Textual Criticism 101

November 5, 2020 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments

Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement

This Sunday we come to a text in the Gospel of John whose authenticity has been questioned. Your Bible probably has a statement when you come to John 7:53 like, “The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11.” This is the account, well-loved by many, of the woman caught in adultery. What does this statement mean and how does it impact how we consider this portion of John’s Gospel? 

Let me begin with a brief primer on textual criticism. Textual Criticism is the science of analyzing manuscript copies of ancient texts in order to discern what the original manuscript said and what may be variants from the original. For most ancient texts (e.g. Iliad by Homer), we do not have the author’s original manuscript; we have only copies. This is true for all of the books of the Bible. Between many of the copies, there are minor, and sometimes major, variants in the text. Brandon Crowe, professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, explains what textual criticism means for the Bible: “[It] means thinking critically about manuscripts and variations in the biblical texts found in those manuscripts, in order to identify the original reading of the Bible.” 

What criteria does a textual critic use to “identify the original reading of the Bible”? There are both internal and external criteria used in the process. Internally, textual critics look at vocabulary and grammatical structures. They look for consistency with other portions of the author’s writings. Externally, textual critics look for both historical and geographical attestation to a reading. Just like the game Telephone, copies of the original are subject to more variations the farther (timewise) they are from the original. So older copies are more trustworthy. Geographically, a reading is more trustworthy if multiple locations producing copies agree on the reading.

 Let’s apply this criteria to John 7:53-8:11.

  1. Internally: The vocabulary in this section differs significantly from the rest of John’s Gospel. There are 15 words used in these twelve verses which are not used anywhere else in the Gospel. For example, John 8:3 says, “The scribes and the Pharisees…” Nowhere else in his Gospel does John mention “the scribes.” That’s a phrase found frequently in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but not in John. 
  1. Historically: All manuscript copies of John’s Gospel dated before the fifth century A.D. do not include 7:53-8:11. This is a strong indication that John did not write this story as part of his Gospel. 
  1. Geographically: The manuscript copies we do have from before 400 A.D. come from a wide geographic area across the Roman Empire. 

There are other criteria that are considered when evaluating John’s text, but these three are esteemed as sufficient to say 7:53-8:11 was not a part of John’s original writing. 

With that said, I still plan to preach John 7:53-8:11 this Sunday. Throughout the history of the church, saints and scholars have wrestled with this text. There has been acknowledgement that it still proves to be edifying for God’s people. Augustine, writing early in the fifth century, says, “Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord's act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if he who had said, ‘Sin no more,’ had granted permission to sin.” And modern-day New Testament scholar, D.A. Carson, says, “There is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred,” and then proceeds to explain the text.   

Perhaps the most helpful comment comes from John Calvin. He writes, “It is plain enough that this passage was unknown anciently to the Greek Churches; and some conjecture that it has been brought from some other place and inserted here. But as it has always been received by the Latin Churches, and is found in many old Greek manuscripts, and contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit, there is no reason why we should refuse to apply it to our advantage.” This is where I will focus on Sunday. Historically, God has allowed the Church to receive this portion as Scripture (e.g. its inclusion in the Latin Vulgate and King’s James Version of the Bible). We will see that it “contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit,” as the principles communicated in the story are affirmed in other apostolic writings. Through this careful study, I pray that we can “apply it to our advantage.” No condemnation in Christ. Go and sin no more.


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