Many contend that the story of the woman caught in adultery found in John 7:53-8:11 was not written by John. Several of the earliest manuscripts do not contain it. It does not seem to fit well in the narrative of John 7-8. It is abrupt, out of place, and is sandwiched between two important symbols from the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus uses to teach about himself.
Symbols of the Feast of Tabernacles:
The first symbol was discussed in the previous post. In that post we learned about the water ceremony and Jesus’ fulfillment of it. Jesus alludes to the second symbol in John 8:12 when he said, “I am the light of the world…” Each year at the Feast they would have a festival of lights. Lamps were placed in the court of women in the temple and were lit by priests. Their old priestly garments were used as wicks. The people danced and celebrated God’s provision of the pillar of fire by night in the wilderness following the exodus. There was a second meaning to the light, a Messianic one. They anticipated the time when God had promised to shine his light upon them and the kingdom of God. Jesus is saying, “like the water ceremony, I have fulfilled the festival of lights as well.”
John’s Theological Use of Chronology:
Sandwiched between those two statements is the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). What makes that difficult is that John tells us it is on the day after Tabernacles (John 7:37 + John 7:53-8:2). That would make Jesus reference to being the light of the world in 8:12 after the ceremony rather than during it. That is just not quite as dramatic now is it?!? But that is only if we read John’s chronology concretely. By now we should all realize that John is fairly loose with his chronology (e.g. his placement of clearing the temple). He is not writing a newspaper piece or a scientific report. He places his stories in specific places for theological impact and purpose. In other words, just because John 8:12 “I am the light of the world” comes after the woman caught in adultery does not mean that what happened in 8:12 came after what happened in 7:53-8:11. Just because a new day has dawned in the story line does not mean John 8:12ff did not happen at the Feast of Tabernacles.
John’s Theological Reason for Sandwiching 7:53-8:11
The question then is, what would John’s theological reason be for John starting a new day in the middle of the narrative in which he tells the story of the woman caught in adultery and then go back to the Feast? In John 7:53-8:11 the setting of the story is the Mount of Olives. The timeline is on a new day. Why is that important? One of the key Old Testament passages associated with the Feast of Tabernacles is Zechariah 14 references all of these things. Carson believes this may have been part of the reading during the 8 days of the Feast (Pillar, 338). Let’s have a look at Zechariah 14:
A day of the LORD is coming when your plunder will be divided among you. I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it; the city will be captured, the houses ransacked, and the women raped. Half of the city will go into exile, but the rest of the people will not be taken from the city…On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south…It will be a unique day, without daytime or nighttime—a day known to the LORD. When evening comes, there will be light…On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea…The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name…Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, they will have no rain. (Zech 14:1-2,4,7-9,16-17).
Zechariah predicts a new day that will come when justice will be served. A battle will rage. The mount of Olives will be split. Living water will be poured out, light will shine when there should be no light (evening), those who have undergone being taken advantage of sexually will be made right (in some ways similar to this woman who was probably set up for an encounter just to be taken advantage of to make a fool of Jesus). When? At the time of the Feast of Tabernacles.
On one side of the story of this woman Jesus declares himself the source of living water. On the other side of this story Jesus declares himself the source of light that shines even though it is evening. In the middle Jesus stands on the mount of Olives and serves as a dividing line between those going into spiritual exile and those who remain in God’s holy city. Why start a new day in the middle of the Tabernacle narrative? Because that is exactly what the story of the woman caught in adultery illustrated. That was John’s theological point. A new day had come.
Does John 7:53-8:11 Belong in the Gospel of John?
The textual evidence points against these verses originally being in the gospel of John. Other manuscripts have this section in other places in the Gospel. From the perspective of the narrative and John’s theology it actually fits quite nicely here. No one can say with 100% certainty that John did not pen these words, who did, or why their location differs in different manuscripts. I hope this posts offers some clarity on the selection and location of these verses in the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Sorry, no application this time. I will let you write that part in the comments 🙂 How would you apply anything discussed so far in John 7-8?