W.H. Harris on John 8:1-11 (2001)

Exerpted for review from: W.Hall Harris III, (Oct 2001)
Exegetical Commentary on John 8
(1996-2006 Biblical Studies Press)
Retrieved on Aug 30 2006 from "http://www.bible.org

Harris on John 8:1-11

Harris and bible.org

This commentary was also included in the footnotes of the online NETBIBLE. For a review of its contents (updated and slightly enlarged), see our article on the NETBIBLE.

8:1-11 The Textual Problem:

Should 7:53-8:11 be regarded as genuine, and if so, should it be included in the Fourth Gospel following 7:52? Among modern commentators and textual critics, it is a foregone conclusion that the section is not original but represents a later addition to the text of the Gospel. B. M. Metzger summarizes:

"...the evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming." 86

External evidence:

Omit 7:53-8:11: ...P66, P75, Aleph, B, L, N, T, W, X, Y, D, Q, Y[sic], 053, 0141, 0211, 22, 33, 124, 157, 209, 565, 788, 828, 1230, 1241, 1242, 1253, 2193, etc. In addition codices A and C are defective in this part of John, but it appears that neither contained the pericope, because careful measurement shows that there would not have been enough space on the missing pages to include the pericope 7:53-8:11 along with the rest of the text.

Include 7:53-8:11: ...D, F, G, H, K, M, U, G , 28, 700, 892, 1009, 1010, 1071, 1079, 1195, 1216, 1344, 1365, 1546, 1646, 2148, 2174, ?, etc. In addition E, S, L, and P include part or all of the passage with asterisks or obeli, 225 places the pericope after John 7:36, Family 1 places it after John 21:24 or 25, and Family 13 after Luke 21:38 (!).

In evaluating this manuscript evidence, it should be remembered that in the Gospels A is usually considered to be of Byzantine text-type (unlike in the Pauline epistles, where it is Alexandrian), as are E, F, and G (which are of Western text-type in the Pauline epistles). This leaves D as the only major Western uncial witness in the Gospels.

Therefore we could summarize the evidence by saying that almost all early manuscripts of Alexandrian text-type omit the pericope, while most manuscripts of Western and Byzantine text-type include it. But we must remember that "Western manuscripts" here refers only to D, a single witness.

Thus it can be seen that practically all of the earliest and best manuscripts we possess omit the pericope; it is found only in manuscripts of secondary importance. But before we conclude that the passage was not originally part of the Gospel of John, internal evidence needs to be considered as well.

Internal evidence in favor of the inclusion of 8:1-11 (7:53-8:11):

(1) 7:53 fits in the context. If the "last great day of the feast" (7:37) refers to the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles, then the statement refers to the pilgrims and worshippers going home after living in "booths" for the week while visiting Jerusalem.

(2) The chief priests and Pharisees had just mocked Nicodemus for suggesting that Jesusí claims might possibly be true. In particular they heaped scorn on Jesusí Galilean origins (7:52). But far more than a prophet was to come from Galilee, according to Isa 9:1-2 (NASB):

'But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.'

In view of Johnís observed fondness for Isaiah, it seems impossible that he was unaware of this prophecy. But if he was aware of it, we might expect him to work it into the background of the narrative, as he has often done before. And that is exactly what we find: 8:12 is the point when Jesus describes himself as the Light of the world. But the section in question mentions that Jesus returned to the temple at "early dawn" ("Orqrou, 8:2). This is the "dawning" of the Light of the world (8:12) mentioned by Isa 9:2.

Furthermore, note the relationship to what follows: just prior to presenting Jesusí statement that he is the Light of the world, John presents us with an example that shows Jesus as the light. Once again, this calls to mind one of the major themes of the Gospel: light and darkness (compare especially 3:19-21). Here the woman "came to the light" (although not at first willingly!) while her accusers shrank away into the shadows, because their deeds were evil. This could be seen as an appropriate setting for Jesus to follow with the statement of 8:12, "I am the light of the world."

Internal evidence against the inclusion of 8:1-11 (7:53-8:11):

  • In reply to the claim that the introduction to the pericope, 7:53, fits the context, it should also be noted that the narrative reads well without the pericope, so that Jesusí reply in 8:12 is directed against the charge of the Pharisees in 7:52 that no prophet comes from Galilee.
  • The assumption that the Evangelist "must" somehow work Isa 9:12 into the narrative is simply thatóan assumption. The statement by the Pharisees in 7:52 about Jesusí Galilean origins is allowed to stand without correction by the Evangelist, although we might have expected him to mention that Jesus was really born in Bethlehem. And 8:12 does directly mention Jesusí claim to be the Light of the world. The Evangelist may well have presumed familiarity with Isa 9:12 on the part of his readers because of its widespread association with Jesus among early Christians.
  • The fact that the pericope deals with the light/darkness motif does not inherently strengthen its claim to authenticity, because the motif is so prominent in the Fourth Gospel that it may well have been the reason why someone felt that the pericope, circulating as an independent tradition, fit so well here.
  • In general the style of the pericope is not Johannine either in vocabulary or grammar. According to R. Brown it is closer stylistically to Lukan material.87 Interestingly one important family of manuscripts, family 13, places the pericope after Luke 21:38.

Conclusion: In the final analysis, the weight of evidence in this case must go with the external evidence. The earliest and best manuscripts do not contain the pericope. It is true with regard to internal evidence that an attractive case can be made for inclusion, but this is by nature subjective. In terms of internal factors like vocabulary and style, the pericope does not stand up very well.

We may go on to ask the question whether this incident, although not an original part of the Gospel of John, should be regarded as an authentic tradition about Jesus. It could well be that it is ancient and may indeed represent an unusual instance where such a tradition survived outside of the bounds of the canonical literature.