Monday, 11 June 2012

Pericope Adulterae

This is Week Eight of Giford's Bible Study Programme.
And every man went unto his own house. Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
John 7:53 - 8:11
Length: 3/5
Controversy: 1/5
This is one of the best-known stories in the New Testament. For many, the central aspects of Jesus' teachings are summed up in this one brief story. Top Verses ranks part of this passage as the 144th most popular verse in the entire Bible.

Yet despite this, it is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic verses of the Gospels. What was it that Jesus 'wrote on the ground'? Why is the man involved not being stoned? How do we square this story about discarding the old laws with Matt 5:17, where Jesus says 'Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.'? And is Jesus really saying here that the Old Testament laws no longer apply? Or that only some do?

But all these are secondary questions. This entire story is simply absent from the oldest and best versions of the Gospel of John. When it does turn up, its placement varies, with versions known where it appears after John 21:25 or even Luke 21:38, before it finally settles in its current location, after John 7:52. There are (so I'm told by experts) also stylistic differences between this story and the rest of the fourth Gospel.
Biblical scholars are as unanimous as Biblical scholars ever get; this story was not part of the Gospel of John when it was originally written. Bart Ehrman ranks this story - known as the 'Pericope Adulterae' - second (and third) in his list of Bible verses that were not originally in the New Testament.

It was almost certainly a separate story about Jesus (or someone else) that was so good that it came to be incorporated into various gospels, possibly as a marginal notation to begin with. The story first appears unambiguously in the fifth Century, although there are hints earlier - a possible reference to it being in the (non-canonical) Gospel of the Hebrews as early as 125 AD, a mark indicating a possible alternative reading was known at the end of John 7 from a fourth Century manuscript, and around the same time Didymus the Blind refers to it being present in 'several' Gospels. 

Christian Responses

St Augustine claimed that the passage was excluded from some manuscripts because opponents of Christianity were using it to claim that Christians supported adultery. Modern scholars don't accept this, pointing to the stylistic and placement problems noted above.

Conservapedia has (as ever) their own unique take on this: only non-Bible-believing liberals (like the Catholic Church and Mel Gibson) like this story, because it excuses them from condemning others (be sure to read the Talk page too!).

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