The Pericope Adulterae

I’ve been dialogging with Doug over at Metacatholic a bit about his posts on the pericope adulterae.

In his first post, he argued that it should still be part of the canon.

While I fully agree on its lack of authenticity as a part of the fourth gospel, I entirely disagree with Tim (and note some evidence of early retellings of this story) on its canonicity, since as far as I’m concerned there is ample evidence of the church having read it as scripture for a very long time.

I responded with a comments:

So what you’re saying then is that we have an open canon? Becuase that’s what I’m hearing.

Exactly what criteria would you then propose for texts to be scripture? Or is anything the church uses fair game?

Of course, I didn’t think he was suggesting an open canon, that was a bit of a rhetorical flourish in my search for some clarity.

And he replied:

No, Mike, I don’t think this is an open canon. And while I wouldn’t quite say “anything the church uses” I do think there’s a case for saying anything the church has long and widely read as scripture is scripture.

To which I replied:

The next reasonable question, then, is how long is long enough? Does the long ending to mark make it into the canon? I’ll go get my snake.

That little dialogue brought about another post from Doug on the subject, “Not the Original Text.” I appreciate his attitude in this post. There is a lot with these passages that is unclear. Doug concludes that while these passages should be considered scripture, they should not be considered gospel [edit: i.e. they should not be considered part of the gospel narratives in which they occur.]

I not entirely sure what I think of this, especially since neither of these passages would have been used in the lectionary until the late 2nd century (perhaps later?). I have no reason to believe that these passages were viewed as scripture by churches that existed before they were inserted into the text and for those later churches who did not have access to such texts.

18 thoughts on “The Pericope Adulterae

Add yours

  1. Mike, I fear you have misunderstood my unfortunate ambiguity, and I have now clarified what I mean: gospel as literary narrative, not gospel as theological construct

  2. yep, small type & italics. its a start, I think they should be relegated to footnotes though…

    then there is also the question of the Epistle of Baranbas, which is found in a number of old manuscripts with the NT. It was considered and functioned as scripture for the churches that used such manuscripts. According to Doug’s criteria, shouldn’t it be included as well?

  3. Interesting conversation, Mike, fellas.

    Isn’t “open canon” really a metaphor mixing? Weird how we so “open” up a can of worms when, for so long in our traditions, we appropriate a Greek transliterated term. Now I understand the other tradition, namely the one of church councils of men, sitting, arguing, deciding what gets included in the “bible” (another transliterated term) qua the “Bible.” And now in the blogosphere what (already “in” the Bible) gets included in Mark’s gospel as part of Mark’s gospel if it otherwise stays in the Bible.

    Who now is (afraid of) the Bible Bobby with his stick? So we go from a stick, a rule, a standard to an open can we wish we could keep closed. Canon becomes a can. Since it’s mostly all about interpretation anyway (isn’t it), then why not?

  4. This may seem like it’s coming from left field, certainly from a perspective that makes no claims to being orthodox, but one question I’ve always had about the canon of scripture is whether we should suppose that at some given point in time (end of first century, mid-second century, later …?) God finished what He had to say to humanity and stopped talking. Millions of believers, I think, have for countless generations believed that Jesus is alive now and has not been silent. The canon cannot but be a “can of worms,” no matter which self-styled orthodoxy stamps its certification upon a definition of the canon’s boundaries.

  5. Carl, many but not all Christians believe that God continues to speak to his church through personal guidance, prophetic messages etc. The doctrine of cessationism, that certain gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased at the end of the time of the apostles, is a recent one, probably 19th century and in over-reaction to some abuses of prophecy. But there is a clear difference in that most Christians distinguish between scriptural prophecy which is authoritative and permanent and non-scriptural prophecy which is intended for a specific time and subject to being tested against authoritative scripture. I agree that there is an issue about boundaries, but bringing modern prophecies into the discussion only complicates matters.

  6. Peter,
    By “bringing modern prophecies into the discussion only complicates matters” do you mean that Carl is unnecessarily complicating the discussion?

    If “Jesus is alive now and has not been silent,” then might not he (albeit by the holy Spirit) speak through the canon, “authoritative and permanent” (as Peter puts it)?

    I like what William J. Webb asks: “Why do some biblical instructions have ongoing significance and force in their entirety, while continued application of others is limited in some manner?” Now, Webb assumes a closed canon, but of course is insisting that we must and just do “explore the hermeneutics of cultural analysis.” Going back to Carl’s point: what if “God finished what He had to say” not “to humanity” for all time but what if he has “stopped talking,” for instance, to Corinthians in the first century and is now using the same text (i.e., I and II Corinthians) to talk differently to you and me in our various and respective cultures?

    The only other question left is whether I can let God use Balaam’s donkey to talk to me now. Hee Haw can be English directed to an individual. That does “complicate,” as you say Peter. But, seriously, I think the main reason many of us are concerned with the canon of Scripture is not for love, but for bullying reasons. The stick becomes a club.

  7. Kurk, I would not be so blunt and ungracious. But the “Millions of believers” who “have for countless generations believed that Jesus is alive now and has not been silent” have mostly clearly distinguished any new words Jesus has spoken from canonical Scripture. The problems have been caused by those few who have failed to make this distinction when elevating certain supposed new teachings of Jesus to canonical status. The best safeguard against that error is to insist that any new ideas have to be in full accord with teaching from the apostolic era.

  8. My bluntness and ungraciousness, Peter, is less motivated by a compromise on finding the “best safeguard against that error” than it is by a concern that the majority find error in the wrong places, by scripture.

    The “pericope adulterae” is a classic example. Here the majority, who should know better, use the bully stick of the canon of the law of Moses complete and without error ostensibly (which is what the canon is I presume) in order to try to kill a woman whom they despise and to trap a rabbi of whom they are jealous. The young man had already warned this majority rather bluntly and ungraciously, hadn’t he? And there’s even less dispute that what he said then (and there in John 5:39-40) is meant for me here and now. So it’s how the millions distinguish error–in what directions and against whom vis a vis the canon–that is, or ought to be, of great concern.

    (What Webb is saying, like what Jesus is saying, is that not all Scripture, canonical, needs to be applied with the same force. What I’m asking is whether there also can be much force, “outside” of the canon or within its doubtful parts? In other words, if I must interpret and apply any “bible” text to my situation in loving ways, then who really cares if “pericope adulterae” or the variant ending of Mark are “scripture” or “gospel”? What’s the point of an “is it or isn’t it” game unless there’s the “redemptive hermeneutic” that Webb demands and the “hermeneutic of charity” that good people like James K. A. Smith and Henry Isaac Venema suggest we use?)

  9. I suppose I should weigh in on this.

    1) I do think that prophecy and what not does and has continued to occur throughout history. With that said, I consider Peter’s criteria of accordance with scripture to be important in that regard.

    2) That leads to the question of what is and is not scripture. Here I take a historical approach because I believe that we have a historical faith – one grounded in history. Based upon what the father did with other inauthentic material (they rejected it), the question, in my mind, is would they have done the same if they knew that the pericope adulterae was inauthentic. I think they would have. On top of that we don’t even know if the early fathers even knew about it. For that same reason, I think that if the pastorals (or even Ephesians for that matter) could be proved to be inauthentic, I would reject them for that is what the Fathers did with other orthodox but inauthentic texts. I am also yet to have seen any even reasonable evidence that either Ephesians or the Pastorals are pseudopigrapha. Lifewise, I do not see evidence of the pericope adulterae being authentic.

    So there’s my view. Chew on that. I’m going to go chew on Russian.

  10. Before getting all bent out of shape on the authenticity of the Pericope Adulterae (PA: Jn 7:53-8:11), it would be best to review ALL the evidence, especially the large amount of *new* evidence discovered in favour of the authenticity of this passage.
    We have a website dedicated to this issue, and present some 20,000 pages on John 8:1-11, including photos of the most ancient manuscripts and up-to-date analysis of new evidence:


    1. Providing your real name rather than a pseudonym is more likely to get you a link from here — even with your blatant searching for blogs to do nothing more than promote your own website.

      Aside from that, much of what I see on your site reflects a strange combination of being quite knowledgeable, but yet lacking the most basic knowledge of 19th century scholarship. You seem believe that Samuel Davidson brought German scholarship to the English speaking world in 1848, yet still you’re completely oblivious to the fact that Tregelles published a critical edition of the text of Revelation on the same principles as his later edition (though with a narrower textual basis) in 1844. You also naively think that Granville Penn’s work was obscure. Furthermore, your claims that Tregelles plagiarized Davidson is left unsubstantiated with any examples. Had you taken the time to open Granville Penn’s work, you would have found that in both cases, Tregelles and Davidson’s parallel and identical content is a complete quotation from Penn — one which you would do well to look at being that Penn published his volume in 1837, well before both Tregelles and Davidson.

  11. Since you’ve deleted my post, this leaves your comment without any context or connection. Nonetheless, I assume you wish me to respond, and guess that you deleted my comment because of a link. I will put no link in this comment, and we’ll see if you let it stand.

    It is unfair and inaccurate to suggest that I “search for blogs to promote my website”. Even if that were the case, it would prove that my real motivation is the cause for which my website exists, not self-promotion.

    Since it is (a) not my website, but a large group project of which I am only one volunteer contributor, (b) an anonymous website which states clearly its reason for anonymity (avoiding any advantage or self-promotion of contributors, and reaching the widest group of Christian readers possible, irrespective of denominational quibbles), it should be clear that the motives of those who maintain the site are reasonably selfless.

    In our opinion, Tregelles did clearly plagarize Davidson, and avoided accrediting him for political reasons. We are well aware that the plagarized quote is from Penn ultimately, and this has no effect on our position. The reason our claim is “unsubstantiated by any examples” is that this is the one and only example we are claiming Tregelles plagarized.

    In any case, Davidson and Tregelles were good friends and worked together to sabotage Horne’s important handbook. We never suggested the plagarism was done without Davidson’s consent or collusion.

    I’m glad you acknowledge that the 30,000 pages of technical data, photos, and information spanning 400 years reflects knowledgeable acquaintance with the subject. As to your claim of ‘lacking the most basic knowledge of 19th century scholarship’, we feel that your examples are unconvincing, since being published (especially in 1830-1850) is pretty meaningless as to fame or notoriety internationally.

    In fact during this whole period (the childhood of independent publishing houses) it is rather foolish to talk of anyone’s work being ‘well-known’. The entire field of textual criticism was scarcely covered by probably less than 50 people at that time, mostly in circles like Cambridge, Oxford, and the continent. Its hard to imagine a more obscure subject, even in the 19th century.

    Real thinkers were busy inventing the industrial revolution at this time, and religious studies were becoming the dead-end backwater that they are now.


  12. Dear Mike: First of all, thank you for allowing both comments to stand, which makes all of our statements intelligible.

    We actually don’t want to claim that every minor historical fact or assumption that we make is absolutely true or completely accurate and complete. Mr.Scrivener (administrator of our volunteer site) tells me he is certain that the site contains many minor historical errors, and difficult-to-prove opinions, as well as many assumptions, some of which are less well-substantiated than others.

    In fact, Mr. Scrivener invites you to email him or post any and all corrections and critiques on his Yahoo-Group TC-Alternate-List, where other scholars can take note, review, and he can transfer corrections to onsite. He does a lot more editing and maintenance of the articles than I do.

    Actually I don’t search for blogs to advertise the site. The only reason I commented on your blog was that you chose to do a post/article on John 8:1-11, which then showed up in a google search. Blogging to a certain degree consciously invites and welcomes unforeseen comments from unexpected sources.

    Personally I prefer to post on forums, where I can interact for extended periods with others interested in the topic. This is the only way to cover the evidence of such a topic in the depth required for thorough review.

    The only reason I posted a link was to allow those interested in investigating further on the topic to find the majority of materials necessary, conveniently located in one place, for free download.

    I hope we haven’t gotten off to a bad start. I would like to post a link to your discussion, since others interested would like to hear what you have to say on the issue.

    re: the anonymity issue, I think I will just repeat what I said on Larry Hurtado’s blog recently:

    “Not everyone on the net can use their real names, for many reasons, security issues (gov., military, law enforcement etc.), job security (sciences, education etc.), politics (religious issues etc.), and of course it can often simply be undesirable for parties to identify themeselves, when they reasonably wish their statements to be judged on their content as opposed to their reputation, notoriety, or lack of same.

    I hope you will take these important factors into consideration, as many others have had to do in adjusting to life on the internet, and allow anonymous posters, providing they follow the standard rules of courtesy and make positive contributions to your discussions.


    1. I never actually deleted any of your comments — I merely accidentally responded without remembering to approve your comment.

      Your initial comment looked like trolling because it appeared on a post that I wrote over two years ago.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: