“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone…”
This was always one of my favorite Bible stories – a rogue hero full of compassion, courage, and conviction, going against the status quo to rescue a damsel in distress. It is truly one of the most dramatic examples of Jesus’ defined sense of morality and worthiness as a leader of men and I don’t think a day goes by that someone doesn’t quote this passage from John 8 to me as a reminder to not to judge others. Unfortunately, there is a problem with this passage: it’s not actually Biblical.
Contrary to surprisingly popular belief, the Bible did not just appear out of thin air one day. It was hand-crafted over many centuries by many different men with many different audiences and agendas. Eventually, councils of men (who, like the authors of the books in question, had no first-hand knowledge of the life of Jesus) were formed to decide which of these writings were worthy of being part of the canon. Many books were tossed out, some sought out, in order to establish what we now consider the Holy Bible, the Good Book, the Word of God!
However, the editing didn’t stop with the councils. Rulers, priests and lowly scribes have always had a hand in massaging the text to fit the needs of the day. Don’t like the way Jesus got angry with a leper for asking to be healed? Easy – just change one word from ‘anger’ to ‘compassion.’ Suddenly notice that there is no explicit mention of the trinity anywhere in the most authentic (earliest) Greek texts?
Simple – just convince a scholarly pawn of the powerful church to add it to the next version in the 1500s. Need a dramatic story to show Jesus as a hero in the face of authority, saving a poor girl from the hands of the wicked Pharisees? Well, that brings us to this interesting passage – the Pericope Adulterae. (John 7:53, 8:1-11)
There are very few scholars who believe the story of Jesus saving the adulterous woman to be authentic – for many reasons. First and foremost, it doesn’t exist in the oldest, most authentic manuscripts. That’s right – it is simply not found in the earliest copies of the Gospel of John. Second, the style of writing and language is quite noticeably different from the rest of the Gospel of John. Third, it is somewhat sloppily inserted right in the middle of the story of the Feast of the Tabernacles that begins with John 7:1 before being abruptly cut off by the Pericope Adulterae, eventually to resume again with John 8:12 through 9:7.
But, let’s get back to the first point: it doesn’t exist anywhere in the oldest manuscripts! It does appear in the Codex Benzae from the 5th century, what I often refer to as Bible 2.0, a manuscript filled with other oddities; the longer ending to the book of Mark, the complete absence of John 5:4, and the book of Acts being considerably longer than other manuscripts of the day. Even alongside the Codex Benzae were other manuscripts that explicitly questioned the validity of this passage. This leads us to ask many questions:
– Who added it centuries later and why?
– If we know that it was added much later, why is it still in the Bible?
– Why do only a few Bibles include a tiny footnote that says, “Some manuscripts do not include this passage”?
– Why do the majority of churches still teach this as a major story in the ministry of Jesus?
– How did this story become traditionally attributed to Mary Magdalene, when no name is given?
– What other parts of the Bible were added by scribes and rulers after the canon was formed?
– BONUS: Don’t even get me started on why only the woman caught in adultery is being punished as an example. (Does it not take two to tango? Where is the man?)
But, most of all – why do Christians love to quote this story anytime it might help them avoid the judgment of others, yet remain completely unaware of the considerable problems with its authenticity? To me, all of these questions are now worth asking.
SIDE NOTE: For those who might argue, “But there was probably a good reason that it was removed from the earliest and most authentic manuscripts – they didn’t want it to look like Jesus was permissive of adultery,” I’d ask – isn’t that the same problem? Letting man decide what is really God’s word because of the wants of the day?
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