In “Would Jesus stone a misbehaving child?” I proposed that he wouldn’t. My case consisted of a retelling of the woman caught in adultery with the adulterous woman being replaced with a belligerent child. The proposal met with some criticism. (Is there anything I write that isn’t met with some criticism? If it’s not the Calvinists complaining then it’s the atheists, or the deists, or the agnostics, or …) I’ll consider one criticism in this article. Jeff wrote as follows:
But unfortunately for your illustration, John 7:53-8:11 is almost universally recognized as a late, inauthentic addition to John (just open up almost any Bible and look at the footnote), and the episode appears nowhere else in the gospels, so it’s quite doubtful that this episode actually traces back to Jesus. And even more than that, Jesus affirms in Mark 7:10 the practice of stoning rebellious children, and we don’t have any manuscript evidence (that I’m aware of, at least) that this is an inauthentic addition to Mark. Now it’s very unlikely–for several strong reasons–that the episode in Mark 7 actually traces back to Jesus either. But it seems to me that someone such as yourself who affirms plenary inspiration might hesitate to go that higher critical route. So…which direction do you go on this one?
Jeff’s comment has two parts.
Part 1: argue that the woman caught in adultery pericope is a late addition to the gospel and therefore does not represent the actions of the real Jesus;
Part 2: point out that in another passage Jesus seems to commend the capital punishment that I just proposed he wouldn’t visit on a child.
So what should we say here? For the sake of time I’ll focus in this article on Part 1. (Believe me, there’s more than enough here for the moment.)
Let me begin with the unfortunate juxtaposition in Jeff’s wording. He says the pericope is “a late, inauthentic addition…” He’s right about the fact that the text is a late edition to the gospel. It was not included by the original author. But does that mean it is inauthentic? Let’s bracket that question for a minute to ask another: granting the fact that it is a late edition, could there still be reason to believe the events described in this pericope occurred?
Indeed, there is. As Bruce Metzger (one of the leading New Testament scholars of the last century, d. 2007) once observed, it has “all the earmarks of historical veracity.” Or as Rikk E. Watts, my New Testament prof in graduate school, once stated: “It’s got Jesus written all over it.” Craig Blomberg proposes a plausible scenario:
“whereas this story of the ‘woman caught in adultery’ is again not at all likely to have been in the original Gospel of John, a good case can be made that it preserves an account of something Jesus actually did. It fits Jesus’ teaching, nature, and ministry, and may well have been handed down by word of mouth until some scribe copying the Gospel decided it was too good to leave out. (Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, B&H, 2009, 85).
Note the point carefully because it means I don’t depend on this single pericope to make my case that Jesus would not have commended the stoning of a child. The value of this pericope is that it provides a striking summary statement of the ministry of forgiveness and reconcilation that Jesus brought, not that it represents a singular, exceptional utterly unique anomaly to Jesus’ typical modus operandi. In other words, it is the Gospels that make my case. This text merely summarizes and symbolizes that Gospel teaching.
To this point I’ve done two things. First, I challenged the assumption that a late edition to one of the Gospels is thereby likely non-historical. Second, I pointed out that my case does not depend on a single pericope anyway. But now it is time to return to Jeff’s related assumption of inauthenticity. In order to consider this assumption more carefully, let’s consider the relevant definition for “authentic” for which I offer the following from Merriam Websters:
conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features
Thus, Jeff’s assumption is that an authentic pericope is one that conforms to the original Gospel in which the pericope appears so as to reproduce that Gospel’s essential features. Since the woman caught in adultery pericope is not in the original Gospel of John, it is not an authentic part of that gospel.
It is at this point that theological assumptions enter into and frame our engagement with the text. And these assumptions relate to the fundamental question: what is the original to which the copy must conform? Jeff assumes it is simply the original copy written by the human author of John. Let’s call this text that didn’t have the pericope in question John-no. 1. And it contrasts with the version of the Gospel that does have the pericope which we can call John-no. 2.
So Jeff assumes that the authentic John = John-no. 1. And thus any deviation from John no. 1 is inauthentic.
But I reject this assumption for a simple reason. In my view the primary author of scripture is not a human author. Rather, it is God. And thus, it is the final form of the text that God determines which is de facto the authentic text. Moreover, God allows the authentic text to be discerned through ecclesial consensus in history.
And by this criterion, John-no. 2 is, in fact, the authentic version of John. The human author may have proposed a nearly-complete draft of the work, but it took God working through that scribe (on Blomberg’s proposal) to put the final touches on his (God’s, not John’s or the scribes) Gospel.
In summary, I’ve shown to this point that while the pericope in question is indeed late, we can still believe it is both historical and authentic. At this point I want to consider one final issue and while not germane to Jeff’s comments, it is carried in the train of Craig Blomberg’s. You see, immediately following the passage quoted above, Blomberg continues as follows:
None of this should alarm the Christian reader; historically the church’s doctrine of Scripture has almost always stressed that it is only the contents of the original manuscripts that are authoritative, inspired or inerrant. For whatever reason, God did not see fit to ensure that those documents were inerrantly preserved. Nevertheless, our ability to reconstruct what the originals looked like is exceedingly high. The contents of 97 to 99 percent of the text are certainly beyond any reasonable doubt–far better than any other documents of the same age. Furthermore, no doctrine of the Christian faith hangs on any disputed text.” (Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, B&H, 2009, 85).
Blomberg’s main point here is one well worth reiterating: textual criticism has established that virtually all of the New Testament as we have it is as it was written. (This, of course, offers no guarantees that our translations will be any good, still less that we’ll understand and put into practice what we read.)
But it is the lesser point that is really relevant to our topic. Blomberg says here that the original version of New Testament documents are “authoritative, inspired or inerrant”. And within the context he clearly understands the “original manuscripts” to mean the manuscripts written by human authors. By that criterion, Blomberg is apparently siding with John-no. 1 as well as Matthew no. 1 (the version with the shortened Lord’s Prayer) and Mark no. 1 (the version with the embarassingly short post-resurrection narrative). In my view that is most unfortunate because it is not the text written by the human author which is the authoritative text (whether that text be John or Matthew or Mark). All of those texts were mere penultimate drafts awaiting the final imprimatur to be made by the church as it identified and confirmed the true canon of God’s divine word.
And that final canon included John no. 2 and with it a powerful pericope of grace that anchors my argument that Jesus would not commend the stoning of children.