Friday, February 17, 2012

Adulterated Verses

We are continuing on in the Gospel of John, where previously Jesus explained that you have to be invited by God to be Saved, causing several disciples to stop following Him. When Jesus then asked the Twelve Disciples if they were also going to leave, Simon/Peter replied that they could not leave the Holy One of God. This was followed by Jesus sneaking into the Passover feast in Jerusalem, only to make a public spectacle of Himself.

Adulterated Verses
We often have difficulty discerning the truth when presented with a lie which is to our liking or which aligns with our expectations. With that in mind, it must have been a monumental task to figure out which of the many gospels about Jesus represented truth, and which were false, but somehow only four of the many different gospels available were bestowed with the great honor of being included in New Testament canon. Yet even within these four Gospels, there is some parsing of truth required. Take John 8:1-11, for example.

Known as the Pericope Adulterae, John 8:1-11 is the famous story about a woman who was caught in the middle of an act of adultery. She is brought to Jesus by the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. The Pharisees and Law teachers state that the Law of Moses (God's Law) says that such women should be stoned to death, and then ask Jesus what He has to say about it.

Supposedly, this was done to trap Jesus. How exactly was He to be trapped? The text does not say, but there seems to be an implication that they were hoping Jesus would say something to contradict God's Law. Of course, that seems unfounded, given that Jesus blasted the Pharisees for not having children stoned to death according to God's Law in Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23.

Anyway, after drawing in the dirt, Jesus answered their nagging questions by saying that the person without sin should throw the first stone. Instead of telling Jesus that the Law does not work that way, the accusers instead take Jesus' words to heart (which seems highly unlikely given the contentious spirit in which they supposedly approached Jesus), and they all left, one by one. With all of the accusers gone, Jesus tells the woman that then He will not condemn her either, and tells her to sin no more.

It is a great story, right? But what if it is just that? A story? A work of pious fiction? Curiously enough, the older manuscripts of the Gospel of John do not have this anecdote included in them.

But what does that mean? Is it a true story? Or is it a fake which people just want to believe? In a section of a book by Lyman Abbott regarding the Gospel of John, you can read about this enigmatic passage from the eyes of the pious. Abbott presents three different researched opinions:
  1. The author of the Gospel of John originally wrote this, but some piously conservative copyists edited the episode out because they thought it might promote adultery and other sins. That is hilarious! This opinion suggests some person thought that they knew better than Jesus, and had to censor Him! Not only that, it does not provide a satisfactory answer for why it is the older manuscripts which do not have this story.
  2. It was an interpolation (that is, a made-up story). But (notes Abbot, objectionably), the writer of such a story would have had to have been of Christ-like brilliance because of how closely it resembles what Jesus said elsewhere. Abbott's argument is that this is just too good to be made up. Of course, that is silly, given that there was a lot of fertile ground from the other Gospels and oral stories available at the time to create some pretty good fan fiction.
  3. This story came from a traditional narrative about Jesus which had been floating around for some time, in different forms, possibly even in other now-lost gospels.
This latter suggestion is the most interesting. Why? Cited as support for this position is an excerpt from the book of Historia Ecclesiastica (Church History) by Eusebius of Caesarea (Roman, Christian historian, circa CE 263 – 339) who was, in turn, commenting on Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord by Papias of Hierapolis (circa CE 125). Eusebius said that it contained "the history of a woman accused before the Lord of numerous sins, a history contained also in the Gospel of the Hebrews."

This sounds somewhat like what we have in John 8:1-11, except John's woman is only accused of adultery, not "numerous sins." Yet that distinction is critically important...

According to God's Law, in Leviticus 20:10, BOTH the man and the woman should be killed if there is a case of adultery, but in John's version, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law only brought forth the woman. That is against what the Law says, so it seems very unlikely that they would have presented this case before Jesus without dragging the man into it as well. After all, why would they leave a blatant opportunity for Jesus to correct them if they were trying to "trap" Him?

Instead, what I think this reveals is how a story evolves over time. The original was probably about a woman accused of multiple sins before Jesus. Over time, or over the telling of it, the details got dropped, changed, and/or appended, to become what we find in John 8:1-11 today. (Caught in the act of adultery! Now that is a story!) Yet in the evolution that occurred, the story teller forgot to flesh out the details correctly, and so left out how the man who committed adultery should have been accused as well.

At a bare minimum, we see a likely case where truth was likely bent to make a better story. That just makes you wonder what else in the Gospels has been adulterated...


  1. I like your "fan fiction" idea myself, only because of my personal infatuation with the relationship between audience and 'myth'. I like the idea that one is participating with the other. That being said, I think some people have suggested the writing in that passage stands out noticeably in terms of language and style. If that's the case, then it might be "2nd tier" fan fiction, not getting the voice perfect. So much for matching Jesus in brilliance, I guess. :-)

    I really like your point about how a story evolves over time, and how truth got bent for a better story. Great conclusion.

    About the story itself, I can remember when I was young someone trying to convince me there was another part 'left out'. When Jesus was drawing in the dirt, he was actually writing down names and sins. This was to support the Supernatural-Jesus idea, able to read the lives and adulteries of other people present, and to suggest why the crowd became uneasy with casting the first stone.

    Meh. I like the story, but sometimes I'm attracted to things adulterated...

    1. Thanks Andrew!

      Yeah, the story is pretty good, but calling it "brilliant" is really generous!

      I have enjoyed your discussion at your blog about the audience being an important component in myths (at least what I have read so far). It is a great point to make because it is not obvious but it is definitely relevant.

      I was wondering what He was drawing in the dirt! Now we know!

  2. Didn't the various early Christian groups debate on how Jewish their new cult should be? Could this be a version to support those who wanted their Christianity torn free from Jewish law?

    1. For sure, there was debate over how Jewish the new cult should be. From what I have seen of the Gospel of John, I think you are absolutely correct here. John, through verbiage such as "the Jews" and "your Law," as well other directly contentious passages, sets Christianity farther apart from the Jewish traditions and Law than the three Synoptic Gospels by a long shot!

  3. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. The Protestant reformation threw out "Tradition" for a source of knowledge and did "Scripture ONLY" (I forgot the Latin - Scriptura Solo?). Yet your post shows us some of the rich Tradition that protestants threw away which they have no clue of. It shows that accepting that tradition may be now sillier than the few selected, edited gospels.

    Give me empiricism over tradition or scripture -- but the epistemological battles of the church are interesting. Muslims and Buddhists do a similar thing too, btw, with their scriptures vs. traditions. Humans ! You just can't hold them down.

    1. Yeah, Martin Luther did a world of good with his return to Scripture, such as by canceling the sale of Indulgences, but it definitely came at a cost, too!

      It is rather funny behavior we all have, is it not? I have seen the same struggles even over secular matters, too. For some reason, now that you mention it, I really want to watch a couple of Buddhists in a passionate debate over scriptures and traditions... :-)

  4. it must have been a monumental task to figure out which of the many gospels about Jesus represented truth, and which were false

    No, I don't think so. About 170 CE, the apologist Tatian sought to reconcile the gospels, combining them all into one account and thereby deal with charges they contradicted themselves. His work is known as the Diatessaron. (Google it, if you like) It reconciles Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, and only those books. Doesn't that make the case that these were the known gospels of the time? Other accounts came later, and it's only modern critics who figure it's largely a crap shoot which gospels made it into the Bible and which did not.

    The 'Pericope Adulterae', by the way, is not included in Tatian's work. Apparently it was added to the gospel of John later. While the armchair scholar might find it intriguing to speculate on how the account originated, we've never made much effort to do so. Nor has the account ever been incorporated into the voluminous writings of our folk, other than to point out its spurious nature.

    Today on NPR I heard of a new book called Mrs Nixon: a Novelist Imagines a Life. Written only nine years after Nixon's death “with both humor and gravity, [award-winning author Ann] Beattie pieces together letters, conversations, imagined sketches and even literary criticisms to craft an insightful portrait of the former first lady.” She spices up the first lady's life with an affair, sure to appeal to audience's today. Will lazy critics 1000 years from now consider Mrs Nixon an authoritative source on Pat Nixon, reading far beyond what kernel of truth is actually there? Will they also reckon the Divinci Code as another authentic gospel, and grouse that it arbitrarily got cut from the Bible cannon? I'm not optimistic based upon how they afford equal status to the many apocryphal gospels today.

    1. Yeah, Tom, I may have misspoken there. I think the four Gospels had arisen to prominence long before the official canon was decided. Yet the heart of what I suggested is still true, in that there were several versions of gospels which had to be filtered out through the ages. 170 CE is still a long time after the four Gospels were written.

      By the way, check out Irenaeus' writing from the same century on why there are only four real Gospels if you get a moment. It is only natural, given the four pillars of the earth, and the four winds...

      "Will lazy critics 1000 years from now..."
      See, I knew that you did not believe in the doomsday clock idea! ;-) (Sorry, I could not resist that little jab.)

  5. Hey, you're right. It is 'canon,' not 'cannon.' Sorry. I knew better. I just got confused because when I rushed by newly discovered Gospel According to Pedantacles to the scholars, they fired it from a cannon.

    1. My grasp of spelling is so tenuous that I did not even notice that you wrote "cannon" instead of "canon." Doh!

      You should have given the Gospel to me. I would have put it up on the web. :-)

  6. The heart of what you suggested is still true, in that there were several versions of gospels, but it's largely irrelevant. If they "had to be filtered out through the ages," one must ask why? How hard can it be to figure thaty the earlier gospels, two of which were penned by eyewitnesses, must be the superior? The spurious ones came along later. Play around with them for intellectual pleasure, if you must, but don't go thinking they rival the early established ones, written by the disciples themselves or their close associates.

    Which, by the way, might elucidate aspects of your "yeasty priests" post. Both Matthew and Mark relate essentially the same story. Only Matthew relates how the disciples got the point of the illustration. Might it be because Matthew was there?

    1. Really. Hmmm. Which ones were penned by eyewitnesses exactly? Do you think Matthew is, when he clearly plagiarized sections from Mark? Or do you think Mark is, when he was said to be Peter's companion? Or Luke, who was said to be Paul's companion? Or is John instead the eyewitness, under the myth of the beloved disciple?

      Oh, and, do you just completely disregard Luke 1:1-2:

      "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word." NIV

      This is not just intellectual stimulation. This is some pretty serious stuff, and hardly irrelevant. Would you not like to know that the Truth is actually the truth, and not just what was selected as most appealing at that time?

  7. So there were many who wrote reports, according to Luke? Okay. So why do you not take that into account when discussing the gospels? Don't you think the gospel writers might have consulted common source material? Even if sometimes that source material was another gospel? Might they have at times been like newspaper reporters covering the same you really expect line by line agreement in such cases? Look, biographies today are sometimes written by eyewitnesses. Does that mean they witnessed everything they write of? Does that mean they're not allowed to include other source material? Does that mean they should be accused of plagiarism when they do? Should Occam's Razor apply only in situations where you want it to? I think it applies here, this explanation being the simplest scenario.

    But to include the apocryphal gospels in this picture is to shave with the blunt end of the razor. Luke wrote “many have.” Were his words to justify later apocryphal gospels, he would have had to have said “many will.” For the apocryphal ones were written later. That crack I made about the Divinci Code was thrown in for laughs, HA HA, but not the one about the new Pat Nixon novel. It's written 40 years after Watergate. It deliberately injects fiction into an historical setting, so as to make it appealing or relevant for modern-day readers. Will critics 2000 years from now recognize these added items as spurious, fictional? Not if they're like the critics you consult. No. They won't give two hoots about Occam's Razor. Instead, they'll be intrigued over the new perspective on Pat Nixon and carry on about what “a monumental task it is to figure out which of the many accounts about Pat represented truth, and which were false.”

    1. "Okay. So why do you not take that into account when discussing the gospels? Don't you think the gospel writers might have consulted common source material?"

      Well, Tom, actually I do take this into account. In fact, I consider it critical to my discussion.

      I do not know the JW's views on the four Gospels, but you probably know that they are presented as four separate witness accounts in many churches, with their agreements touted to prove their historicity. But anyone who studies the Synoptic Gospels side by side, with a critical eye, can tell that, indeed, they shared some resources, making them far less independent witnesses. I even point out where it appears that the authors deviated from the common resources to tell the story their way.

      Then you get to John's Gospel, with its longer time span, different order of events, and (most significantly) completely different mode of speaking for Jesus than the Synoptics. It is clear that John did not tap into the common resources. What that implies is that there were at least two different traditions about Jesus, and it makes it likely that there were more. This is the notion which supports my statement.

      What you do not know about the Apocryphal Gospels is their foundational origin. Where all of them created in the second century, or is that just when the latest revision was made? This same type of argument is made for the four Gospels, with the extant copies dated many decades after Jesus. Plus, as you may know, there were several times when these other "heretical" gospels were purged (destroyed) by the command of the church.

      "...the new Pat Nixon novel."
      If the novel was put in a time capsule and opened in a time when all newspapers had been destroyed and all internet data lost, then maybe you are right. However, unlike in the case of Jesus, there are many contemporaneous sources which cite the novel. They would reveal the novel to be a work of fiction with just the slightest amount of digging. Even this stream of comments is evidence of that.

      Contrast that to Matthew 27:45-53. Where can you find contemporaneous non-Christian reports of the land going dark for three hours, a rock-splitting earthquake, and reincarnated bodies coming out of tombs which corresponded with Jesus' death on the cross? That is some pretty newsworthy stuff, no?

  8. Is there any real reason why the 'eyewitness' version is pooh-poohed, or is it mostly just elitism of the educated bunch judging working class folk too illiterate to write gospels? After all, men experiencing what Jesus' disciples could they not be expected to want to write it down? I have no problem with common sources being consulted. I have no problem thinking these were what Luke referred to. But as to “I even point out where it appears that the authors deviated from the common resources to tell the story their way,” there's hardly anything disreputable about an eyewitness departing from supplementary sources to tell matters “his way.”

    What do you say to these supplementary sources being short histories of various events, rather than complete a to z narratives? Might that not be inferred from Luke's declaration to “carefully investigate everything from the beginning,” so as to “write an orderly account for” Theophilus? It's just guesswork....I don't really know....but at least I admit it's guesswork. Sorry, but your critics strike me as History Detectives, strutting slo-mo as they do on TV, dazzling observers with their supposed intellect, vastly overrating grains of evidence, while vastly underrating boulders, such as the Diatessaron. Only the four had circulated and were thought authentic in 170CE. All others came into being later.

    But might they have drawn upon other sources, sources contemporary with Q type writings? Yes, I suppose it's possible, but how would you ever distinguish such source from later post 2nd century add-ons? Seems to me the only sure way would be if those later gospels included material already found in the four. Many NT writers warned of future apostatizing from first century understandings. So why is it when you detect evidence of what they warned, new gospels appearing after Mathew - John, you put it on equal footing?

    It's no big mystery that we approach examination of the gospels differently. I admit, if you have a jig-saw puzzle assembled showing a nice picture of a cat or something, you tend not to be too critical of the pieces. There can't be too much wrong with them, or you wouldn't have been able to put them together. But the guy who's never been able to get his pieces to do anything, or who had to “force them” so as to imagine he saw something, and is now sick of the charade, is far more inclined to criticize the pieces. I think that's what we're looking at here. Many comments ago I suggested that churches have doctrines that make assembly only possible if you force your pieces and add a heavy dose of 'revelation.' Jehovah's Witnesses aren't burdened with such baggage. That's why, as you observed on my blog, they spend time studying scriptures. How do you get decidedly non-scholarly people to study the scriptures? Because they make sense. Because we don't have to “read in” contradictory and illogical church doctrines.

    1. "...there's hardly anything disreputable about an eyewitness departing from supplementary sources to tell matters “his way.”"
      In most cases, that is a fair statement. What you allegedly have here is three guys, each writing a Gospel, each drawing from common resources, but only one is an eyewitness. That means that the other two, beyond stylistic considerations, have no authority to drift from the common resources in ways which alter the meaning. You can check out "Luke the Editor" from the topics list for some examples is you would like, but I would encourage you to study parallel passages of Matthew and Luke for yourself, focusing on what is different, and why it is different.

      "What do you say to these supplementary sources being short histories of various events, rather than complete a to z narratives?"
      Actually, from my studies, I am fairly certain those types of anecdotal sources were available, similar to the Gospel of Thomas. In fact, I believe it to be somewhat obvious that Matthew, in particular, spliced in many of these anecdotes into his Gospel. You can check out "Matthew the Aggregator" from the topics list for some examples, with the Sermon on the Mount being a great one.

      "...your critics strike me as History Detectives..."
      You may have the wrong impression of me here. I am not bathed in the work of other skeptics, swayed by their opinion. I do not have my critics. I study the Scriptures. I take a section and decide to post about it because I have already noted something peculiar. I then, depending on the topic and the time available, do a little more research to present a wider viewpoint for my readers. It just happens that what I observe generally aligns pretty well with what other critics have pointed out.

      "Only the four had circulated and were thought authentic in 170CE."
      Well, great. It only took them roughly 140 years to get the story straight. ;-) Are you honestly suggesting that no other versions could have existed during that time, despite Twelve (or Thirteen, or Fourteen) Apostles and many other "eyewitnesses?" Even when comparing John to the Synoptic Gospels? Even when considering how common it is for us today to splinter in opinion and perception? I wager that it is not only possible, but likely.

      "So why is it when you detect evidence of what they warned, new gospels appearing after Mathew - John, you put it on equal footing?"
      I apologize for not being clear here, which seems to have misled you. I am fairly certain that much of the extant Apocryphal Gospels are later creations. But, as I have mentioned, that does not mean that they did not have an older foundation, and that does not mean that there were not other gospels which did not survive. In fact, the missing "Gospel according to the Hebrews" comes to mind as a great example. I am fairly certain that there were choices to be made for Gospel canon, even if precisely zero of the extant Apocryphal Gospels were part of that decision process.

      "Because we don't have to “read in” contradictory and illogical church doctrines."
      Coming from a position where you already have faith, I am guessing that you can see how that would color your objective opinion of the Bible.

  9. I would not have phrased matters this way. Rather I would have phrased it that I have come into possession of a fact you have not, and that has colored my objective opinion of the Bible. After all, we're dealing with a picture of a cat here. If you saw an assembled puzzle revealing a cat, wouldn't you accept that picture as evidence the puzzle must be put together correctly? Particularly when contrasted with puzzles that lay discarded in their boxes, their owners exasperated with failed attempts of assembly? Put another way, if you're cruising down the highway at 60mph, isn't it permissible to regard that as a "fact?" And ought you be overly concerned about the critic on the radio telling you you're car doesn't run?

    It all lies in what we regard a facts. It brings to mind [back to the movies :-)] that Planet of the Apes ape scrunching Charlton Heston's paper airplane because it confounded his model of objective facts. Sigh....we're subjective even in assessing what's objective. We're not motivated enough to examine someone else's objective facts....somehow they don't resonate with us....and such lack of motivation taints our own conclusions.

    1. "Put another way, if you're cruising down the highway at 60mph, isn't it permissible to regard that as a "fact?" And ought you be overly concerned about the critic on the radio telling you you're car doesn't run?"
      Ah yes, but there are other cars on the road, are there not? There are other religions, and the adherents of those religions each accuse the others of not having working vehicles; yet they're all moving somehow... What really makes them work?

      "It all lies in what we regard a[s] facts."
      True, and the depth of this discussion is too limited by time and the medium itself to present these "facts" to each other in their full glory, so to speak. It is difficult to see beyond our own biases.