Some Final Thoughts on John 7:53-8:11

A few weeks back I posted an article that argued against preaching John 7:53-8:11. It built on an older piece, outlining some of the major concerns over the authenticity of that passage. Following the more recent post, I became embroiled in quite a fierce argument about the points I had made. At numerous points in that conversation I received the somewhat undesirable label of ‘heretic’.  My views were also blamed for the apparent exodus we are seeing in the contemporary church. But as it turns out, dialogue is a great way to test and develop your thinking. So in this post I will simply summarise and comment on a few of the things said in the exchange—or inquisition. 

Life of ChristI would like to start with an interesting detail many commentaries on John point out. Some of the early church fathers – including Augustine – suggested that the short narrative about the women caught in adultery was intentionally redacted from earlier manuscripts of John’s Gospel. They surmised that this was done because the short narrative might result in loose sexual ethics, even the condoning of adultery. And they were worried about the fidelity of their wives. Earlier this year I actually came across a church in Cape Town which cited John 8:7 in a campaign supporting prostitution. So perhaps the church fathers were onto something. But my purpose in referring to this historical tidbit is that my angry interlocutor – we will call him Gregory – made a similar claim about John 7:53-8:11.

Gregory wrote, “When manuscripts are copied by learned scribes, they are copied exactly as received, except when they deliberately leave out certain portions for whatever their reasons may be” (italics mine). He then gave some examples from the Old Testament, which were interesting but irrelevant to this conversation. Then he continued, “Just because some passages are excluded in many ancient manuscripts does not mean the passages were not included by the original manuscripts. That is the point you might need to ponder my friend. Do not wonder about the reasons they are included, wonder about the reasons someone might have deliberately abstained from allowing them to be included.” In short, scribal tampering – both deliberate and unintentional – only involves the removal of a passage or verse and never the addition or insertion of another.

Assuming Gregory is right about the transmission of manuscripts – which he certainly isn’t – his argument goes something like this: in the 2nd or 3rd century, scribes reading through John’s Gospel thought, “Oh no, in this story Jesus calls out hypocrisy. We better remove that one.” In other words, the narrative was removed because, during the transmission of John’s Gospel, scribes were concerned about the possible ramifications these verses might have. But what aspect of this passage was deemed so dangerous as to warrant its eradication? Gregory could not answer me. Because I’m not sure there is a convincing answer to that question, especially when we consider that throughout the four Gospels Jesus emphatically rebuked hypocrisy; warned his hearers against being judgmental; and showed grace in accommodating sinners. It is hard to see how this text stands apart from countless others in the Gospels. Therefore it is nonsensical that it was omitted because editors were concerned about this specific passage while overlooking those themes patently pervasive throughout Jesus’ teaching.

At another point in our conversation I was warned using the words of Revelation 22:18-19, ‘If anyone adds to this prophecy, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from these words, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city’ (paraphrased). Can you believe that the apostle John warned against making additions to the prophecy? Everyone knows that scribes only make subtractions from texts. Redundant warning aside, I replied by showing that this verse actually cuts both ways. Both those who would add to Scripture as well as others making subtractions are threatened. This exchange is evidence of the petulance that plagued mine and Gregory’s interaction. But if you cast the first stone, be aware that you may get some thrown back at you.

The shrill statement that I repeatedly heard was that most Bible’s do include the narrative. So, regardless of its contested manuscript evidence, we should accept it as Spirit inspired and authoritative. Let me briefly outline two points I made in response to this ‘evidence’. Firstly, I have English translations that include the Apocrypha. Closer to home, what do we do with the longer endings of Mark’s Gospel? Just because these texts can be found in modern Bibles does not grant them the status of Scripture. Secondly, every single English version I have consulted provides a note about the textual issues concerning John 7:53-8:11, including the passage in double square brackets. As I said to Gregory: the fact that after 2000 years we enjoy near unanimous agreement about the New Testament canon apart from John 7:53-8:11 (and the longer endings of Mark’s Gospel) should cause us to wonder why these uncertainties remain. So I wrote, “The significant lack of manuscripts in support of this section cannot be ignored by blocking your ears and shouting loudly that it was in some.”

Let me conclude using the words of another heretic, John Piper, writing at Desiring God, “Who doesn’t love this story? But that does not give it the authority of Scripture. So what I will do is take its most remarkable point and show that it is true on the basis of other parts of Scripture, and so let this story not be the basis of our authority, but an echo and a pointer to our authority, namely, the Scriptures, that teach what it says.”

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.

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.

Rediscovering the Art of Biblical Narrative

Art of biblical narrative revised and updated“Religious tradition has by and large encouraged us to take the Bible seriously rather than enjoy it, but the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history” (p235). So ends Robert Alter’s seminal contribution to biblical literary criticism, The Art of Biblical Narrative. Since finishing Alter’s masterpiece last year I have wanted to highlight a selection of invaluable points he makes with regards to how we: read biblical narrative; navigate and answer theories of textual criticism; and fully appreciate the Old Testament’s rich theology.

1. A unified and sacred text

Alter’s approach to the Hebrew text treats it as “an intricately interconnected unity” rather than a patchwork of disparate documents (p11). It is tragically ironic that Robert Alter’s view of the Old Testament is higher than much modern Christian scholarship. Modern criticism has not only undermined Scripture’s cohesion but also blinded us to, “the manifold varieties of minutely discriminating attentions…the artful use of language…shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone, sound, imagery, syntax, narrative viewpoint, compositional units, and much else” (p13). For it has caused us to ask, not what the text has to teach us but rather, what these literary phenomena reveal about the history and formation of the text.

You might agree that Alter is right in pointing us to the minutiae as literary mechanisms, yet feel that modern criticism provides the only explanation for the glaring discontinuities, duplications and contradictions in the biblical text. But Alter argues that in order to reach “the fullness of statement they aspired to achieve as writers,” at times they violated what was later decided constitutes a canon of unity and logical coherence (p165), our assumptions regarding literary unity. And a littler later, he adds that we must recognise that “the Hebrew writer might conceivably have known what he was doing” while we do not (p169). What we construe as editorial error may very well be included for a literary function within a carefully crafted narrative, of “composite artistry.”

Blake - Garden of EdenAlthough Alter does not subscribe to the traditional Christian view of inspiration, he does hold revelation and the Hebrew text closely together saying, “With language God creates the world; through language He reveals His design in history to men” (p140). Alter sees this as the underlying assumption of biblical narrative: economically selected and specifically arranged language that does not merely convey the narrative events but serves as an integral and dynamic component in God’s intermittent self-disclosure and frequent non-disclosure. In summary, Alter views the biblical text as a divinely inspired vehicle, in the form of narrative, which addresses and confronts the reader. Modern criticism too often tends towards viewing the Bible as a rudimentary and careless collection of disparate texts, shoddily edited, whose only value in study is the development that led us to the final, albeit rough, product.

2. Critique of modern textual criticism

I have touched on textual criticism generally and will offer some of Alter’s more specific and smarting critiques. Christians and Jews have long regarded the Old Testament as a unitary source of divinely revealed truth, this was, however, before the advent of modern biblical criticism. Now, neither Alter nor myself advocate for some sort of ‘chronological snobbery’ when viewing the Scriptures, but Alter does highlight how the modern view, which readily assaults the idea of a unified text, often fails to consider the Bible with any literary interest (p17). Literary criticism suggests that sources are less important than the artistic and composite whole (p21). And I tend to agree since so much criticism is conjecture, whereas literary criticism looks at the text in its final form for answers.

2.i Source criticism

Alter points out how source criticism seeks to break the Bible into its constituent sources and link those pieces to original life contexts. The first problem with this approach is that a psalm is studied in terms of its hypothetical use at a point of Israel’s history rather than treated as an accomplished piece of poetry. Secondly, source criticism attributes repetition in the Hebrew text to a duplication of sources rather than effective and deliberate literary artistry (p218). When we fail to consider the Bible as literature we run the risk of inventing groundless hypotheses and losing sight of the biblical narrative’s power (p19).

2.ii Redaction criticism

Santa Maria Maggiore“Redaction criticism,” writes Alter, views the Old Testament with a kind of “modern parochialism,” which condescendingly preconceives the ancient text (along with its editors) as simple, because it differs in so many respects to modern works (p23). Alter challenges us to escape the modern provincialism that assumes ‘ancient’ means crude and says we would do well to consider the possibility that whoever gave shape to the integrated text chose to combine versions, perhaps even demonstrating something about his subject with style or content that appears contradictory (p181). Literary criticism, on the other hand, compels the reader to recognise the complexity and subtlety with which it was formally and consciously organised, as artful discourse. What the modern reader might consider contradictory, based on the assumption that the ancient Hebrew writer or editor was inept and unperceptive, may simply have been viewed as superficial in the editorial process; or, as I have repeatedly emphasised, deliberate (p172).

2.iii Postmodernism

Finally, for now, Alter dismisses the postmodern panoply, death of authorial intent, and the rise of reader response. He does not presume to supply a fixed and absolute meaning for any literary text and we would be wise to assent, since narratives are nuanced and elusive in their meaning depending on who is reading them. Yet Alter rejects the contemporary agnosticism about all literary meaning in favour of considering a range of intended meanings (p222). These meanings are anchored in the unified and carefully written, arranged and edited Old Testament Scripture.