I had a great conversation last night with my best friend (she’s super intelligent) that I felt the need to process in writing in this blog. I haven’t yet posted for October and so I shall endeavor to do so.
The issue in contention was that of the woman caught in adultery. The passage (John 8:1-11) is in italics in many versions of the bible stating that various manuscripts may or may not have the passage within them. The question is–as I understood it–what are we to do with pieces of scripture that do not necessarily appear in all of our ancient manuscripts or the oldest for that matter. Here’s the passage:
While Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’
Firstly, I really enjoy this passage. It’s awesome and really does provide us with a good deal of points of interest. For example, where’s the dude who is a part of the adultery mentioned? Hmmm. Also, Jesus forgives someone–a woman, someone with very little societal privilege and power–who would be condemned to death by Mosaic law…what does that tell us about his use of Torah?
Awesome questions, but the original series of questions that were posed to me last night were the following: “If it’s not in all the ancient manuscripts, doesn’t that render the authenticity of this passage questionable? Does this imply that the author of the passage just made it up? Therein, does the passage lose it’s worth as it loses it’s empirical historicity?”
This post will be a bit long, but I’m game to try and wrestle with these questions.
I’ll divvy it up into a couple posts to try and hash out each issue reasonably and not drown you or myself in thick prose. Let’s lead in with the question regarding the presence of certain passages in ancient manuscripts or not. When it comes to manuscripts I will admit that my ability to engage with the subject is highly limited, but I’ll do my best.
My understanding is that in the ancient world writing was not necessarily the go-to method of conveying information. Oral tradition dominated the landscape especially given that the majority of people could neither read nor write. Those who could were highly privileged individuals. Stories were kept alive by continual retelling. People knew when you were telling it the wrong way because they’d heard it told so many times and when something was written down it was done so to preserve it. Ink, paper, and someone to write with them were typically things that cost money so it had to be worth it.
Following the idea that this was the case, it is entirely likely that the twelve apostles and leaders of the church after Jesus resurrection split off and went in various directions. Like they in fact did. Tradition holds that Philip made it to India, James to Spain, and Mark to Egypt at the very least. The Egyptian Coptic church is founded on Mark’s witness. Varying oral traditions involving Jesus, his deeds, and how life post resurrection was to take place would obviously be affected by different people’s witness involving that. There were 12 people who walked with and knew Jesus in His ministry and necessarily had 12 slightly different perspectives regarding all this. This is reality. 12 people can agree on something and nuance a variety of differing things about it. An oral tradition from John regarding Jesus could easily hang out for about 100 or so years in the ancient world without decay before being written down in a gospel form or could even be added to the existing gospel document after it had been written.
So it is entirely possible that various manuscripts of the same gospel existed with people all bringing more particular oral tradition to their own copy of said manuscripts.
Moreover, in regard to the following questions we need to talk about history and how we know what we know. The assertion is that if something doesn’t happen exactly how it was written or isn’t provable empirically–at least in theory–then it is false. I think this carries an inherently misguided perspective on history and epistemology.
History in the ancient world was not thought of in the same way as today. In today’s world we have a frame of mind that is structured to produce the most objective view of things possible. News by the moment gives us an air of being able to know exactly what is happening as it happens, the papers are written with an air of objectivity describing hard facts, and let’s not forget the Fox News “No Spin Zone” implying straightforward objective information. Overall, the convenience of our media and technology have in part led to the philosophical atmosphere in which we believe that there is a way to objectively comprehend an event in such a way as to manage to express it completely and objectively.
Unfortunately, the ancient world didn’t see it that way. This wasn’t the way that historians in the ancient sense of the word conceived of their task. A sense of what happened and how definitely played in, but ancient historians structured and told of events so as to express something…They were aware of it also. (For more on this read NT Wright’s New Testament and the People of God, particularly his chapter on history. You’ll walk away with your mind blown.) Historical narratives were not meant to convey the totality of events or to be an absolutely objective take on what was happened. They simply could not be that way even were ancient historians communicating their task in this way.
It needs to be stated that there is no pure objectivity or such a complete coverage of an event that comprehending all of it is actually possible. Most of what we have as history is written in words, and as such we need to talk a bit of theory. Onward we go.
Language in and of itself operates symbolically. This is to say that no matter what is said about something I cannot convey enough about it to you for my words to be the end-all-be-all of expressing something. Language doesn’t replace the event itself, but rather attempts to fill a communicative gap left by representing something that has happened. Describing something is different than experiencing it, and even in experiencing it there is always more to be described than would be efficient, worthwhile, or even possible. Talking at great length about a chair does not enable you to really know what it means to sit in a chair and my words about sitting in the chair would not be enough to express the entirety of such a small action…let alone the what it is to have the Triune God become a man and walk among us.
All that said, by the time we actually get to the gospels and manuscripts of them in hand the standard take on history and what we know (epistemology) are in shambles. Oral tradition and it’s process, along with ancient conceptions of history, and language theory create wide holes in a perspective that has an empiricist read of authenticity/authority when it comes to the gospels. The way that this perspective starts to look at the matter simply doesn’t work from the get go.
Carrying on, we have ascertained–I do believe by empirical methods–that the earliest gospel was Mark. Written about 30 years after the Resurrection. Mark’s narrative forms the framework for Matthew and Luke’s account. You will note a similar structure within each gospel, that comes with different points of emphasis dependent upon the author. This is why these three gospels are called the “synoptic” gospels. Syn being a prefix meaning together and optic referring to sight. They’re very easily read alongside one another. John is the late comer to the gospel writing, if I recall accurately the timeline of the writing of John’s gospel was somewhere around 150 AD.
So, with regard to the issue of whether or not it’s reputable it really does depend on how we’re treating the matter.
If closeness to an event (and therein a sense of empirical accuracy) necessarily dictates how we rate a document’s authenticity/authority then we have honestly have issues with a good deal of scripture on the whole. Vast quantities of the “history” of the OT was written during the exilic periods of Jewish history (read this as several hundred years after the events described writing in Babylon), some new testament letters/ narratives happened well after the events as well…and–however you interpret the creation narrative–the amount of time following creation that it would take to have writing develop as a means of communication render the first three chapters of Genesis greatly problematic from an empirical standpoint of this nature.
Add to this what I wrote about above and you have what I see as a failed foundation upon which to build a worldview. The issues do not fit into the boxes that the questions attempt to put them in.
Riddle me this:
What do we give authority to in regard to scripture when we cannot trust our go-to methods to give us a realistic representation of history and what we can know?
How then do we structure our questions about the issues as they relate to manuscripts, history, and scripture?
More to come in Part 2.
This took me all day. Let me know your thoughts.