Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Report: Pericope Adulterae Conference at SEBT (April 25-26)

Image:  Speakers at the PA conference
(left to right:  Wasserman, Robinson, Keith, Knust, Punch, and Black)
Last Friday-Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend the Pericope Adulterae (PA) Symposium at SEBTS in Wake Forest, NC.

The conference focused on the “Woman Caught in Adultery” passage found in John 7:53—8:11, which, along with the so-called longer ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20), is one of the two longest and most significant textual disputes in the NT.

The conference was organized and hosted by Dr. David Alan Black of SEBTS.  It included five presentations by scholars who have done significant work in research related to the PA (in the order of their presentations):

Dr. John David Punch, Pastor, City Church, Denver, Colorado.

Dr. Tommy Wasserman, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of NT Exegesis at Örebro School of Theology in Sweden.

Dr. Jennifer Knust, Associate Professor of NT & Christian Origins at Boston University.

Dr. Chris Keith, Professor of NT & Early Christianity and Director for the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St. Mary’s University College n Twickenham, London (though he is originally a Kentuckian).

Dr. Maurice Robinson, Senior Professor of NT & Greek at SEBTS.

The presentations will later be incorporated into a book as have two other symposia organized by Black (one on the Synoptic Problem and one on the Ending of Mark).

Of the five speakers, Punch and Robinson argued for the originality and authenticity of the PA (beginning and ending the conference, like a chiasm), while the other presenters argued that it was a later interpolation.  Here’s a brief summary of each presentation:


1.  John David Punch:  “The Piously Offensive PA”

I arrived late, so I completely missed Dr. Punch’s presentation.  From his handout and later discussion and interaction it became clear that Punch had argued for the inclusion of the PA based on internal evidence.  Contra the prevailing views of modern scholarship, he argued based on language, style, and content that the PA was original to the Gospel of John.  He also offered the explanation that it was excluded by pious scribes who saw both the woman’s adultery and Jesus’ forgiveness of her to be scandalous (cf. comments on the PA by Ambrose, Augustine, etc.).

2.  Tommy Wasserman:  “The Strange Case of the Missing Adulteress”

Wasserman offered a review of second and third century copies of the Gospel of John, noting the absence of the PA from early papyri like p66 and p75.  He stated that the “shared conservatism” of scribes would argue against conscious omission of the PA.

He also noted that there were non-received Jesus traditions in early Christianity that occasionally appear in various copies, listing seven examples:

1.  Justin Martyr’s insertion of fire on the water at Jesus’ baptism (Matt 3:15).

2.  Justin Martyr’s insertion of Psalm 2:7 “Today I have begotten thee” at Jesus’ baptism.

3.  Addition to account of James and John in Luke 9:51-56.

4.  The angel stirring the water at John 5:4 (cf. Tertullian).

5.  Jesus’ anguish in the garden and sweat like blood (Luke 22:33-34).

6.  Western texts include reaction of the crowd at Jesus’ death (Luke 23:48).

7.  The Freer Logion (Mark 16:14).

He also cited several other non-received traditions (in Matthew 20:28; Luke 6:45; Luke 23:53; Mark 16:3).

Finally, Wasserman notes that the PA appears predominantly in the Western Church.  He cites Bruce Metzger’s observation that the Old Latin was a “living creation” which was constantly growing.

Though he believes the PA to be an interpolation, Wasserman argued for the antiquity of the PA.  He cited various Old Latin capitula (chapter titles) which list the PA and date to the time of Cyprian (c. 200-248 AD).  He noted, in particular, that one of these capitulum in describing the PA makes use of the Greek loan word for adultery, indicating that the text was known in Greek and not merely in Latin.


3.  Jennifer Knust:  “Neither Add to Nor Take Away From”

Knust’s presentation was linked to that of Wasserman’s, as, in fact, the two are working together on a scholarly book on the PA.  Whereas Wasserman had pointed to non-received Jesus traditions to demonstrate how a passage like the PA might have developed, Knust set out to prove that if the PA had been original it would not have been deleted or textually corrected.

She cited a number of Church Fathers who cast aspersions on those who added to or took away from the text of Scripture (cf. Deut 4:2).  She cited, in particular, orthodox attacks on Marcion for “mutilating,” or as Irenanaeus put it, “circumcising” the Gospel of Luke.

She especially argued that the account of a penitent adulteress would not have been deemed offensive by early Christians.

Of interest in her presentation was her inclusion of non-textual evidence for the antiquity of the PA, including an Egyptian ivory pyxis (small, lidded jar) from the 6th century which depicts the Samaritan Woman at the Well along with the Woman Caught in Adultery. This shows the PA was known early (by 6th century AD), was known in Egypt (i.e., not just in the Western church), and was associated with the Gospel of John (i.e., depiction with the Samaritan woman).

4.  Chris Keith:  [No title]

Keith began by noting he was in substantial agreement with Wasserman and Knust.

We can be certain of three things:

1.  Christians were reading the PA by at least the late 4th century at John 7:53—8:11.

2.  Copies of John circulated without the PA.

3.  The only location attested for the PA is John 7:51—8:11 until the 9th century.  It was not a “floating tradition” in early Christianity.

He argued, contra Punch, that internal evidence can only be suggestive but not conclusive to the argument over the PA, noting that ancient authors made use of “mimicry.”

He made reference to his 2009 Brill monograph, which argues that the PA was added to John for sociological-political reasons to show that Jesus not only could read but also write (katagrapho in John 8:6) and that he knew and authoritatively interpreted the law.

5.  Maurice Robinson:  [No title]

The final session was given to Robinson.

His argument is that the PA was omitted from some manuscripts due to liturgical reasons.  He argues for an early dating for all the Gospels (pre-70).  The PA was not read during the regular liturgical year but only for special feast days (especially those for women saints who had reformed lives).  His theory is that the PA was removed so that the Pentecost reading would not end at 7:52 (“for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet”) but omit 7:53—8:11 and continued at 8:12 and following.

Robinson shared the up to date statistics from his career long collation of the PA:

Total Greek NT mss that include the PA:  1,476

Total Greek NT mss that omit the PA:  267

Total Greek lectionary mss that include the PA:  495

Total Greek lectionary mss that omit the PA:  2,885

It is by far the longest portion of the NT omitted by a large number of mss.  In comparison the Longer Ending of Mark is only omitted by a handful of mss.

As for internal evidence, Robinson argued for “spanned interlocked linkages within the Tabernacle Discourse (John 7:1—10:21)” which demonstrate that the PA was original to John.

He concluded by noting that the issue would be settled if not for the large number of mss that omit the passage.  The omissions can be explained due to liturgical reasons.  It would have been virtually impossible for such a lengthy section to have been added.  In view of manifold internal criteria, we must conclude that the PA is immanently suited to be included in the text of John.


The PA Symposium provided a stimulating discussion of this disputed text.  Even the scholars who hold the PA to be an interpolation argued for its antiquity and that it had an early, fixed location in John’s Gospel at John 7:53—8:11 and was not, contrary to what is sometimes popularly promoted, a late developing “floating tradition.”  The presentations and discussion were charitable and collegial.  Wasserman, Knust, and Keith each expressed appreciation for the labors of Robinson in text criticism in general and on the PA in particular, while also clearly indicating their disagreement with his conclusions.

 At the end of the Symposium, David Black took a straw poll of participants (including many students and laymen) and the majority voted for the originality and authenticity of the PA.  Wasserman quipped that this vote might be true at this Symposium at SEBTS but not in the wider world.  He is indeed right.  There is not even a debate among the vast majority of modern critical scholars that the PA is an interpolation.

I came into the Symposium a firm TR preferentialist, holding that the PA was part of the originally inspired and divinely preserved text of Scripture.  That conviction was in no way shaken, but, if anything, affirmed.  I cannot say that I was convinced by Robinson’s external evidence argument that the PA was omitted due to liturgical reasons.  It seems hard to believe that a detailed lectionary system would have developed so early.  I lean toward the “suppression” argument even if the reasons for its early suppression might be lost to us in the mists of the past.  I think the arguments of Punch, Keith, and Robinson regarding the continuity of the PA with the rest of John were convincing.

Though the conference was strong on addressing the nitty-gritty issues of external and internal evidence, it was weaker in addressing some of the doctrinal issues related to the PA and text criticism in general.

Part of this came because there was little discussion of a confessional approach to Scripture.  The speakers, in fact, represented broad and diverse confessional backgrounds.  Wasserman is a Swedish Baptist; Knust an ordained American Baptist (interesting to have her speak at an SBC seminary sponsored event); Keith comes from a Restorationist (Church of Christ) background; Punch seems to be a broad evangelical-Baptist; Robinson is a Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy affirming Southern Baptist. Wasserman, Knust, and Keith move much more in the circles of the academy.  It was interesting when Knust was asked in a q and a session whether she believed the PA event was an actual historical event, and she replied, “I believe it is just as possible that this actually happened in the life of Jesus as any other event in the NT.”   She and Wasserman, in particular, seemed to operate with a distinct Kantian, historical agnosticism when it comes to the NT.  They seemed more at home discussing the PA as a literary problem in a text of antiquity rather than as a text of Scripture.  Perhaps they would reply that this was an academic symposium, after all, and not a theology conference.  Granted. 

At any rate, here are some doctrinal questions that I would have liked to have heard addressed:

If we do not have a fixed and settled NT text, do we ever have a closed canon?

If the words of the Bible are inspired in the original languages (see chapter one of the Westminster Confession and the 2LBCF 1689), how can we accept the concept of the PA as a later interpolation, even if we argue, as Wasserman, Knust, and Keith all seemed to be saying, that the PA should be included in the Bible and preached?

How can we explain the tenacity of the PA’s appearance in John as evidence of its divine preservation?  Even the current Western scholarly consensus opposing its original status (it is affirmed in Eastern Orthodoxy) has not swayed the view of those in the pew who still value it and see it as Scripture (and who are usually surprised to find that scholars have even questioned it).

Further reading on the PA conference:

Jacob Cerone’s Debriefing of the PA conference (he also live blogged each session).

Thomas Hudgins’ live blog of the PA conference.


Patrick McWilliams said...

Thanks for this review, Pastor Jeff. I was hoping you'd weigh in here on this conference!

Jacob Cerone said...

Thanks for the summary and thoughts. Best I've seen yet!

James Snapp Jr said...

So, to frame the conference in terms of a trial:

The Pericope Adulterae received a fair trial. Both the prosecutors and the defense attorneys were given equal time, and the jury was able to test their claims, and didn't just hear one side of the story.

The jury found the defendant not guilty.

A different jury -- composed of people who are known to have already deemed the defendant guilty, and who have already spread all sorts of inaccurate characterizations of the evidence pertaining to the case, and who have openly called for the defendant's punishment -- might arrive at a different verdict. But that is not the jury that was gathered at SEBTS this past weekend.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Thanks for your work in helping with the conference and handling the mic for q and a. I also enjoyed your blogs on the conference. Best wishes in your studies.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Good to meet you in person. Sorry we did not find more time to talk. I'd have liked to have had more time to hear about how you've come to have such energy and interest in text criticism.

Interesting trial analogy. Of course, the defendant had only two in his defense counsel while there were three prosecutors, and he was still exonerated!

I trust you had a safe trip home.