The Story Behind John 7:53

In my earlier post: Is the New Testament Reliable? I noted that despite challenges from radical skeptics, the New Testament (NT) is the most attested to and reliable collection of documents from antiquity. Specifically, it has more copies (manuscripts) than any other ancient work, and the shortest gap back to the originals. Once more, even if there were no ancient manuscript available to us today, scholars could reconstruct practically the entire NT from the surviving writings of the early Church Fathers alone, who quoted the NT extensively. In addition, the erroneous claims of many modern cynics espousing that the NT texts are untrustworthy due to corruption was also shown to be without merit. Specifically, I explained why that argument is bogus and a mischaracterization of the facts. The real issue being alluded to, and misrepresented, was the variances between ancient manuscripts. It was pointed out that some 80% of these variants were nothing more than spelling / grammatical errors — and those that are not, were still overwhelmingly immaterial, i.e. accidentally skipping or repeating a line, use of synonyms, definitive articles, alternate Greek renditions of words (none of which can translate into English), word choice, phrasing and so on. In total, less than 1% of variants may actually affect the meaning of the text in some manner, and about largely insignificant issues. Moreover, NO cardinal doctrine of the Church is affected by any viable variant. The fact is, the overwhelming majority of scholars in textural criticism assert that in all the essentials, the NT we have today go back to the original. In other words, the NT you read today is a trustworthy rendition of the original writings. Only a very small (although vocal) minority of textual critics say otherwise. Regardless, our NT today have these variant readings of note anyhow, excluding the totally irrelevant (i.e. spelling errors, definitive articles, etc.), so the charge is completely bogus.

Nevertheless, I did note that there are in fact two variants, and only two variants, in the entire NT texts that go beyond the usual, i.e. spelling, wording or phrasing — and are also of some significant length. The first is found in Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus proclaims to his disciples that they can now speak in tongues, handle snakes and cast out demons in his name. This passage is not found in the earliest manuscripts of Mark. However, unless you are from some obscure Church that handles snakes, this is of little consequence. As for speaking in tongues and casting out demons, this is attested elsewhere, i.e. Acts. The second, is the story of the woman caught in adultery from John’s Gospel (John 7:53-8:11). It is the latter variant I would like to discuss in this post. As I referenced at the time, many experts and scholars have several reasons to argue in favor of the historicity of the event recorded in this passage — even if it was not originally part of John’s Gospel. Therefore, the purpose of this post will be to explain the story behind the story of John 7:53.

First, let us look at the passage in question found in the Gospel of John:

“… Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

(John 7:53-8:11)

Many textual critics have noticed that a number of early manuscripts containing John’s Gospel lacked John 7:53-8:11 — and also that some manuscripts that did contain the passage marked it with an asterisk. The consensus is that this story was not originally part of John’s Gospel. Open your Bible and the verse is bracketed with a note similar to “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11”. However, as already mentioned, many scholars still have reasons to believe the story is historical. It is all a little complicated to explain, nevertheless, in this post my intention is to try and summarize the case for the historicity of the event. There are three main arguments, and all more or less involve a man named Papias. So let us start there. Who is Papias?

Papias, pronounced Pay-pee-us (70-130 AD) was an Apostolic Father — those Christian leaders that lived in the late first century and early second. He was also the Bishop of Hierapolis, located in modern day Turkey. Papias produced an enormous work called the “Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord”. This work, which is now lost apart from brief excerpts in later writings by other early Church Fathers, is an important early source on Christian oral tradition – especially on the origins of the canonical Gospels.

Very little is known of Papias apart from what can be inferred from the surviving references to him and his works (95-120 AD). He is described by Polycarp’s student, Irenaeus, as “an ancient man who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp”. Several early Church Fathers, including Irenaeus, inform us in their writings that Polycarp had been a disciple of the Apostle John. Back to Papias, according to his own writings, we can deduce that he knew of several New Testament books, and says that he was informed by John, the daughters of Philip, and many “Elders” who had themselves heard the Twelve Apostles.

However, another early Church Father, Eusebius, writing in the third century, did not think to highly of Papias; arguing he was a simple man (not very intelligent) for his literal interpretations of what he deemed figurative passages (mainly from Revelation). Additionally, despite attestation from Irenaeus, Eusebius seems to believe that Papias was actually informed by a John the Elder that was, in fact, not the same man as John the Evangelist. Note, Elders did not necessarily know Jesus, but at least knew the Apostles and what they said. Nevertheless, Eusebius’ opinions on Papias aside, he concludes his analysis of Papias’ now lost work with a fascinating comment, at least for the purposes of this post. Eusebius states, that in his writings, Papias provides an account about a woman “accused of many sins before the Lord,” which is similar to another account he read in the “Gospel according to the Hebrews”. The so called Hebrews gospel, which is also now lost except in quotes from later writings, was an early second century gospel written in Egypt by Jews. It is believed to mostly be a reworking of materials found in Matthew, but with some new material and rather bizarre theological expressions. Eusebius, among other Church Fathers, took issue with this gospel and disputed it in his writings. Nevertheless, he cites the gospel here as it contained the only parallel he recognized to the story recounted by Papias. In short, you have two independent stories of Jesus confronted with a sinful woman, one of which can be tied to an associate (directly or indirectly) of the Apostle John (Papias). Centuries later, Agapius of Hierapolis, provided a fuller summary of what Papias said in his writings, affirming the sinful woman in question was indeed an adulterous.   That being said, many scholars argue it is not certain if Papias knew the story in precisely the current form found in John 7:53 today, inasmuch as it appears that at least two different versions of the story about Jesus rescuing a sinful woman circulated independently among Christians in the first two centuries. Thus some scholars argue that the traditional form, found in later manuscripts and our NT today, may well represent a conflation of these two earlier independent accounts of the same incident.

However, despite the opinions expressed in modern scholarship, this conclusion, historically, is not universally held. Another Church Father, Jerome (347 -420 AD), reports in his writings that the story now found in John 7:53 was to be found in its usual place in “many Greek and Latin manuscripts” in Rome and the Latin West during the late 4th Century. This is confirmed by some Latin Fathers of the 4th and 5th Centuries, including Ambrose and Augustine. The latter whom argued that the passage was being improperly excluded from several manuscripts in order to avoid the impression that Christ had sanctioned adultery:

“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.” (Augustine)

If these Church Fathers are correct, then the story has always been part of John’s Gospel but was removed by some scribes bothered by the fact that Jesus forgave an adulteress. In other words, although our current text notes the earliest and most reliable manuscripts do not contain John 7:53-8:11 — that is only because it is not in the earliest manuscripts available to us today. Think of the numerous manuscripts available to Jerome and Augustine in their time, all of which were very early. Yet, in their view, the earlier and most reliable manuscripts had this passage.

Additional support for this hypothesis of later omission comes from references to the story in a collection of treatises, or genre of “Church Orders” literature. Specifically, the Didascalia Apostolorum and Apostolic Constitutions, written in the third and fourth centuries. For instance, the latter states:

“And when the elders had set another woman who had sinned before Him, and had left the sentence to Him, and were gone out, our Lord, the Searcher of the hearts, inquiring of her whether the elders had condemned her, and being answered No, He said unto her: “Go thy way therefore, for neither do I condemn thee.”

Here we have a clear reference to the story found in John 7:53. Although these texts do not indicate the story actually came from John’s Gospel, they do further attest to the fact that the story in question was widely known to the early Church from somewhere. Once more, our earliest witness for this story aside from John’s Gospel is Papias, a hearer of John, or at the very least a contemporary of his disciple Polycarp. Furthermore, it is pointed out that the themes of this passage are consistent with those expressed elsewhere in John’s Gospel, i.e. “You judge by human standards, I pass judgment on no one” (John 8:15). Therefore, the claims of Augustine for Johannine authorship and later omission, as attested to by Jerome, is most certainly plausible.  Moreover, it explains why other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11. This has also been the view of scholars such as: Nolan & Burgon in the 19th century, Hoskier & Fuller in the 20th century, and Pierpont & Robinson in the 21st century.

However, many scholars today still insist that the story did not originate from John’s Gospel. They counter that the Greek in John 7:53 lacks the “Johannine style” found in the rest of his Gospel. In fact, most fascinating to modern scholars, is that the expressions and grammar contained in John 7:53 are actually more closely aligned with the writings of Luke. For instance, the mention of “dawn” and “sitting down” (John 8:2) are rare terms in John’s Gospel, but parallel Luke’s terminology in several places, i.e. Luke 4:20, 5:3, 24:1, Acts 5:21. They also note that even the setting resembles Luke’s description of Jesus teaching at the Temple during the day, then retiring off to the Mount of Olives at night (Luke 21:37).

Therefore, many scholars today argue that John 7:53 is so similar in style, form, and content to the Gospel of Luke — that the core of this tradition is, in fact, rooted in the Third Gospel. In other words, it originates from very early (first century) Christian sources (though likely not Johannine) available to Luke. If true, what it looked like when Luke had it, and why he decided to omit the story from his Gospel is anyone’s guess. Regardless, further supporting evidence for this hypothesis, is the fact, that some later manuscripts do place the story back in Luke — but could not agree on where it went. This hypothesis supposes the story was then later added to John’s Gospel due to Papias’ attestation – because Papias knew the story, and putting Eusebius’ objection aside, was connected directly (as a hearer) to John the Evangelist (the Apostle), or at the very least, indirectly via John’s disciple Polycarp (his friend).

In short, all the evidence suggest this was a treasured story to the early Church in search of a permanent home. So despite its absence from several early manuscripts, many experts and scholars (past and present) still hold that the story found in John 7:53 is historical. To review, there are three major arguments:

  1. The story was originally part of the Gospel of John (GOJ), but later left out of early manuscripts to avoid the impression that Christ had “sanctioned” adultery.  This was the conclusion of Augustine, and is supported by ancient witnesses such as Jerome, who attest to finding the story in some early manuscripts but not others. Papias, a reported hearer of John, also shows knowledge of this story in his own writings.
  2. Papias appears to recount the story in question within his now lost work, although we do not know exactly what it said. Nevertheless, it closely resembled a similar story found in the later and now lost Hebrews Gospel. Both stories (or accounts) came to be combined into one narrative and was subsequently placed in the GOJ due to Papias’s connection to the Apostle (or Elder) by that name and/or his friendship with John’s disciple Polycarp. Likely first as a supplement in the margins, or with an asterisk.
  3. The author of the Gospel of Luke appears to have once known this story and constructed it for his own Gospel narrative, but for reasons unknown, cut it from its final form prior to circulation. Some later scribes added the story back to Luke, but later placed it in John’s Gospel due to the witness of Papias in his writings (now lost). Again, likely first as a supplement in the margins, or with an asterisk.

Of course, there are variations and combinations of these arguments, but those are the major three. All complicated I know; but that is the story behind the story of John 7:53.

Therefore, in conclusion, while most scholars today argue that John 7:53 is most likely an interpolation (addition) to our Fourth Gospel, it is not the only option. Once more, even if one accepts this consensus, there are still numerous reasons experts have to believe that the story is, in fact, historically authentic. An examination of the historical features, details, and ancient sources indicate that the incident likely did occur in some manner similar to John 7:53-8:11. At the very least, the story of the woman caught in adultery was most certainly part of the early Church’s oral traditions about Jesus.

Now for the big question some people inevitably ask: Is this passage scripture?

I do not readily accept the premise of this question. Notwithstanding that most scholars today argue the correct reading of the original manuscripts is without the passage; that (to me) is a separate question than whether the passage itself is accepted as canonical, and therefore scripture.

In my post titled: From Jesus to the Canon. I noted the three main criteria used by the early Church when discussing the canon. The first criteria: the text must be Apostolic, i.e. written by either Apostles themselves, followers of Apostles, or those who were eyewitnesses to what they said and wrote. The second criteria: the text must conform to the rule of faith and orthodoxy (normal beliefs), i.e. it must be consistent with the basic normative Christian tradition. The third criteria: the text must have the continuous acceptance and usage by the Church at large.

Now let us apply the text of John 7:53 to this standard – remembering the three arguments numbered above for the historical origins of this story.

Criteria One: If argument one is correct, then no issue. If argument two is correct, then you still have attestation from Papias, who would seemingly meet the criteria. Although, it is a little problematic in that his account is reportedly (possibly) combined with a second account of unknown origin (and in a disputed text). If argument three is correct, then you have authorship from Luke, and attestation from both his sources (eyewitnesses) and Papias.

Criteria Two: The story of the woman found in adultery is consistent with the character, nature and life of Jesus found elsewhere in scripture. In other words, it rings true and conforms to the rule of faith and orthodoxy.

Criteria Three: The story is one of the best known and beloved in the entire NT. Therefore it has the wide acceptance and usage by the Church at large. As to continuous acceptance: Yes, it is not found in many early manuscripts. Nevertheless, it was still known and circulated in early Christianity and affirmed by several Church Fathers, i.e. Didymus the Blind, Jerome and Augustine. Therefore, numerous Christian writers from antiquity viewed this story as fully part of the Christian tradition, and it is still a beloved story today.

Therefore in my opinion, for whatever it is worth, the story is part of our sacred scriptures — regardless of how it came to be reported in John’s Gospel. However, that is a matter of personal conviction, and I’ll leave others to draw their own conlusions. Either way, the text is appropriately documented in John’s Gospel as missing from our earliest manuscripts.

In any event, I have gone on far too long already on this topic – it is time to wrap this post up. As said from the onset, John 7:53 is one of only two major viable variants (beyond the norm and of any length) in the entire NT that appears not to be original to the text. There are only a small amount of other variants that may also represent interpolations, but these others are all minor, amounting to nothing more than a few words or a verse in length. Once more, interpolation variants are the exceptions to the norm. In reality, some 99% of textual variants are completely irrelevant and do NOT alter the content or meaning of the text at all. Moreover, in cases (less than 1%) where textual variants (i.e. word choice) exist that do affect the meaning of the text, it is about largely insignificant issues. Possible interpolations are included in this latter category. To put all this into some proper perspective, I shall quote Daniel B. Wallace, a leading scholar in textual criticism:

“Today we are certain of about 99 percent of the original wording.”

“The most remarkable thing to me is the tedium of looking at manuscript after manuscript after manuscript that just don’t change. Yes, there are differences, but they are so minor. When I teach textual criticism every year, my students spend about a third of their workload transcribing manuscripts – and invariably they marvel at how little the manuscripts deviate.”

Needless to say, the evidence is overwhelming that the NT we have today is an accurate rendition of the original writings. No other ancient document comes close or is more attested to. See my earlier post (Is the NT Reliable?) for more details. Therefore, and I cannot emphasize this point enough: one should NOT get the impression reading this post that the NT is in any way untrustworthy due to the questions surrounding this one passage. It is an exception, NOT the rule. Nevertheless, the reasons are compelling that the event described in this passage (John 7:53) is still historical and true. At the very least, the story of the woman caught in adultery was most certainly part of the early Churches (first century) oral traditions about Jesus, and known to some that knew the Apostles. And that is the story behind the story of John 7:53.

Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this post insightful.

JDN

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One thought on “The Story Behind John 7:53

  1. Excellent presentation, very well balanced and written, thank you so much for the research effort. May God continue blessing your ministry and effort to share the light.

    Like

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