"Unity without verity is no better than conspiracy." - John Trapp

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Textual Criticism and the "Pericope Adultrae"


The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, in Article X, reads as follows:

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

What is this statement asserting about the text of Scripture?First, that the books of the Bible, as originally written, were inspired. Men who have copied the Scriptures and translated the Scriptures are not inspired (there is a debate here with those who would hold to a "King James Only" view that I'm not going to address; those interested in pursuing this debate farther should reference the resources available on James White's Alpha and Omega website). Second, that while we no longer have the originals, we can reconstruct them with a high degree of faithfulness to the originals. This is the key point I want to discuss and will come back to it. Third, that what we have today in many modern translations (I would exclude most if not all paraphrases and some more creative translations) is Scripture. That is to say that translations like the King James, New American Standard, English Standard, Holman Christian Standard, and the New Internation Version are faithful enough to the original writings to be considered the word of God.

The second point is the link between the first and the third. How do we get from what we no longer have, the inspired texts written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, to the Bible in English? One obvious key is translation. But if we no longer have the originals, can we trust the copies? Do the copies agree? If not, how do we know which copy to trust?

Textual Criticism

On the question about whether or not the copies agree, the answer is in large part yes. Let me give a specific example from recent history that affirms that the text of Scripture has been faithfully preserved. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of texts that predate the time of Christ. Contained within this collection are some of the oldest copies of Old Testament writings that we have. These books are hundreds of years older than any copies we had before they were found. What is significant is that the texts do not show significant variation from the texts on which we had been basing the Old Testament. So there is a large consensus within the copies as to what the original texts said.

However, there are differences. In most cases, these differences are minor, like an additional word or a slight change in the phrasing. The possible causes are varied. If you've ever tried to transcribe a document, when you are trying to make a lot of progress you sometimes will try to remember a longer phrase than what you should have. So a Scribe adds a word or leaves a word out by doing this. Today we have computers and can simply add in the missing word. But in the painstaking process of past, adding or removing a word once it was in place was very difficult. Paper was not readily available. The scribe, if he recognized the error, might decide it was not significant enough to warrant losing the page and the work already put into it.

More rare, but possible, is that a scribe might think a passage unclear, so he adds something to help clarify. Those who did the work of transcription were, as the Chicago Statement points out, not inspired. So we have fallible men who either make unintended mistakes or make misguided alterations. In either case, what results is some variants in the text.

The science of textual criticism is that field of study that attempts to ascertain what the original texts actually contained based on the copies we have today. This is not as easy as it might sound. First, the number of original texts and text fragments that we have is extensive. If anyone watched the TV show on the Gospel according to Judas, the process for the Biblical text is different. With the Gospel of Judas they had one text that had holes and were trying to guess what words best filled the missing parts. In textual criticism, you do not lack information, you have too much. The question is not about missing words, but which of these different words belongs. Or, does this word that does not occur in these other manuscripts belong.

Second, what criteria do you use to judge? Is it as simple as using the variation that occurs in the largest number of texts (a "majority" text)? Should we base our text on the oldest available copies, assuming that older copies would be less likely to have scribal errors? Do we attempt to determine whether the difference appears to be an attempt to clarify what would otherwise be a difficult text to explain? Should we apply all of these in some way?

The Problem of John 7:53-8:11

I'm not going to answer all the questions above, as my concern is with a specific passage. However we choose what variant of the text we are going to use, in most cases the end result is not very significant. The variations just do not significantly alter the meaning of the text. However, there are exceptions. The two biggest are Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11. In both cases, but even more so for John 7:53-8:11, there is significant variations in the manuscripts we have. What does this mean for a study of John's Gospel.

Broadly, one can hold one of three positions. The first position is that the text of John 7:53-8:11 is not Scripture and should not be taught. The second position is that the text is not Johannine, but does reflect a real incident in the life of Jesus and may be taught. The third position is that the text is genuinely Johannine and therefore should be taught. I recognize that these are very broad categories and that people may not neatly fit into one category, but the categories are helpful in progressing the discussion.

The majority of commentators I have referenced on the text hold to the second position. For example, in the Expositors Bible Commentary it states:

Although this narrative is included in the sequence of the outline, it can hardly have belonged to the original text of this Gospel. It is absent from most of the oldest copies of the Gospel that precede the sixth century and from the works of the earliest commentators. To say that it does not belong in the Gospel is not identical with rejecting it as unhistorical. Its coherence and spirit show that it was preserved from a very early time, and it accords well with the known character of Jesus. It may be accepted as historical truth; but based on the information we now have, it was probably not a part of the original text.

D.A. Carson expresses a similar view in his commentary on John's gospel (published by Eerdmans). So likewise does R.V.G Tasker in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries and MacArthur in his study Bible. Borchert, in the New American Commentary, argues that the passage fits better in Luke, where some manuscripts do place the story. The Bible Knowledge Commentary relegates discussion of the text to an appendix and perhaps leans toward the first position.

A proponent of the first position is Daniel Wallace. Dr. Wallace argues: Second, the pericope adulterae is most likely not even historically true. It was probably a story conflated from two different accounts. Thus, the excuse that one can proclaim it because the story really happened is apparently not valid. [emphasis mine] I agree with Dr. Wallace that we have to be consistent. Our goal should be to hold to the true Scriptures, and simply believing in this passage because it's in the King James is not sufficient.

Making the Choice

So, is there no one anymore who holds to position 3? Hendriksen defends the passage in the Baker New Testament Commentary. He feels this is genuine Scripture. After citing three arguments against including this text, he provides four reasons for its inclusion. First, the story fits the context. Second, the primary players in the drama, especially Jesus, are "in character" with the rest of Scripture. Third, Eusibius, the early church historian, relates that Papias, who died shortly after 100 A.D., tells a similar story. Fourth, Augustine states that the story was removed by scribes because it was being used as an excuse for immorality.

Let me dwell on that point for a moment. Even today, one of the most frequent uses of this passage that I hear is someone trying to turn away correction by saying, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." So even today the passage is being misused in this manner. It is not hard for me to see that Augustine is correct about this.

James Montgomery Boice in his commentary on John argues similarly to Hendriksen to include this text. His most developed argument is the argument from context:

A good case can be made for its inclusion at this particular place in John’s Gospel. For one thing, without it the change of thought between the fifty-second verse of chapter seven and the twelfth verse of chapter eight is abrupt and unnatural. We do not know where Jesus is in John 8:12, nor to whom he is speaking. For another thing, the introduction of a story at this point seems to fit the pattern that John has been using in these opening chapters. In each case, from chapter 5 onward, a story is used to set the theme of the teaching that follows. Thus, the miracle of healing the disabled man, which begins chapter 5, becomes the text of the sermon that follows. The feeding of the multitude in chapter 6 leads into the discourse on Christ as the bread of life. The discussion between Jesus and his brothers about going up to the feast in chapter 7 is an introduction to Christ’s words at the feast. So, likewise, is the story of his dealing with the adulterous woman an introduction to that speech on the combination of righteousness and freedom in Christ that the rest of the chapter declares that Christ brings.

Finally, Dr. Curt Daniel also adopts the position that the text is genuine. His discussion can be found at the Faith Bible Church website. Scroll down on this page to Sermons from our Sunday Morning Service.

So my choice is to assume that this is indeed Scripture, written by John and belonging at this place in his gospel.


Anonymous John Dekker said...

I've been looking at this very issue lately. There is a fourth option - that John 7:53 - 8:11 is not Johannine, but still Scripture.

There's some discussion about this suggestion here.

9:05 AM EDT  

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