Textual Criticism of John 7:52-8:11

“Textual Criticism” studies the reliability of the Biblical text. How close is it to the original autographs? This field of study assesses that body of evidence to discover the most authentic text of the Scriptures. It is a technical process in the world of Biblical academia.

Why is Textual Criticism so important? First, all the autographs of the New Testament books have disappeared long ago. An “autograph” is a manuscript penned by the author himself. For example, the original letter written by Paul and sent to the church at Rome: the letter to the Romans. The original scrolls are long gone and unfortunately the process of copying was not perfect.

The oldest manuscripts were called Uncials. They were in all caps, no punctuation, and no spaces between words. There are about 250 of these in existence. They were carefully copied by scribes of the highest level for accuracy. The four most complete and well-known uncials are Codex Sinaiticus, Bezae, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus (4th-5th centuries).

Textual critics are needed to study the various multitude of manuscripts. There are over 5,600 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Over 2,500 Greek lectionaries containing extensive portions of the New Testament. These are scriptures written down for reading in church services. Manuscripts of the New Testament in languages other than Greek amount to 19,284. By the third and fourth centuries the New Testament was translated into Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, etc. There are also translations into Latin, Ethiopic, Gothic, Arabic, Persian, Slavonic, and Frankish. By translating backwards into Greek, scholars “recreate” the text originally used by the first translator.

Another source of evidence for use by textual critics is quotations from early Christian writings such as commentaries, sermons, letters, etc. Of these Metzger wrote, “if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, [quotations by early Christians] would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.”

Finally, Textual Criticism is essential in investigating the various passages which have been considered by some to be uninspired additions to the New Testament. Example of such passages include: The Eunuch’s Confession, Acts 8:37; Prayer and Fasting, Matthew 17:21; Chosen or Believed, Luke 9:35; One Thing or Few, Luke 10:42; Show Hands and Feet, Luke 24:40; The Two Sons, Matthew 21:29-31; The end of Mark, Mark 16:9-20; The Trinity, 1 John 5:7-8; and The Woman Caught in Adultery, John 7:53-8:11. It is this last passage which will be investigated here.

Example: The Woman Caught in Adultery, John 7:53-8:11

Arguments Against Inclusion in New Testament

Why do some argue against including John 7:53-8-11 in the canon of the New Testament? First, this passage is not found in some of the best and oldest manuscripts, such as: Sinaiticus – 4th century AD, Alexandrinus – 5th century AD, Vaticanus – 4th century AD, Ephraemi Rescriptus – 5th century AD, and Washington – 5th century AD.

Some other manuscripts include it with qualifications. This has led some modern English versions to question its inclusion. The American Standard Version leaves a space of about two or three lines before and after it, with a marginal note that most ancient authorities omit it. The Revised Standard Version prints it in italics in the footnote. The New English Bible prints it at the conclusion of the Gospel of John. The English Standard Version puts a disclaimer and then prints the text. Furthermore, it is not found quoted in some of the writings of the early Christians.

Some manuscripts place the passage in diverse locations in the New Testament. Some will have it after Luke 21:28 or after Luke 24:53 or after John 7:36 or after John 7:44. For some, “the diversity of placement confirms the inauthenticity of the verse” (Carson 333).

Other arguments against the validity of the passages pertain to the supposed disruption the story poses to the flow of the context. Finally, others claim it is incompatible with the linguistic style and vocabulary of the writings of John.

Although there is believed to be much to discredit the inspiration of this event in the Gospel of John, some scholars are willing to compromise. “On the other hand, there is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred, even if in its written form it did not in the beginning belong to the canonical books” (Carson 333) According to John Westcott, it “is beyond doubt an authentic fragment of apostolic tradition” (Westcott 125).

Evidence For Inclusion Into the New Testament

With all the evidence against the authenticity of this passage, is there any reason to support the inclusion of it in the New Testament? First, there are still many manuscripts which include it. A footnote in the New King James Version claims that this text is present in “over 900 manuscripts.” There are only 267 Greek manuscripts which do not include the passage. The oldest surviving Greek manuscript to preserve this text is the late 4th century bilingual parchment known as Codex Bezae.

Some well-respected English versions do include the story, such as, the King James, New King James, the New American Standard, and Zodhiates Hebrew/Greek Key Study Bible.

The story is also mentioned in the writings of the early Christians. Historian Agapius of Heirapolis in the 2nd century AD writes:”…he relates that in the book of John the evangelist there is a report about a woman who was an adulteress. When the people led her before Christ our Lord, he spoke to the Jews who had brought her to him: Whoever among you is himself certain that he is innocent of that of which she is accused, let him now bear witness against her. After he had said this, they gave him no answer and went away (History of the World). The passage is used in the Apostolic Constitutions (380 AD) to prove those Christians disciplined by the church and who later repent are to be accepted back into the fold. Around 370 Ambrosiaster speaks of Jesus having “spared her who had been apprehended in adultery.” Ambrose of Milan, around 386 in Epistle 26 written to Irenaeus claimed, “The acquittal of the woman who, in the Gospel of John, was brought to Christ accused of adultery, is very famous” (2) In 420 AD, Jerome wrote: “In the Gospel according to John in many manuscripts, both Greek and Latin, is found the story of the adulterous woman who was accused before the Lord” (“The Dialogue Against the Pelagians,” 2.27). Several others could be quoted who also support the story as part of the gospel narrative.

In contrast to those who argue the story of the woman caught in adultery disrupts the context, quite the opposite is true. John begins with the Jews trying to stone a sinful woman and ends with the same group attempting to stone the sinless Messiah. It also fits well with the controversy pattern found in the Gospel of John: “And they were saying this, testing Him” (8:6) There may be a reason why some would have wanted John 7:53-8:11 omitted from the Gospel.

In about 430 AD Augustine wrote: “Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord’s act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if He who had said, “sin no more’ had granted permission to sin” (“Adulterous Marriages,” 2.7). Hendriksen states: “Augustine definitely stated that certain individuals had removed from their codices the section regarding the adulteress, because they feared women would appeal to this story as an excuse for infidelity … asceticism played an important role in the sub-apostolic age. Hence the suggestion that the section (John 7:53-8:11) was actually part of John’s Gospel but (later) removed from it cannot be entirely dismissed.”

After all the pros and cons have been weighed, there seems to be reason enough not to remove from the pages of the Gospel of John, a story which fits well with the character and teaching of Jesus, does not violate any other passage of scripture, and supported by many manuscripts as well as early Christian writers.

– Daniel R. Vess

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Categories: The Forum