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The Adulteress Narrative: New Book

April 14, 2016

A new book is now the “go-to” resource on the text-critical question about the account  of the adulteress brought to Jesus (in traditional texts, John 7:53–8:11):  The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research, eds. David Alan Black and Jacob N. Cerone (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).  The publisher’s online catalogue entry is here.

Ironically, though one of the most well-known narratives in the New Testament, the account is widely judged by scholars as an addition to the text of the Gospel of John.  But that is not a universal view, and this volume features treatments of the question by five scholars, two of them (John David Punch and Maurice A. Robinson) proposing that the story is an authentic part of Gospel of John and omitted in the course of its transmission, and three other scholars (Tommy Wasserman, Jennifer Knust, and Chris Keith) arguing that the account originated elsewhere and was added to Gospel of John.

The essays originated in a symposium held in Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, North Carolina), 25-26 April 2014.  I was contacted sometime later and asked to write a response to the essays, which forms the final essay in this volume:  “The Pericope Adulterae:  Where from Here?” (pp. 147-58).

I judge superior the arguments (by Wasserman, Knust and Keith) that the text is an addition to copies of the Gospel of John, and I state my bases for this judgement in the essay.  In particular, I focus on the lack of the account in our earliest manuscripts that preserve the relevant portion of John (P66, P75, Vaticanus, Sinaiticus).  In the manuscript tradition, the account first appears in Codex Bezae (5th century).  But, curiously, not long thereafter the account won acceptance and so appears as a standard part of John in the mass of Medieval manuscripts.

Focusing on the repeated references in the story to Jesus writing on the ground, Chris Keith’s award-winning book (based on his PhD thesis completed here in Edinburgh) presents his case that the text was initially inserted in some copies of John to present Jesus as fully literate:  The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus (Leiden: Brill, 2009).  Some early Christian writers reflect a knowledge of the story, and 4th century writers indicate that it appeared in some copies of John.  So, was it likely inserted initially perhaps in the 3rd-4th century??

As a very modest contribution of my own, in my concluding essay I focus on the chronology and the manuscripts.  Whenever the account first became a part of John, it clearly didn’t win widescale acceptance until sometime in/after the 5th century.  Now, according to a widely held view in NT text-critical circles, the first two or three centuries were a time of “wild” transmission and various major textual changes, and then the 4th century and later was a time of much greater fixity and control of the text.  But the manuscript evidence for the story of the adulteress woman, and also for the “long ending” of Mark, seems to call this view into question.

For example, the impression one takes from the manuscript evidence is that neither of these major textual variants (in fact, the two largest textual variants in the NT) won much acceptance in the earliest period of supposed “wild” attitudes and freely made changes.  Instead, both variants actually won acceptance later, in the period when supposedly such major changes were not so likely to gain acceptance.

So, the question I pose very briefly in my essay is this:  Is it possible that the common view of the transmission-history of NT writings (however intuitively it appeals) is wrong, or at least seriously defective?  More specifically, were there factors and dynamics in the later period that facilitated the inclusion and wide acceptance of these sizeable variants?

To ask such a question is, I recognize, a “heretical” move, in terms of widely-held scholarly views.  And, to be sure, to ask the question is not to presume the answer.  But I think that we (NT textual critics) should perhaps consider my question more closely than has been done to this point.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the early history of the transmission of NT writings is a bit more complex than the standard model allows . . . and perhaps a good bit more interesting!

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14 Comments
  1. Hi Prof. Hurtado,

    Thanks for this post. I am wondering if you could direct me toward a few “flagship” publications that argue for a “wild” attitude in scribal transmission in the earliest period of the traditions. Thank you!

    Danny Yencich

    • See my original posting and responses to this question in earlier comments.

      • To clarify: I was looking for examples of folks that argue that “the first two or three centuries were a time of ‘wild’ transmission and various major textual changes.” I didn’t see any examples in the OP or in the earlier comments, which is why I asked. I am happy to do that research on my own, but I was just wondering who you had in mind that is characterizing this period as “wild.” Not at all contesting that this claim is out there; just looking for some examples.

      • For characterizations of the earliest centuries as a time of “wild” transmission and variation, e.g.,:
        –Ernest C. Colwell, Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 166 n. 3.
        –Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (rev. ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 342-43.

  2. Why would that story have been omitted only to be added again later on? Doesn’t seem very plausible.

    • The periscope adulterae seems to have been added to some early manuscripts (which no longer survive) and not added in others. But in/after the 5th century it became more widely accepted as a part of GJohn. My question is why the latter happened and when it did.

      • Which early Christian writers reflect a knowledge of the story then?

      • Grommel: Check out any good commentary on GJohn. They’ll cite the data.

  3. Regarding what you stated here about Mark 16:9-20 —

    LH: “Neither of these major textual variants (in fact, the two largest textual variants in the NT) won much acceptance in the earliest period of supposed “wild” attitudes and freely made changes.”

    If, as Kelhoffer insisted, Justin knew Mark 16:9-20, and if, as Robert Stein states, the author of Epistula Apostolorum was also aware of Mark 16:9-20, and inasmuch as Tatian used almost the entire passage (as shown by the correspondence in material-arrangement in the Arabic Diatessaron and Codex Fuldensis, as well as in Ephrem’s commentary), and inasmuch as Irenaeus cited Mark 16:19 specifically from the Gospel of Mark (in Against Heresies Book 3), and if, as Michael Holmes stated, Hippolytus knew the passage, and if the author of De Rebaptismate had the passage in his Gospels, and if Hierocles incorporated Mk. 16:17-18 as part of a jibe against Christians, then in what precise sense is it that Mark 16:9-20 does not receive much acceptance in 100-325?

    The days are over when so-called experts could take reckless swipes at Mark 16:9-20 and still expect to be taken seriously.

    • James: Sorry to excite you so. Gee whiz! “Reckless swipes at Mark 16:9-20”?? No question that 2nd century Christian writers reflect knowledge of what we know as the “long ending” of Mark. And no dispute that it likely was part of Mark in some manuscripts. But the point of my posting (please read more carefully, James) was (1) the periscope adulterae, not the “long ending” and (2) that neither variant is attested in our earliest extant manuscripts, and only won near-universal acceptance later, in/after the 5th century, in the manuscript tradition.
      And could you keep your temper in check, James?

      • Larry,
        When you claim that Mark 16:9-20 “only won near-universal acceptance later,” and similar claims, you defy the the patristic evidence. GIving special status to the manuscript-evidence from the period when most copies were made of papyrus, just because it has lasted longer, is like giving special status to the manuscript-evidence that is closest to the equator.

        Number of probable or certain patristic utilizations of Mark 16:9-20 before 325: at least seven.
        Number of manuscripts of Mark 16 extant from this period: zero. (Putting Vaticanus at 325.)
        Number of probable or certain utilizations of the abrupt ending in 100-325: zero.

        It’s only in the Egyptian transmission-stream (from which the earliest evidence, as far as the ending of Mark is concerned, is c. 325) that we see anything other than universal acceptance of the passage. And even the copyists of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus provided clear indications of their awareness of the usual 12 verses.

        And, yes I am aware that the main subject of your post was the new book on the PA, but you introduced Mark 16:9-20 into the mix, and your point about that passage (i.e., the claim that it didn’t have much support in the early centuries) depends on ignoring the manuscripts echoed by the early patristic evidence, doesn’t it.

      • James: Assuming that you’re now ready to stop using words like “liar” to describe me, and other such unworthy expressions of intemperate rudeness, let me make a brief response to your vigorous (and just slightly slanted) comment. First, where we can check the manuscript evidence the long-ending doesn’t appear until the 5th century. That we have so few earlier manuscripts of Mark is an annoyance, but it’s just the way it is.
        Second, we could hardly expect to have early patristic writers commenting on Mark in a way to indicate a manuscript that ended at Mark 16:8. That’s a phoney argument, James.
        Finally, that certain early Christian writers show a possible/likely knowledge of the material that now comprises the long ending of Mark isn’t manuscript evidence, James. Some of these instances are loose and only possible, some more secure. But they don’t = manuscripts of Mark.
        In any case, you’re in danger of hijacking the discussion to your pet topic, James. So, let’s let this one lie for now. My major point was that there must have been dynamics in the 5th century and thereafter that helped to secure wider manuscript acceptance of these major variants. That stands.

  4. Don Johnson permalink

    My take is that the account is authentic in portraying Jesus correctly interpreting Torah contra the accusers. So the question is then where did it come from? As it apparently not written down at first, it must be a part of oral tradition that I assume came from the John’s communities or else invented. And I find the idea of invention less plausible than it being oral tradition.

  5. Thank you for your review, Prof. Hurtado! I was happy you pointed out the assumption that is often taken for granted regarding the relative stability of the text from the fourth-century onwards. My research on the phenomenon of layering in Codex Bezae has heightened my own questions concerning this assumption. I look forward to reading your essay.

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