Here’s the leading conservative New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace to explain.
One hundred and forty years ago, conservative biblical scholar and Dean of Canterbury, Henry Alford, advocated a new translation to replace the King James Bible. One of his reasons was the inferior textual basis of the KJV. Alford argued that “a translator of Holy Scripture must be…ready to sacrifice the choicest text, and the plainest proof of doctrine, if the words are not those of what he is constrained in his conscience to receive as God’s testimony.” He was speaking about the Trinitarian formula found in the KJV rendering of 1 John 5:7–8. Twenty years later, two Cambridge scholars came to the firm conclusion that John 7:53–8:11 also was not part of the original text of scripture. But Westcott and Hort’s view has not had nearly the impact that Alford’s did.
For a long time, biblical scholars have recognized the poor textual credentials of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11). The evidence against its authenticity is overwhelming: The earliest manuscripts with substantial portions of John’s Gospel (P66 and P75) lack these verses. They skip from John 7:52to 8:12. The oldest large codices of the Bible also lack these verses: codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, both from the fourth century, are normally considered to be the most important biblical manuscripts of the NT extant today. Neither of them has these verses. Codex Alexandrinus, from the fifth century, lacks several leaves in the middle of John. But because of the consistency of the letter size, width of lines, and lines per page, the evidence is conclusive that this manuscript also lacked the pericope adulterae. Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, also from the fifth century, apparently lacked these verses as well (it is similar to Alexandrinus in that some leaves are missing). The earliest extant manuscript to have these verses is codex Bezae, an eccentric text once in the possession of Theodore Beza. He gave this manuscript to the University of Cambridge in 1581 as a gift, telling the school that he was confident that the scholars there would be able to figure out its significance. He washed his hands of the document. Bezae is indeed the most eccentric NT manuscript extant today, yet it is the chief representative of the Western text-type (the text-form that became dominant in Rome and the Latin West).
When P66, P75, Sinaiticus, and Vaticanus agree, their combined testimony is overwhelmingly strong that a particular reading is not authentic. But it is not only the early Greek manuscripts that lack this text. The great majority of Greek manuscripts through the first eight centuries lack this pericope. And except for Bezae (or codex D), virtually all of the most important Greek witnesses through the first eight centuries do not have the verses. Of the three most important early versions of the New Testament (Coptic, Latin, Syriac), two of them lack the story in their earliest and best witnesses. The Latin alone has the story in its best early witnesses.
Even patristic writers seemed to overlook this text. Bruce Metzger, arguably the greatest textual critic of the twentieth century, argued that “No Greek Church Father prior to Euthymius Zigabenus (twelfth century) comments on the passage, and Euthymius declares that the accurate copies of the Gospel do not contain it” (Textual Commentary, 2nd ed., loc. cit.).
It is an important point to note that although the story of the woman caught in adultery is found in most of our printed Bibles today, the evidence suggests that the majority of Bibles during the first eight centuries of the Christian faith did not contain the story. Externally, most scholars would say that the evidence for it not being an authentic part of John’s Gospel is rock solid.
But textual criticism is not based on external evidence alone; there is also the internal evidence to consider. This is comprised of two parts: intrinsic evidence has to do with what an author is likely to have written;transcriptional evidence has to do with how and why a scribe would have changed the text.
Intrinsically, the vocabulary, syntax, and style look far more like Luke than they do John. There is almost nothing in these twelve verses that has a Johannine flavor. And transcriptionally, scribes were almost always prone to add material rather than omit it—especially a big block of text such as this, rich in its description of Jesus’ mercy. One of the remarkable things about this passage, in fact, is that it is found in multiple locations. Most manuscripts that have it place it in its now traditional location: between John 7:52 and 8:12. But an entire family of manuscripts has the passage at the end of Luke 21, while another family places it at the end of John’s Gospel. Other manuscripts place it at the end of Luke or in various places in John 7.
The pericope adulterae has all the earmarks of a pericope that was looking for a home. It took up permanent residence, in the ninth century, in the middle of the fourth gospel.
Wallace teaches at the ultra-conservative fundamentalist Dallas Theological Seminary, and is the foremost evangelical manuscript expert in the world.
Why is this important? I think it is important because this story is very prominent for a great many Christians, especially Christian women, who use this to justify a variety of positions that are inconsistent with the rest of the Bible. These Christians do not like the idea of anyone being judged and so they are naturally inclined to blow this disputed passage into an entire theology that repudiates making moral judgments on such things as capital punishment. In fact, in another post, I was accused of being the equivalent of one of the people who wanted to stone the woman taken for adultery because I oppose fornication and single motherhood. That’s how far this has gone, where some Christians, especially Christian feminists, have leveraged this passage to redefine the Bible so that women are no longer responsible to the Bible’s moral rules and can never be blamed for acting irresponsibly.
Is WK a big liberal?
As this debate between Peter Williams and Bart Ehrman shows, there are only TWO disputed passages in the entire NT that are theologically significant. The long ending of Mark and this adultery passage. A good case can be made for the long ending of Mark, but it’s best not to assume it in a debate. The adultery passage is difficult to defend as authentic. Dr. Wallace talks about both passages in this Parchment & Pen article (reclaimingthemind.org). Wallace has also debated Bart Ehrman in the Greer-Heard Forum. What that debate showed is that the New Testament text is actually quite reliable except for those two passages, but it’s important to be honest about the two places that are not well supported.
The other other NT passages that are a concern are the earthquake passage and the guard story in Matthew. I think that the earthquake is apocalyptic language and the guard is more likely historical than not.
For a closer look at what the Bible says about capital punishment, look here.