I’ve previously written on this odd biblical topic, but thought it was worth exploring again this week in light of our sermon! You might notice an interesting preface to the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John 8. There are many ways bible translations phrase it, but here is how the NIV puts it:
The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53
So what’s the deal with this story? Should John 7:53-8:11 not be in our bibles? Why is it “missing?” Are some biblical translations wrong for including it? I’ve even read some (not many, but a few) bible scholars and pastors who argue that pastors should not preach from John 8 altogether!
To run the numbers, about 4% of old manuscripts of scripture do contain this story. Sometimes it is in John and other times the story shows up in Luke. This might cause readers nowadays to worry of have concern over authenticity. Did this actually happen? Why doesn’t it show up more?
We really need to understand the history of how the bible was formed in order to fully grasp this issue.
There are many fragments of writings from earlier dates, just like the Rylands Papyrus pictured above, but the year 200 is when we have the earliest complete “set” of a gospel. One option regarding John 8 is that perhaps this story could have been included in “earliest manuscripts”, but those parts were either destroyed or lost.
Most of the earliest complete manuscripts of fragments of John, dating to the 200-300s do not contain this story of the woman caught in adultery. Some bible scholars put forth the idea that perhaps this story was particularly scandalous, so the earliest of authors and copiers did not write it down! I’m not exactly sold on this view, but it still is an interesting one to consider—perhaps even we humans are uncomfortable with the kind of grace God offers.
Despite such a “low” appearance rate of 4%, it is notable that this story was found in other copies, among two separate communities of Christians—both Luke and John’s original audience.
I’ve written previously before about supposed “lost” verses in the bible, particularly with John’s gospel and a story about angels and healing. The main point of that exploration was that biblical texts sometimes evolve as they take shape. In the case of “lost” verses, I think the evidence is clear that someone compiling the gospel saw it fit to clarify something about the story. The fancy word for this is an interpolation, where someone inserts an editorial comment about what has just taken place. In John 5, there is a random detail about the angel stirring the water. I think cultural history clearly leads us to conclude someone working with John’s gospel wanted to emphasize that God was doing the healing, rather than pagan powers. Here’s how I concluded my previous post:
In my reading of passages like this one [John 5], I believe there is no significant theological difference. Most “added” verses in the King James simply provide more context to a biblical thought. There are no contradictions. In fact, the so-called “missing verses” of John simply add a bit of unique history for any student of the bible.
In the same manner, I believe John 8:1-11 falls into a similar category, too. As John’s gospel came together and was preserved a couple hundred years after Jesus, it was important to have everything organized into one cohesive narrative. Jesus clearly showed grace to others throughout John. Perhaps the story of the adulterous woman—undoubtedly shared among early Christians—was further evidence of Christ’s loving nature. Though it was not included in the first known copies of the gospel, leaders and scholars of the church were moved by the Holy Spirit to tell others about this impactful episode.
Jesus Christ shows us true forgiveness. His moral teaching through parables and discourse gives us an example of kingdom living. Jesus was not judgmental towards others. He sought to save the sick. He particularly enjoyed the company of sinners. The woman caught in adultery is yet another story of Christ showing humanity what God’s grace looks like.
For further reading on the topic of biblical origins, check below for some other posts: