave of the hand, granting permission while expressing love. But that could not be further from the biblical doctrine of grace or the effects of God’s love.

If we hold that John 7:53-8:11 belongs in Scripture then we should not miss the narrative’s climax. Jesus disbands the mob, bent on justice against a known sexual sinner. Whether she was a prostitute or simply promiscuous Jesus wants something better for her. But this is no mere escape from narrow-minded moralists; it is a story depicting the love of Christ that disrupts both the crowd and this woman’s life. As much as God’s love is not indifferent to how people are treated neither is he unconcerned with how you live. Jesus demonstrated an incomparable compassion and love, throughout the Gospels and ultimately at the cross. It is a sickening sleight of hand to reduce that love to unconditional affirmation . God loves us too much to let us go our own way, living in destructive sin. His grace is disruptive. His love is directive. “From now on sin no more.”

Should John 7:53-8:11 Be In Our Bibles?

Pieter Brueghel IIIn American Hustle, Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale’s character, says, “I believe that you should treat people the way you want to be treated; didn’t Jesus say that? Also, always take a favour over money; Jesus said that as well.” While this line is indicative of the wry humour that punctuates an otherwise tense film, it brought John 7:53-8:11 to mind. For that brief account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is very likely the most popular line of Jesus’ teaching, after “Do not judge” (Matthew 7:1). However, and quite ironically, most New Testament scholars remain unconvinced that it was originally part of John’s Gospel, making its authenticity tenuous.

I am not questioning the moral of the episode, though even that is often missed in addition to it being misattributed as most people vaguely familiar with it nearly always cite it as a proof text repelling correction, or ‘judgment.’ Anyone who has read the short story will know that Jesus is not saying, ‘Everyone sins and that’s OK,’ but rather, ‘Let no one can claim to be without sin.’ The point is not: since each of us is sinful we have no right to challenge others’ sin. Central to Jesus’ teaching is the call to repent from sin. Considering the context of John, a better reading of the text would conclude that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn (John 3:17; 12:47). More broadly, with the Gospels as our guide, we might understand Jesus to be challenging those who were confident in their own righteousness and therefore scorned Jesus’ emphasis on forgiveness. But this post is not an attempt to rescue the passage from misuse. I want to challenge its use, period.

C.H. DoddIn his magisterial commentary on John’s Gospel, D. A. Carson helpfully summarises some of the issues surrounding the text’s veracity. His point is much more useful than most English translations’ opaque, ‘Some manuscripts (MSS) do not include 7:53-8:11.’ He argues that while many of the MSS that include this story place it here in John’s Gospel, there is a diversity in placement; it can be found in other witnesses after Luke 21:38, John 21:25, and at a couple of different points in John 7. Carson concludes that this varation of placement strongly implies inauthneticity. If I can offer an analogy, the diversity of locations these verses appear in is suggestive of blindly pinning a tail onto a donkey, not the assuring literary reliability of the New Testament documents.

As Carson notes, those variations on the story’s location pale in comparison to its occurrence in John 7:53-8:11. Therefore, we must consider the nature of John’s Gospel and the literary context. C. H. Dodd, in his paradigm challenging commenary, shows how 7:1-8:59 holds together as a unit, “A series of controversial dialogues.” Jesus is unmistakably polemical, as John collects nearly everything Jesus said in reply to those who rejected his messianic claims. It is also worth noting that, either side of the pericope, Jesus’ exchanges are with the Pharisees. Dodd states that the unity of this larger section is seen in the sharp, sustained tone of controversy surrounding his identity. The Pericope Adulterae simply does not match it surroundings in John. Taking the literary point further, Carson writes, “Finally, even if someone should decide that the material is authentic, it would be very difficult to justify the view that the material is authentically Johannine: there are numerous expressions and constructions that are found nowhere in John, but which are characteristic of the Synoptic Gospels, Luke in particular.”

D.A. CarsonBringing all of the above together, the MSS weight forces us to place the story where it is most commonly found, in John 7:53-8:11. However, it fits neither the context nor the literary flavour of John’s Gospel. And this leaves those who would treat the story as authentic with the burden of evidence. I will conclude with an interesting thought offered by my wife: alongside the Synoptic Gospels, John’s Gospel is somewhat of an outlier. It is both strange and unique. Could we deduce that whenever it was inserted, the thinking was that it would go unnoticed? Another possibility, offered by Carson, is that the story was inserted as a tract, which illustrates 7:24 and 8:15; or contrasts the Jews’ sinfulness against Jesus’ sinlessness (8:21, 24, 46). Theories aside, I am convinced that we should not treat the episode as authoritative. Lest we start teaching that Jesus encouraged taking favours over money.