Occasionally I get asked about the canonical status of additions and interpolations to the original writings of the New Testament. (The Old Testament is a somewhat different matter since the original forms of the texts that comprise this collection is shrouded in the mists of antiquity in a way that it is not for the New Testament documents.) The most common additions for which I hear the question raised are the doxology for the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:13), the longer ending of Mark (16:9-20), and the pericope of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11).
One can always dispute the consensus of scholarship and insist that one of these alleged additions is, in fact, original to the text. For example, Nicholas Lunn makes just such a case regarding the longer ending of Mark.
I am not a biblical scholar, so I’ll leave those questions to the experts. Instead, I’d like to pose a different question. Let’s grant that the consensus in all these cases is correct and that these texts do all constitute later interpolations. Does it follow that they ought not be granted canonical status? Does it follow that they ought to be relegated to the footnotes?
It does if one assumes that only the original form of the text is canonical. But why assume that? If God is the primary author/editor/former of these texts, is it not possible that God was not finished with Matthew, Mark, or John at the same time as the original author? In that case, removing these passages (a common practice in contemporary Bibles for the Prayer doxology and longer ending of Mark but not the adultery pericope) would constitute disregarding the intentions of the (divine) author by retreating to an earlier draft of the document.
To be sure, my claim is not that every addition which has made its way into the texts subsequent to their original composition should be retained. (With the exception of KJV Only advocates, one would expect few advocates for returning to the 1 John 5:7 interpolation, for example.)
That, in turn, raises an obvious question: how does one choose which interpolations/additions to retain and which to excise? Why are we comfortable with clipping 1 John 5:7 and (perhaps) Mark 16:9-20, but keen to retain John 7:53-8:11? And why do we keep praying Matthew 6:13 even when so many contemporary Bibles have already banished it to the footnotes?
These are all good questions, and they deserve further attention. But let’s proceed with the discussion disabused of the unquestioned assumption that the oldest form is the preferred form.