My favorite Bible story probably shouldn’t be in the Bible.
I love the story of the woman caught in adultery found in John 8. I have to be pushing 100 tellings of that particular story in my lifetime. To me, it is gospel in microcosm.
But, here’s the thing I tend to gloss over about that section of Scripture. There is almost no chance that the story was in the original manuscript we label the book of John. I won’t bore you with the textual evidence for it. (Because I really don’t care to convince you one way or the other.) Most scholars would agree that the story was likely added to John’s gospel about 100-200 years after it was written. Now, my non-believing friends tell me all the time the New Testament was constantly altered throughout antiquity by monks and scribes with agendas – implying that we can’t trust any of the text preserved for us. I think this opinion is generally overstated. We have many late copies of the New Testament books that lead us to believe we hold, more or less, the authors’ original writings.
This story however fails the test of Johannine authenticity on a few fronts – it pits Jesus in direct conflict with the Pharisees, for instance. This is a common theme in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), but not as much in John. The story actually fits the style of the synoptic gospels much better. (In fact, some early manuscripts find the exact story inserted into the later chapters of Luke instead of John.)
I feel like the reason this story still exists in most all modern translations is simple:
We like it too much to get rid of it.
It is so full of gospel that we can’t bear the thought of de-canonizing it. This is also why I believe it made its way into the text originally.
The early church couldn’t fathom the story of Jesus documented without it.
My personal guess is that this was an oral tradition rooted in some historical event in or around the life of Jesus that was so important to the early Christians that it made its way into the written accounts of the gospel after the fact. For years this bothered me. How could my favorite story be an afterthought addition? What does that say about its historicity or inspiration?
As my thinking began to change on most everything, I was able to see this story in a new way.
At the end of John’s gospel he says…
“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the King, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name…Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
John gave his readers the stories they needed to receive life in Jesus. The final cut didn’t include this story. (As a filmmaker, I began to see it as a deleted scene. Some of the funniest scenes in my last movie didn’t make the final cut for the sake of the larger story.)
But the early church couldn’t bear for us to be without this story. So they filled in just one of the empty pages in one of the books that the world did not have room for.
Is the story Biblical? I guess it depends on how you define Biblical.
Is it true? Absolutely. And when I think about it that way, it means even more to me.
As I continue to explore the idea of Improvisational Christianity, I am struck by the ability of even the most sacred of gospel texts to breathe, expand and continue to tell a story once deemed complete. What used to bother me as a young evangelical gives me hope as a post-evangelical. It makes me wonder what story our generation should try to sneak into the Bible before we pass it along to the next.
Allow me to leave you with my current imagination of my favorite story:
He squatted. A drop of sweat fell from his furrowed brow and landed on the dusty ground. It was a hot day. Her wails of agony and embarrassment pierced his ears. Had he taken the time to listen closer, he would have heard his enemies chattering and his followers gasping. But all he noticed was his own elevated heart rate.
He was focused on his next move. This was not on the agenda today. He was to teach in the morning, have lunch with his friends, then move onto the next house that had been arranged for him. He looked forward to what he hoped would be a softer bed in the new house than the one he had used for the last several days. His back ached.
He glanced up. He was surrounded. At least a dozen of them encircled the girl and him. They wore smug faces and the clean garments of priests and professors. He felt his stomach turn sour. Sometimes he wished he couldn’t’ see through them.
His eyes fell to her. Naked. Curled in a ball. Bleeding from her knees and face. She wept. Her fear overcame him. Anger boiled in his soul toward her accusers. She was only a pawn in their game. But she had a name…a story…and maybe even a future.
His eyes fell back to the ground. Instinctively he began to draw with his finger in the sand. Meaningless scribbles helped him think. Then he grinned ever so slightly. Like that moment a puzzle is solved in the mind.
“Well?” one of them spoke. It was the young brash one who had thrown her down by her hair. “What do we do with her, Rabbi? Moses says stone her. What do you say?”
His eyes didn’t go to the inquisitor. They stayed on her. She was curled nude in the fetal position. Like a baby abandoned at birth.
“We should stone her,” Jesus said. She shrieked. He was her last hope. “But we will do it right,” he continued. He only looked at her. “The one of us who is without sin will throw the first stone.”
Silence. Nothing but her whimpering. Just a thud as the oldest priest dropped his stone to the ground. Then another. And another. Then, like popcorn hitting that perfect temperature, they all began to fall. The young zealot was the last to leave. He turned and stormed off.
Finally, the teacher moved his eyes from her. They had all left. Only a few of his own disciples remained. They stared at him shocked. Confused. Speechless.
He removed his outer garment and walked to the girl. She couldn’t have been more than 17. The same age as his youngest sister. He covered her and lifted her chin with his finger. Again, he squatted.
She looked at him.
He wiped the tears from her eyes. Then the blood from her nose. “Where are they?” he whispered. “Your accusers are gone.” He looked past her eyes into her soul. “And I don’t accuse you either,” he said. “Now go, but stop sinning like this. It is destroying you.”
He stood and lifted her up. “Go on now.”
She turned and limped away covered in his cloak, crying again.
But it was a different sort of cry.
*This post is an edit of a recent blog at www.joeboydblog.com.