Why we shouldn’t preach John 7:53-8:11

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We tend to think of wrongly attributed quotes as a modern problem that arose with the advent of the internet. But most of us know that Voltaire didn’t actually say that thing about defending to the death your right to say stuff he didn’t like and Keynes probably never said that thing about Capitalism being the nastiest of men working for the nastiest of motives. These misattributions, just two among many, came about long before the internet was with us. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that such misattributions existed in the ancient world. Sometimes it is short quotes, other times insertions into writings, in some cases whole letters and books were pseudepigraphical. The Bible was not exempt from this tendency and gave rise to the science of Textual Criticism.

Before going any further, it is worth pointing out that Textual Criticism (or, lower criticism) is a perfectly valid, appropriate and necessary thing to do. In his little commentary on Ephesians, The Purpose of God, RC Sproul says this:

Textual Criticism is the attempt to reconstruct, as accurately as possible, the original Greek text of the New Testament.

When this letter [Ephesians] was written in the first century, it was written in the Greek language. Then it went to its destination, where it was read and preserved for the next generation. Those copies were then copied, and soon copies spread all over the world, wherever Christians were found. The original letter that was penned by the apostle [Paul] has long since been lost but various copies have survived down to this day.

Scholars in Textual Criticism examine very carefully all the surviving copies of the New Testament literature. And it has been said, of all the manuscripts that survive that they agree 99 per cent with each other because the copying process in the Ancient World was carried out very carefully and meticulously. We do, however, find some discrepancies in the copies.

The Textual Critic, then, is engaged in the task of assessing the various manuscripts and weighing which texts most accurately represent the original autographs and rightly ought to be considered scriptural, and which do not.

This brings me on to the particular focus of this post. If you turn in your Bible to John 7:53-8:11, the pericope adulterae, you will find a familiar passage about a woman caught in adultery. Jesus chimes in with his famous statement “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and everyone slinks off embarrassed, leaving Jesus to tell the woman she isn’t condemned and to “go and sin no more”. You will also notice that, with the exception of the KJV and NKJV (1), the section is placed either in square brackets or is written entirely as a footnote. The reason for this is that just about every modern Textual Critic and New Testament scholar is adamant that this section is not part of the original gospel of John.

Leaving aside those who could be considered Liberal scholars and who incline towards higher criticism, Don Carson, Andreas Köstenberger, Herman Ridderbos, Leon Morris, Bruce Metzger and Bruce Milne all reject this passage as original. These are solid evangelical, conservative scholars. I have yet to come across any New Testament scholar who makes a compelling case for its inclusion in the canon. You can read a brief breakdown of the issue here by John Piper (who, incidentally, agrees with the aforementioned men).

The evidence for this position is overwhelming. The internal evidence, none of which is ultimately compelling, is as follows:

  • There are 14 out of 84 words used that are unique to John and 18 of those words are used nowhere else in the gospel.
  • Virtually every verse contains words nowhere else used in the gospel and, excepting πρεσβύτερος, rarely or not found at all in the other Johannine writings.
  • Standard Johannine language is pointedly not present in the passage.

The external evidence, which is strongly on the side of non-Johannine authorship and provides the central case for non-inclusion in the canon is as follows:

  • The entire twelve verses are entirely absent from all the oldest manuscript documents, with the passage first appearing in a fifth century document.
  • The passage appears in five different places in the manuscripts (after John 7:36, 44 or 52; at the end of John’s gospel; after Luke 21:38) strongly suggesting a later insertion that has been “bounced around” to fit the text.
  • The flow of the passage is entirely interrupted by the insertion and does not appear to fit.
  • All the early church fathers omit the passage in commenting on John, moving straight from 7:52 to 8:12. This suggests the passage did not exist and was not there to be commented on.
  • No Eastern Church father mentions the passage before the tenth century. Suggesting the passage did not exist and the later insertion did not reach the East until later.

Given the weight of evidence from textual criticism and the near unanimous consensus from New Testament scholars, it seems clear enough that we should not consider John 7:53-8:11 canonical.

Here, however, is where many conservative scholars allow confusion to reign. Amongst my meagre collection of commentaries, all agree that the passage is not original to the Gospel of John. And yet, of the four commentators I have (Carson, Köstenberger, Milne, Ridderbos) only Köstenberger considers it appropriate not to exegete the passage. The reasons offered for evaluating the passage, and thus effectively raising it to the standard of the rest of the gospel, fall short of a credible explanation.

Though all accept that no doctrine or teaching of scripture is challenged by the pericope, the same could easily be said of certain passages of the apocryphal writings or even of certain sections of other religious (or, indeed, non-religious) texts. Ridderbos specifically argues, despite accepting this is extra-biblical and non-original to John, ‘we have here such a precious and… historically authentic tradition from the life of Jesus that not only does its place in the Fourth Gospel have to be maintained but also exposition of it rightly remains in most commentaries on John’. Bruce Milne, in particular, justifies inclusion on the grounds that ‘the spirit of the passage… is such that its place within the gospel corpus has been universally accepted’. Again, the same could be true of many extra-biblical writings. None of these men (to my knowledge) believe we ought to exegete Qur’anic writings that don’t contradict scripture or segments of Shakespeare that, in spirit, concur with biblical truth. If these things ought not to be raised to the level of canonicity, why do it with a passage universally regarded as not original to John, irrespective of its veracity as a story in the life of Jesus?

Both Carson and Metzger believe the story probably happened and represents a valuable insight into the life and teaching of Jesus. Even if this is a true story (and there is no more evidence to suggest it is than for the apocryphal writings), if it was not originally included the apostle must have had particular reason to leave it out. John himself notes at the end of the gospel that there are many other things he could have recorded but specifically decided to whittle it down to those he chose. He does so for the expressed purpose “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” This story can have no bearing on that theological goal and we undermine John’s purpose if we include it in his gospel when it is not original.

Köstenberger says it clearly, whether this is a true story or not, when he states the following:

The fact remains that the story almost certainly was not part of the original gospel and therefore should not be regarded as part of the Christian canon. Nor does inspiration extend to it. In principle, the pericope is no different from other possibly authentic sayings of Jesus that may be found in the NT apocryphal literature. Thus, though it may be possible to derive a certain degree of edification from the study of this pericope, proper conservatism and caution suggest that the passage be omitted from preaching in the churches (not to mention inclusion in the main body of translations, even within square brackets).

If these men are correct, they ought not to even exegete the passage in their commentaries. In my view, Köstenberger is quite right to lay out the evidence for the non-canonicity of the pericope and then refuse to exegete or evaluate the passage. Despite what the others say in their commentaries about the originality of the pericope, moving on to exegete the passage will raise it to the level of inspired scripture in the minds of many, not least when it is done on spurious grounds that it teaches some helpful things.

As much as the passage oughtn’t to be evaluated in commentaries, it equally shouldn’t be raised to the level of inspired scripture in pulpits either. If John didn’t include it in his gospel, we ought not to include it in our preaching. Even if the story is true, and really took place, John chose to leave it out of his gospel. If under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he chose to leave it out, we have no right to reinsert it. I stand with Köstenberger and don’t believe we should read it, let alone preach it. However, if that make you feel too uncomfortable, at the very least don’t go hanging any theological points upon it. If a passage is dubious we are always best to err on the side of caution and, even if convinced it ought to remain, should be careful about making it a central part of any argument.

I once recall hearing somebody, reading the Lord’s Prayer from the ESV, note that the final part of the passage isn’t included. Having highlighted that it was in some versions but wasn’t included in the ESV he announced “now, I don’t know why some versions have it and other versions don’t”. Well, fair enough, honesty is no bad thing. Sadly, rather than leave it there, he proceeded to hang a major plank of his talk on the missing section. Now, if he could be certain that the part should be included, he would be within his rights to do that. But it just isn’t acceptable to insist that the translators and textual critics who deem it extra-biblical and non-canonical have it wrong whilst you, in your self-stated ignorance, have it right. If you do not know, or are not certain of canonicity you cannot simply presume the passage is good for exegesis and must be inspired and therefore hang major points upon it. That is a dangerous path to tread.

If a passage is not original to the text then it is not good for exegesis. If we don’t consider it acceptable to exegete and raise to the height of scripture even excellent Christian writings that we all generally agree with (think the Puritan Paperbacks for older classics or Knowing God for a more modern one), then non-original insertions into the biblical text should not be treated any differently. If they aren’t inspired, then they probably shouldn’t be read in church as though they are. If we aren’t comfortable with that, then we certainly shouldn’t rely on them when making any particular point in our sermons. To start doing that is to effectively allow uninspired material to form our sermons and, if we’re happy with that, we may as we preach from any book we please.

Notes

  1. Erasmus began the tradition of including the pericope, even though he doubted its authenticity, in his 1516 edition of the Greek New Testament. Köstenberger avers this decision was out of deference to the Latin Vulgate. From Erasmus, it found its way into the seventeenth century Textus Receptus upon which the KJV and subsequent NKJV revision were based.

 

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