The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Textual Criticism

Textual Criticism and the Reliability of Scripture

I have written before about textual criticism, which refers (at least in biblical studies) to the study and comparison of biblical manuscripts in order to give us a more accurate picture of what the original documents said. A lot of Christians are largely unaware of this field of study, and only become aware of it when they see footnotes in their Bibles near certain passages that say something like, “many of the earliest and best manuscripts do not contain these verses.”

It can be alarming for some people when they read footnotes like these because it seems to throw doubt over whether or not we can trust our modern Bibles. Really though, the opposite is true: it is only because we have such a wealth of New Testament manuscripts that we are even aware of the discrepancies between different ones:

We don’t have the original editions of the Bible. Instead, what we have are thousands and thousands of handwritten copies called manuscripts. We have fragments that date back to the early second century, but the best comprehensive manuscripts we have that contain most or all of the New Testament date back to the fourth and fifth centuries.

Compared to other ancient works, this is incredible. There are some ancient works of famous philosophers or poets of which we may only have a handful of copies, but there are thousands and thousands of biblical manuscripts. There are a lot of differences between the different manuscripts because they were copied down by hand, but since there are so many copies, we can compare them and, with a very high degree of accuracy, determine what the original text said.

The vast majority of differences between manuscripts are differences in things like spelling (basically the modern equivalent of a typo) where it is still very obvious what is supposed to be said. There are only a handful of places in the New Testament where there is a whole verse or verses that we are not sure about, and even in those, there is no point of doctrine that is compromised either way. So the biblical text that we have is very reliable.[1]

John 7.53-8.11, the story of the woman caught in adultery, is perhaps the most famous textual problem in the New Testament, but another is Mark 16.9-20, sometimes called “The Long Ending of Mark.” It reads:

9 [[Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

12 After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

14 Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.]]

(Mark 16.9-20)

In most modern translations, these verses will either be included in brackets (as the ESV does, which I have tried to preserve above) or will be omitted from the main text and perhaps included in a footnote. This is not because some sinister forces are seeking to alter the content and meaning of Scripture from what was originally written; rather, it is a reflection of the text-critical belief that these verses were not originally part of Mark, based on the fact that many of the earliest and best manuscripts that we have of Mark’s Gospel do not contain them.

Ultimately, biblical scholars disagree about the authenticity of the long ending of Mark. Most hold that it is not original, but those scholars who believe it to not be original are also divided about whether or not there was a different original ending that has been lost, or if the original version of Mark’s gospel was intended to end after verse 8.

I am undecided myself: I tend to think that the long ending is not original and that Mark wrote his gospel to conclude at 16.8, but I could certainly be mistaken. Either way, here is the important idea (and, indeed, the important idea to keep in mind with all of the text-critical issues in the New Testament): there is no doctrine or practice discussed in Mark 16.9-20 that is not taught elsewhere in the New Testament. In other words, even if you throw out all of the passages with significant text-critical problems, it doesn’t change Christian faith and practice.

As one commentator states:

Our God has not seen fit to exempt the New Testament from the copying problems that existed in all books prior to the invention of the printing press. But by his grace those problems do not create significant variations in Christian beliefs and practices.[2]

If we only had one manuscript copy of the New Testament, we would have no variations. That sounds nice, but really, it would leave us with no way of knowing how accurate our Bibles are. Instead, the thousands of manuscripts with their many variations help us to determine with a high degree of accuracy what the original text said, and what it is that God wants us to know.

What a blessing—may God be praised for His faithfulness in the preservation of his revealed word!

[1] Excerpted from Pardon, Not Acquittal: Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery.

[2] Allen Black, Mark, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: 1995), 293 note 2.

A New Heaven & A New Earth Part 4: “Problem” Texts–2 Peter 3.1-13

This post is part of an ongoing series. You can find links to all the posts here.

Last week’s post was about our first “problem” text, 1 Thessalonians 4.13-17. In that post, I argued that, when properly understood in its historical context, paying close attention to the specific Greek words that Paul uses, this passage isn’t actually a “problem” for the NHNE perspective at all; it actually supports renewed eschatology.

For me, the “problem” passage we are going to look at today was even more important in my own journey, because this was the passage that to me most seemed to refute the notion that God would renew and redeem creation when Jesus returned. I am talking about 2 Peter 3.1-13, which is another “problem” in the sense that it supposedly opposes renewed eschatology. When properly understood, I don’t think it does, and I think it actually fits quite well with the NHNE perspective.

There is a lot going on in this passage that we will need to consider, and even in what I am sure will be a very long post, we won’t be able to fully do it justice.

Let’s start by taking a look at the passage itself (I have the verse that people tend to focus on in bold):

1 This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, 2 that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, 3 knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Different Translations

When I taught through this passage in Bible class, I made sure that we read from several different Bible translations, paying close attention to the different ways that 2 Peter 3.10 is translated. Above, I quoted from the ESV. Here is verse 10 again:

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Here is the same verse in the KJV: 

10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.


10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.

And also, the NASB:

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.

Lest you think that the ESV is the oddball and that all other translations say that the earth will be “burned up” in v. 10, here is the NIV:

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

And, finally, the NRSV:

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Obviously, we have a translation issue here: one group of translations says that, in this context, the earth and its works will be “burned up”, while the other translations say the earth and its works will be “exposed”, “laid bare”, or “disclosed”. We will get into the details of this textual problem later, but for the moment, we will just acknowledge why this appears to be problematic for the idea of a renewed cosmos when Jesus comes: if you are reading from the NJKV or a similar translation, this verse makes it seem like the earth is going to be destroyed or annihilated by fire. Thus, we will either (1) go off to heaven with Jesus (which works well if paired with a faulty interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4), or (2) live in a “new heavens and a new earth” (v.13) that is completely distinct from our current system.[1]

In other words, the idea that our current earth will in some way be renewed, redeemed, transformed—the perspective I am presenting in this series—is dismissed, because it sounds like it’s going to be burned up.

Is this the best way to read this passage? In this post, we’re going to take a closer look. I will confess that this is a challenging passage, but I think we can bring some clarity to it.


First, let’s look at the point of what Peter is trying to say in context. In this section, Peter is talking about sinful people who scoff at the notion of judgment. They say things like, “You say judgment is going to happen, but everything just continues as it always has!” (v.4), but Peter points out that judgment came upon the earth before when God judged the world by a flood (v.5-6). In the same way, “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and the destruction of the ungodly” (v.7).

This knowledge—God’s impending judgment upon evil—should encourage the wicked to repent.

When the day of the Lord comes, the heavenly bodies[2] will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be…burned up? exposed? (This is the verse that we looked at in multiple translations; we’ll get to it in a few minutes.)

Because of all this, Peter says that we should be motivated to live lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for the coming day of God, and anticipating “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (v.13).

So, to keep things in perspective, whatever v.10 is talking about, what is the main point of this passage? Judgment upon evil has happened before (flood), judgment upon evil is going to happen again (fire), and the knowledge of this should motivate us to live holy lives.

Interpreting the Passage: Important Ideas to Consider

Three Worlds, and the Comparison to Noah: 

In 2 Peter 3.1-13, Peter refers to three different habitable worlds:[3]

  • Past: The original “heavens” and “earth” that emerged from and through water by the command of God. This world “perished” in the flood of Noah (2 Peter 3.5-6)
  • Present: The “heavens and earth that now exist” that are “stored up for fire” at the command of God (2 Peter 3.7,10,12)
  • Future: The future “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” according to the promise of God (2 Peter 3.13)

Keeping these three worlds in mind is helpful as we consider the comparison that is made to the days of Noah: whatever is going to happen with fire in this present world, Peter compares to the judgment that God brought on the world through the flood.

Did the flood of Noah destroy the world? Well, yes…and no.

Certainly, the world as it had previously been was no more, but it’s not like the earth ceased to exist. The flood brought judgment upon the sins of the world and it certainly changed things. In some ways, it reset the system and perhaps even instituted a new system of existence (kind of like reformatting the hard drive of a computer after it crashes).

The flood of Noah washed the earth clean, preparing it to be a new sort of world (the “Present” world, as described above). But the earth was not annihilated.

Biblical Use of Fiery Judgment

The notion of fiery judgment upon the earth that Peter uses in this passage has a background in the Hebrew prophets, where it is a repeated motif.

One example of this is Malachi 4.1 (though, see also Malachi 3.1-4, Isaiah 34.4, Isaiah 64.1, and Zephaniah 3.8, among others):

1 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”

This is common judgment language, but in Malachi 4, who is the focus of it? Who will actually be burned up? The arrogant and all evildoers. Compare that to 2 Peter 3.7, which says that this fire is being stored up to bring destruction on the ungodly. The emphasis here, and in the entire passage, is not on destroying all that has been created, but a judgment of destruction upon the wicked.[4]

“The earth and the works that are done on it will be __________.”

We noted this problem at the beginning of the post, that different translations render 2 Peter 3.10 in very different ways, and one of those ways indicates that the earth will be “burned up.”

This is not a translation problem, but a textual one. As you probably know, we have thousands and thousands of hand-copied New Testament manuscripts, and, as you can imagine if you were responsible for copying the entire New Testament by hand, no matter how hard you tried, you would make some mistakes. Textual criticism is the academic study of comparing manuscripts with one another to determine which is more accurate and reflects the original reading.

Textual criticism is a complex field, and I do not pretend to be an expert, but here are two major rules of textual criticism:

  • Older manuscripts are considered to be more reliable than recent ones. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it: since you are trying to figure out what the original copy said, it would be more likely that manuscripts that are closer chronologically to the original would be closer in content as well, because there would be less time and fewer iterations for mistakes to accumulate.
  • When you have two textual variants (a disagreement between two manuscripts), the more difficult reading is considered more likely to be authentic. This one might seem counterintuitive, but also makes sense when you think about it. A scribe copying a manuscript is unlikely to change a word or passage that reads satisfactorily into something that is less clear; he is much more likely to smooth out passages that seem difficult to make them understandable.

In 2 Peter 3.10, different manuscript traditions have different words. Some have the Greek word heurethesetai/εύρεθησεται (will be found, will be exposed, will be laid bare), while others have the word katakaesetai/κατακαησεται (will be burned up, will be consumed).

  • The older, more reliable manuscripts (Vaticanus, Sinaiticus) have heurethesetai (will be found, will be exposed, will be laid bare) in v. 10.[5]
  • This is also the more difficult reading and thus, preferred. If you are a scribe copying this text, based on the language earlier in this passage (that talks about fire and destruction), it would be easy to lose your place or make an assumption and think that katakaesetai fits here. It is much more difficult to explain why a scribe would insert the word heurethesetai in this context. 

To sum up, going back to our rules for textual criticism: “exposed/laid bare” is the older reading, and it is the more difficult reading as well. So even though we have different translations of the Bible that have different readings here, our best guess is that the Greek text originally said heurethesetai. This is what my Greek New Testament has as well.[6]

So, the idea here is that when this fiery judgment comes, it will work in such a way as to expose the things that have been done on earth, not destroy the earth. It is like a refining or purifying fire—God’s judgment determines what is pure and what is not.[7]

What Are the “Elements” or “Heavenly Bodies” of v.10,12?

Unlike the textual issue we have been discussing, this is a translation issue. The Greek word stoicheia/στοιχεια can be translated in different ways in English, and each of those English renderings has multiple possible meanings:[8]

  • Stoicheia could refer to Elements, like the basic building blocks of the physical universe. As modern readers, we hear this word and probably think of things like carbon, hydrogen, etc. that we would find on the Periodic Table of Elements. Obviously, this would have been unknown to Peter’s audience, and cannot be what he was referring to. There is evidence in the ancient world that stoicheia was used to refer to the “elements” of earth, air, fire, and water, but interpreting the word in this way would mean that the earth is included in the meltdown, whereas 2 Peter 3 doesn’t say that the earth will be destroyed or burned up, as already explained above. Thus, this meaning seems untenable.
  • Stoicheia could refer to Elements, in the sense of “elementary teachings” or false teaching. It is used in that way elsewhere in the New Testament (Colossians 2.8,20), so the idea could be that these false teachings will be destroyed, and the false teachers themselves will be exposed and subject to judgment.
  • Stoicheia could refer to Heavenly Bodies, like the sun, moon, and stars. If this is correct, perhaps what this passage is referring to is that the “top layer” of the world will be removed (see Isaiah 34.4), so that what lies beneath on the world can be exposed and judged.
  • Stoicheia could refer to Heavenly Bodies, as a reference to angelic powers, beings that Paul describes as powers, principalities, etc. This would make sense in that it could be talking about God bringing judgment upon spiritual forces that are in rebellion to God, paralleling the humans who are in rebellion to God and are going to be judged as well. So, first, the heavenly bodies are judged and destroyed, then the earth is laid bare/exposed, and finally the ungodly are next in line for God’s judgment.

Ultimately, I am not sure which of these understandings is correct, but I lean toward “heavenly bodies” being the better translation.

“New heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells”

When all of this happens, when the present world is judged, when evil is exposed and destroyed and the world is changed (“destroyed” through a refining process), 2 Peter 3.13 describes the future world as a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”[9]

There are multiple Greek words for “new”, which have overlapping but somewhat distinct meanings:

  • Neos/νεος: the primary usage of this word in the New Testament refers to something that has been in existence for a relatively short time. Something that is “fresh” or “brand new.”[10]
  • Kainos/καινος: this word can be used similarly to neos, but also can refer to that which is recent in contrast to something old in the sense that what is old has become obsolete. It is a newer and better version of what has been.[11]

It is interesting to note that kainos is the word used here. On its own, this doesn’t prove anything, but it does give additional evidence to the idea that the new heavens and new earth is a refined, purified, restored, recreated heavens and earth rather than a brand new replacement for something that has been destroyed. It is a newer and better version of what has been.


Putting all of this together, 2 Peter 3 is not about the annihilation of the earth; it is about a fiery judgment upon sin, analogous to the watery judgment on sin through the flood. This judgment will expose all that has been done, and wickedness will be judged and destroyed in some sense. 

The fallout from all of this is that everything will be changed. Just as things were dramatically different after the flood of Noah brought about a new world, this instance of fiery judgment will purify and refine God’s creation and will bring about a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. As Christians, this is what we look forward to, and our hope, as well as our sober acknowledgment of the certainty of judgment, motivates us to live in a certain way.[12]

Far from refuting the notion of a renewed earth, 2 Peter 3 actually teaches it.

[1]Most people who hold to (1) would probably acknowledge the existence of “new heavens and a new earth” because 2 Peter 3.13 mentions it, but would just equate that with heaven. This interpretation is perplexing to me (talking about “new heavens and a new earth” seems like a really confusing way of talking about “heaven as it already is”), but I wanted to acknowledge that these people, though mistaken in my view, are not ignoring 2 Peter 3.13.

[2]Depending on your translation, “heavenly bodies” is instead rendered as “elements.” We will discuss this later.

[3]This listing is based significantly on John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Mark Wilson, Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission, (Abilene, TX: Leafwood: 2016): 197, but altered to fit a different translation.

[4]This is just one example to show the common biblical practice of using language fiery destruction to talk about God’s judgment upon sin. J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014): 109-28, discusses at length the ways in which biblical authors depict God coming in judgment upon the world, how storms, earthquakes, and fire are a part of this imagery, and how the effects of God’s judgment are cosmic in scope.

It is also worth pointing out that this is apocalyptic language, commonly used in biblical prophecy, and not always intended to be pressed literally. For example, in Acts 2, Peter describes the events of the Day of Pentecost as fulfilling the prophecy of Joel: “And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood…” (Acts 2.19-20, quoting from Joel 2.30-31). Obviously, these things did not literally happen on that Day of Pentecost. I am indebted to Mark Wilson for pointing this out.

[5]Middleton, 160-62, overviews the text-critical issue and explains in greater detail why heurethesetai/εύρεθησεται is the preferred reading.

[6]The UBS Greek New Testament: Reader’s Edition with Textual Notes (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2010). 

I have heard that more recent versions of the Greek New Testament have a negative rendering of heurethesetai/εύρεθησεται (“not found”), but have not confirmed this. Regardless, Hicks, Valentine, and Wilson, Embracing Creation, 198, address this: “The addition of the negative (“not found”), favored by some textual critics, lacks support from any Greek manuscripts, and it cannot explain the origin of the more difficult reading (“found” rather than “not found”).

[7]I am indebted to Andrew Gass, preacher at the West Oaks church of Christ in Columbus, Texas, for pointing out that Peter himself uses the imagery of fire as a refining and purifying force in 1 Peter 1.7.

Middleton, 194, “…the image of judgment by fire in 2 Peter 3 is not purely destructive, but instead may be understood as a smelting process by which the dross of human sinfulness is burned off, so that “found means something like “standing the test” or “showing one’s mettle.” John C. Nugent, Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 38n1, “In [2 Peter 3:10] the earth is disclosed or revealed, whereas only heavenly elements are burned. Together they convey a refining of God’s good creation. The impurities are burned off so the true essence will shine forth all the more brilliantly.”

[8]Middleton, 190-93; 198-200.

[9]In this discussion, it is easy to focus on the language of “new heavens and a new earth” in 2 Peter 3.13 and overlook the second part, “in which righteousness dwells,” but the second part is essential: the context of this passage is directly about the judgment on and destruction of evil; once evil is dealt with, the future world that is brought about is a place characterized by righteousness.

[10]Walter Bauer,  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd rev. ed., ed. Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 669.

[11]BDAG, 496-97.

[12]How does this fit with the 1 Thessalonians 4 passage that we discussed last week? Because I am hesitant to speculate, I have relegated this to a footnote, but let me offer a hypothetical reconstruction of how these may fit together: Jesus returns with the sound of a trumpet as the heavenly bodies are destroyed, we meet Him in the air as this earth is laid bare, the evil works are exposed and destroyed, our world is refined/renewed/recreated, and then we escort him back here, to live with God eternally in a New Heaven and New Earth.

Pardon, Not Acquittal: Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery


One of my favorite stories in Scripture is found in our modern Bibles in John 8, and is generally referred to as something like “Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery.” I love this story because it is a good example of how Jesus was so different from what people expected, and how He always did the right thing in any given situation.

Maybe you are like me: there are so many times in life when I find myself in a situation where I simply do not know what to do. Maybe I don’t know how to answer a certain question, or respond to a problem that someone is having, or face a crisis in my own life. I want to do the right thing, I want to do the thing that honors God, but sometimes, in the moment, it can be hard to have the wisdom to know what that thing is.

But not with Jesus. He often had people intentionally trying to put Him in impossible situations, but He would always know the right thing to do or say.

And that is certainly the case in this story.

Does This Story Belong In the Bible?

Before we launch into examining the story itself, we first need to answer the question, “Does this belong in the Bible?” And that might seem like a crazy question at first, because, after all, it is in our Bibles, so surely it belongs there…right?

We don’t have the original editions of the Bible. Instead, what we have are thousands and thousands of handwritten copies called manuscripts. We have fragments that date back to the early second century, but the best comprehensive manuscripts we have that contain most or all of the New Testament date back to the fourth and fifth centuries.

Compared to other ancient works, this is incredible. There are some ancient works of famous philosophers or poets of which we may only have a handful of copies, but there are thousands and thousands of biblical manuscripts. There are a lot of differences between the different manuscripts because they were copied down by hand, but since there are so many copies, we can compare them and with a very high degree of accuracy, determine what the original text said.

The study of these manuscripts is called textual criticism, and the earlier manuscripts are better, because they are closer to the original copies of the books of the New Testament, and thus give us a more accurate picture of what the original documents said.

The vast majority of differences between manuscripts are differences in things like spelling (basically the modern equivalent of a typo) where it is still very obvious what is supposed to be said. There are only a handful of places in the New Testament where there is a whole verse or verses that we are not sure about, and even in those, there is no point of doctrine that is compromised either way. So the biblical text that we have is very reliable.

But the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery, found in John 7.53-8.11, is one of those instances where different manuscripts disagree with one another. In most modern Bibles, John 7.53-8.11 will be included in brackets with a note next to it that says something like, “the earliest manuscripts do not include John 7.53-8.11.” What’s going on here?

The problem is that the earliest and best manuscripts we have do not put this story after John 7.52. Some do not contain the story at all, other manuscripts place it after John 21.25, one manuscript puts it after John 7.36, and some actually put it in the Gospel of Luke, after 21.38 (keep that in mind). So in this case, textual criticism tells us that this story about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery was almost certainly not originally at the end of John 7 and beginning of John 8.

But just because we don’t think this story is in the right place doesn’t mean that it isn’t a true story. It seems authentic; it certainly seems in keeping with the character of Jesus as we read in other places. It is referred to in other writings outside of the New Testament, so we know that it was a very early story, known in the second century.[1]

Some have suggested that this was preserved as a true story about Jesus, but wasn’t attached to a specific gospel, so different scribes who copied the manuscripts by hand added it at different places.

I think there is pretty good evidence that it was originally written by Luke. If you remember, earlier I mentioned that this story is included in some manuscripts of Luke, after Luke 21.38 (and if you look, it actually fits quite well there). But also, the theme, vocabulary, and style of writing in this story are more common to the books of Luke-Acts than they are the rest of John.[2] Luke’s gospel reflects a special interest on women, as this story obviously does, and there are various words and expressions used in this story that don’t appear elsewhere in John, but appear multiple times in Luke-Acts.[3]

But if Luke wrote this, why is it not in the earliest and most comprehensive manuscripts?

Well, Luke tells us at the beginning of his gospel (Luke 1.1-3) that he compiled his account of the life of Jesus based on the testimony of eyewitness accounts and that he took what he had collected and wrote it down. Luke would have compiled notes that he later collected and collated into a full text, sort of like if you can imagine having a folder with all of these stories of miracles and teachings of Jesus that you take and then compile together on one scroll.

This particular story fits in very well after Luke 21.38 (where it is in some manuscripts) but this point in Luke’s Gospel is also right before his telling of the betrayal, death, and resurrection of Jesus—the central elements of the Jesus story.

Luke’s Gospel in its current form is just about the right size for a typical ancient scroll, so it’s possible that Luke removed this story from his Gospel simply for the practical reason that he saw that he was running out of writing room, and he wanted to make sure that he covered the most important stuff.[4]

The story of Jesus and the Woman caught in adultery was still preserved as important and authentic, and was apparently widespread, which is how it got added to so many manuscripts in different places. None of this should make us uncomfortable or worried about the accuracy of our Bibles, but it should remind us that while the Bible is inspired by God, it is also a human product that God uses to reveal Himself to us.

The True Colors of the Pharisees

So while this story doesn’t really fit in the Gospel of John, I feel very confident that it is authentic, and that it fits in our Bibles. Let’s examine it more closely:

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”

This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.

Here the Pharisees, the supposed keepers of the Law, slip up and show themselves to be less concerned with the integrity of the Law than they are in trapping Jesus in a difficult situation. You see, the Law of Moses did require that a woman caught in adultery be put to death, but it also required the same punishment for the man (Leviticus 20.10; Deuteronomy 22.22). Since the woman was “caught in the act of adultery,” the Pharisees clearly knew who the other guilty party was, and by not bringing him forward for punishment, showed that they weren’t too concerned with what the Law said.

Furthermore, despite what the Law said, “there is little evidence that it was carried out very often in first-century Palestine, especially in urban areas.”[5] Part of the reason for this is that the Jews were under Roman authority, and didn’t have the legal authority to execute people on their own (we see this again in the execution of Jesus).

So the Pharisees likely had no intention of executing the woman and weren’t really concerned about the Law of Moses. Instead, they were trying to trap Jesus between a rock and a hard place, forcing Him to either disregard the Law of Moses, or be the one who pronounced the woman’s death sentence (and thus, likely cause problems for him with the Roman authorities).

Jesus has been placed in a hard situation; out of nowhere, He is surrounded by an angry mob, asking Him to perform some on-the-spot biblical interpretation with massive implications. What is the right thing to do? How will He respond?

Writing on the Ground

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.

Twice in this passage, it specifically mentions Jesus stooping down to write with His finger on the ground. It’s an interesting detail that is included, and helps the scene come to life for the reader. It is also one of the little characteristics of this story that make it seem genuine. Seeing that Jesus wrote on the ground but not necessarily knowing what it is that He wrote—this is the sort of detail that an eyewitness would remember and share.

Scholars and commentators have pounced on this little detail over the years and offered various interpretations of it:

  • Some have suggested that Jesus was writing out the 10 Commandments.
  • Some have argued that this was a direct reference to Jeremiah 17.13, where those who forsake God are “written in the dust”, and that Jesus is making a specific judgment against the Pharisees.
  • Some have proposed that the words Jesus writes are actually the specific sins of the scribes and Pharisees who have brought the adulterous woman before Him.

All of these suggestions (and others have been made as well) are interesting and, I guess, possible, but ultimately, we aren’t told what it is that Jesus writes on the ground. Personally, I’ve always been inclined to think that perhaps Jesus didn’t write anything of consequence on the ground at all, but just the act itself and the pause it produced helped to diffuse the energy and volatility of the situation and made the Pharisees more prepared to hear and respond to what Jesus says.

Sometimes when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, or perhaps when someone says something to us that just sets us off and makes our blood boil, the most important thing that we can do is to do nothing right then. Instead, the wise course of action is to take a deep breath and slow our heart rate before we respond (if we respond at all!).

Jesus says that He who is without sin is to cast the first stone. This is a reference to Deuteronomy 13.9 and 17.7—it is the witnesses of the crime who must be the first to throw the stones, and they cannot have been participants in the crime itself.[6]

So Jesus puts it back on those who were trying to trap Him: which of the woman’s accusers felt confident enough in their own sinlessness that they would take up the stone and begin the execution?

Pardon vs. Acquittal

But none of them do.

But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

She said, “No one, Lord.”And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

The story of Jesus and the Woman caught in Adultery ends on a high note, as Jesus’ response to the Pharisees leaves them speechless. Seemingly, He awakens their consciences, and in shame, the slink away, realizing that they are in no place to pronounce judgment upon the woman.

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, Lord.”

“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Of course, Jesus is the One who is without sin, and is the One who actually has the right and authority to pronounce judgment. But He doesn’t condemn her. In fact, this is in keeping with the reason Jesus came into the world:

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

(John 3.17)

Jesus came on a rescue mission to seek and save those who were lost.

And what Jesus says here is incredibly important—Jesus pardons the woman, but He doesn’t say that her sin doesn’t matter or that it isn’t a big deal. Instead, He specifically addresses the sin—by telling her to “sin no more,” He indicates that He knew that she was indeed guilty of adultery and that she needed to change her life.

Which leads to an important idea that is central to the Gospel—Jesus offers us pardon, not acquittal:

  • If someone is acquitted of a crime, then they are declared to be “not guilty.” No punishment is due that person, because no sentence of guilt was passed.
  • If someone is pardoned of a crime, then they have been found guilty, but the punishment for the crime is taken away.

This is a central element to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus doesn’t come to us and say, “Your sin is not a big deal; no crime has been committed, you are innocent.” Instead, He says, “Your sin is significant; it must be paid for, but you don’t have to pay the price.

Our sin is such a big deal that Jesus paid the price for it on the cross; because of that sacrifice, pardon can be offered to the adulterous woman, and to the rest of us as well. And when we receive that pardon for our sins and appreciate it, we should be motivated, as Jesus told the woman, to go and sin no more.


The story of the woman caught in adultery is an interesting one. It presents textual problems, and we may be unsure of exactly where it fits in Scripture. But what a powerful story it is, and what important lessons it teaches us.

It teaches us about the nature of Jesus’ enemies. They were less interested in keeping God’s word than they were in trying to entrap Him. And in a similar way, we may find ourselves at times in difficult situations not because other people are trying to do the right thing, but because they are actively trying to cause problems for us.

This passage also teaches us something about how to respond to difficult situations. Jesus, the wisest of all men, doesn’t explode or react impulsively. Instead, He takes His time and calmly responds, diffusing the situation while applying biblical truth with clarity and grace.

And perhaps most of all, it shows us something about the kind of judge that Jesus, the Judge of all the World, is: He is looking to save, not to condemn. I think many people have an idea of God where He is distant and removed, watching us closely and just waiting for us to mess up so He can zap us. But this is not the picture of God that the Bible repeatedly offers. God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. God does not wink at sin or pretend that it doesn’t matter, but He is eager to pardon it, and He paid the price for it, Himself.

Each of us stands guilty in the sense that we have been convicted of sin in our lives. That is unquestionable. So the only real question is, have we received the pardon that God offers?

[1]Frank Pack, The Gospel According to John, Part I, The Living Word Commentary (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing, 1975), 136.

[2]Ibid., 136; D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 334;

[3]“Mount of Olives”, “scribes and Pharisees,” “eldest,” “accusers,” “early,” “all of the people”


[5]Carson, 335.

[6]Ibid., 336.

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