When Dallas Theological Seminary professor Daniel Wallace examined New Testament manuscripts stored in the National Archive in Albania last June, he was amazed by what he did not find.
The story of the woman caught in adultery, usually found in John 7:53-8:11, was missing from three of the texts, and was out of place in a fourth, tacked on to the end of John's Gospel.
"This is way out of proportion for manuscripts from the 9th century and following," Wallace said. "Once we get into that era, the manuscripts start conforming much more to each other. Thus, to find some that didn't have the story is remarkable."
Wallace called modern translations' inclusion of the famous narrative, in which Jesus said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" and told the woman to "go and sin no more," the result of "a tradition of timidity."
The Roman Catholic Church requires this story to be considered Scripture, and Protestants have not broken with that tradition, even though it is missing from the earliest and most reliable manuscripts. During the 5th century, the church was sorting out what, exactly, should be in the canon of inspired Scripture. Pericope adulterae, as it is known, first appears in a Greek text during this period, although it is alluded to by Greek writers as early as the 2nd century.
Many scholars agree that the verses are not original to John's Gospel, pointing out that the story interrupts the flow of the verses that come before and after. The style is also noticeably different from that of John's usual writing.
But that doesn't mean that all Bible scholars want the story removed. Many of them disagree with Wallace and believe it relays an historical event and that it belongs in our Bible.
"There is no reason to pull this out," said Craig Evans, a professor at Acadia Divinity School. "Nothing about it says Jesus didn't have this encounter." All of the stories about Jesus began orally — it was a few decades before they were written down — so it is possible that this story just did not get written down until much later, Evans said.
Michael Holmes, a professor at Bethel University, doesn't consider the story inspired Scripture. But he said he would include the story in the Bible, because of its long history and because the verses bear the marks of an authentic story about Jesus.
"[Pericope adulterae] does offer us deep insight into how Jesus dealt with questions such as this, and in that sense is a great illustration to live by," he said.
Such judgments raise questions about what words like canonicity and inspiration mean for evangelicals. If we reserve the word inspired for the text in the earliest manuscripts, yet accept that other material (such as the pericope adulterae) should be included in our biblical canon, are we implying that select biblical passages may be canonical yet not inspired? If so, what should we do with this distinction?
Biblical scholars do agree on two things: The Bible story should be set apart with a note, and Christians should be cautious when reading the passage for their personal devotions.
Translation teams have struggled with how best to present the story. Some place brackets around the story (RV, NRSV, GNB, ESV), print it in a smaller font (TNIV), or place it at the end of the gospel (REB), all with notes of explanation, said Howard Marshall, professor at the University of Aberdeen. Textual notes are generally added when the traditional King James Version differs significantly from the texts of the Greek New Testament that today's English translations are based on.
So far, no modern translators have chosen to leave it out altogether.
"If you leave it out without any comments," said Ben Witherington, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, "there are bound to be thousands of Bible readers asking, 'Is this Thomas Jefferson's Bible?'"
But leaving it in can be dangerous, too, especially when Christians breeze past the notes to concentrate on the story. It's difficult to understand how to treat such a sequestered passage; pericope adulterae continues to be much used as evidence of Jesus' character and as an example to believers.
The note in most Bibles does not say the story isn't authentic, but that the oldest manuscripts do not include it. Laypeople assume that translation teams must have a good reason for including the passage, Wallace said.
Douglas Moo, professor at Wheaton College, said that Christians should be cautious about using "Go, and sin no more" or "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
Wallace said pastors have a responsibility to communicate the truth of this text to their congregations. "We need to be as thoroughly biblical as we can be … [There] is a huge amount of ignorance that we're catering to in the Christian public.
"A person hearing these words should recognize that they have no authority as authentic words of Jesus," he said. Christians who are reading the story, he said, should give it the same authority as any other unsubstantiated early Christian teaching about Jesus.
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See also today's interview with Dan Wallace on the manuscript discoveries.
J.I. Packer answered the question," How can I reconcile my belief in the inerrancy of Scripture with comments in Bible translations that state that a particular verse is not 'in better manuscripts'?