After we pray at our Wednesday Evening Prayer Meetings, we spend some time looking together at a passage of Scripture. Lately we’ve been working our way through John’s Gospel, taking one passage at a time. Last week we looked at John 7:25-52. And so the next passage naturally would be John 7:53-8:11. But rather than speaking on that passage, I focused on the verses following it: John 8:12-30.
I began my devotional by explaining we would not study John 7:53-8:11 because it is most likely not part of the inspired Gospel of John. The English Standard Version (ESV) indicates this by putting that passage in double brackets and stating just above it, “The Earliest Manuscripts Do Not Include 7:53-8:11.”
After my message, people asked many questions about why the ESV essentially excludes this passage (as well as Mark 16:9-20) from the Word of God. I explained the reasons for that to the best of my knowledge, but one person thought a clarifying email might be helpful (especially since two of the participants were watching by Zoom and may not have heard everything that was said).
Rather than an email, I thought I would put it here on my blog. So here’s a brief, but hopefully clear explanation of why I skipped John 7:53-8:11 in our study of that Gospel.
We learn from the Bible that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Thus we believe that the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments are “inspired,” that is authored by God himself and therefore inerrant, infallible, and trustworthy.
Though (as we’ll see) we have every reason to hold up our English Bibles and say, “This is the inspired Word of God,” strictly speaking it was the original manuscripts that were written by inspiration. When John put down his pen (or whatever he wrote with in those days), he had before him the inspired Gospel of John.
But because the Scriptures are ancient, as far as we know none of the original manuscripts (or “autographs”) exist today. They’ve all been lost to history. My daughter asked the excellent question: how would we know if we did have the original manuscript of one of the books of the Bible? The answer is, we may not be able to tell that it was the original because it would be hard to distinguish it from a faithful copy. But most likely, the question is moot since a papyrus manuscript 2,000 years or older would not survive unless preserved in some extraordinary way (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls survived in jars in the arid desert air). It’s safe to assume the autographs are all lost.
For the New Testament, we do have thousands of Greek manuscripts that are copies (that is, for most if not all of them copies of copies) of the autographs. The manuscripts vary in age and completeness. Some date to the second century, and some are only fragments of texts while others contain entire books of the New Testament. Significantly, they also differ (slightly, we’ll see) in content – among the thousands of Greek manuscripts that exist there are many variations in spelling, words, and sometimes whole verses.
This is where the discipline of textual criticism comes in. Despite the word “criticism” in its name, this field of study is not necessarily done by people who reject the authority of Scripture. In fact, textual criticism has as its goal something every Christian desires: the most accurate (that is, the most like the original) text possible for every book of the New Testament. Textual critics compare texts with texts, and using certain rules they seek to determine what was actually written in the autographs themselves.
Does this mean what we have in our English Bibles is just an educated guess of what the original, inspired documents actually said? Far from it. First, in comparison with other ancient literature (say, the writings of Thucydides), the New Testament has hundreds or even a thousand times more extant manuscripts. What’s more, compared with manuscripts of other ancient writings, some of these copies far more nearly approach in time the dates of the originals.
Furthermore, the vast majority of actual differences among Greek New Testament manuscripts are inconsequential – spelling differences, obvious copyists errors, changes in word order, etc. Only about 1% of textual variants change the meaning of a given verse or passage in any discernible way. And none of the differences between Greek texts touch upon cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith – the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the death and resurrection of Jesus, etc.
20th-century New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen said the difference among manuscripts is “infinitesimal in comparison with what they have in common.” Thus, though we are not sure in some places exactly what the original autographs said, the manuscripts overwhelmingly testify to the truth that, as our Confession of Faith puts it, God has kept his written Word “pure in all ages” by “his singular care and providence” (WCF I:8).
So we can say with all confidence that the Bible we have today is the very Word of God for our salvation and sanctification.
But what about John 7:53-8:11? Using the findings of textual criticism, the majority of conservative, evangelical biblical scholars believe that this passage was most likely inserted into John’s Gospel by a copyist some time after John wrote his original document. What is recorded in that passage may have in fact took place, but there is serious doubt that it is part of the inspired text. Therefore the ESV essentially partitions it off from the rest of the Bible. For the same reason, I don’t preach or teach on this passage as part of God’s Word.
Why didn’t the ESV simply excise it from the Bible altogether, instead of including it with brackets and an explanation that it’s not included in the earliest manuscripts? That I don’t know, but my guess is the editors of the ESV decided to include it because it has been for so long part of the English Bible (especially the King James Bible) as centuries of Christians have known it. I believe they were correct to qualify its inclusion they way they did, though.
As a final thought, we need to trust in God’s goodness and providence in preserving the integrity of his inscripturated Word throughout the centuries. The New Testament authors had full confidence in the truth and reliability of the Old Testament Scriptures, though they also did not have the original autographs to consult. Why should we demand more than what God has been pleased to give us – a faithful and true transmission of his inspired Word? For myself, I find the study of the history of the Scripture wonderfully faith-strengthening. Despite the minor discrepancies among manuscripts, for those with ears to hear, the Bible unmistakably declares itself to be the Word of God. I believe this truth by faith (and by God’s grace), but the evidence only serves to confirm it.
Soli Deo Gloria!