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What do we do with the disputed text of Jesus and the adulteress?

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What do we do with the disputed text of Jesus and the adulteress?
Posted on March 24, 2020  - By Thomson B Thomas

Could you clarify the confusion around the story of the adulteress in the Gospel of John? My Bible has the passage in parentheses, and many Bibles omit it altogether. It’s one of my absolute favourite texts, because I see my own wretchedness in the sinful woman and it’s such a beautiful picture of mercy and grace — but having so many commentators declare “an overwhelming lack of evidence” for that passage being part of the original Gospel of John leaves me feeling wrong-footed… As though there’s no point in finding so much joy in the passage, because it may not be true anyway.

John 7:53-8:11, the passage referred to in your question, has been a help and encouragement for many people, just as it has been for you. But at the same time, most Bible scholars are convinced that it does not originally belong to the Gospel of John. Yet, as we shall see in the following lines, there is no need for anybody to lose heart and stop enjoying the text. The passage is very much a tradition that we can draw good lessons from. What’s more, the event is very much in keeping with the character of our Lord.

What the manuscripts say

The textual critics of the Greek New Testament are universally of the opinion that the passage was not a part of the original form of the fourth Gospel. The reasons for this are many.

The passage is a tradition we can draw good lessons from and the event is very much in keeping with the character of our Lord

It is omitted from the earliest copies of the Greek New Testament. The two oldest papyri, P66 and P75, dating from about AD 200, do not have it. This is also true of the early manuscripts found in the Eastern and Western churches. Before Euthymius Zigabenus, a 12th-century Bible commentator and monk, nobody discussed this passage in their commentaries. Even Euthymius states that the accurate copies of the Gospel do not contain it. The church fathers of the Eastern church before the 10th century and the fathers of the Western church such as Irenaeus, Tertullian and Cyprian make no mention in their writings about this passage either. The mention of the passage occurs in later writings by fathers such as Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome etc. Many of the manuscripts where the passage is included has the scribal remark indicating that the passage is uncertain.

Further to the facts mentioned above, the style and language of the passage are more in line with that of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) than to that of the Gospel of John. It is also seen in variant readings in different sources. There is also no unison in the place where it is added, as there are manuscripts where it is added after Luke 21:38. In John’s Gospel itself, for that matter, there is no unity as to its position. In some manuscripts, it is seen after John 7:36, whereas in another manuscript, it is seen after John 7:44 and in yet another version, it is included after 21:25. If we take the passage as written by John, then, this alone will be a passage in the fourth Gospel where we have an instance of the Jews tempting Jesus, which would not go along with the scheme of the Gospel wherein the deity of the Lord is highlighted.

Fact, not fiction

While all the facts mentioned above are true, it must also be stated that the early writers, from mid second century AD, were aware of the Lord’s dealing with the sinner woman and they admonished others on the basis of the event. But we are left with no clue to gather knowledge as to the source of this information for them. It is also necessary to mention here that there are some very respectable names defending its Johannine origin.

Early writers were aware of the Lord’s dealing with the sinner woman and admonished others on the basis of the event

GR Beasley Murray, in his commentary on John, says, “It is clear the story was not penned by the Fourth Evangelist or any of the other three Gospel writers, yet there is no reason to doubt its substantial truth. The saying that it preserves is completely in character with what we know of our Lord.”

In spite of the lack of manuscript evidence, there is a conviction among textual critics that this narrative represents an episode in the ministry of Jesus. Professor Bruce Metzger of Princeton University, a renowned textual scholar, notes that “the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity”. New Testament scholar Leon Morris concurs, “Throughout the history of the church, it has been held that, whoever wrote this section, this little story is authentic.” Thus, we need have no qualms in accepting the passage as faithful tradition.

Thomson B Thomas

About Thomson B Thomas

Thomson B Thomas is an evangelist and Bible teacher based in Mumbai, India. He has authored many books (mostly Christo-centric) and contributes regularly to Christian periodicals. He holds a Masters degree in philosophy and religion, and is keenly involved in ministering at conferences and churches, both in India and abroad.



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