Why I’m studying a disputed text from the life of Jesus – John 7:53-8:11, Part 1

This week on the blog, we are talking about a disputed story in the life of Jesus. Disputed? What does that mean? Open a Bible to John 7, and look between verse 52 and verse 53.  There’s something important written there we need to talk about.  If you are reading from the New International Version, 2011 edition, do you see the horizontal line?  Below the horizontal line there is a text note, and this is what it says:

“[The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53–8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.]”

The editors of the 2011 edition of the New International Version (NIV) wrote that.  All the major English versions of the Bible include a similar note, except one: the King James Version (KJV).

What does the note mean?  Simply put, it means that biblical scholars are uncertain if John wrote this story, because the story is not in the earliest known manuscripts of the Gospel of John.  So the editors of our English Bibles bracket it, alerting us.

Why doesn’t the KJV bracket it?  Because the KJV is very old, translated in 1611, using one of the later manuscripts that included the story as a normal part of the text of the Gospel of John.  Earlier manuscripts were not available to the translators of the KJV.  In other words, when they published the KJV, they didn’t know it was an issue.  Now we do. 

So why is John 7:53-8:11 included in the major English versions of the Bible if we’re not sure that it is authentic?  Because the KJV was nearly ubiquitous for centuries in the English world, all following English versions of the Bible have continued to follow it’s lead, such as the chapter and verses divisions it used (which in most cases predate the KJV), for the sake of consistency. It would be odd if John chapter 8 began with verse 12, and there was no text note explaining what happened to verses 1-11.

But that is a pragmatic reason. I think there are at least two other more important reasons for teaching this story, and those two reasons get at why I am blogging about it this week.  First, while we don’t know if John 7:53-8:11 is authentic, we also don’t know that it is not authentic.  We just don’t know.  It might be, it might not be. 

But maybe you’re wondering, “Isn’t it dangerous to focus on a story that is even possibly inauthentic to the Bible?” That is a very important question. It could be dangerous to teach any story for which we do not have a high degree of confidence that it is genuinely biblical. We should be cautious.

In my opinion, though, it is not dangerous to teach this story. Why? The answer leads to my second reason why I’m blogging about it this week: this story utterly sounds like Jesus, and it is incredibly similar to how he behaves in other Gospel accounts that we are confident of their authenticity. 

To contrast, there are other disputed passages in the Gospels that do not sound like Jesus.  The ending of the Gospel of Mark, for example, is one of those disputed passages, and its content is theologically bizarre.  If I were preaching through Mark, I would skip it.  But this story in John 7:53-8:11 is right in line with the character and style and personality and genius of Jesus. 

How so?  We’ll begin to find out in the next post.

Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

Published by joelkime

I love my wife, Michelle, and our four kids and two daughters-in-law. I serve at Faith Church and love our church family. I teach a course online from time to time, and in my free time I love to read and exercise, especially running,

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