The Mystery of the Missing Verses
As we walk through John, you will notice that John 7:53-8:11 is either in parenthesis or brackets in your Bible. Why?
The story of the woman caught in adultery is one of the most famous and beloved stories in the Bible. Truly one of the most dramatic displays of the radical grace of God and compassion of Christ we have, but it is also one of the most difficult passages for translators and textual critics to know what to do with.
Textual critics? Who are they?
Textual critics are academics who engage in textual criticism. Textual criticism is the science that gathers and compares all known copies of an ancient document in an effort to trace its compositional history, highlighting variations in an attempt to recover, as much as possible, the original form of a document. Think one-part expert in ancient languages, one-part archaeologist, and one-part Bible scholar. A text-critic is kind of like an Indiana Jones who only focuses on ancient manuscripts.
Why are they needed?
The need for textual criticism of the New Testament is due to three key realities:
1. The original manuscripts written by John, Paul, Matthew, Luke, etc. were written on papyrus and have perished.
2. For over 1,400 years the New Testament was copied by hand by professional scribes and many errors crept in, both intentional (with a view of “correcting” the text) and unintentional.
3. There are over 5,500 Greek manuscripts of the whole New Testament, over 2,300 copies of each of the gospels, as well as thousands of copies of ancient translations, quotations from church fathers, and no two manuscripts are exactly alike.
As New Testament scholar Gordon Fee says, “The task of textual criticism is to sift through all this material, carefully collating (comparing) each MS (manuscript) with all the others, in order to detect the errors and changes in the text, and thus to decide which variant reading at any given point is more likely to be the original.”
Key Points to Remember
Sometimes when Christians first hear about textual criticism it shakes their faith and confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible. Then academics like Bart Ehrman make a name — and a small fortune — for themselves by trying to shock uninformed evangelicals with the reality that we don’t have any of the “original” copies of the New Testament. Thus the acids of skepticism are poured upon the foundation of our faith; but here are a few key things to keep in mind:
1. When Christians are challenged by skeptics by the fact that we don’t actually have any of the “original” New Testament books, they are right. But they are also being very disingenuous. We don’t have the “original” of any ancient document ever written in the history of the world. None. All ancient works, meaning every book written in the world before the printing press, have a textual tradition, or a history of being copied by hand and passed by scribes from one generation to the next. Therefore, if someone expresses skepticism about the New Testament simply from the reality of a textual tradition, then, if they are intellectual honest and academically authentic, they must be skeptical about every ancient work in the world written before the invention of the printing press.
2. Text criticism is a necessary reality for every ancient document we possess, and there is simply no document on earth that has as many texts as the New Testament. Nothing in the world compares to the textual evidence we have for it. F.F. Bruce, in his excellent The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? compares the number of manuscripts of other ancient works:
For example, for Caesar’s Gallic Wars there are numerous manuscripts, but the oldest is around nine hundred years later than the date of composition (58–50 B.C.). Thucydides’ history is known from eight manuscripts, as well as a number of papyrus fragments, but the earliest of the manuscripts is dated to about A.D.. 900, around thirteen hundred years after the date of composition, although some papyri are from the Greco-Roman era. The same is generally true of Herodotus’s history. These examples are indicative of the state of textual criticism for classical and related authors.
Strictly from a textual critical standpoint,we can have more confidence in the reliability of the New Testament than any other work of ancient literature in the world.
Again, we possess no works in all of ancient literature that have the sheer volume of manuscripts — thousands — so close to the date of composition as the New Testament. Strictly from a textual critical standpoint, we can have more confidence in the reliability of the New Testament than any other work of ancient literature in the world.
3. The fact that we don’t have any of the original copies of the gospels is an act of God’s good providence. He is wise. He knows what we need. Can you imagine if there was, say, a copy of John’s original gospel, what would have become of it in the Middle Ages — a time when people were traveling across the world to glimpse a nail said to be from the cross in an attempt to have their sins forgiven, or selling fortunes to have a strand of the blessed Virgin Mary’s hair? We would always be at risk of worshiping the manuscripts instead of the God they reveal.
4. The overwhelming majority of text issues revolve around extraordinarily minor discrepancies. Differences like “Jesus, the Son of God” instead of “Jesus, God’s Son.” Or an “a” when one manuscript has “an,” or not having “the” in one manuscript and having it in another. (This is a prominent issue, because the definite article functions differently in Greek than in many of the languages into which the New Testament was translated.)
5. There are no significant theological truths that are dependent upon a disputed text. The three largest and most controversial textual issues are found in our text here in John, the ending of Mark, and 1 John 5:7-8. No major doctrine hangs on the authenticity of these passages. We don’t need this story in John to tell us that Jesus is compassionate — we know this from the testimony of His entire ministry.
We don’t need Mark’s version of The Great Commission to know that mission matters to God — it is one of the central plot lines throughout the Scriptures. And we don’t need the trinitarian reference in 1 John 5 to believe in the Trinity — the entire Bible assumes and argues for the reality of it.
So what about this story?
There is nearly a universal consensus among scholars that this story of the woman caught in adultery is not a part of the original version of the Gospel of John. It is absent from all of the pre-fifth century manuscripts. But when it does appear, it appears in several places in John and near the end of Luke; and no church father directly cites it. On the other hand, we should remember that Jerome, the first great textual critic and translator of the Latin Vulgate in the late 4th century said that the story was in many of the manuscripts he encountered. Both Augustine (d.430) and Ambrose (d. 397) believed that the story was often omitted because it was feared that it would encourage adultery. Perhaps, Christ’s scandalous grace has always been controversial.
My personal opinion is that even though it most likely was not a part of John’s original edition, it is a true story that circulated widely and early in the early church. It is a beautiful picture of our Lord’s mercy. Remember, John said himself that if all of Jesus’ great deeds were written down that all the books in the world could not contain all of His stories. Perhaps this was one story they thought too good to leave out.
This story, written by Pastor Dr. Ben Bailie of Grace Lake Nona, originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Grace Magazine. Download the issue here.