I was a little surprised that no one asked me about the location of John 7:53-8:11 in John’s gospel. Every modern translation that I’ve seen, including the NIV and the NRSV, points out that this “pericope” (the technical name for a relatively self-contained Bible story) was added to John’s gospel some time after the gospel was completed by someone other than the original author. (Bibles often put brackets around it.)
We know it was not originally part of John’s gospel. Indeed, the “feel” of the story and some of the Greek vocabulary make it seem more like a story that belongs in one of the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, or Luke). If you read John 7:52 and skip to 8:12, the narrative moves along seamlessly. Many scholars say it belongs toward the end of Luke’s gospel where Jesus is teaching in the temple. One study Bible I have places it at the end of John—saying that no one knows where it goes.
As a result of the story’s perceived “secondary” status—even though it’s surely one of the most beloved passages of scripture in the New Testament—it’s often ignored. It rarely gets preached anymore (it’s not in the Revised Common Lectionary that much of the Church follows) or discussed in Bible studies on John’s gospel.
This is a shame. Surely we can all agree that it belongs in the New Testament! It has the ring of authenticity. It makes me think of other controversy stories in the gospels—for example, when religious authorities confront Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus anticipates the trap in the question, wisely dodges it, and reveals a deeper truth. (See Mark 12:13-17 and parallels.)
What is especially offensive about the Pharisees’ behavior in John 8 is that they are using a human being as a prop to trap Jesus—even though it may cost this woman her life. And where is the man who was caught in adultery with her? The Torah law prescribing the death penalty for adultery is addressed first to the adulterer and then to the adulteress. (See, for example, Leviticus 20:10.)
Regardless of the controversies surrounding this pericope, I chose to deal with it in its traditional context in John 8. I trust that the Holy Spirit guided the Church to place it there for a reason—regardless whether it originally “belonged” there. It belongs here now.
As I pointed out in my sermon, in the context of John 8, we see more clearly the way the story anticipates the cross: Jesus’ rescues this person (and all persons who believe in Jesus) from death, ultimately at the cost of his own life (as John 8:59 reinforces).
One more thing… What was Jesus writing in the dirt? No one knows. One early New Testament scribe added the words “the sins of each of them” after v. 8 in an attempt to resolve the ambiguity, but that was only a guess. What he wrote is beside the point, according to one scholar on John.† The very act of looking down and writing was a way of refusing to engage the question. His body language told his questioners that the question wasn’t worthy of a response.
† Gail O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 629.