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My Favorite Passage that’s Not in the Bible

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One hundred and forty years ago, conservative biblical scholar and Dean of Canterbury, Henry Alford, advocated a new translation to replace the King James Bible. One of his reasons was the inferior textual basis of the KJV. Alford argued that “a translator of Holy Scripture must be…ready to sacrifice the choicest text, and the plainest proof of doctrine, if the words are not those of what he is constrained in his conscience to receive as God’s testimony.” He was speaking about the Trinitarian formula found in the KJV rendering of 1 John 5:7–8. Twenty years later, two Cambridge scholars came to the firm conclusion that John 7:53–8:11 also was not part of the original text of scripture. But Westcott and Hort’s view has not had nearly the impact that Alford’s did.

For a long time, biblical scholars have recognized the poor textual credentials of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11). The evidence against its authenticity is overwhelming: The earliest manuscripts with substantial portions of John’s Gospel (P66 and P75) lack these verses. They skip from John 7:52 to 8:12. The oldest large codices of the Bible also lack these verses: codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, both from the fourth century, are normally considered to be the most important biblical manuscripts of the NT extant today. Neither of them has these verses. Codex Alexandrinus, from the fifth century, lacks several leaves in the middle of John. But because of the consistency of the letter size, width of lines, and lines per page, the evidence is conclusive that this manuscript also lacked the pericope adulterae. Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, also from the fifth century, apparently lacked these verses as well (it is similar to Alexandrinus in that some leaves are missing). The earliest extant manuscript to have these verses is codex Bezae, an eccentric text once in the possession of Theodore Beza. He gave this manuscript to the University of Cambridge in 1581 as a gift, telling the school that he was confident that the scholars there would be able to figure out its significance. He washed his hands of the document. Bezae is indeed the most eccentric NT manuscript extant today, yet it is the chief representative of the Western text-type (the text-form that became dominant in Rome and the Latin West).

When P66, P75, Sinaiticus, and Vaticanus agree, their combined testimony is overwhelmingly strong that a particular reading is not authentic. But it is not only the early Greek manuscripts that lack this text. The great majority of Greek manuscripts through the first eight centuries lack this pericope. And except for Bezae (or codex D), virtually all of the most important Greek witnesses through the first eight centuries do not have the verses. Of the three most important early versions of the New Testament (Coptic, Latin, Syriac), two of them lack the story in their earliest and best witnesses. The Latin alone has the story in its best early witnesses.

Even patristic writers seemed to overlook this text. Bruce Metzger, arguably the greatest textual critic of the twentieth century, argued that “No Greek Church Father prior to Euthymius Zigabenus (twelfth century) comments on the passage, and Euthymius declares that the accurate copies of the Gospel do not contain it” (Textual Commentary, 2nd ed., loc. cit.).

It is an important point to note that although the story of the woman caught in adultery is found in most of our printed Bibles today, the evidence suggests that the majority of Bibles during the first eight centuries of the Christian faith did not contain the story. Externally, most scholars would say that the evidence for it not being an authentic part of John’s Gospel is rock solid.

But textual criticism is not based on external evidence alone; there is also the internal evidence to consider. This is comprised of two parts: intrinsic evidence has to do with what an author is likely to have written; transcriptional evidence has to do with how and why a scribe would have changed the text.

Intrinsically, the vocabulary, syntax, and style look far more like Luke than they do John. There is almost nothing in these twelve verses that has a Johannine flavor. And transcriptionally, scribes were almost always prone to add material rather than omit it—especially a big block of text such as this, rich in its description of Jesus’ mercy. One of the remarkable things about this passage, in fact, is that it is found in multiple locations. Most manuscripts that have it place it in its now traditional location: between John 7:52 and 8:12. But an entire family of manuscripts has the passage at the end of Luke 21, while another family places it at the end of John’s Gospel. Other manuscripts place it at the end of Luke or in various places in John 7.

The pericope adulterae has all the earmarks of a pericope that was looking for a home. It took up permanent residence, in the ninth century, in the middle of the fourth gospel.

If the question of its literary authenticity (i.e., whether it was penned by John) is settled, the question of its historical authenticity is not. It is indeed possible that these verses describe an actual incident in the life of Jesus and found their way into our Bibles because of having the ring of truth. On one level, if this is the case, then one might be forgiven for preaching the text on a Sunday morning. But to regard it as scripture if John did not write it is another matter. The problem is this: If John wrote his gospel as a tightly woven argument, with everything meeting a crescendo in the resurrection, would he be disturbed that some scribes started monkeying with his text? If we don’t respect the human author, then we could discount this issue. But if the Bible is both the Word of God and the words of men, then we are playing fast and loose with the human author’s purpose by adding anything—especially something as long as this passage—that takes a detour from his intentions. What preacher would be happy with someone adding a couple hundred words in the middle of his printed sermon as though such were from him? On another level, there is evidence that this story is a conflation from two different stories, one circulating in the east and the other circulating in the west. In other words, even the historicity of this pericope is called into question.

Yet, remarkably, even though most translators would probably deny John 7:53–8:11 a place in the canon, virtually every translation of the Bible has this text in its traditional location. There is, of course, a marginal note in modern translations that says something like, “Most ancient authorities lack these verses.” But such a weak and ambiguous statement is generally ignored by readers of Holy Writ. (It’s ambiguous because many readers might assume that in spite of the ‘ancient authorities’ that lack the passage, the translators felt it must be authentic.)

How, then, has this passage made it into modern translations? In a word, there has been a longstanding tradition of timidity among translators. One twentieth-century Bible relegated the passage to the footnotes, but when the sales were rather lackluster, it again found its place in John’s Gospel. Even the NET Bible (available at www.bible.org), for which I am the senior New Testament editor, has put the text in its traditional place. But the NET Bible also has a lengthy footnote, explaining the textual complications and doubts about its authenticity. And the font size is smaller than normal so that it will be harder to read from the pulpit! But we nevertheless made the same concession that other translators have about this text by leaving it in situ.

The climate has changed recently, however. In Bart Ehrman’s 2005 bestseller, Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, the author discounts the authenticity of this pericope. What is remarkable is not that he does this, but that thousands of Bible-believing Christians have become disturbed by his assertions. Ehrman—a former evangelical and alum of Moody and Wheaton—is one of America’s leading textual critics. He has been on television and radio, in newspapers and magazines, and on the Internet. He has lectured at universities from sea to shining sea. What he wrote in his blockbuster book sent shockwaves through the Christian public.

I wrote a critique of Ehrman’s book that was published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. There I said, “keeping [John 7:53–8:11 and Mark 16:9–20] in our Bibles rather than relegating them to the footnotes seems to have been a bomb just waiting to explode. All Ehrman did was to light the fuse. One lesson we must learn from Misquoting Jesus is that those in ministry need to close the gap between the church and the academy. We have to educate believers. Instead of trying to isolate laypeople from critical scholarship, we need to insulate them. They need to be ready for the barrage, because it is coming. The intentional dumbing down of the church for the sake of filling more pews will ultimately lead to defection from Christ. Ehrman is to be thanked for giving us a wake-up call.”

I believe it’s time for us to own up to our tradition of timidity and recognize that this has not helped the Church in the long haul. It’s time to close the gap. I am calling for translators to remove this text from the Gospel of John and relegate it to the footnotes. Although this will be painful and will cause initial confusion, it is far better that laypeople hear the truth about scripture from their friends than from their enemies. They need to know that Christ-honoring, Bible-believing scholars also do not think that this text is authentic, and that such a stance has not shaken their faith one iota. No cardinal truth is lost if these verses go bye-bye; no essential doctrine is disturbed if they are cut from the pages of the Word of God. (Of course, if it is objected that since scholars are not absolutely sure that this text is inauthentic they therefore need to retain it in the text, it need only be said that such a policy practiced across the board would wreak havoc on our printed Bibles and would mushroom their size beyond recognizable proportions. In Acts alone, one textual tradition has 8.5% more material than has been traditionally printed in our Bibles, yet very few object to such variants being denied a place in the canon. Thus, to insist on having the pericope adulterae in a footnote is a nod toward its longstanding tradition in Bibles from the second millennium AD on.)

Of course, King James Only advocates will see things differently. Their claim is that modern translations are butchering the Bible by cutting out major texts. Not only is that quite an overstatement (since only two lengthy passages in the KJV NT are considered spurious by modern scholars—John 7:53–8:11 and Mark 16:9–20), but it also assumes what it needs to prove. Is it not possible that the KJV, based on half a dozen late manuscripts, has added to the Word of God rather than that modern translations, based on far more and much earlier manuscripts, have cut out portions of scripture? It is demonstrable that over time, the New Testament text has grown. The latest manuscripts have approximately 2% more material than the earliest ones. The problem is not that we have 98% of the Word of God; the problem is that we have 102%! Modern scholars are trying to burn off the dross to get to the gold. And one text that must go, in spite of our emotional attachment to it, is John 7:53–8:11.

One of the practical implications of this is as follows: When Christians are asked whether this beloved story should be cut out of their Bibles, they overwhelmingly and emphatically say no. The reason given: It’s always been in the Bible and scholars have no right to tamper with the text. The problem with this view is manifold. First, it is historically naïve because it assumes that this passage has always been in the Bible. Second, it is anti-intellectual by assuming that scholars are involved in some sort of conspiracy and that they have no basis for excising verses that exist in the printed text of the Bible. Without the slightest shred of evidence, many laypeople (and not a few pastors!) have a knee-jerk reaction to scholars who believe that these twelve verses are not authentic. What they don’t realize is that every Bible translation has to be reconstructed from the extant Greek New Testament manuscripts. No one follows just a single manuscript, because all manuscripts are riddled with errors. The manuscripts need to be examined, weighed, sifted, and eventually translated. Every textual decision requires someone to think through which reading is authentic and which is not. In the best tradition of solid Christian scholarship, textual critics are actually producing a Bible for Christians to read. Without biblical scholars, we would have no Bibles in our own languages. When laymen claim that scholars are tampering with the text, they are biting the hand that feeds them. Now, to be sure, there are biblical scholars who are attempting to destroy the Christian faith. And there are textual critics who are not Christians. But the great translations of our time have largely been done by honest scholars. Some of them are Christians, and some of them are not. But their integrity as scholars cannot be called into question when it comes to passages such as the pericope adulterae, since they are simply following in the train of Henry Alford by subjecting their conscience to the historical data.

The best of biblical scholarship pursues truth at all costs. And it bases its conclusions on real evidence, not on wishes, emotion, or blind faith. This is in line with the key tenets of historic Christianity: If God became man in time-space history, then we ought to link our faith to history. It must not be a leap of faith, but it should be a step of faith. The religion of the Bible is the only major religion in the world that subjects itself to historical inquiry. The Incarnation has forever put God’s stamp of approval on pursuing truth, wrestling with data, and changing our minds based on evidence. When we deny evidence its place and appeal to emotion instead, we are methodologically denying the significance of the Incarnation. Much is thus at stake when it comes to a text such as the story of the woman caught in adultery. What is at stake is not, as some might think, the mercy of God; rather, what is at stake is how we view the very Incarnation itself. Ironically, if we allow passages into the Gospels that do not have the best credentials, we are in fact tacitly questioning whether the Lord of the Gospels, Jesus Christ himself, became man, for we jettison historicity in favor of personal preference. By affirming a spurious passage about him we may be losing a whole lot more than we gain.

It is the duty of pastors for the sake of their faith to study the data, to know the evidence, to have firm convictions rooted in history. And we dare not serve up anything less than the same kind of meal for our congregations. We do not serve the church of Jesus Christ faithfully when we hide evidence from laypeople; we need to learn to insulate our congregations, but not isolate them. The Incarnation of Christ demands nothing less than this.

Related Topics: Scripture Twisting, Textual Criticism