Because this portion of the gospel of John (John 7:53-8:11) does not appear in many ancient manuscripts, many scholars regard it as highly questionable (i.e. whether inspired and therefore must be included in the whole gospel of John) as to its place in the New Testament canon. Moreover, the so-called church fathers, in their writings, did not have comments for they did not, in the first place, refer to this portion of the currently widely accepted as John’s gospel.
And so, early manuscripts’ (the copies of the original) forms do not include 7:53 to 8:11. If ever this periscope appears in some of the early copies, it is there in a special position, and just like many scholarly journals today, it has asterisk markings at its opening and also at its ending.
Some even believe it to be Luke’s writing rather than John’s because of its structure, of which, obviously very unlikely. When one will just read through before and after, without any hunch regarding these scruples among scholars, one will not sense any inconsistency nor anything different in this contested portion.
It is as much the writing of John like all of the other parts and chapters in the gospel (Constable, 2000). The pertinent question now which bears upon the readership of the gospel of John is whether this portion to be taken as authentic part of the whole (i.e. part of the inspired word of God) or not.
Well, it is now beyond any shadow of doubt that the gospel of John is without a doubt the gospel of John. 1) Why was this small portion contested among scholars, 2) Why is it now well-established as authentic part, and 3) What spiritual truths is John 7:53-8:11 conveying to its readers, are the issues which will be dealt in what follows.
John 7:53-8:11 – A Contested Portion
As what has been said above, scholars debate relentlessly over this portion ever since the canonicity of the New Testament scriptures has been studied. And so, because this issue has been put forth, the concerned matter must be settled once and for all for the benefit of those who are/would be affected by it.
Those who have been, at least, given the background of the gospel of John, know that the basic truth about this gospel is that it, like all the rest of the books of the canonized scriptures, was a product of the process of numerous copyings of the original autograph of its author. In the ancient biblical times, there were no publishing companies nor printing machines, and computers, as what modern day world has for its use today.
Hence, the way that a manuscript was made public in those days was through the then called copyists. These professionals (they were also called “scribes”) would copy the original copy; and most of the times, because certain materials were fragile (like the papyrus) and would not last for long periods of time, these scribes would recopy the “copies” of the original.
The copies nevertheless were received as good as the original by the recipients. The trustworthiness of the scribes were a given and beyond doubt in those days. The same is the case with other non-biblical writings. Such classics as the Iliad by Homer, Socrates’ Apology, Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus, and others like the historical accounts written by known ancient Roman historians, etc., were all copied and recopied.
The only marked difference these ancient manuscripts have which is in total contrast to the manuscripts of the Bible is that they (i.e. non-biblical classics) are received today without cynicism by the critics. This is very much unlike any biblical manuscripts. And so, John’s gospel as it is today is a copy of many copies. Before it reached its current forms with its many translations in many different languages, it had undergone numerous recopyings.
When early Christian scribes were in the process of putting together the inspired books, and when they go through John’s gospel (like perhaps the translators who were commissioned by King James in 1600), they incorporated the parts which they saw were rightfully belonging to John. Some of them, as was mentioned in the Introduction portion, expressed their misgivings by making this portion of John (7:53-8:11) appear like an appendix or footnote.
The whole background of this pericope has made it to be irresistibly taken as it actually is (whether it was then a well established oral tradition or something else), a narrative which is to be taken as real incident which actually happened at certain point in the life of the Savior.
However, in any ways, this questionable portion (for definite reason of providence) has eventually become part of John’s gospel and not anywhere in the so-called synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). And so, the gospel of John is like it is today because of careful and responsible consideration on the part of the translators (McArthur, 2009).
Beyond Reasonable Doubt – A Part Of John’s Gospel
There are practical considerations which can be helpful to anybody considering the issue of authenticity of John 7:53-8:11. First to be considered is the fact that it does not interrupt the flow of John’s style of writing. It actually fits his writing style.
It would be observed that from chapter 5 through chapter 8, John’s pattern has been presenting a scene or incident and then proceed to Jesus’ teaching or elaborating spiritual truths. John 7:53-8:11 flows out of the same said pattern of the author. Another thing to be considered is the fact that it never (the truths taught in this pericope) contradicts the teachings of the whole Scripture.
In fact, it reinforces the well-established truths about God and Jesus in the entire inspired Scripture. Being thus (John’s original writing and God’s authentic revelation), why should it be left out or considered not a genuine part of the revelation God is giving to humanity.
To excise this important portion from the gospel is to deprive many of a very important account in the life of Christ which reinforces the fact of his grace towards sinners and the reality of hypocrisy which so often illusively deceives and eats the best of the religious sector of the human populace. It ought to be studied and meditated and benefited from as much as the other portions of the Bible.
Apostle John wrote it to point out an occasion in the life of Jesus while ministering and backs his claims of Jesus’ divinity, it supports the whole biblical revelation, and it is legitimate part of the gospel and important part of God’s revelation.
The attitude therefore among its readers should be an attitude of trust and assurance (and without any hint of a doubt) that the story of the adulteress and those Pharisees who caught her in an actual adulterous situation (probably, she’s a prostitute), who then brought her to Jesus interrupting his discourse in the temple, was a historical and inspired narrative of John.
One more note as to its questionable legitimacy. Veteran pastor and scholar in his own right, John McArthur critically observed that probably the reason for early scholars hesitation to include John 7:53-8:11 was its seeming contradictory presentation of the Old Testament’s treatment of adultery (McArthur, 2009).
The story appears to be condoning the adulteress for her sinful act. It seems to violate the holiness of the Savior himself. Well, it only appears to be when looked at superficially. Actually, there’s a lot to be seen and discovered in this passage. When it is treated properly, important truths about God and his redemption would surface and become obvious to the observant eyes.
The scenario presented here does in no way introduce Jesus as one who disregards the issue of the woman’s life of immorality. John’s intention was not to put Jesus in a bad light. He was upholding as he writes all along the fact that God hates all forms of sin – adultery included. The issue, however, that was pertinent to John at the moment of his writing, was not whether adultery should be tolerated or not.
The issue being treated here was the Pharisaic attitude of hypocrisy. What really was happening at this point of Jesus Christ’s life and ministry was that the religious sector of the Jewish population were getting incensed at him, more especially, the Sanhedrin (this political group consisted mainly of the Pharisees).
At this particular point in time, there was already a plot to assassinate Jesus. And so, speaking in context, John was highlighting at the background of his presentation of Jesus as God in the flesh, the fact that there was already a very serious hostility building among the religious and political leaders of Israel. John was trying to convey here this reality of the whole situation (7:53-8:4).
This arrangement has supposed to have prepared everyone who has been following the narratives in this gospel to the spiritual truths and lessons it is conveying.
1.) Christ’s Wisdom & Humility. The first to note here about Jesus is his incredible wisdom. He knew full well what was going on in the background. He knew the Pharisees’ true intentions. Yet, in spite of this, he was able to compose himself in genuine humility. Remember that Jesus was introduced by Apostle John as God the Creator.
God himself incarnated in human flesh. Look at how Jesus responded to the whole thing – the evil scheming and maneuvering all directed against this God who became flesh. If this truth about Jesus is upheld at this junction of his life in this occasion involving all these characters in this narrative while reader reads, a deep and profound awe and admiration would inevitably overpower him/her.
It’s difficult to comprehend and unbelievable to see God in the flesh in such humble attitude enduring unjustifiable hostility in the midst of the people he created. Jesus’ profound wisdom and humility cannot be elaborated nor will ever be explored completely in its full sense in any study of the Scripture.
His wisdom and humility as they were both revealed can only be benefited from through the profound lessons they exude as they come from the fact that God the Creator showed them in his humanity.
2.) Christ’s Forgiveness. This narrative shows how much God can forgive. It also shows the fact that God is not impressed with hypocritical observance of his laws and cannot be swayed by man’s superficial understanding of his commands.
God who planned redemption understands in the first place the sinfulness of man – how sin has actually corrupted the entire human race. And so, in his incarnation, he knew the deception of Israel’s spiritual leaders. He knew they were self-deceived.
The lesson then being conveyed in this story of the adulterous woman is the fact of humanity’s deluded perception of itself; even the best of its representatives – the religious Pharisees. No one here in this incident is sinless in the eyes of Jesus.
Yet, as the story unfolds, he was seen forgiving even the obvious adultery of this woman. As was noted earlier in this paper, this passage of John is not meant to condone adultery. The passage is critical of hypocritical righteousness as well as it condemns the sin of adultery in the life of the woman. Overruling all these sins is the fact that God forgives.
THE STORY OF THE ADULTERESS (7:53-8:11) INTERERRUPTS THE TABERNACLES DISCLOSURES BUT HAS THEOLOGICAL CONNECTIONS WITH IT. HERE IS A CASE WHERE MANUSCRIPT EVIDENCE IS SIGNIFICANT. THIS IS PROBABLY A FLOATING GOSPEL PERICOPE WHICH ENTERED JOHN (AND LUKE) LATE.
1. McArthur, John. John Volume 3 (12 Part Series) Jesus Confronts Hypocrisy: A Study of John 7:53-8:11 Code: 1519. Date Accessed: May 12, 2009 at http://www.gty.org/Resources/Sermons/1519
2. Constable, Dr. Thomas L. Notes on John. 2000 Edition. Published by DTS Publications.
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