7:53 [[They went each to his own house, 8:1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]
I was reminded recently (however inadvertently) by a seminarian friend that not every verse in your Bible is inspired. This may sound like heresy at first, but it should be considered an accurate assertion: there are verses and passages in your printed Bible that are not considered to be inspired. These textual variants, especially the major ones like the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) and the woman caught in adultery from John (above) are not found in the oldest manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. This may come as a shock to the regular layperson reading this post, but the fact of the matter is, most scholars today believe that these verses are not authentic, not part of the original text, and were later additions.*
So what does this mean for our faith in the Bible as the inspired Word of God?
Well, admittedly, these are major textual variants, and a major portion of Scripture. We could blame it on the tradition of the transmission of the Bible’s text for their inclusion in our Bibles, but thankfully no single Christian doctrine hinges on one particular text — for the Bible is nicely redundant as a whole in backing itself up of its claims! Just because the original text of the Bible does not have “go, and sin no more” does not mean that Scripture is lacking in references that show Jesus forgiving sin. If these verses are removed from our Bibles, Scripture still testifies to the underlying principle — that God forgives sinners. The issue is thus not whether the main principle of the passage is true, but rather, whether or not the passage is inspired.
It would be foolish for Bible readers to quickly skip over the warning that precedes such passages in your Bible — “The earliest manuscripts do not include John 7:53-8:11” — as well as the double square brackets that enclose such disputed variants. We must never breeze past such passages, and read them as if they are inspired — especially when it is a concluded by most commentators and textual critics that the verses are not original. (NT scholar Dan Wallace recently raised a question about how translators should best approach these passages.)
I was very tempted to put a big X through the above quote from John 8 in my ESV Bible. However, for the benefit of needing to reference it for future papers, I relegated my pen marks to the side margin. After learning about textual criticism (and the synoptic problem) in my New Testament class, I don’t think I’ll be preaching from John 7:53-8:11 ever. And for the preachers among us reading this, may we be reminded to never preach a text that is inauthentic. For the layperson, this may be all technical seminarian mumble-jumble, but I think it would be good to know and be a ware of what the major textual variants are, so you can hold us preachers accountable to preaching Words that are breathed out by God.
* For more info on this textual variant, see the NET Bible’s notes on this passage. See also Dan Wallace’s recent articles “My Favorite Passage That’s Not in the Bible” and “Textual Variants: What Issues are at Stake“