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John 8:1-11

We have an odd situation before us this morning, having come to John 8:1-11.  It is an advantage of preaching consecutively through books of the Bible: you come to everything sooner or later.  As your New International Version indicates, the entire paragraph is set apart as unlikely to have been a part of the Gospel that John wrote.  Some printings of the Revised Standard Version do not include it in the text of the Gospel at all, but relegate the paragraph to a footnote.  One of the commentaries I have been using most in preaching through the Gospel of John, the volume by the Australian Anglican evangelical, Leon Morris, a standard for believing scholarship, passes from the exposition of 7:52 immediately to 8:12.  His treatment of 8:1-11 is found in an appendix to the commentary.

As you know, the Bible was written long before the invention of the printing press made possible the reproduction of exact copies.  And, in fact, most all of them copies of copies of copies, and so on.  The handwritten manuscripts of the New Testament which exist in large numbers, there are some 5,000 of them in fact, are all copies.  No one has found an original of any book of the New Testament.  Even the earliest of these copies are a generation removed from the time of the writing of the New Testament and many of them are many generations removed.  I should say, by the way, that the copies of the New Testament that exist are far nearer to the time of the writing of the original than the earliest copies of other classical texts.  The earliest existing copy of Virgil was itself written 350 years later than Virgil’s own time.  For Plato 1300 years.  For Euripides 1600 years.  Yet no one doubts that we have substantially what Virgil, Plato, and Euripides wrote, even though our earliest manuscripts of their writings are copies from many centuries later.  In the case of the New Testament we have parts and pieces from a single generation later, entire New Testaments from 250 years later.  Compared to almost any other writing from the classical period, we have an abundance of manuscript evidence, and early evidence, for the New Testament and we can therefore be confident that we know what the Gospel writers and Paul and Luke and the others wrote when they first penned the writings that now make up the New Testament.

But, the fact that we have many copies introduces the problem of ascertaining the correct original text, because, as you know, the copies do not agree with one another in every point.  Most of the differences are minor, a few are more significant, and at two places in the New Testament is there is an entire paragraph that has fallen under suspicion.

Now, the question for me as a preacher is whether or not I have the Word of God before me in this paragraph.  Is this part of the Scripture that is God-breathed and so profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness?  Am I to preach a sermon to you from this text and tell you from it what the Lord is saying to his people and to the world, or can I not say that about this paragraph?  Is this finally only the word of some man, perhaps even a very good man, but not the Word of God to be believed and obeyed.

As you know, this is the sort of question that can trouble devout people.  They love the Bible and, for them, the Bible is the English translation that they have always used.  And the famous story of the woman caught in adultery and the Lord’s response both to her and the Pharisees has always been in their Bible.  To question its authenticity, to suggest it be removed, strikes them as equivalent to questioning the authenticity of the Bible.  And, as you can well imagine, there have been good men who have tried to demonstrate that this paragraph was part of the original Gospel of John and should be read as Holy Scripture just as everything before it and after it in the Gospel.  And as we might expect, those who defend the canonicity of this paragraph in John 8, that is, who defend its being a part of the canon, the Bible, often frame the issue in terms of loyalty to the Bible.  To defend the authority of this paragraph is to defend the Bible; to consent to remove this paragraph is surrender the Bible to unbelieving scholarship, because, after all, a good deal of the scholarship, though by no means all, that has led to doubts about John 8:1-11 has been liberal and unbelieving scholarship.

I remember being witness years ago to an ordination examination in an old Southern Presbyterian Church presbytery in Tennessee.  It was a mixed presbytery.  There were evangelicals and liberals in it who lived in uneasy peace.  As it happened, an evangelical young man was being examined and was asked about the genuineness of John 8:1-11.  He held up his paperbound copy of the Living Bible and said, in the tone of one taking a stand for his faith, “It’s in my Bible!”

Well, what are we to make of all of this?  We must talk about it because our own copies of the Bible, our NIVs, are telling us that this paragraph is not part of Holy Scripture.  Other devout folk are telling us not only that it is part of Holy Scripture, but that to doubt its authenticity is to play into the hands of unbelief and to be led by unbelieving and unconsecrated scholarship to raise doubts about the Bible in the hearts of God’s people.

Well, let’s begin with a few facts that are not in dispute.

  • We do not have the original writings of the NT as they came from the pen of the biblical authors. We have copies only, copies of copies, and those copies do not agree with one another.  Until the invention of the printing press we do not have any single copy that is precisely the same as any other copy.  Hand-copied documents inevitably contained errors in transcription.  Everyone admits that one has to decide which text is the correct one, the one most likely to have been original, when faced with the differences that exist in manuscripts.
  • Even the new majority text Greek NTs, there are two of them, that propose to give the church a text more faithful text, a text based on a majority of readings in the manuscripts, so a text based less on theories of superior and inferior manuscripts or earlier and later manuscripts, a text more like that which underlay the King James Version, differ from the text used by the KJV translators themselves in some 1,500 places.  This is the Greek text that underlies the New King James Version of the Bible, by the way.  Everybody has to weigh probabilities in judging the differences that exist between manuscripts of the NT or portions of it.  There is no simple formula that solves the problem because all the manuscripts differ from one another at various points – all of them.
  • These differences that exist between copies and so the differences that exist between the various modern texts of the Greek NT do not materially effect the teaching of the NT in any part. Most of the differences are differences of minor detail, spelling, word order and the like.  But even here, at John 8, this is true.  There is nothing, for example, in this episode of the woman caught in adultery that cannot be replicated in other teaching of the Gospels and the NT as a whole.  The Pharisees’ hypocrisy in judgment, the Lord’s bracing exposure of it, the promise of full and free forgiveness to the penitent, the demand that those who wish for the forgiveness of God must live in new obedience, I say these are all biblical commonplaces.  We are left with no difference in message if this passage is lost to us and gain no new message if we keep it.
  • Indeed, the point can be put more baldly.  Here is a modern scholar, E. R. Goodenough.

“The field of [textual criticism – that is ascertaining the true text of the NT]…was never so systematically cultivated as now.  Yet…I doubt if the course of civilization will be appreciably changed by the production of the absolutely [authentic] New Testament text, or indeed would be deeply affected by the discovery of the complete set of New Testament autographs [that is, the very original manuscripts written by the NT authors themselves].  I should imagine that if we  had Paul’s letter to the Romans in its original form the problem of what he meant to say in it would be just about what it is now when we read it in Nestle’s text [the standard Greek NT text used by scholars and pastors today].  And the question of the relevance for modern man of whatever Paul may have said would certainly be exactly what it is.”  [cited in J. Wenham, Christ and the Bible, 191]

So, we can neither avoid the question nor should we think that the faith hangs on it in some way.  What should we think about this paragraph?

Well, we begin by asking why so many biblical scholars, including the vast majority of evangelical scholars who hold to the inerrancy of the Bible, doubt that this paragraph was in John’s Gospel when he wrote it?

And the reasons are these.

  • First, the passage is absent from a large number of early and important manuscripts of the New Testament. Among the manuscripts that do not have the paragraph are a good many that are widely believed, on other grounds, to be very fine copies of the New Testament text.  To put it simply, many Christian people who lived in the first centuries of the Christian era, would have not known of this text, would never have heard a sermon on it, and wouldn’t have found it in their Bible’s, had they been fortunate enough to own a copy, or seen it in the Bible they may have seen and read at church.
  • And it isn’t just that the paragraph is missing.  In many of these manuscripts the text follows on 7:52 with 8:12 with no hint of a break, no suggestion whatsoever that something else once went between the two verses.  I’ve seen a photo-facsimile edition of one of the great 4th century Bible’s, Codex Sinaiticus, and on this page of the Gospel of John it reads without a break or the hint of a break between 7:52 and 8:12.  There is no suggestion whatsoever that there ever was such a paragraph as our 8:1-11 or that anyone thought there was.   Moreover, a number of later manuscripts that do include this  paragraph mark it with asterisks or other signs to indicate that there is some problem as to its authenticity.
  • These manuscripts that omit the paragraph include not only Greek texts of the NT but, as well, a number of early versions or translations of the NT.  The early Syriac versions of the NT, the Coptic versions from Egypt, and some early Armenian and Georgian manuscripts omit it.  Some of the old Latin versions, the Bible of Ambrose and Augustine omit it as well.
  • What is more, all the early church Fathers omit it as well.  In commenting on John they pass directly from 7:52 to 8:12.  No Greek speaking and writing church father cites the passage before the 12th century, more than a thousand years after the writing of the Gospel of John, and the first one to cite it declares that the accurate copies of the Gospel do not contain it.
  • But that is not all.  Although most of the manuscripts of the Gospel of John that do contain this story place it here, between 7:52 and 8:12, others do not.  Some place it after 7:44 or 7:36 or John 21:25.  Indeed, some put this paragraph after Luke 21:38!  It is interesting, by the way, that the style and vocabulary of this paragraph concerning the woman caught in adultery differ noticeably from that of the rest of the Gospel of John.  In fact it contains expressions and constructions that are more characteristic of the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke than the Gospel of John.  Indeed, the story itself has a number of parallels with other stories in the other three gospels.
  • But, then, how are we to account for its place in later manuscripts? Well, there is no doubt that the story itself circulated in the western church, that is, the church in the western half of the Mediterranean world, the part of the church that spoke Latin, not Greek.  How it found its way into a manuscript of the Bible no one can say for sure.  But, we know that there was accurate knowledge of other events in the Lord’s ministry and other sayings of his that were never recorded in the Gospels.  John himself, remember, tells us at the end of his Gospel, that if he wrote down everything the Lord had said and done, the whole world would not have room for the books that would have had to be written.  Paul quotes a saying of the Lord Jesus in Acts 20 that is not found anywhere in the four Gospels.  We also know that there was a great deal of traditional lore about the Lord’s ministry the accuracy of which is hard to judge.
  • It is quite possible, therefore, that the story contained in this paragraph about the woman caught in adultery is, in fact, an accurate account of an actual event in the Lord’s ministry.  It certainly bears the earmarks of historical plausibility.  But no one can say this for sure.  There is no way to verify it.  And the fact is, though we have had it in our Bibles for a thousand years, the Greek church didn’t have it in its Bible for more than a thousand years and their Bibles were much closer to the time of the writing of the Gospel of John than our Bibles are.
  • There is only one other passage like this, that is, a passage of some length, that appears in our Bibles but is not likely original. That is the ending of the Gospel of Mark.  There are single verses that appear in the King James Bible, for example, that appear in no modern Greek text or English translation.  The famous example is 1 John 5:7 in the KJV, which reads, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”  It is a great proof-text for the Trinity, but nobody thinks that it was part of the letter that John wrote.  The New King James Bible, that still prints that verse as 1 John 5:7, has a footnote virtually admitting that it is not really part of the Bible.  It appears in only a few manuscripts and they are very late.  Perhaps originally it was a note in the margin and then somehow by accident found its way into the text of 1 John itself.
  • Well, for reasons very similar, most scholars feel that John 8:1-11 was not part of the Gospel John wrote and that it is much harder to explain how it disappeared from so many early manuscripts and from the knowledge of the church fathers than to explain how it might have been added in, wittingly or unwittingly, later on.

And that is my conclusion as well.  What we have before us in John 8:1-11 may well be an accurate record of an actual event in the ministry of the Lord Jesus.  But it is not part of Holy Scripture and so is not the Word of God and so cannot be preached as “Thus says the Lord.”  We can’t even be sure that it is real history, as we can be, of course, with all the events that the Gospel writers really did record.

So, there will be no sermon on John 8:1-11.  It is the honor we pay to the Holy Word of God that we do not preach anything that is not the Word of God as the Word of God.  You may feel, and with certain justification no doubt, that this morning’s sermon has done you little good.  After all, we have talked of manuscripts and scholarly debates and not about faith or love or hope or Jesus Christ.

But the edifice of our entire faith in Jesus Christ rests finally upon the foundation of the Word of God.  Those questions that concern the Bible and its integrity, therefore, are fundamental to our faith. It may not be as immediately interesting to you or as immediately helpful as a sermon on some text of the Gospel of John, but it is not unimportant for that reason.  If we aspire to be mature Christians with a solid understanding of the Bible, we must tackle those questions too.

We have every reason to trust our Bibles as, substantially the text that was written down for us by Matthew and John, Paul, Luke, and Peter.  And one of the reasons we can be sure of that is precisely that we know how to exclude this paragraph and keep the rest.  We have so much data, so many texts to compare, that we can be sure that we have substantially precisely what the biblical authors wrote.  The Holy Spirit made sure we could make sound judgments about the text of the Bible, so fundamental as the Bible and our confidence in the Bible are to our faith as Christians.

It can be difficult for a non-specialist to get his bearings in a discussion like this about the text of the NT.   But let me put the point this way, as a way of reminding you how reliable is our NT text.  The fact is, the factor of the final form of the Greek text of any portion of the NT is vastly overshadowed by the factor of the translators’ interpretation of the text.  For example, if you took two modern English translations of the Gospel of John, say the NIV and the NASB or RSV and compared them with one another, the result would be a mass of variants.  Hardly any sentence in the entire NT would be the same in both translations.  The differences between the two would be many, many times greater than the differences between the two most dissimilar manuscripts of the Greek NT that exist among the 5,000 or so that we have.  We don’t doubt that our English translations – be it the NIV or the RSV or the NASB or the NKJ – give us substantially the text and the meaning of the NT, how much more, then the Greek manuscripts that underlie them, however many small differences there may be among them.

The Lord Jesus himself passed his own imprimatur on the text of the OT, the Bible so far as it existed in his own day.  He said that it could not be broken.  He said that it was the Word of God itself.  But Hebrew manuscripts of that time differed also, even if less so than Greek manuscripts of the NT.  Scribal slips and copyists errors did not, in the Lord’s view, invalidate the authority and divine character of the Hebrew Bible and taught us to think similarly of the Greek Bible, or what we call the New Testament.

God surely could have preserved the Bible without any copying errors or discrepancies.  Why did he not?  Why must we face a problem like this one before us this morning?  Wouldn’t it have been better to have had the Bible written in stone and the original preserved for all the world to see?  Well, apparently not, given that this is not what the Lord did.

Listen to an English scholar suggest an explanation for the situation as we find it, with writings that have to be examined carefully to determine their precise text.

“It was evidently God’s purpose to give us a Book of Truth, rich in its diversity of concrete, personal experience and rich in its variety of forms of instruction, to be studied minutely and yet comprehensively.  Could anything be better calculated to encourage the careful study of Scripture down to its smallest details than the doctrine of inspiration?  And could anything be better calculated to discourage us from resting our ultimate trust in details than the textual uncertainty fringe?  In searching for the truth the slight element of uncertainty encourages us to compare Scripture with Scripture and to look always for the convergent testimony of the Bible as a whole.  If God had altogether preserved the Bible from the ordinary corruptions of manuscript transmission, this purpose would actually have been served less well.  Had the very autographs been preserved, they might well have become objects of idolatry.  In any case, what reason have we to think that we should be better equipped for good works if all the loose ends of our theology could be neatly tied?”  [Wenham, 194]

I want to show the deepest reverence for the Word of God, that Word that came directly from the Holy Spirit to us through the hands of Christ’s apostles.  I do that in many ways.  One way is to take great care and show great concern that, so far as we are able, we accurately determine the boundaries of that Holy Scripture.  Much more important, of course, is that we believe and obey what it says, or, better, what God says in it.