John (Part 24): Mission Illustration – Adulteress pericope (ch 8)

06/09/2014 06:34

Following Jesus’ declaration of springs of living water for those who believed in him, the rest of chapter 7 speaks of division among the people relative to believing in him. Some believed Jesus to be the Messiah; others did not. But again the lesson of how God moves among us is shown. The word (God’s revelation) went out first. Its light presented truth. The faith acceptance or rejection rested, as verse 17 said, on the motivation to follow God.

The chief priests had sent out the temple police to arrest Jesus, but they came back empty-handed. Jesus had not simply dodged and eluded them. The temple police were Jews too. They too were looking for the Messiah. Their hearts also were illumined by God’s truth. They also could believe. And so, it appears, some of them did. But when the leaders heard of their failure, they ridiculed the guards. And significantly they called the people accursed because they did not know the law. The significance, of course, is the implication by the Jews that the people believed Jesus because they didn’t realize his teaching was contrary to the Law. They (the leaders) could see the wrongness of Jesus’ teaching because they were the only ones who knew the Law.

John places this exchange here to highlight the irony. They promote themselves and disparage Jesus and the people on the matter of adherence to the Law, and yet they call for judging against him before they properly vet him, which action is contrary to the Law, as Nicodemus points out in verse 51.

I mentioned that John places this exchange here because we should not assume that this chapter is moving along in chronological order. John rearranges the events to achieve his thematic purposes. If chronological, we have a bit of a problem in seeing the temple police dispatched in verse 32, a change of day occur in verse 37, and only then do the temple police come back empty-handed in verse 45. If Jesus is normally at the Nicanor Gate, the guards would have to walk just a few yards to get to him, and not have to take two days or longer to carry out their assignment.

Verse 53, the last of chapter 7, begins the next section that concentrates on the woman accused of adultery and, based on our outline, this scene will reveal the Messiah’s mission. But several difficulties face us with the story. The very first is is that most textual scholars don’t believe this passage (7:53-8:11) is part of the original manuscript of the Gospel of John. This is not an attack from more liberal-minded scholars who doubt God’s inspiration. This is the consensus view of even conservative scholars. In fact, some have characterized it as a question that scholarly reflection has now settled—the story was never in the original. Yet, as usual, some rogue scholars remain, and I happen to side with them. We need to discuss the evidence.

As usual in these reviews, the issues may be divided into external and internal. The external deals mostly with the manuscript evidence. The internal concentrates on style, both linguistic and literary.

The external evidence seems pretty strong to consider the story a later addition to the Gospel. No early (4th century or earlier) manuscripts contain the story, significantly our two earliest complete codices—Vaticanus and Sinaiticus—omit it. And none of the 80+ papyri of AD 400 or earlier contain it. That may be a little misleading, however, since of those 80+ pre-400 papyri, only 3 carry portions of John that would cover this placement at the beginning of chapter 8. So, in other words, 3 papyri and the 2 major codices do not hold the story. We first see it appear in the Codex Bezae of the 5th century. But then it appears in over 900 manuscripts.

Often we have some verses that originally were marginal notes by some scribe that have worked themselves through copy incorporation into the text itself. However, in this case we have a large section of Scripture whose incorporation must be resolved in another way. Some scholars have given explanation that they thought it probably was in the original but was removed because the story seems to be too lenient on adultery, which, in the 2nd-3rd centuries, was a particularly heinous crime. Twentieth century textual critic Edward J. Hill explains it this way:

The facts of history indicate that during the early Christian centuries throughout the Church adultery was commonly regarded as such a serious sin that it could be forgiven, if at all, only after severe penance. For example, Cyprian (c. 250) says that certain bishops who preceded him in the province of North Africa "thought that reconciliation ought not to be given to adulterers and allowed to conjugal infidelity no place at all for repentance.” Hence offence was taken at the story of the adulterous woman brought to Christ, because she seemed to have received pardon too easily. Such being the case, it is surely more reasonable to believe that this story was deleted from John's Gospel by over-zealous disciplinarians than to suppose that a narrative so contrary to the ascetic outlook of the early Christian Church was added to John's Gospel from some extra-canonical source. There would be a strong motive for deleting it but no motive at all for adding it, and the prejudice against it would make its insertion into the Gospel text very difficult.

(The King James Version Defended, 1984)

The question, then, remains as to whether the story was removed by one group of copyists from which our few early manuscripts survived, or added by other group(s) of copyists from which many of our later manuscripts survived. It would appear to be a debate locked in standstill. However, textual critics turn from this external evidence to claim support in the internal evidence.

The internal evidence divides between linguistic style and literary style. For those who believe the story was a later addition, they find two similar stories in other writing whose melding could have been this resulting story in John. One of these stories is very similar but leaves out the part about Jesus calling for the one without sin to cast the first stone. The other story’s setting is quite different—outside the temple at a spot at which an execution is about to take place—and Jesus interrupts it with a similar call to the one without sin casting the first stone. The first, more similar story has a style and wording that is comparable to our John 8 story, but is rather different from the rest of the Gospel of John. Words used in this story, many scholars argue, seem to be more in the context of Luke’s writing than John’s. In fact, there are about 8 or 9 words or phrases that appear much more frequently in Luke than in John. A couple of those words, John never uses anywhere else, while they seem to be favorites of Luke. This has given rise to the theory that this story was written by Luke but then rejected by Luke for inclusion in his Gospel, but later (centuries later) mistakenly inserted into John’s Gospel.

The scholarship for insisting that these must be Luke's words is sketchy at best. First, consider that the Luke-Acts text is almost three times as long as John, so words naturally will appear more often in Luke-Acts than in John. And because they are favorites of Luke does not mean John can’t use them, even only rarely. It is also possible that this was a document either written by Luke or part of Luke’s source documentation that John had access to. Thus, a different style or words frequently used by Luke does not argue that it could not be in John’s original Gospel. And that is also supported by the fact that both the story of the man healed in 5:1-11 and the feeding of the 5000 in 6:1-15 have styles just as different from the rest of John’s Gospel as 7:53-8:11.

But other indications actually argue for this being John’s work. The mention in 8:2 of Jesus entering the temple complex and teaching contains the same words and phrasing as 7:14 in which he came into the temple complex and began to teach. The only difference is that in 8:2, it mentions that Jesus sat—an argued Lukan phrase, but a natural position of a teacher and therefore hardly an argument that this could not be from John.

Additionally, other phrases of the story match other portions of John. John writes of Jesus telling the adulteress, “Do not sin anymore” (8:11), using the same phrasing as he does to tell the man made well, “Do not sin anymore” (5:14). In 8:6, John, as narrator, breaks from his story to present explanatory material as an aside: “They asked this to trap Him ….” Just so in 6:6 does John as narrator give an explanatory aside in the same linguistic style: “He asked this to test him ….”