Textual Critical Issues on John 7:53-8:11
Back on Sunday, September 19, 2021, I preached a sermon on John 7:53-8:11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. It’s a famous and well-known story in the Gospels. In that sermon, I mentioned that there are some rather serious textual issues surrounding this story. It is commonly accepted by the majority in NT scholarship that this story not only doesn’t belong in John’s Gospel, but doesn’t belong in the Bible at all.
Now at Emmanuel Reformed Church we use the New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible, and in most editions of the NKJV there will be a footnote at John 7:53, which reads “NU brackets 7:53 through 8:11 as not in the original text. They are present in over 900 mss. [manuscripts] of John.” Now you might be thinking, “what in the heck is NU?” For that, you need to go to the preface of the NKJV (you know the section most people don’t read). The preface gives you the reason behind the particular translation you own, it’s translation philosophy, and (most importantly) the Hebrew and Greek texts used to make the translation.
Under the section titled “The New Testament Text,” the NKJV translators tell you that the Greek text behind the NT of the NKJV is the same Greek text used by the original translators of the King James Version. That Greek text is variously called the Traditional Text, the Byzantine Text, or the Received Text (a.k.a., “Textus Receptus”). This Greek text is called the “traditional text” because it has been the text used throughout most of the history of the church. It is also called the “Byzantine text” because this text type (or family) finds its origin in the region of Antioch of Syria (part of the old Byzantine Empire, or the eastern half of the Roman Empire).
The NKJV translators also mention two other Greek texts in use in NT scholarship. The first is called the Critical Text, so called because it uses the principles of textual criticism developed in the 19th century to determine what should be in the text of the NT. First pioneered by two NT scholars, Westcott and Hort, this later morphed into the “standard” Greek text called the Nestle-Aland Greek NT (currently in its 28th edition) and the United Bible Society’s Greek NT (currently in its 5th edition). These two texts are identical (they only differ in textual footnotes). This is what the NKJV translators refer to as the NU text. The other Greek text is called the Majority Text, and the readings therein are based on what reading is supported by the majority of manuscripts. The NKJV refers to this text as M text. So if you’re reading the NKJV, you’ll occasionally see foot notes in the NT that will reference either the NU or M or both and any differences with the Received or Traditional Text.
So if you’re not asleep yet, you might be asking “why does all this matter?” It matters because pretty much every single English translation of the Bible uses the NU text for the NT except the KJV and NKJV. For example, if you’re using an English Standard Version (ESV), a popular newer translation, the passage John 7:53-8:11 is bracketed with double brackets [[…]]. There is a footnote that reads, “Some manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11; others add the passage here or after 7:36 or after 21:25 or after Luke 21:38, with variations in the text.”
Now if you compare the footnote from the NKJV and the footnote from the ESV, it’s clear that neither one is particularly unbiased. The NKJV footnote emphasizes how this passage is found in over 900 manuscripts of John. The ESV footnote emphasizes how dubious the placement of this passage is in the manuscript history of John’s Gospel. Both footnotes are giving you true information, but they’re emphasizing the elements of the truth they want to emphasize.
So why does this all matter? Because we no longer have the original documents of the books of the NT, but what we do have are thousands of full and partial manuscripts (copies) of the original writings. But as with anything that has been copied, errors creep in. Consider the kids’ game “telephone,” in which you whisper something in someone’s ear, and they whisper it in another kid’s ear, and by the time you get five or six kids down the line, what is being said has altered significantly from what was originally said. Same thing happens when hand copying a written exemplar. A copyist can inadvertently introduce an error (a misspelling, an omission, etc.), and then that error gets passed on to the next copy perhaps with some new errors added in. Skeptics look at this and will argue what possible hope can we ever have in knowing what the Bible actually said? Without the originals and only armed with “error riddled” copies, we can never know what the Bible originally said. These same skeptics will conclude what good is divine inspiration if there is no divine preservation? That’s a valid argument.
However, I will argue that there is divine preservation in the fact that we have literally thousands of copies of the NT in Greek and many times more than that in early “versions” (translations into other languages such as Latin, Coptic, Syriac, etc.). Not to mention that all of the early church fathers (church leaders during the first 200-300 years of church history) quote all or part of the NT. It has been argued that even if we didn’t have a single NT manuscript, we could reconstruct the entire NT solely based on quotations of the early church fathers. No other text in antiquity has anywhere near the manuscript support as the NT. No one questions the works of Homer or Plato as being authentic, yet they are based on textual evidence that literally pales in comparison to that of the NT.
But, we need to know what the NT originally said in order to be able, as Christians, to believe the right things and act according to those beliefs. Having said that, there is a large degree of agreement between all of these multiplied thousands of NT manuscripts (over 90%). Where there is disagreement, you need to utilize principles of textual criticism in order to determine the most likely reading of the NT text.
Where does that leave us with the passage in question, John 7:53-8:11? I don’t know if anyone can make a definitive statement regarding this passage. I’ll give you my reasons why I think it belongs in our English Bibles right where it is:
- It is in the majority of Greek manuscripts of John’s Gospel
- While some of the earliest Greek manuscripts do not have this passage, that doesn’t mean the passage is not Biblical, it only says that whatever exemplar these manuscripts used to copy from didn’t have the passage (one of the principles of textual criticism is the older the manuscript, the more likely it’s closer to the original, however that’s an assumption made by men)
- This passage is included in the Traditional Text, which is the text that has been in use in the Church for most of its history (even though some of the manuscripts used to produce the Traditional/Received Text are of more recent vintage, it’s entirely possible they are recent copies of an older exemplar)
- There are growing (in my opinion) reasons to question the Critical Text, not the least of which is that it is based largely on two “older” manuscripts that were discovered in the 19th century, these two texts have a significant amount of disagreement from each other (anywhere from 10-15%), and the Critical Text was originally produced by men who had a low view of Scripture
I realize that this is a lot of information for your average Christian to process, and even at that I’ve barely scratched the surface on this issue. Much more can be said. I hope this at least answers some of the questions about this passage — a Biblical passage in which the grace and mercy of our Lord is clearly on display.