If you have a study Bible that does its job, you may have noticed brackets around this passage, or at least a footnote. There are only two substantial passages in the Greek NT texts used by modern translations (the ever-stubborn NKJV notwithstanding) that don’t have pretty good attestation as original to their respective books: this one and the “long ending” of Mark. That is, dutiful translators make a note for English readers in order to indicate that these passages were, almost certainly, not in the original versions of John and Mark. The fact that we still include them in our standard Protestant Bibles raises some of my favorite questions: What makes scripture Scripture, and who decides?
If you were under the impression that God was calling the shots on that point, the inclusion of 7:53–8:11 in your canon should be enough to reorient your thinking. Not only did it get added to John by someone else and stayed that way for centuries, a panel of stogy scholars used a bunch of arcane terminology and criteria in order to decide that it did not properly belong to John and decided to leave it in, effectively telling you to take it as Scripture anyway. This is supposed to be my rule for faith and practice, and I don’t even know which parts are authentic. Moreover, I have to ask myself whether authenticity—apostolicity—matters if we’re just going to leave inauthentic stuff in there. And if it doesn’t, then what makes a writing into Holy Writ, vital for life and salvation?
Many who would rather move past the issue are fond of noting that there is nothing taught in this passage that is not found elsewhere. I dare say this misses the point, if there is any value in the idea that Scripture is different from other writings that make the same points. I read a quote today by Marcus Aurelius advocating honesty, but I don’t suppose I should put him on par with the Canon. Or should I? As the wise have said, all truth is God’s truth.
The fact is that there is nothing in Christian theology more convoluted that the history of the formation of the Canon (although the doctrine of the Trinity is a contender). And there is likely nothing more disillusioning for someone who effectively believes the Book dropped out of the sky in faux leather binding and gold lettering. As God is in the habit of doing, he leaves much of the burden of judgement and decision upon us. Naturally, it comes out a jumbled mess. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the “I” word to this point. That is because I find the abstract notion of “inspiration” that tends to govern such conversations to be utterly unhelpful. To say, for example, that the actual difference between a biblical author and a Roman emperor is that the former was inspired and the latter was not is quite a hollow assertion unless there is some criterion for inspiration at work behind it. In other words, it’s nice to say that supernatural involvement is definitive, but the point is, we decide when there is supernatural involvement, bringing us right back to where we started. So, unless we’ve got inspired people deciding who is inspired—and a way to know that they are inspired—we’re pretty much stuck with making an informed decision. That is what the church councils did in order to come up with the Canon as we know it, and that is what we have to do with 7:53 ff.
Therefore, to carry my example a bit further, the actual difference between John and Marcus Aurelius is the same as the actual difference between 7:53–8:11 and Marcus Aurelius. It is not that the guy who thought he could improve upon John’s writing was inspired—maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t; no one knows. It’s that the church decided, consciously or unconsciously, to include 7:53–8:11 in John’s Gospel. That is why translators leave in a non-apostolic story. There is no argument that it should be there. It’s just that it almost always has been there. So, what makes scripture Scripture, and who decides? The church decides, which means that the church makes scripture Scripture. I find that thought even more edifying than the story of the woman caught in adultery, so I’ll leave you to explore the mysteries of the passage on your own.