Does the adulterous woman belong in your Bible?

The story of the adulterous woman, found in the Gospel of John, is a tricky text. The current scholarly consensus is that the account found in John 7.53-8.11 is not original to John, and modern translations often bracket the story and flag it as dubious.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the NKVJ, NIV, ESV, and the NRSV. Only the NKJV really attempts a defense of the story.

These brackets, however, don’t go far enough, according to Owen Strachan. Rather than bracket the text, he suggests Bible translators and publishers move the story out of the gospel proper and into a footnote:

If scholars speak with a nearly univocal voice that this passage is not part of John’s Gospel, then let’s go one further than our translations already have (thankfully!), and consider moving it out of brackets and into a footnote. Our goal here is maximum clarity and minimum confusion. . . . I wonder if it might serve the church better by moving this passage out of the flow of John’s Gospel. This is especially true for younger Christians and those who do not have advanced training in biblical studies.

I respect Owen a great deal, and what follows is only meant to address the red flags that jumped in my mind as I read his recommendation.

First, our faith does not depend on a pristine text — or a modern reconstruction of what scholars believe approximates that elusive pristine text. If it did, what should we make of the faith of all those Christians that lived before this reconstruction, including great exegetes like Augustine or Chrysostom, or pastors who led the church before even the canon (let alone this imagined reconstruction) was settled?

Second, doesn’t this change our concept of scripture — or at least underscore a serious disagreement among Christians about its nature? Rather than a collection of texts written in and for the church and recognized as valid by that church, biblical books and even minute passages now become arbitrated by scholars.

Third, by elevating the Bible above the church, Protestants inadvertently exposed it to all the same scrutiny with which they were then viewing the Catholic hierarchy. The effects are immediately seen in Luther wobbling over the inclusion of James in his New Testament. If the church doesn’t validate the text, who does? In this instance, scholarly consensus is consulted to “uncanonize” a portion of generally received scripture.

Fourth, Sola Scriptura becomes queer indeed when ideas from outside Scripture are determining what goes into it.

Fifth, inerrancy becomes equally queer when every Bible you can find is apparently wrong — or when, stepping back to the underlying textual traditions and the copies made therefrom, Christians have been hearing a bunk passage read from the lectionary and expounded from the pulpit for centuries. In that case, inerrancy is just the province of moderns with-up-to-date Bibles. Or are we just fooling ourselves here?

It’s perhaps ironic that the story in question contains the closest thing in Scripture to Jesus writing. It reminds us of the most obvious fact about Scripture — everything ever said by Christ in the Bible is something reported, something mediated, something transmitted by the apostles and the church. And let’s not forget that the church existed before the Scripture. Not a word of the New Testament was written at Pentecost. The church preceded the scripture, and it’s on the authority of the church that the authority of the scripture rests (1 Tim 3.15).

When we disregard that, even the most conservative among us end up recommending changing the text of scripture to fit contemporary ideas, however good and warranted they appear. But it seems a small view of both the church and the scripture if that’s all it takes to decide what is and what isn’t the Word of God.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.


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