The Adulteress Narrative: New Book
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!