A Thank You Note to a 5th Century Scribe
If you open a Bible to the beginning of John chapter 8, you will find a story about the scribes and Pharisees bringing a woman to Jesus—a woman whom they said was caught in the act of adultery. However, depending on what version you are reading, you may also see brackets around this story and/or a footnote indicating that most ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of John do not contain this story.
[2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”] (NRSV)
The only way to make copies of books in the ancient world was to write them out by hand. Inevitably, this meant that changes were introduced due to human error or human intention as the texts were copied again and again and again. Most of these changes were very small—just little scribal errors. But sometimes they make a difference. And on rare occasions they make such a difference that the inclusion of a whole story is at stake. John 8:2-11 is an example of this. The story of the woman caught in adultery is not found in the earliest manuscripts of John, and when it does begin to appear later different manuscripts have the story in three different locations in John’s narrative, and occasionally it is even found in the Gospel of Luke instead! This manuscript evidence means that it is almost certain that this story was not originally a part of the Gospel of John, or any other written Gospel. The earliest known occurrence of the story is in a 5th century manuscript. That’s right, the Gospel of John existed and was copied for about four hundred years before someone decided to add this story to it.
Why would a scribe do such a thing? Well, a better question might actually be, why was this story not originally included in any of the Gospels? Because most scholars are in agreement that this story really is an ancient story about Jesus, going back to the oral traditions of the earliest church, and not a story that was made up in the 5th century. Instead of being included in one of the Gospels in the 1st century along with other oral traditions about Jesus, this story continued to circulate as an independent story.
If scholars are correct about the story dating back to the earliest church, then why was it not originally included in a Gospel? The most likely reason is because Jesus’ action in the story of forgiving the woman for adultery without any sign of repentance on her part was considered scandalous. The preservation of a patriarchal way of life rests on the control of women’s sexuality. Therefore, any story that appears to condone a woman who commits adultery would likely be suppressed. This story was too hot for some in the early church to handle.
But it wasn’t too scandalous for everyone in the early church, because people kept telling this story. Generation after generation, this story was told until finally an unknown scribe somewhere decided that it belonged as part of the church’s scriptures. And I, for one, am glad that a scribe made that choice, because it means that we get to read it, and this story resonates with many people today.
It has been resonating with me more and more lately as I listen to the way women and their bodies have been discussed in political discourse and social media this year. Women have repeatedly been called names. They have been evaluated solely on physical appearance. Their stories have been automatically disbelieved.
As a woman living in our country’s current political climate, I can relate to this woman from 2,000 years ago. She was called names. She was reduced to her sexuality. Her story, whatever it may have been, was automatically disbelieved. If I imagine myself in the story, I am standing with her. I’m on her side.
This does not mean that I’m okay with adultery. Fidelity in marriage is critically important to that institution. However, no matter what the woman in the story has done, I feel a sense of terror as I visualize her standing alone, surrounded by a mob of men ready to pick up stones if they didn’t already have them in hand. She has been stripped of her humanity and reduced to a label—”adulteress”—and because of that, these men feel they are justified in pronouncing judgment on her and carrying out the sentence themselves.
Thankfully, it turns out this woman wasn’t as alone as she seemed to be. When Jesus looks at her he sees more than an insult, more than a label, more than a bad decision. He sees a person. When he speaks his famous words (“The one who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”) he restores the full humanity of the woman. She is not “other.” She is a person just like they are, in all the full, beautiful complexity of what it means to be a person. Jesus’ action restores the full humanity of her accusers as well, which had been compromised by a mob mentality and their alienation of the woman.
To me, this is a story of both terror and hope. It expresses the terror that women feel when they are isolated, exposed, and objectified. But the end of the story inspires hope. Hope that we can all learn to see one another as people who share a common humanity. Hope that we can stop labeling people with names that reduce them to a body part or an object or an outsider. Hope that we can hear one another’s stories and believe in the experiences that they relate.
It is true that this story was not originally a part of the Gospel of John. But this is a story that belongs to the church, and it has from the beginning. Personally, I’m thankful to that 5th century scribe for including it for the benefit of those who came after him, generation after generation, down to you and me today.
5 thoughts on “A Thank You Note to a 5th Century Scribe”
Sharing with both my Belmont Greek community Facebook page, and my Gender & the Bible course page. The way you have woven together exegesis, textual criticism, and the modern world yields a beautiful and important message.
I whole-heartedly agree this story has a place in our scriptures. It fits well in the Gospel of John which happens to be my favorite book of the bible and one I often go to for words of comfort and peace. I do ponder sometimes what exactly it was that Jesus wrote on the ground that day. Was it the words he wrote or the words he spoke that caused the woman’s accusers to drop the stones and do some serious self-reflection? Regardless, his words are still pertinent today for us. I pray they will come to mind when we are tempted to “throw stones”.
Insightful and encouraging! Thank you!
Thank you much for sharing all this. Peace be with you.