Saturday, April 26, 2008

Watching Conservative Bible Scholars Squirm

There is a fascinating article in Christianity Today about what to do about a favorite biblical passage that doesn't really belong in the Bible. The passage is John 7:53-8:11, the story of Jesus' famous response to the woman caught in adultery: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." The problem with the passage is that it doesn't appear in the earliest Greek manuscripts. Good Bible translations like the NRSV make note of this.

The Christianity Today article appears as a sidebar to another story about an important discovery of ancient manuscripts in Albania. A team of scholars was given a rare opportunity to see and photograph a cache of manuscripts; the existence of the cache was known but the number of manuscripts turned out to be much larger than expected. Although the earliest manuscript in the collection is dated from the 6th century, and thus isn't very early, it is an important find.

Regarding our story in question, in three of the manuscripts dated from the 9th century, what is known as the Pericope adulterae isn't there. In another manuscript from the same period it is tacked on at the end. As noted in the article, these ommissions are surprising in manuscripts dated this late. By this time in history what is to be included in the Bible is pretty much settled.

So, should this passage be part of the Bible? What does its inclusion say about biblical inspiration? Here is how several conservative scholars respond:

"There is no reason to pull this out," said Craig Evans, a professor at Acadia Divinity School. "Nothing about it says Jesus didn't have this encounter." All of the stories about Jesus began orally — it was a few decades before they were written down — so it is possible that this story just did not get written down until much later, Evans said.

Michael Holmes, a professor at Bethel University, doesn't consider the story inspired Scripture. But he said he would include the story in the Bible, because of its long history and because the verses bear the marks of an authentic story about Jesus.

"[Pericope adulterae] does offer us deep insight into how Jesus dealt with questions such as this, and in that sense is a great illustration to live by," he said.

Such judgments raise questions about what words like canonicity and inspiration mean for evangelicals. If we reserve the word inspired for the text in the earliest manuscripts, yet accept that other material (such as the pericope adulterae) should be included in our biblical canon, are we implying that select biblical passages may be canonical yet not inspired? If so, what should we do with this distinction?

Biblical scholars do agree on two things: The Bible story should be set apart with a note, and Christians should be cautious when reading the passage for their personal devotions.

Translation teams have struggled with how best to present the story. Some place brackets around the story (RV, NRSV, GNB, ESV), print it in a smaller font (TNIV), or place it at the end of the gospel (REB), all with notes of explanation, said Howard Marshall, professor at the University of Aberdeen. Textual notes are generally added when the traditional King James Version differs significantly from the texts of the Greek New Testament that today's English translations are based on.

So far, no modern translators have chosen to leave it out altogether.

"If you leave it out without any comments," said Ben Witherington, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, "there are bound to be thousands of Bible readers asking, 'Is this Thomas Jefferson's Bible?'"

But leaving it in can be dangerous, too, especially when Christians breeze past the notes to concentrate on the story. It's difficult to understand how to treat such a sequestered passage; pericope adulterae continues to be much used as evidence of Jesus' character and as an example to believers.

The note in most Bibles does not say the story isn't authentic, but that the oldest manuscripts do not include it. Laypeople assume that translation teams must have a good reason for including the passage, Wallace said.

Douglas Moo, professor at Wheaton College, said that Christians should be cautious about using "Go, and sin no more" or "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

Wallace said pastors have a responsibility to communicate the truth of this text to their congregations. "We need to be as thoroughly biblical as we can be … [There] is a huge amount of ignorance that we're catering to in the Christian public.

"A person hearing these words should recognize that they have no authority as authentic words of Jesus," he said. Christians who are reading the story, he said, should give it the same authority as any other unsubstantiated early Christian teaching about Jesus.

Here are my three favorite sentences: 1) "A person hearing these words should recognize that they have no authority as authentic words of Jesus." I wonder how often that message is communicated from the pulpit after a bible passage is read. 2) "Christians should be cautious when reading the passage for their personal devotions." Of what? What might happen if we meditate on a Biblical passage that really doesn't belong in the Bible. And if there is one, could there be more? And 3) "[There] is a huge amount of ignorance that we're catering to in the Christian public." It is tempting to let that sentence stand as the final word but it really does make me wonder how many pastors who were educated in seminaries and introduced to biblical scholarship actually share anything they learned with their congregants.

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