John 7:53-8:11 (Are Today’s Bibles Reliable?)

Not everything in your Bible may have come from the Bible. “What do you  mean, Caleb?” you ask. Well, the Bible has a very long history. It was written over a period of more than 1000 years, and was passed on for nearly 2000 since its completion. The timeframes for when some of the books of the Old Testament were written can at best be narrowed down to several centuries. 

Because of this, things can change. Before the days of computers, printing presses, and trivia nerds, copying writings was a very difficult, time consuming, and tedious process. So naturally errors would creep in (even some errors in modern published works go largely  unnoticed and uncorrected). These aren’t anything significant in most cases. Many different small mistakes show up in old copies of Scripture. Someone copying down the phrase “the Lord Christ” may have written “the Lord Jesus Christ” out of habit. A sleepy scribe might flip the order of parallel phrases (“roses are red, violets are blue” might become “violets are blue, roses are red”). Someone translating Numbers might accidentally drop a couple of names from a genealogy.

Fortunately for us, most of these errors can be found and corrected. There were, after all, very few times when only one copy of a book of the Bible was in circulation. Especially in the New Testament, several copies would be going around and being copied at once. So most of the time if there is a copy error in one copy, we can check other copies from other places and times to figure out what the right words are. With so many copies, we can usually fix the problems. Some ancient copies of Romans, for example, have “Amen” at the end of Romans 15:33, while some do not. Which is right? Well, most of the copies, including the oldest ones, include “Amen,” while only a handful do not have it, so it probably was originally there. 

Many different small mistakes show up in old copies of Scripture. But with so many copies, we can usually fix the problems.

Unfortunately, not all of the issues in copies of the Bible are so easy. Sometimes the copies are split 50/50 on how a certain verse goes. Sometimes only a few really old copies say one thing, while a lot of copies from way later down the line say another. In these cases more work is required to figure out what the right text is. Sometimes entire verses are in question. A lot of this came into more popular discussion with the arrival of the NIV, since it was the first of the popular modern translations and made many decisions on these questions differently from the KJV. For more on that, you can check my older post “Why Does the NIV Leave Out Verses?”

Today I specifically want to address one of the more serious cases. There are two places in the Gospels where whole paragraphs are in question. The most prominent of these is John 7:53-8:11, commonly known as the story of the woman caught in adultery (the other is Mark 16:9-20). We all know how it goes. The Pharisees bring a woman to Jesus saying she was caught in the act of committing adultery (that must have been pretty awkward). They remind Him that the Law says to stone women who do this. So what will He do? He writes on the ground (some say listing the sins of the people there), tells everyone that whoever is sinless should cast the first stone, and they all leave one at a time. Finally the woman is forgiven and sent away to sin no more.

Most copies of John from before the sixth century do not include the story of the woman caught in adultery, including one of the oldest copies of the Gospels ever found.

The problem here is that nearly all the evidence indicates that this story was not originally part of John’s Gospel. It breaks the flow in a way that you can see a much smoother story by skipping from 7:52 to 8:12. It contains many Greek words that John rarely or never uses elsewhere. While most copies of John from after the eighth century include this story here, most of the ones from before the sixth century do not, including one of the oldest copies of the Gospels ever found. Some copies of the Gospels from a thousand years later puts this story at the end of Luke. Still another set of copies from that time puts it after John 7:36.

Now, when the Greek copy of the New Testament they used to translate the KJV was put together, no one knew this whole story. Many of the older copies of the New Testament we have now hadn’t been discovered yet. So the KJV and the NKJV after it all include this story in its traditional place, and so it became popular and part of the normal Christian picture of Jesus. People use it to argue theology and practice. Pacifists, defenders of the faith against those who say we should obey the Law of Moses, and those who oppose the death penalty bring this passage up. But it doesn’t seem to be from John.

So what do we do here? Is this story a fake? Did it never happen? Are our modern Bibles not even reliable? Can just anything in the Bible be axed like this?

Calm down if you’re as panicked as the person asking these questions in my head. First off, as I said before, there are two places in the Bible (mainly the New Testament) which question anything more than at most a single sentence. Beyond that, we can prove with the number of copies we have that our modern texts are over 90% reliable, and that none of the questions or variations in them actually have an important impact on doctrine or Christian living. So we are on safe ground for what we believe and do being Biblical so long as we practice good interpretation. We don’t need to worry that the whole Bible will fall apart, because we have solid evidence in history that there have been few changes.

We can prove with the number of copies we have that our modern Bible texts are over 90% reliable.

But still, what about this story? Well, even if it wasn’t part of John, it is old. Early Christian writers mention it from even before we have any copies of it. They considered it Scripture. Moreover, it certainly sounds like something Jesus would do, and most scholars who believe the New Testament is reliable also believe that this passage probably did happen. So where did it come from? No one knows for certain. It did probably come from an early apostle or other disciple. Some people have made convincing arguments that Luke wrote it, maybe separate from the rest of his Gospel.

No matter what the details, we can rest assured that the Bibles we hold in our hands today are pretty solid representations of what God originally gave His people. The story of the woman caught in adultery specifically is probably true, and might even be argued to be actual inspired Scripture. It certainly speaks with the power of the Spirit to the love and forgiveness of Jesus. So no worries. Just keep trusting what God has revealed to us in His Son. Amen!

P.S. Here’s the full text of John 7:53-8:11, if anyone wants it.

So each one went to his house. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

At dawn He went to the temple complex again, and all the people were coming to Him. He sat down and began to teach them.

Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, making her stand in the center. “Teacher,” they said to Him, “this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do You say? ” They asked this to trap Him, in order that they might have evidence to accuse Him.

Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground with His finger. When they persisted in questioning Him, He stood up and said to them, “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Then He stooped down again and continued writing on the ground. When they heard this, they left one by one, starting with the older men. Only He was left, with the woman in the center. When Jesus stood up, He said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? ”

“No one, Lord,” she answered.

“Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

John 7:53-8:11

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So what do you think?