“Did God really say…?”
– Satan, the serpent. Genesis 3:1
You’ll notice that a good chunk of today’s passage is encased in brackets. The accompanying note tells us that “the earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53 – 8:11”. Now, I’m the sort of person who likes to have things laid out clearly. If we’re going somewhere new, I like to have a map and I like to have directions too. I like assembling IKEA furniture because the instructions are always reliable. I take comfort in certainty.
So when I read something like this, my inclination is to doubt. Did God really say that?
The number of copies of New Testament manuscripts is unmatched, compared with any other ancient text. At the Institute for Textual Research in Muenster, Germany, there are over 5,800 manuscripts, dating from the 2nd century AD onwards. By way of comparison, there are ten manuscripts of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the earliest copy dated around 900 years after it was written.
And whilst the many thousands of manuscripts carry with them some variations, the many thousands of manuscripts help us identify the most likely original wording. If we had two copies of John’s gospel, then it’d be difficult to ascertain what Jesus did and didn’t say. With so many copies, we can be confident that the Bible we read is the authentic word of God. John Piper puts it like this: “You can be thankful that God has, in his sovereign providence over the transmission process for 2,000 years, ordered things so that the few uncertainties that remain alter no doctrine of the Christian faith. That is really astonishing when you think about it, and we should worship God because of it.”
So, what about this story? It’s likely that this story actually happened, that people passed this story down through generations, and that it was eventually added to John’s Gospel. Crucially, rather than altering our doctrine, this story reinforces the message of grace, ultimately reflected in the cross of Christ.
When the adulteress stood before the crowd, she represented all of us. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are all, in a way, like the adulterous woman. There’s nothing about any of us that is deserving of forgiveness.
When the scribes and the Pharisees brought the adulteress into the temple, exposing her shame, they represented Satan: “the accuser of our brothers” (Revelation 12:10). Satan wants nothing more than to remind us of everything we’ve done wrong, to play a newsreel of all our worst mistakes, and to render us ineffective for Christ.
But when Jesus acts, he brings grace instead of condemnation. We don’t know what he wrote in the dirt but it could have been these words from Isaiah 53:5-6: “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – everyone – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Jesus still brings righteousness to the adulteress – he commands her to “go and sin no more” – but it’s a righteousness, a holiness, that’s founded on her experience of God’s grace.
Going back to the passage I quoted at the start: Satan’s first attack on the human race was to cause Adam and Eve to question God’s word. Whilst we can’t be certain that this passage appeared in the earliest manuscripts of the Bible, we can be certain that the point of this message is true. One of Satan’s on-going tactics is ‘bait-and-switch’: seducing us with sin and then condemning us when we fail. Praise God that the grace of Christ reverses this: “there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), who gives us the power to resist sin and live lives pursuing him.
(For a more in-depth explanation of this passage and of the process of textual criticism, read or listen to this message from John Piper).