Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cultural reasons for the absence of John 8

The passage from John 7:53-8:11 about the woman caught in adultery has long been a problem for biblical scholars because the story does not appear in some of the earliest and most reliable New Testament manuscripts. (Christianity Today recently reported on the latest developments and discussions about this longstanding issue.) As a result, some Christians are unsure whether this powerful narrative of "Go and sin no more" is historically reliable or authentic to the ministry of Jesus.

Well, Ken Bailey's landmark book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes offers a fascinating, culturally plausible theory why the pericope does not appear in some manuscripts:
For centuries traditional Middle Eastern culture has understood the honor of the family to be attached to the sexual behavior of its women. Thereby in conservative traditional village life, women who violate the sexual code are sometimes killed by their families.

Added to this is the fact that in the days of hand-copied manuscripts, the person who wanted a copy of anything usually acquired it by hiring a copyist. This was a private business arrangement. Since printing began, official committees of churches have determined the text of any Bible selected for publication. But in the early centuries of the life of the church it would have been very easy for the head of a household to take a copy of the Gospel of John to a professional copyist and say

"I want a copy of this document. Please leave out the story of this adulterous woman. I don’t want my daughters committing adultery and telling me, ‘Jesus forgave this woman and therefore you should forgive me!’"

The copyist would naturally oblige his customer. Other Christians were brave enough to preserve the story even though it violated deeply rooted cultural attitudes. The end result is that this story appears in some ancient texts and is missing from others. If this view is accepted, or if one considers it an agrapha, the story is authentic to Jesus. Raymond Brown writes, “There is nothing in the story itself or its language that would forbid us to think of it as an early story concerning Jesus.” Brown also notes, “Its succinct expression of the mercy of Jesus is as delicate as anything in Luke; its portrayal of Jesus as the serene judge has all the majesty that we would expect of John." With Metzger and Brown, I am convinced that it is a historical account.


Micheal said...

This is a great thought. I love Ken Bailey's Poet & Peasant/Through Peasant Eyes, and his new book has been starting at me from my "To Read" shelf.

High Calling Blogs said...


I like the story too. And I preach from it. But I fear that argument is a little weak. Or at least we ought to note that it is a good idea with no evidence. This is not your area of expertise or anything, nor mine. So this is just a humble opinion. What is known is that this story does not appear in a single ancient manuscript before a date (I think) in the middle ages. Not one.

Any reason for why that might be is purely a guess. So this is just a guess. Someone said, "Maybe people just didn't want it there."

As much as I want that to be true, it is just a wild guess. There is however some other evidence that is nice to know about. I can't remember where I read this. Probably in a textual criticism class in seminary and it has been years ago. But I think this passage has shown up in other places in John. And even (once maybe) in a version of Luke. That suggests it might have been a "floating pericope," a floating piece of oral tradition (like all of the gospel pieces were once) that while it did not get into any of the gospel stories, was so meaningful that is simply would not die. People were grabbing it and shoving it between the pages of manuscripts where it got copied into the text, sometimes in various places of John but also maybe in Luke.

Again, I can't remember where I heard that so I feel it must be taken as hearsay, but I thought you might like the story.