Friday, March 21, 2008

Textual Criticism and the Woman Caught in Adultery

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.

Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

John 8:3-11

I suspect the most surprising thing people learned from Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus was that the story of the woman caught in adultery doesn't belong in the Bible. Apologists are quick to point out that textual critics have long known that this passage does not appear in the oldest and best manuscripts and that it is not written in the same style as the rest of John's gospel. They are equally quick to point out that removing it does not threaten any essential doctrines of the(ir) faith. Still, the average lay person did not know this because no pastor ever explained it when he discussed the passage in a sermon. It was probably pretty jarring for a lot of people to learn that such a wonderful story was not authentic.

It is natural to wonder why the scribes added that story to John's gospel, but the answer seems quite obvious: IT'S A GREAT STORY!! The story epitomizes the characteristics and qualities that make Jesus such a compelling figure and anyone familiar with it could not help but want to see it preserved for all people to hear. As a result, scribes familiar with the story tried to find a place to put it. Some inserted the story after John 21:25 while others found a place for it after Luke 21:38. The fact that scribes did so poses a challenge to the orthodox evangelical understanding of the gospels.

It is not that scribal changes undermines the doctrine of inerrancy because evangelicals believe that this doctrine only applies to the original writings, not to their transmission. The problem is that the scribes felt free to add a story simply because it was such a great story. If the scribes truly believed that John's gospel was the personal eyewitness account of one of Jesus' disciples, would they have had the temerity to add a story just because they liked it? Doesn't their willingness to do so suggest that they understood the gospels to be collections of stories taken from oral tradition by anonymous authors, which could be improved by the inclusion of other stories found in oral tradition? Doesn't it show that the historical pedigree of a story was not as important as its power to inspire and illuminate?

If scribes included stories based on their understanding of Jesus' teachings and character rather than the story's historical pedigree, is there any reason to think that the original writers did not do so as well? Moreover, is there any reason to think that stories might not have been omitted without regard to historical authenticity if the story did not fit the scribe's or author's understanding of who Jesus was and what his life meant? Once that possibility is allowed, you have to allow for the possibility that the oral transmission of the stories prior to the composition of the gospels may have included a series of additions and subtractions based on each person's understanding of Jesus.


  1. "evangelicals believe that this doctrine only applies to the original writings, not to their transmission."

    Well, yes and no. This is technically correct regarding inerrancy, but it does not take into account the companion doctrine of infallibility, to which you alluded. This is the bit that says something along the line of "yes, of course scribal errors and misspelling, little mistakes like those happened, but God protected the transmission so that the original intent and meaning were never lost." Josh McDowell expends quite a bit of energy "documenting" the reliability of scriptures and the "remarkable" degree to which the "message" has been preserved, intact. Except that no two Christians have ever agreed as to what exactly the message is.

    You, I and the lamp post all know that both doctrines are hooey. Infallibility is the band-aid that Christians had to apply as the discovery of conflicting manuscripts raised questions about reliability. It's pretty easy to state that the originals were perfect when it's accepted that the originals will probably never be found.

  2. Thanks for the insight Chaplain.

    I confess that I have always been slightly baffled by the effort that evangelicals devote to the distinction between infallibility and inerrancy. I never really appreciated how infallibility helps them tap dance around the transmission problem.

    I am amused by the rants over Ehrman "sensationalizing" textual criticism in Misquoting Jesus. The only thing that made the book shocking is that evangelical scholars and preachers had never told their congregrations the real story. Getting mad at Ehrman is like a parent getting mad at a child's classmate who reveals that there is no Santa Claus.

  3. Better men than I have explained that without the original MS available, the plethora of copies found over the millenia have all helped to come to determine what is true and accurate and what isn't. Your use of the term "scribes" indicates a belief that great care wasn't taken in the transmission of the stories from copy to copy. That grammatical errors or errors of spelling or punctuation are found, the fact that so many copies are available for comparison have aided rather than hindered the acceptance of what is or isn't supposed to be in the various books of the Bible. So the fact that a story might be missing from "the earliest" copies, does not mean that said copies are the best available. "Early" is good, but it is only one criteria. Such tactics are misleading, but as I said, better men than myself are available to fully explain such discrepancies. However, such discrepancies are nice for those looking to discredit or minimalize the importance or truths of the Bible. It helps them sleep better.

  4. MA,

    I did not think that there was anything pejorative about the term "scribes." Conservative scholar Dan Wallace seems to use it without reservation to describe the men who made copies of the texts.

    You are correct that earliness is only one criteria. Other criteria that establish the inauthenticity of the story of the woman caught in adultery include stylistic differences and the fact that different scribes inserted the story at different points and even in different gospels.

    My hypothesis is that the fact that the scribes felt at liberty to add the stories suggests that they understood the works that they were copying to be collections of stories that might be improved by adding other good stories. Had they understood them to be historical biographies written by eyewitnesses they would have been more reluctant to tamper with them.