Sermon: John 7:53-8:11: Judge with Right Judgment

Reading of Text

[The Earliest Manuscripts Do Not Include 7:53-8:11]

[[“They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’ This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’”]] (John 7:53–8:11, ESV)


This passage presents some interesting challenges for a preacher. The story itself raises some interesting questions. Where is the man with whom the woman was involved? How could it be that the woman was caught in the very act of adultery? What were the motives of the scribes and Pharisees in accusing the woman? What exactly did Jesus write in the ground? And how are we to understand Jesus handling of the entire situation? Did he disregard the law of Moses by pardoning a guilty woman? Or was the woman in fact innocent? We will deal with these questions in due time.

The more pressing question is this: is the story original to John’s Gospel?  

For those of you reading from the ESV you will notice that this entire pericope (section) is set in double brackets with this note at the top: “The Earliest Manuscripts Do Not Include 7:53-8:11”. Most, if not all, modern translations make note of this in one way or another. The NIV and NKJV, for example, use a footnote to communicate this.

So what am I to do with this text? I see three options.

One, I suppose I could simply preach the text without saying a word about the manuscript evidence. I think you would agree that this would be unacceptable, and for two reasons. One, you are observant people. You can see the brackets and the word of warning, and you want to know what’s going on. Two, it would be dishonest for me to preach on the text knowing that its authenticity has been questioned in such a profound way.

Two, I suppose I could simply skip the text and move on to 8:12. This, I think, would be a better option than the first, but also will not do given that you are observant and probably curious.

In my opinion the only thing I can do is address the issue head on. And that is what I plan to do this morning.

This sermon will be very unique. It will be more of a clarification of our doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture and an introduction to the science of textual criticism than an exposition of John 7:53-8:11. With that said, we will eventually come to the text itself. This truly is a beautiful story, and one that I consider to be historically true, through not originally a part of the Gospel of John.

Evidence Against the Originality of The pericope de adultera

That this story – the story of the woman caught in adultery – was not originally a part of John’s Gospel is agreed upon by most scholars. Listen to these excerpts from three of the commentaries that I regularly consult in my sermon preparation:

  • Leon Morris says, “The textual evidence makes it impossible to hold that this section is an authentic part of the Gospel.”
  • Herman Ridderbos says,  “The now following passage – often described as the pericope de adultera – is generally regarded as a later insertion, not belonging to the original Gospel… the textual evidence strongly argues against the idea that originally this pericope belonged to the Fourth Gospel.”
  • D.A. Carson says, “Despite the best efforts of Zane Hodges to prove that this narrative was originally part of John’s Gospel, the evidence is against him, and modern English versions are right to rule it off from the rest of the text (NIV) or to relegate it to a footnote (RSV).”

I think these men are correct. And I think the translators of our modern Bibles are right to indicate this reality.

Let me briefly summarize the reasons for rejecting this portion of scripture as original to John. I will begin with what I consider to be the least persuasive pieces of evidence and move the to most persuasive.

  • One, it has been argued that the style of John 7:53-8:11does not match the rest of John. The words and phrases used here, and the style of writing is in general different form the rest of the Gospel.
  • Two, it has been noticed that if you were remove this passage from the Gospel the text would flow quite nicely from 7:52 to 8:12. In fact, the transition between 7:52 and 7:53 is very rough compared to the transition that would exist between 7:52 and 8:12 were the text to be removed.
  • Three, (and this is far more important, I think) the earliest Greek manuscripts do not contain this story. The story appears rather late in the manuscript tradition. The story does not appear in any of the Greek manuscripts of John before the fifth century A.D.. All the earliest church fathers omit this passage when they comment on John’s Gospel. Furthermore, no Eastern church father cites this passage before the tenth century when commenting on this Gospel.
  • And four, when the story does appear in the manuscript tradition it appears in different locations from time to time. Sometimes the story is placed after John 7:36, 7:44, or is placed at the end of the Gospel, as if it were an appendix. Sometimes it appears in the Gospel of Luke after 21:38. Furthermore, when it does it appear it contains a high concentration of variant readings.

I agree with Morris that, “The textual evidence makes it impossible to hold that this section is an authentic part of the Gospel”.

No Reason For Concern

I wonder, does this bother you? It probably does if this is your first exposure to these things. I would imagine that many Christians begin the Christian life assuming that the Bible we have today, and the ancient manuscripts upon which it is based, are completely free from all errors. But that is not what we confess! The church has never confessed such a thing. In fact the church has always confessed that it is the originals that we consider to be without error. The theologians of the church have always recognized that the manuscript tradition contains variations.

Listen to point two of our statement of faith under the heading “Revelation”:

“God has graciously disclosed his existence and power in the created order, and has supremely revealed himself to fallen human beings in the person of his Son, the incarnate Word. Moreover, this God is a speaking God who by his Spirit has graciously disclosed himself in human words: we believe that God has inspired the words preserved in the Scriptures, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, which are both record and means of his saving work in the world. These writings alone constitute the verbally inspired Word of God, which is utterly authoritative, and without error in the original writings, complete in its revelation of his will for salvation, sufficient for all that God requires us to believe and do, and final in its authority over every domain of knowledge to which it speaks.”

We believe that the scriptures are without error in the original writings. What John wrote, for example, was inspired by God. It was God breathed, to borrow the language of Paul. It was completely without error.

But we don’t have the originals, do we? No, what we have is thousands of copies of the original. Our earliest manuscripts of the New Testament are dated to the second century A.D.. And those second century manuscripts are, admittedly, rather small scraps of papyrus. We have far more manuscripts dating to the third and fourth centuries, and far more again dating to the fifth and sixth, and so on. We currently have approximately 5,500 Greek manuscripts, and tens of thousands more which have have been translated into other languages, many of them into Latin. We also have access to the writing of the early church Fathers who quoted scripture often. We do not have the original writings of the New Testament or Old Testament authors, it is true. But hear this: we do have the ability to compare thousands of manuscripts, one with another, in order to confidently discern that which was originally written. 

I do wish that Christians would take the time to think this through. It is import to think this through for at least two reasons:

One, to deny the fact that the ancient manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments contain variant readings is rather naive. Anyone with an internet connection can prove this fact. Our own Bibles are peppered with references to these variant readings (most of them very minor and indicated in the footnotes). It does us no good to ignore or deny these things. In fact, if you send your kids off to something other than a decidedly Christian university (or high school) I can almost guarantee that they will be confronted with these things. And I can also guarantee that they will be confronted with these things by people who have a different spirit and different motives than I have as I bring these things to your attention this morning.

Two, it is important for us of to consider these things because in the end we will come to possess an even greater confidence in the Holy Scriptures. Honest investigation into these matters will serve to strengthen our confidence in the scriptures, not undermine it.

In my opinion our doctrine of scripture is the most important doctrine of all. It is the fountainhead for all other doctrines. If we abandon the belief that the scriptures are inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and clear, then we cannot speak with any confidence whatsoever concerning any of the other doctrines of the Christian faith. How can we speak meaningfully of God, man, Christ, salvation, and so on, if our confidence in scripture deteriorates. God is our authority for truth. And though he has revealed himself in different ways in different times, he has spoken to us supremely through his Son. And he has given us record of his revelation of himself in history through the scriptures – through the writings of the Apostles and Prophets. We believe that the scriptures are inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and clear. We believe that “Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience” (LBC 1.1) How important it is, therefore, that we possess a clear and confident understanding of the doctrine of scripture. We lay ahold of this confidence, not by running from these so called challenges, but by moving towards them, and though the process of true and honest investigation, prevailing over them. It does us no good to ignore the double brackets surrounding John 7:53-8:11. No, if we are to live with confidence in the Holy Scriptures we must address these difficulties.

Christian, hear me say this: there is nothing to fear here. There is no reason for concern. We have never denied the existence of variations within the manuscript tradition. Our confession has always been that the scriptures are inerrant in the originals. And once we take the time to think upon the great treasure that we have in the manuscript tradition of the New Testaments (not to mention the Old) we can move forward with confidence knowing that God not only inspired his word in the giving of it, but he has also preserved it for us so that we might know the truth even now.

Textual Criticism

Here is a brief, and very simple, explanation of how we came to possess the scriptures that we have today. The Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek. God inspired the original authors. This is the scripture’s testimony concerning itself. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” 2 Peter 1:21 says,  “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” These inspired writings were then copied by hand and circulated by the people of God. Copies were made of the copies, and copies were made of those copies, and so on. Some were copied by professionals; others were copied by those less skilled in the matter. But it is safe to say that tens of thousands of copies were made by hand. As I said before we have discovered approximately 5,500 New Testament manuscripts written in Greek, and thousands more written in other languages. This is really a most impressive thing when compared to the manuscripts tradition of other works from antiquity.

Now think with me for a moment. Would you rather have one document claiming to be the original of a particular book of the Bible, or one hundred copies of that one document, each of them containing some variations? Which scenario would enable you to rest assured that you indeed possessed the original. May I suggest that the second scenario is the better of the two?

Under the first we would constantly wonder, is this really from John? Or, is this really from Paul? Who’s to say that someone didn’t destroy John’s original and replace it with their own? Or, who’s to say that what we have isn’t actually a flawed copy of a copy? And so on.

Under the second scenario we are able to take the one hundred manuscripts, compare them with one another, and work to reconstruct the original. This is the discipline of textual criticism. It is an incredibly important discipline. It is a highly specialized field, requiring a very high degree of proficiency in ancient languages. Praise the Lord for those who labor faithfully in this field. (See recommended resources listed at the end of this sermon) But is through textual criticism – the comparison of one document with another, and the comparison of one family of documents with others – that we are able to see where they agree, and where they disagree. They agree much more than they disagree. And where they disagree we are able to come to some fairly certain conclusions concerning why they disagree, and what the original likely was.

All of that is to so that the brackets surrounding John 7:53-8:11 cause me to rejoice, not to fear. They increase my confidence in the Holy Scripture. They testify to the fact that we have a wonderfully rich manuscript tradition. So rich is the manuscript tradition that we are able to make confident assertions concerning the text of scripture. The only reason we can place this story in double brackets is because there are so many wonderful manuscripts to study and to compare one with another.

The Textual Variations are In Fact Quite Insignificant

I should make two more points moving on.

The first is this: the number of texts of scripture in question are actually relatively small. As we focus intensely upon this passage, which is an example of a very significant textual variation, one might get the impression that the scriptures are shot through with major variations. Not true. Most of the textual variants, which are relatively small in number, are also very insignificant, having very little impact upon the meaning of the scriptures. As Paul D. Wegner has said, “It is important to keep in perspective the fact that only a very small part of the text is in question. . . Of these, most variants make little difference to the meaning of any passage.”

Secondly, it should be remembered that of all the variant readings found within the manuscript tradition, none threatens core tenants of the Christian faith. As F.F. Bruce has said, “The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affects no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice.” This is even true of this passage. If we were to accept this story as original to John, nothing substantial would be gained concerning our view of the Christian faith. Conversely, if we were to reject this story as not original, nothing would be lost in terms of essential Christian doctrine.

What Are We To Do With This Text?

Though it is true that nothing significant or unique to the Christian faith is lost or gained by rejecting or accepting this text, it must be admitted that most Christians feel a sense of loss upon hearing that this story is not original to John. This is a beloved story, isn’t it. It’s a beautiful story. It’s a story that sounds a lot like something our Lord would do.

Here is my view: thought the evidence is overwhelming against this story being from John’s hand originally, I do believe that the story is true historically. I can’t prove it, but I do believe that this event really happened. You can see how this story could have been preserved by way of oral tradition being passed on from generation to generation. And you can imagine some scribe somewhere saying to himself, this is so good, and so consistent with the way of our Lord, it must be preserved. And so perhaps he decided to write it down in the margin of Luke, or at the end of John, or in some other place. And then someone else who came afterwards saw it and moved the story into the text in one way or the other. I cannot prove it, but the theory does fit the evidence.

All things considered, I do not think that it right for us to view this passage as inspired scripture as we do the rest of John. But having said that there’s no harm in noting the ways in which this text corresponds to truths known from other portions of scripture.

One, notice the spirit of the scribes and Pharisees as they accuse this women. There seems to be little compassion, little desire to give the woman a fair trail. They claim to have caught the woman in the act of adultery. The question has to be asked, how did they manage to do that? Was this woman set up by someone? Was she really caught in the very act? That the man is nowhere to be found raises questions. The law of Moses commands that the man and woman be put to death for the sin of adultery. It takes two to tango, doesn’t it? Where is the man? Perhaps he was faster that the woman, and able to flee. Or perhaps he was used to trap the woman in some compromising situation, the husband having been suspicious of her, but unable to prove her infidelity. Or perhaps the scribes and Pharisees were just plain unjust, showing favoritism to the man and condemning the woman. One other option is to see that, though the woman was guilty of some sin – perhaps she was guilty of placing herself in a compromising situation, or perhaps she was seriously considering an affair – she was not technically involved in the sin of adultery, and therefore was not deserving of the death penalty. This last possibility seems to fit all of the evidence most naturally.  That she sinned, Jesus will make clear. He will say to her, go and sin no more. But that she is not deserving of death is also clear – Jesus would not condemn her. Notice that there is a harshness of spirit in the scribes and Pharisees. There is something fishy about their behavior. They come across as zealous for the law, but lacking in love and found wanting in regard to upholding justice. They toss the woman in front of Jesus publicly and make a spectacle of her in what seems to amount to a kangaroo court. This is consistent with what is revealed elsewhere in the scriptures.

Two, notice the agenda of the scribes and Pharisees. They come testing Jesus, hoping to trap him. The text says so.  Verse 4:“They said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’” (John 8:4–5, ESV) They were not really interested in Jesus’ opinion. Their objective was to catch Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. If so was indeed guilty he said let her go, he would be guilty of breaking the law of Moses and would fall into disfavor with the Jews.  If he said stone her, perhaps he would have found himself in trouble with the Romans, or perhaps he would have been perceived as lacking compassion or having been unjust himself if the women were indeed innocent. The motives of the scribes and Pharisees were far from pure. They desired to trap Jesus so that he might come into disfavor with either the Jews or the Romans. This was common of the scribes and Pharisees. They did the same sort of thing with the topic of divorce and over the question of paying taxes to Caesar. Here they use this woman to catch Jesus in a trap hoping that he will stumble and fall into disfavor either with the Jews or the Romans.

Three, notice the winsomeness of Jesus in responding to their questions. He did not answer them right away. Instead he remained silent and began to write in the ground. We all want to know what he wrote. Some believe he began to write the sins of the accusers in the ground. Others claim that he began to write scripture. A classic view is that wrote Exodus 23:1 which says, “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness.” Another view is that he wrote Exodus 23:7 which says, “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.” Honestly, we cannot know for sure. Whatever he wrote it clearly had an impact upon the accusers. Jesus was winsome in his response, as he was in other situations.

After some time he finally uttered these words, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7, ESV) This too was consistent with the law of Moses. Under the law of Moses the witnesses were to be involved in the execution of the guilty party. It made the act of accusing someone a serious matter. You could not accuse a person and then walk away uninvolved. You also had to be involved with doing the dirty work.  Jesus’ word to them do not mean that someone must be completely sinless or pure before he our she is able to accuse another in the court of law. But it did imply that these men were for from pure in regard to the motives behind their accusations and in regard to they way in which they had brought the woman before Jesus. And what was the result? The accusers began to melt away one at a time from the oldest to the youngest. Why would the oldest leave first? Perhaps it was because they were more mature, being more aware of their own guilt? Or perhaps it was because the older men had more to loose socially by being involved in an unjust trial.

It’s not that the woman was completely innocent – that will become clear. The issue was that these scribes and Pharisees were far from pure in their judgement and application of the law. They were carless and harsh and undiscerning in their judgements. The trial was an unjust trial. And that is the point, I think.

The question should be asked, why would this story end up here in the Gospel of John? Why in this place. My theory is that it was placed here in order to illustrate a major theme found in John 7. In John 7 we learn that the Pharisees were judging Jesus, not according to truth, but according to appearances. Look at John 7:24. Jesus rebukes the Jews saying, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” They were judging Jesus without really taking the time to investigate his claims. And remember also the words of Nicodemus at the end of John 7. He stood up for Jesus saying, “‘Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?’ They replied, ‘Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.’” This is the context. I believe this story is placed here to illustrate the carelessness and corruption, the harshness and wrongheadedness of the legal proceeding of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. The woman was not entirely innocent – that much is clear. But the judgment of the Jews is portrayed as most unjust. They judged her prematurely. They did not take the time to investigate the case thoroughly. They condemned her rashly.  That this is so is proved by the fact that they all walk away from the oldest to the youngest as they realize their error. Their case against the woman can’t even stand up to a few moments of silents and some scribbles in the sand. And the point is this: as was with the trial of the women, so it was with their judgment of Jesus.

Jesus eventually addressed the woman saying to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (John 8:10, ESV) This means, where are those who had assumed that you were certainly guilty and deserving of punishment. The woman response: “No one, Lord.” This means, they are no where to be found.  And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you…” – that is, neither do I consider you deserving of the penalty of death – “go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:11, ESV) That the woman was guilty of some sin is clear, for Jesus tells her go and sin no more. But his judgment was true and just. He proved that the scribes and Pharisees were crooked in their judgement, for they walked away ashamed one at a time. How exactly they were crocked, we do not know. But the entire narrative suggests that they were up to no good and acting unjustly in their judgement. Jesus was upright in his judgment. He showed the woman mercy by giving her a fair hearing.

Application and Conclusion

Let us apply both portions of this sermon before we conclude.

I do hope that you trust God’s word as being without error. We live more than 1,900 years after the writing of the New Testament. It requires effort to study the scriptures. We should do so with great care. But there is all the reason in the work to view them as trustworthy.  I love the language of our Statement of Faith which says that our “God is a speaking God.” He is a God who has determined to reveal himself to his people. If God had determined to reveal himself then it is safe to assume that he is an effective communicator. He has communicated to us in a way  that we can understand. He has done so through the giving of his word initially. Is it not also most reasonable to assume that he has preserved his word for us so that we who live today might also know the truth. Our God is a speaking God. He is a good communicator. He has not left us without a trustworthy testimony concerning himself. Do you trust God’s word?

I might also ask, do you treasure God’s word? Do you realize how precious it is. If Bibles were rare, how much would you pay to have one? How far would you travel to hear one read and expounded? What conditions would you endure, what risks would you take to be exposed to God’s word if Bibles were are rarity? They are far from rare in our day, and I fear that this has lulled us into complacency. God’s word is a treasure. It is “more to be desired… than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” (Psalm 19:10, ESV)

Recommended Resources

The Gospel Coalition – An Interview with Daniel B. Wallace on the New Testament Manuscripts

The Reformed Forum – The Question of Canon – An Interview of Dr. Michael J. Kruger

The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

Lumina Online Bible Study Tool (Pay special attention to the TC (Textual Critical) notes)

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