Monday, December 11, 2017

Should we preach and teach the story of the woman caught in adultery?

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If the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7.53–8.11 is not original to the fourth Gospel, as I think, does it follow that it should not be used as Scripture? The same question confronts us with the Longer Ending of Mark, a text which, as I have said before, I think is not original but should be preached as Scripture.

‘Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery’ by Sebastiano Conca
Although I feel that way about Mark 16.9–20, I am not as sure about this passage. It is not as early or widely attested as the Longer Ending is. But many think it preserves authentic tradition about Jesus. So, when the question came up in class a few weeks ago, I let Tommy answer for me. Here’s what he says:
Is the PA [Pericope Adulterae] original to John’s Gospel or is it a later interpolation? Should it be proscribed or proclaimed? My short answer to the first question is: Yes, I think it is an interpolation as I have argued in this essay. This, however, does not automatically lead to a negative answer to the second question, namely that this passage should be proscribed rather than proclaimed. I regard the story as an authentic Jesus tradition, which has been highly treasured by the Church from a very early stage. I hope it continues to be told and proclaimed, but at the same time, I think it is proper to signal to modern readers of John that the passage (at its present location) is a suspect interpolation.
This is from Tommy Wasserman, “The Strange Case of the Missing Adulteress,” in The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research, ed. David A. Black and Jacob Cerone, LNTS 551 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark), 63, which is a very helpful volume on the subject. It includes articles that defend the pericope’s originality and articles, like Tommy’s, that don’t.

What say you, O blog readers? If the pericope is not original, should we still preach and teach it? Should we derive theology from it? Or should it be rejected as a wonderful, extra-Biblical story without authority for us?

34 comments :

  1. I am tempted to place both these passages into the same category as the Apocrypha in the theology of the Church of England: "the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine". This has a number of advantages: it recognises the widespread recognition in the manuscript and preaching tradition of the churches, it recognises that some Christian traditions regard the passage as Scripture in a straightforward way, but it also recognises the important fact that it is not an original part of the text of John and is therefore not part of canonical Scripture.

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    1. Peter Head,
      Of course not everyone "recognizes the important fact" as a fact at all. There is, I suspect, some sort of ratio between the dubiousness of a position, and the tendency of its supporters to refer to it as a fact in the course of arguing for it.

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    2. Pete, this is an enticing position. But I need to know more about the logic implied by your last sentence.

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    3. Yes "fact" wasn't the best word for me to use there.

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  2. Peter is correct that the long ending of Mark is considered canonical, even if it wasn't original to Mark's gospel. Metzger had the same opinion. I believe the same principle should apply to the PA -- it should be considered canonical, even if it was not original to John.

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  3. If not original than it is not God’s Word and should not be preached. If you consider it scripture, then you must preach it. Of course, this assumes that originality determines Canon. Dr. Head seems to have articulated a path for those who do not believe this passage is scripture, but realize it has had a long history in church teaching. My own view, don’t preach it, but don’t disparage it either. Are these verses scripture, no, however the forgiveness they teach is.

    As a side note, I wonder if any of those who ‘voted’ the longer ending of Mark was not original but still inspired would view this passage as not inspired based on its weaker evidence?
    Tim

    Tim

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    1. A complicating factor with the PA is that although the textual evidence is far inferior (cf. the LE), the contents are far more palatable. This tends to skew the discussion.

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    2. Dr. Head,
      Absolutely true!
      Tim

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  4. If one takes the position that it is not part of Scripture, it ought not to be "preached," any more than Josephus. On the other hand, one might cite it for some reason, as one might cite the testimony of Josephus.

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  5. Peter Gurry,

    << If the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7.53–8.11 is not original to the fourth Gospel, as I think, does it follow that it should not be used as Scripture? >>

    I believe that John 7:53-8:11 was originally in the text of the Gospel of John, and I don't see how, if one denies that this was the case, one can treat it as part of the Gospel of John and still consider textual criticism useful. For there are many things that are edifying -- some of the agrapha for example -- which nevertheless lack the authority of apostolic testimony.

    I suppose that one could, if one embraces the erroneous view that the story of the adulteress was not part of the original text of the Gospel of John, nevertheless accept it as a small 28th book of the New Testament which has traditionally been wrapped in the text of the Gospel of John. But then what to do with smaller non-original readings which are also so wrapped? The logic of those who reject the passage is sound, even if is aimed in the wrong direction due to the longstanding tradition of mauling the evidence on this subject: we want what the inspired authors wrote, not what some scribe wrote.

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    1. Good questions, James, but you don’t really give any reason why we should think that the text-critical question resolves the canonical one. We do want what the inspired authors wrote, I agree. But what they wrote has only come to us through what scribes wrote, so these two categories need more clarification before they solve anything.

      With a text like John 7.53–8.11, there is strong evidence that the author of John’s Gospel did not write it as part of that Gospel. It does not follow from that that an inspired writer did not write it. At best, you can say we don't know who wrote it. But then I do not know who wrote Hebrews either.

      The real difficulty with my approach, as I have admitted before, is whether the principle of accepting a secondary accretion based on its wide attestation in our MSS would then have to apply to all textual variants. I do not think it needs to since both Mark 16.9–20 and John 7.53–8.11 are, by all accounts, unique in terms of their length and importance. In other words, I am not (yet) convinced that I need to ask the same canonical question of, say, John 5.4, that I need to ask of the ending of Mark or the story of the woman caught in adultery. The latter two can easily function as self-standing narratives and that is not something that can be said of John 5.4.

      Now, I am open to changing my mind on all this. But I want to see an actual argument for why, in these two cases, “non-original” necessarily means “non-canonical.”

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    2. PG,
      You confuse categories. Just because a text is long and important has nothing to do with its actual originality, at least from a text critical standpoint.
      Second, you seem to assume that there is a third category, canonical, that is not related to originality.
      Finally, you continue to confuse originality with authorship. The letter to the Hebrews author may be open to discussion, but that is a historical question not a TC one. James and I do not agree on whether this passage is original, but I would suggest it is you who has to explain more clearly this category of ‘ non-original but canonical’
      Tim

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    3. Hebrews is not original to John but is still inspired and canonical. Why can’t John 7.53–8.11 be the same? “Original” is a relative category and that is my point. It doesn’t necessarily settle the issue in these two cases, in my opinion. They can and probably did stand alone at some point. Why can’t they do that again?

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    4. PG,
      No one is claiming that John wrote all of scripture! This argument is a non-starter! We are arguing that if the PA, which is in John’s Gospel, almost exclusively, is either Scripture or not based on whether it is original to John.
      Your argument seems to be, if it was written by someone in the 1st century and you like what it says and it is long enough, regardless of its originality in any portion of the NT, it is scripture. This is surely a unique description of what constitutes scripture.

      Tim

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    5. TJ,

      You seem to equate original with canonical. "If not original than it is not God’s Word and should not be preached." I think you are missing the point that PG made. Original to who? If it is not original to John it doesn't necessarily follow that it isn't God's word. What would to you do with the signs of editing that exist in the OT? I think your position cannot be consistently defended.

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  6. Another question for an evangelical who thinks the account is not original to John is whether or not the think it's historical. If the authority of the passage isn't accepted on the basis of the testimony of the beloved disciple, writing in fulfillment of Jesus's promise to him that the Holy Spirit would bring to his remembrance all that Jesus said, then it might still hypothetically be accepted on the basis of the authority of Jesus' own words, mediated to us through some other channel.

    But in order to follow that line of reasoning, one would need some other reason to accept the historicity of the passage, without the testimony of the beloved disciple in its favor. They might appeal to Papias for an argument of double attestation (but that assumes that the anonymous author of this presumed non-Johannine passage is itself an early source alongside Papias).

    I would tend to expect something more like an ecclesiastical text argument, where the preacher who preaches this text while rejecting it as an original part of John appeals to the wisdom of the Church over the centuries in treating it as Scripture. But I think this approach would have far-reaching implications that would not be limited to just this passage and the longer ending of Mark.

    On the other hand, if one is not willing to accept the historicity of the account, then how could they proclaim it before a church as a source of doctrine? Would they treat it as a fictional parable? This may not be too difficult for some non-evangelical Christians. But it seems to me to be a hurdle that an evangelical would have trouble getting over.

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    1. ERIC,
      I also would say that for some evangelicals, even if the historicity were proven, without the confirmation of it by an apostolic author, it still wouldn’t be preached.
      Tim

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  7. Peter Gurry,

    As an example of how one prominent evangelical handles the PA, you may consult John Piper's sermon on the passage – at https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/neither-do-i-condemn-you-- in which he declines to use the PA as Scripture, but is willing to use it as a pedestal from which to proclaim things that are affirmed by Scripture. Which is just a small concession to the popularity of the story of the adulteress.

    I have heard others, however, acknowledge the PA as Scripture on the basis of something like “the internal testimony of Scripture,” which seems indistinguishable saying, “A lot of Christians like it, and regard it as authoritative, and Jesus promised that His sheep would know the Shepherd’s voice, so the church should treat it as authoritative.” Which is a malleable approach, and capable of being applied to different positions, but there it is.

    << With a text like John 7.53–8.11, there is strong evidence that the author of John’s Gospel did not write it as part of that Gospel.”

    There is stronger evidence that the PA was dropped from the text due to a very early copyist’s simple mistake when he misunderstood early marks to signify the contours of the lection for Pentecost as if they were intended for him rather than the lector.

    << It does not follow from that that an inspired writer did not write it. At best, you can say we don't know who wrote it. But then I do not know who wrote Hebrews either. >>

    If you would just go so far as to affirm that the author of the Gospel of John did not write the PA, that is all that is needed, istm, to justify removing it from the text of the Gospel of John, and, at the most, framing it as a small 28th book of the New Testament.

    << The real difficulty with my approach, as I have admitted before, is whether the principle of accepting a secondary accretion based on its wide attestation in our MSS would then have to apply to all textual variants. >>

    I suspect that such an approach might lead to something like Lachmann’s text – the text that was in the hands of those who standardized the canon in the late 300’s. What text did they regard as canonical? Taking Apostolic Constitutions as a model/example, it was a text that included both John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20. It would certainly simplify things to consider the text as it existed at that point to be the initial text, and everything that preceded it to be matters of higher criticism – treating the New Testament the way one might treat the book of Psalms, as a collection of books that expanded over centuries not only by the accumulation of books but also by textual adjustments. But this would also render much of New Testament textual criticism superfluous.

    << I do not think it needs to since both Mark 16.9–20 and John 7.53–8.11 are, by all accounts, unique in terms of their length and importance. >>

    << The latter two [i.e., Jn 7:53-8:11 and Mk. 16:9-20] can easily function as self-standing narratives and that is not something that can be said of John 5.4. >>

    But what is this saying to the interpolators of the past – working from your current false assumption that these are both scribal interpolations – if not, “Small adulterations will be rejected; large adulterations will be accepted”?

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    1. These are good thoughts, James. Thanks. I’m not interested in litigating the originality of the two passages here. But, given my view of that question, your last paragraph isn’t a fair representation. It would be better to say that uniquely long interpolations that have near universally acceptance by the Church ought to be accepted still, just not as part of Mark or John proper.

      I will say that I am much more inclined to accepting Mark 16.9–20 on these grounds than I am John 7.53–8.11. That’s why I quoted Tommy instead of myself! I’m still mulling it in my own mind. The push back here is all helpful.

      But I remain unconvinced that the criteria of canonicity can’t apply to these two uniquely long interpolations. I recognize that settling the canonical question on text-critical grounds is the easiest way to resolve the question; but easy is not the same thing as right.

      The question is simply this: what basis do we have for rejecting the apostolic authority which has so often been ascribed to these two passages? (Maybe the answer for the woman caught in adultery is that it has no been ascribed “so often.” But for Mark, it really has been.)

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  8. Peter Gurry,

    Okay, I rephrase the final paragraph:

    But what is this saying to the interpolators of the past – working from your current false assumption that these are both scribal interpolations – if not, “Small adulterations that have received the near-universal acceptance of the church will be rejected; large adulterations that have received the near-universal acceptance of the church will be accepted”?

    It should be obvious to all that Mark 16:9-20 has the near-universal acceptance of the church, in Greek MSS, Vulgate MSS, Syriac MSS, in patristic references, etc.

    And regarding the pericope adulterae, an argument might be made that its inclusion in the Vulgate and the inclusion of 8:3-11 in the Greek (Orthodox) lection-cycle constitutes near-universal acceptance; granting that it is absent from 287 Greek MSS, it is present in 1,476 (or, at least, these were the totals in 2015; now they're a bit higher) -- and 124 or so of the MSS that do not have it are MSS of Theophylact's Commentary on John, which effectively boils down the weight of those 124 copies to that of Theophylact's copy. Without Theophylact and his echoes in the picture, the statistic is something like 163 MSS for non-inclusion and 1,500 for inclusion (and this is not even considering the Menologion's inclusion of 8:3-11) -- roughly 90% in favor of inclusion.

    Of course a consideration of mere quantities is not a good way to practice textual criticism, but if one is gauging canonicity on the basis of "near universal acceptance by the church," then it seems very relevant.

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    1. Right. You have made my point that Mark's ending is far better attested than the woman caught in adultery. As for your rephrase, the element it still lacks is that these are stand-alone narratives. You cannot say that about any other textual accretion in the NT. They really are unique and this is why they grab so much attention.

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    2. One additional minor point: not all interpolations are written by interpolators. We do not know that the woman caught in adultery was written for John's Gospel. You simply cannot say that about something like the interpolation in John 5.4 or 1 John 5.7.

      Keep the objections coming. You may convince me yet.

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    3. (Typo alert: that should've been a reference to 267 copies that lack the PA, not 287.)

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  9. JS: "There is stronger evidence that the PA was dropped from the text due to a very early copyist’s simple mistake when he misunderstood early marks to signify the contours of the lection for Pentecost as if they were intended for him rather than the lector."

    This theory does not hold up. When do you think this passage was chosen for Pentecost?

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  10. Tommy Wasserman,
    I think that John 7:37-52+8:12 was the lection for Pentecost (with some localized variation) whenever the subject comes up, of course!

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    1. Yes, but have you thought about the theory in relationship to the origin and development of the actual lectionary system and specifically the assignment of a particular lection in John 7:37ff for Pentecost.

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    2. Tommy,
      Yes. Hughes Oliphant Old's volumes are very helpful for tracing the development of lectionary-cycles. There need not have been a full annual cycle, though, for local customs to arise in which particular passages were assigned to be read at the major annual feasts, such as Easter-time and Pentecost.

      TW: "When do you think this passage was chosen for Pentecost?"

      In the mid to late 100's.

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    3. I think readings from John for Pentecost were assigned much later, in a gradual development of the lectionary. There is a lot to say about this topic, but more on that in my forthcoming book, To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story. It will cone out during 2018.

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    4. Tommy W,
      I think the reading for Pentecost was assigned in the 100's; the full lectionary-cycle developed later (and never stopped being developed). See my book, A Fresh Analysis of John 7:53-8:11 (already available as an e-book on Amazon). I hope you have thoroughly covered the Palestinian Aramaic evidence that pertains to this passage.

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    5. I think the extant Palestinian Aramaic evidence for the PA derive from manuscripts copied in the late phase of the CPA. Virtually no evidence from John survives from the early phase of the CPA. I don't see what this has to do with the Pentecost lection (perhaps you did not intend to make that connection).

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  11. I will ask a question after citing below from Michael Grisanti's JETS article that appeared some 16 years ago, "INSPIRATION, INERRANCY, AND THE OT CANON: THE PLACE OF TEXTUAL UPDATING IN AN INERRANT VIEW OF SCRIPTURE," JETS 44:4 (Dec 2001): 577-98.

    http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/44/44-4/44-4-PP577-98_JETS.pdf

    "This paper seeks to show that the initial composition of a biblical book and any editorial revisions of a biblical book before the finalization of the OT canon are part of God-breathed Scripture (see figure 1)" (580).

    "I would argue that the textual updating, though limited in scale, that occurs at various points in OT books is not part of mere scribal activity after the completion of the autographa of a given book or set of books, but of the inscripturation process that results in God-breathed Scripture. . . . I would view a given biblical book before the completion of the canon as a preliminary canonical form of that biblical book. Once the OT canon reaches completion, every OT book is in its final canonical form. Since that form of a biblical book is susceptible to change (though on a relatively small scale), I prefer not to call the preliminary form the “autographa” in the technical sense. Rather, I would describe the final canonical form of a biblical book as the autographa" (598).

    Now my question, which is the same one Peter Gurry hints at in the comments: Can the passages in question in this blogpost relate or extend to the discussion of Grisanti regarding the OT, and if so, how?

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    1. Paolo Trovato12/14/2017 6:35 pm

      In milieus close to the Catholic Church they used sometimes to define a fake made by clergymen for good aims (such some indulgences allegedly coming from very old popes who did not know the very notion of indulgence) a "pia fraus". But also calling "autographa" copies updated by scribes centuries after their original composition seems a sort of linguistic "fraus", I don't dare to say wheter "pia" or not.

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  12. The assumption that the PA is unoriginal to John's gospel is not one that I find fully convincing, but for the sake of the question, I'll suppose it's true. In this case, recognized scripture might help answer the question of whether or not it should be taught or preached. From an evangelical standpoint, inspired scripture should, I hope, serve as an authority on the issue of how we ought to preach.

    The strongest example is Jude, which can reasonably be described as preaching from a couple of texts (the story about Moses' burial in Jude 1:9 and 1 Enoch in Jude 1:14-15) not recognized as canonical today (at least, not in evangelical circles), and perhaps not even recognized as canonical when Jude's epistle was written.

    On more than one occasion, Paul uses secular literature to teach certain points. A clear example in his preaching occurs in Acts 17:28, although there is some debate as to whether this counts as an example of effective preaching. Paul affirms a point made by another Greek poet (a "prophet of their own") in Titus 1:12. I don't think this elevates the works of these poets to scripture, but where scripture affirms their statements, can we say it incorporates those statements into scripture?

    A more timely example, though it is more remote, is the reference to Hanukkah ("the feast of the dedication") in John 10:22. Unless the themes of the discourse that follows can be shown to have a clear link to the feast, the mere reference is not sufficient to apply this example to the question of teaching or preaching. But the fact that the author recognizes the feast and assumes that his readers can do the same still seems worth noting, since the Maccabees books are also not recognized as canonical in evangelical circles.

    I realize that these examples relate far more to the question of canonicity rather than originality, so they may fall short of answering the question. But I hope they're useful in some way!

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