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

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

Why Does the NIV Leave Out Verses?

Almost everyone in church has heard this at some point. Someone who refuses to use anything but a KJV Bible has told you, “The NIV leaves out verses, taking away from God’s Word!” Your immediate response may have been scoffing, but perhaps later during a sermon or Bible study you noticed something like 1 John 5:7-8. For the KJV says:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

But the NIV says:

For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

“That’s odd,” you think. Then later maybe you were reading the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 and were confused to find this:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Matthew 6:9-13 (KJV)

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13 (NIV)

“Oh my goodness!” you exclaim. “Crazy Brother Bob with the angry beard was right! The NIV does leave out verses. They’re changing God’s Word!”

Crazy Brother Bob with the angry beard was right!

Okay, you may not have responded so drastically when and if this happened to you, but perhaps it did raise some doubt and questions. And that makes sense. As Christians, the Bible is our authority. We believe it to be God-breathed and the source of all truth needed for salvation. So if a translation of the Bible is messed up, that is a serious issue for us. If a Bible as popular as the NIV is subtracting from the words of God, we have to confront it.

NIV leave out verses

Fortunately, this is not the situation. If you do not already know this, I’ll explain the basic history of the Bible and how this leads to our modern translations, and their differences.

The Bible is actually 66 books, and they were written over a period of at least 1,500 years by over 40 people from various walks of life. There were original authors, editors, and copyists who produced the first generation of each book of Scripture. For the Old Testament, these books were written mostly in the Hebrew language, with certain portions in Aramaic. The New Testament books were written in Greek. The final book of the Bible was written sometime before AD 100.

If a Bible as popular as the NIV is subtracting from the words of God, we have to confront it. Fortunately, this is not the situation.

The next stage in development was copying. The Old Testament books were consistently and carefully copied by Jewish scribes for millennia. The rules they placed on copying Scripture were so strict that two copies of Isaiah, each written around a thousand years apart, were found to be 95% identical, with the remaining 5% mostly consisting of spelling variations and slips of the pen. However, the entire Old Testament is not in the exact same situation. Every book has a different history of copying. The matter is complicated by the Septuagint (LXX for short), a family of Greek translations of the OT that appear about 200-300 years before Christ. Ancient Greek and Hebrew were radically different languages, and so the LXX shows several translation issues and others differences, including sometimes even entire verses or passages, from most Hebrew manuscripts.

Then there is the New Testament copying. This was very different from the process for the OT books. In the early church, distribution was essential. They were determined to spread the Gospels and the writings of the apostles to every church as quickly as possible. This is both helpful and detrimental in understanding the original NT texts. On one hand, the vast number of manuscripts gives us a solid foundation for determining what the NT books originally said. On the other hand, the rapid and urgent copying led to many copyist mistakes and variations between manuscripts, thus leaving us with the difficult task of figuring out which reading among manuscripts is original.

[The NT copyists] were determined to spread the Gospels and the writings of the apostles to every church as quickly as possible.

If what I just said doesn’t make immediate sense, start at the beginning. Say that Paul sent the Greek letter of Romans to the church at Rome, who then copied it and sent it to the other churches around. These churches in turn made more copies, and as time progressed more and more copies were made. At some point the original letter was lost or destroyed. Now, if you were to collect all of these copies, you would see that some have unintentional errors, some have intentional alterations, some have added notes, some are incomplete, and some are part of collections. Now, the majority of this variations (which are called “textual variants”) are simply matters of spelling or obvious slips of the pen. However, some are more prominent, such as phrases, verses, or even a couple of paragraphs.

This is the case with every book of the New Testament (and also with the Old Testament, but the details are very different). So to deal with this, we have what is called “textual criticism.” This is the work of finding out based on copies what the original texts of something said. For example, some texts with Romans 8:1 say this: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Others say, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Others include “who walk not according to the flesh” but do not include “but according to the Spirit.” So which reading did the original manuscript of Romans have? Well, this is where the science of textual criticism comes into play. Textual scholars analyze external evidence (age, number, quality, and origin of manuscripts) and internal evidence (context, author style, length of variants, etc.) to determine which reading is most likely the original. In the case of Romans 8:1, most scholars agree that the shorter reading (“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”) is the correct one.

Textual scholars analyze external evidence (age, number, quality, and origin of manuscripts) and internal evidence (context, author style, length of variants, etc.) to determine which reading is most likely the original.

This is where many of the differences between the KJV and the NIV emerge. See, the KJV was translated in the 1600s. At this time, the best Greek New Testament of the day was based on a handful of late manuscripts (that is, manuscripts which were copied over 1000 years after the NT was written). These represent most of the NT manuscripts around. These manuscripts are part of the Byzantine family, because they come mainly from the area surrounding Byzantium (now Istanbul). However, since then a number of other manuscripts have been found. These are much, much older (and so closer to when the NT was originally written), and are found mostly near the Egyptian city of Alexandria. These are therefore called Alexandrian texts. In general, Biblical scholars today believe that the Alexandrian manuscripts are more reliable, mainly due to their old age and (according to many) more likely readings. The NIV, then, is based mostly on reading from Alexandrian manuscripts, while the KJV is based mostly on readings from Byzantine manuscripts.

One of the major differences between the Byzantine and Alexandrian manuscripts is that Byzantine texts are usually longer than Alexandrian ones. This is the case, for example, in Romans 8:1. It is also the case in Matthew 6:13. In the case of 1 John 5:7-8, the KJV reading is only found in a couple of medieval manuscripts. Most of the time, when the Byzantine readings are longer than the Alexandrian readings, the scholars find the Alexandrian readings more likely to be correct. For this reason the NIV is sometimes “leaves out” verses or phrases compared to the KJV. However, since the Alexandrian manuscripts are more likely to represent the original text, it is more accurate to say that, where the KJV and NIV are different in this way, the KJV has extra content, verses and phrases that were at some point added to the text either by accident or on purpose. So the reality is that the NIV does not leave out verses so much as the KJV (or rather, the Greek texts from which the KJV New Testament is translated) adds verses.

One of the major differences between the Byzantine and Alexandrian manuscripts is that Byzantine texts are usually longer than Alexandrian ones. For this reason the NIV is sometimes “leaves out” verses or phrases compared to the KJV.

All this is not to say that either version is unreliable. While the KJV does often seem to have extra content, and in some places the NIV probably is wrong, none of the errors in either are very significant. In fact, overall the estimated reliability of our current constructions of the New Testament text is over 90%. That’s an A, folks. Most of the differences are minor (such as “Jesus Christ” instead of “Lord Jesus Christ” or “Bethany” instead of “Betharba”), and even the bigger ones (such as John 7:58-8:11 or Mark 16:9-20) do not affect any critical doctrines, or have much impact on any doctrine. So be assured that your Bible is reliable, whether KJV, NIV, HCSB, ESV, or NLT (by the way, all of the versions made since around 1900 are like the NIV in this regard). All of these and others represent the Scriptures God gave us faithfully. God has kept His words to us in a form pure enough to save and sanctify us, all for His glory. Amen!

Why Does the NIV Leave Out Verses?