Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The 2014 Pericope Adulterae Symposium: Part 1: John David Punch: Ecclesiastical Suppression of the PA

On April 25-26, I had the pleasure of attending the conference on John 7:53-8:11 (the Pericope Adulterae) that was held at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.  Five scholars answered the following questions and explained their answers: 
            (1)  Is this passage original to John’s Gospel, or is it a later interpolation?
            (2)  Should it be proclaimed or proscribed?

This conference was very timely, because earlier in 2014, calls for the removal of John 7:53-8:11 from the text of the Gospel of John were made online by Dr. Jim Hamilton (of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky), Dr. Owen Strachan (of Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky), and Dr. Denny Burk (also of Boyce College).  Daniel Wallace, of Dallas Theological Seminary (where Hamilton studied), has been expressing the same sentiment since 2008.  Andreas J. K√∂stenberger (of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary), in his 2004 commentary (in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series), likewise declared that these 12 verses “should not be regarded as part of the Christian canon.”


John David Punch went first – which is always a tough position, since the first presenter can’t easily react to the others, but they can respond to him.  His view is that that pericope adulterae is genuine and that it was ecclesiastically suppressed by some pious church-authorities who felt that the story was likely to cause simple-minded readers to view adultery as a minor and easily overlooked offense. 

Punch offered several pieces of internal evidence to support the Johannine character of the PA, or, at least, to answer charges that it is non-Johannine.  Rather than interrupting the surrounding text in chapters seven and eight, the PA is consistent with its context.  The imagery of Jesus writing with His finger, as a prelude to the dispensing of divine mercy, is just the sort of contrast with Moses (who gave the Law written by the finger of God; cf. Exodus 31:38) that one might expect from John.  Jesus’ instruction to “Sin no more” is very similar to His words in John 5:14.  

Punch also pointed out that (as Alan Johnson as observed) the charge that the vocabulary used in the PA is non-Johannine is greatly reduced when one considers, first, that John 2:13-17 has roughly congruent proportions of once-used words and Lukan words, and, second, that the PA has several Johannine features, and, third, that 8:12 does not (contrary to the claims of some commentators) smoothly interlock with 7:52:  the scene at the end of 7:52 is a gathering of the chief priests and Pharisees and their officers, without Jesus present, whereas Jesus is present with them (and the rest of the crowd) in 8:12.  Punch also briefly reviewed the external Greek evidence, noting that the evidence for the omission of the PA is early but is mainly limited, textually, to the Alexandrian text and, geographically, to the vicinity of Egypt.       
Turning to patristic evidence, Punch pointed out that the non-use of the PA by some patristic writers may be an effect of their (or their predecessors’) reluctance to preach about the passage in church-services.  Ambrose and Augustine, both of whom accepted the passage, convey that some individuals regarded the story of the adulteress as a risky passage to entrust to those who might be looking for an excuse for sin.  The loss of the PA in the early Alexandrian transmission-line was probably initiated by a bold editor who was similarly motivated.


Some thoughts:

I felt that Punch’s case would have been more forceful if he had selectively utilized some of Burgon’s (and Ehrman’s) points about orthodox corruptions (see Burgon’s “Causes of Corruption,” pages 211-231), so as to show that some orthodox individuals boldly removed theologically difficult words, phrases, and verses from their exemplars so as to protectively prevent misunderstandings or misapplications; while the removal of the PA would be (if Punch is correct) the largest such orthodox excision, it would thus be special only in terms of its size.  Another point that might favor his theory is that in the early churches, if forgiveness was granted to a Christian who, after baptism, committed adultery, it was only after a long period of penance.  If, sometime in the 100’s, opponents of such a strict standard appealed to the PA as a basis for leniency, a ruthless bishop might react by removing the passage. 

In the Q-&-A time, I asked Dr. Punch why those who found the PA offensive to pious sensibilities would be offended by the opening verses 7:53-8:2, and remove those three verses along with the rest.  He acknowledged that this is not easy to explain.

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