Cast The First Stone

This week's video is a famous story from the Gospel of John. It's well known for being a beautiful depiction of how Jesus demonstrated mercy to a sinful woman in spite of the accusations thrown against her. For many, this story is the story of how Jesus meets all of us - fully knowing how sinful we are, and yet mercifully saying "I do not condemn you."

Since this meaning is fairly obvious and straightforward from simply following along with the story in John 8:1-11, I want to dedicate some time to some other issues that come up for many readers, and that is how to fit this story in with the rest of the action taking place in John. Here's what I mean:

In the video linked above, we went with an interpretation that assumes this incident took place during the Festival of Sukkot, also known as the Festival of Booths or Shelters, during which Jesus had been occasionally offering public teaching near the Temple.

John 7:37-38 says this: "37 On the last day, the climax of the festival, Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds, “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me!38 Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’”

This verse seems to be somewhat reminiscent of an Old Testament passage, Jeremiah 17:13, which says:

"Lord, you are the hope of Israel;
   all who forsake you will be put to shame.
Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust
   because they have forsaken the Lord,
   the spring of living water." (NIV)

What is interesting is the way that this verse from Jeremiah can be used as a link to Jesus' otherwise very mysterious action of writing in the dust. If Jesus meant to evoke this passage by using the phrase "living water," then it may be that he still has that passage in mind when he begins to write in the dust - symbolically acting out what is happening to those who have forsaken the Lord by bringing unjust judgment against this woman.

A handful of people have opted for this interpretation, including Rob Bell in his book What Is The Bible, and this commenter in this clip:

But while this interpretation is very powerful and creates an interesting Old Testament connection, there is a significant problem with it that will be uncomfortably apparent to anyone reading a modern Bible translation:

It's possible that John 7:53-8:11 was not originally part of the text. You'll notice a bracketed caveat in most translations that goes something like this:

"[The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53–8:11.]" - ESV

While some people will become very alarmed here and begin to wonder if perhaps there are nefarious plots by Bible scholars to subtly change the Bible and take away parts of God's word, if we understand the way Bible translation works, this makes sense.

Before scholars sit down to translate the Bible, other researches have to re-construct the most accurate version of the Greek or Hebrew text that they can. This is because while we do have plenty of copies of ancient manuscripts of the Bible, not all of them are exactly the same in there content. Some of them have slightly different wordings, or the wrong word substituted for a word that sounds or is spelled similarly, or a sentence that was changed by a scribe for clarity. Or, in some cases, a manuscript might have a part of the page missing or a big hole in the middle. The quality of our Biblical manuscripts range from things as complete as a full book or scroll, or as small as a tiny fragment of paper from the 2nd century with a few lines from John 18 on it.

So large teams of Bible scholars will comb through thousands of ancient copies of the Bible, compare all the variations in the text, see what seems to be the most common and/or oldest version of the text, fill in the gaps where some manuscripts are missing a piece, check the wording of the ancient manuscripts with the wording found in the sermons and letters of early church leaders who quoted from the Bible, and do numerous other things to figure out as closely as possible what the original Greek wording of the document was. Then, and only then, do the translators get to work turning it into English.

When the King James Bible was first published in 1611, the primary manuscripts that were available had this story from John 7:53-8:11. But in more recent times, tons of manuscripts have been discovered that simply never had this story in them. So it's possible that the original writing could have flowed just like this:

7: 47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”

52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”

8: 12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

13 The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.”

Taken this way, what plays out is just an ongoing and un-interrupted argument between Jesus and the Pharisees. So, if the passage about the woman caught in adultery is removed, it interestingly does not have any dramatic effect on the rest of the text around it.

What is interesting with this story, however, is the fact that while there are some manuscripts where it doesn't appear at all, there are also some where the story pops up in a different spot in the Gospels, a fact that the most recent edition of the NIV tries to make clear:

"[The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.]"

Some authors have supposed that this story had been floating around in Christian communities as something that Jesus actually did, but just didn't end up getting included in any of the gospels. Eventually, someone felt it was important enough to include, and people started trying to find a place to insert it. After all, John did say:

"Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." (John 21:25)

But that thought on it's own is not enough to prove that this story belongs there, or that it's even a true story. Others have suggested that it was simply a devotional fiction story that a handful of people tried to insert.

This variant in John 7:53-8:11 is one of only two major textual variants in the New Testament, the other one being the "long ending" of Mark (16:9-20). By major, I mean that they are significantly lengthy passages. The vast majority of other textual variants in the New Testament are a word or two here and there - spelling errors, slight word changes, or maybe a sentence that was added in much later. For the most part, these variations do almost nothing to change Christian beliefs or even the meaning of the passages they are in.

So this passage can become a problem for many Christian readers. Some will look at the evidence and say, "Well, this isn't really supposed to be part of Scripture, so I will get rid of it or ignore it." Others will say, "I need to find a way to justify this being part of the scripture, no matter what." Still, others may treat it as a beautiful, helpful, inspiring story about Jesus that they treat with a little bit of caution, in the same way that a Protestant might treat 1 Maccabees.

The important thing to keep in mind, here, is that some of the scholars who think that the story doesn't belong in John also think that it's a true story. Scholars like Don Carson and Bruce Metzger have said that while they don't believe this is a story that John wrote down, they believe it's a story that actually took place in the life of Jesus, that was passed down by oral tradition, and eventually written in by someone who really wanted it included.

John Piper has a fairly solid analysis both of the textual issues and what we as either the average believer or, perhaps, a preacher writing their next sermon, might do with this passage. The thing that makes this story still work for us is, interestingly, the fact that it's really not that special. The story of the woman caught in adultery tells us absolutely nothing new about Jesus that we didn't already know about him from the rest of the New Testament. But this is a good thing, not a bad thing.

We know that Jesus, in various places, overturns of re-interprets the Law of Moses in the faces of the Pharisees, and that he tends to emphasize the more merciful, graceful application of the law. We know that Jesus forgives people for their sins, calls them to a better life, and turns away hypocritical accusers who abuse people with bad theology. The Pericope Adulterae is so powerful to us because it's a perfect summary of the way we all meet Jesus in all the other pages of the New Testament. It's a story that perfectly crystalizes what we can already see he is like from the rest of the things he did in his life, death, and resurrection.

And from that point of view, I don't think there's much reason to be terribly stressed out by this passage.

Study Questions:

  • Read two different versions of John 7-8 by either including or omitting 7:53-8:11. Which one seems to make more sense to you? Which one flows better? Does the story of the woman caught in adultery feel like it belongs here or not?
  • Compare the story in John 7:53-8:11 with the three stories in Luke 15 and Mark 2:1-12. Write out the main points that you learn from all of these passages. Is there anything you learned in John 8 that was not already included in these other passages?


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