Those perplexing brackets in the Bible

The account of the adulterous woman at the beginning of John 8 has created no small amount of interpretative challenges.  Two questions will help us sort out some of the basic issues and facts.

1. Why are there brackets around this story?

The story (7:53 – 8:11) is bracketed because there is a question whether or not John wrote this story.  Bible editors have decided that it is most likely that this paragraph was not in the original text written by John, but added by a copyist sometime later, and so they have indicated that by putting brackets around the story.

A little (and what I’ve written below really is a very little) background about the original Greek manuscripts will help you understand the issues.

We have approximately 5000 manuscripts of the New Testament, but there are no “complete” manuscripts of the New Testament as we know it.  Most of the documents in existence contain the text of a single book, or a portion of a book, and a small number of documents we have contain the compilation of a few books.  It is logical that there is no complete text in existence because many of the New Testament books were written as letters sent to individuals or particular churches and may not have been originally designed for general circulation.  So we have a great many documents, but no one single, complete copy of the New Testament (or the Old Testament, for that matter).

The manuscripts range in date from as early as the 2nd or 3rd century to as late as the 14th and 15th centuries.  And these manuscripts originated in locations as diverse as Israel, Syria, North Africa, Europe (Rome) and Constantinople.  The task of scholars then, is to take all of these manuscripts, compare them for consistency and changes and evaluate the differences that occasionally arose.  It should be noted that while there are differences in the texts, the vast majority of them are easily explained and understood and have minimal impact on understanding the meaning of the text (they might be pronoun changes, verb tense differences, or dropped or repeated words, for instance); conversely, the number of significant differences in texts is minimal, though this passage is one of those instances.

The question, then, is to develop criteria for evaluating these differences.  As scholars and editors have worked on these issues, it has become clear that some differences were the result of accidental mistakes.  For instance,

  • Sometimes copies were made with one person reading the text and several others writing down what the reader spoke.  So did the copyist misunderstand a word or phrase?
  • If the copyist was working alone, reading an original document and writing out a copy of it, did he skip a line or word?
  • Or, did the copyist accidentally repeat a word or phrase?

On other occasions, it is clear that the changes that appear were intentionally made.  For instance,

  • Was the copyist trying to smooth out an awkward sounding phrase? (Or what he thought was unbiblical theology?)
  • Was the copyist attempting to clarify a difficult word or phrase?  (For this reason, longer readings are generally considered more suspect.)
  • Was the copyist trying to harmonize this passage with another one?

Other factors that are considered are the ages of the text (in general, the older the text, the more reliable it likely is, and the later something shows up in a text, the less dependable it is) and the breadth of distribution among various textual families (the more families containing a reading, the more likely it is to be genuine, and some families are generally more reliable than other textual families).

Through study and examination, a dependable process of determining the original text has been developed.  And through careful study, it is generally agreed that John 7:53 – 8:11 was not written by John.  So why is it in your Bible?

Well, for one reason, it was recognized for so long as being part of the Bible that to remove it is too problematic.  For some editions to have the passage and others not will raise many questions that are too difficult to explain even in the footnote of a study Bible.  As Bruce Metzger (one of the chief scholars who compiled the best Greek New Testament) has written,

“Although the Committee was unanimous that the pericope [story] was originally no part of the Fourth Gospel, in deference to the evident antiquity of the passage a majority decided to print it, enclosed within double square brackets, at its traditional place following Jn 7.52.”

Furthermore, while the event almost certainly wasn’t part of John’s original writing, it probably was a real event in the life of Christ.  This story is known outside the Bible in a variety of sources very early in the church’s history, seeming to validate its authenticity.

Additionally, everything in the story is consistent with the rest of Scripture and it even seems to fit the context as an illustration of the principle articulated in 8:15-16.

2. If this story was not in the Bible, can we still trust the Word of God?

Yes.  The number of documents that we have for the biblical text and the New Testament in particular validates the integrity of the way in which Scripture was copied and passed from generation to generation and locale to locale.  Furthermore, study of all these texts gives us great confidence that the Bible we hold in our hands is a translation of what the original authors wrote and intended.  (John MacArthur provided an excellent, much more detailed examination of this topic on his sermon on Mark 16:9-20 — “The Fitting End to Mark’s Gospel,” another passage that probably was not originally written by the biblical author.)

Additionally, the same God who created the vastness universe with a word and no more effort than a little finger-work, sovereignly and graciously called those who would be His, came to earth in the form of the eternal God/man, humbled Himself on the cross, fulfilled the Law, defeated death, sin and Satan, and originated and superintended the communication of His Word can certainly preserve and keep His Word.

This Word of God is breathed out by Him, and is our source of teaching, reproving, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

We have the Word of God — it comes from God, and it is dependable and trustworthy for all we need for life and godliness.

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