Still No Easy Escape

by Klyne Snodgrass

I expected to receive "flak" for my December, 1988 Covenant Companion article "No Easy Escape" (pp. 18-19), but I did not expect it from Pietisten.. No doubt there are others who are unhappy with the fact that I do not view John 8:7 as scripture, but so far I have not heard from them. I appreciate the invitation of the editors to respond to Phil Johnson's comments in the last Pietisten.

There are a number of crucial issues that emerge in this discussion, but so that there is no misunderstanding let me state clearly that the reality of forgiveness and the necessity of avoiding a judgemental attitude are not among them. The teaching of the rest of scripture is clear. Forgiveness is readily available with true repentance, and Christians arc to be as accepting of those who err as Jesus was of tax collectors and prostitutes, Being judgemental is the last thing we should be.

At the same time, any avoidance of the theme of judgement is a distortion of the Christian message, and the necessity of rebuke and discipline are clear parts of community life. Everytime we quote texts like John 3:17 ("I came not to judge the world, but to save it"), we ought not neglect texts in tension with them. John 9:39 ("I came into this world for judgement" ) seems to be an intended contradiction used as a stylistic device. I have come to expect such tensions in scripture and to know that truth lies in the tension.

Even if John 8:7 is considered to be scripture, we have to admit that too frequently this text has been abused as an easy way out of the glaring light of public exposure for impropriety. Its use is in response to being caught, not to conviction or regret. Such escape cannot be condoned.

There are, however, several other issues raised in Phil's discussion that pertain to canonicity and deserve closer treatment. Discussions about the canon are not nearly as easy as people think, and the spate of recent books on the subject is testimony to this fact. (See for example, Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, Oxford University Press, 1987; Harry Y, Gamble, The New Testament Canon, Its Making and Meaning, Fortress Press, 1985; and William R. Farmer and Dennis M. Farkasfalvy, The Formation of the New Testament Canon, Paulist Press, 1983.)

I have argued myself, as Phil does, that usage and impact are key ingredients in the discussion of canonicity. (See my "Providence is not Enough," Christianity Today, February 5, 1988, 33-34.) But do we really want to say that usage and impact alone are sufficient tests of canonicity? I do not, for if we seek to be consistent, we create numerous difficulties for ourselves. There have been various documents that would meet these tests over the centuries. For a considerable length of time (at least to the eighth century), Tatian's Diatessaron received widespread use and was apparently considered to be canonical in the East. Commentaries were written on it, and translations were made in Latin, Persian, Arabic, Old Dutch, Old High German, (and of course Syriac, if the Diatessaron was originally written in Greek).

Mark 16:9-20 is a very close parallel to the textual situation of John 7;53-8;11. This text has been widely used and for some people it "authors" them in the same way that Phil speaks ofJohn 8:7. I would not argue this way, but certainly the snake handlers in East Tennessee where I grew up would! We might easily respond to them that the church as a whole has not valued these texts, but they would respond, of course, that the Church should have. How do we argue for John 7:53f. and not for Mark 16:9f.?

Some of Phil's arguments are "straw men." He argues that "...at this point in history, textual criticism cannot determine scripture." When could it and what has changed so that now we live in another " dispensation?" Was it Athanasius' Festal Letter of 367 or Erasmus' edition of the first printed New Testament of the edition of Westcott and Hort or what? More importantly, we are not at this point making a new determination about this text. The status of this text has always been dubious at best. The evidence of its acceptance as scripture is confined in the early centuries to the Western Church. It is not in any of the important Greek texts in the East and docs not appear in the standard Greek text until about 900 A.D.

Furthermore, the argument that my position would lead to a "much thinner Bible" is misguided. The issue here is the textual validity of a pericope, not some modern theory about its authorship or origin. There are relatively few texts that would fall in this category. Other than Mark 16:9-20, few' such texts come to mind. We might mention the trinitarian testimony in I John 5:7-8, which is attested by only two late Greek manuscripts (with two others having the material in the margin), but was included by Erasmus in his edition of the Greek New Testament. From there the text was included in the 'Textus Receptus" and then in the King James Version. Other examples would be the tradition of Jesus' sweating, as it were, drops of blood in Luke 22:43-44, and the liturgical ending to the Lord's prayer in Matthew 6:13. There are other readings set in double brackets in modern Greek editions of the New Testament to indicate their dubious validity, but none of them is so long or so clearly secondary as John 7:53f.

Phil does not build much on his point that every reader can quickly find this text in his or her Bible, but at least we should note that, in the first edition of the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament, finding the text may not be so easy. John 7:53-8:11 comes after 21:25 at the end of the fourth gospel, The pericope was placed back at the end of chapter seven in the second and third editions, no doubt so that people could find it. We should also note that commentators like Bulunann and Lenski do not even discuss this pericope and that several others such as Morris, Barrett, and Lightfoot discuss it in an appendix at the end of their commentaries.

While Phil may not have any interest in the Gospel of Thomas, readers of Pietisten should know that a growing number of scholars argue that this apocryphal gospel gives reliable tradition about Jesus earlier than the canonical gospels. I think they are wrong and have argued that the Gospel of Thomas stems from the second century and is dependent on the canonical gospels. (See my forthcoming article in The Second Century.) Certainly, however, the Gospel of Thomas was used as scripture by some in the ancient world, If we should conclude that it or the Oxyrhyncus Papyri contain authentic Jesus material, why, on Phil's view, would we not want to add them to the canon?

Usage and impact are important, but they are also subjective. By themselves, even if the document is "true," they do not make a text canonical. The other key element is the proximity of the documents to the Christ events. With this last item, John 7:53-8:11, at the very best, is on the fringes of the Christian tradition.

One may, like Catholic scholars who take their cue from the Vulgate, accept that this text is still scripture. I will not. At the same time I am as opposed to premature judgement and as aware of my own need for forgiveness — hopefully — as anyone. But I do not need this text to make those points.

Other Responses

From Utah:

I read your "A Blessed Escape" in the Winter 1988 Pietisten. Given the time, I would press you for clarification on a few points, but I agreed with the overall thrust of your argument.

The one sentence I would clearly take exception to is "How could an authentic story about Jesus be excluded from scripture...?" Even here some clarification of terms might be in order, but the obvious problem, besides the apparent irreconcilability of your statement with John 21:25, is that we have an umber of sayings and stories of Jesus in writers as late as Clement of Alexandria which did not make it into Scripture. I can't see that any editorial decision was made not to include them, they just didn't have the fate of John 8:7. Since most of these passages are found only once and in one author, and we have therefore very little information to pin down their authenticity as stories or sayings that are rooted in Christ's life and teaching, these passages likely never will be dealt with with certitude, but I don't see that your a priori dictum is justified. Your article goes a long way toward seeing that canonicity is what the tradition defines it as. Certainly one possible conclusion is that Scripture does not include every possible authentic story, but simply those stories that made it into a canonical writing by the time the canon was closed. Since Scripture is "merely" a collection of what specific individuals witnessed, received, or believed and transmitted, that is, is an expression of part of what is needful for salvation, it is not exhaustive. I don't mean to be too Catholic here, but if you see that it is the authority of the living tradition that decides the canon, then you must see that the Church as a living tradition precedes the Scriptures, that they are, individually, so to speak, formed within the already existing community as (partial) expressions of its life. They are a writing down of things that have been received and believed, but not, presumably, of everything. Glenn W. Olsen, Salt Lake City, Utah.

From Illinois:

After reading your article on "A Blessed Escape," I certainly believe the "escape" is to be found through God's Grace. Is it not possible for Christ's statement, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her," to be a statement of who is in charge rather than one which provides a "cheap grace" escape clause? I (the non-theologian) find the statement to be perfectly consistent with others which remind us to remove the "log" from our own eye before judging others. Are we even capable of removing the log?

I arrive at my understanding by reading several different passages where God reminds us that judgement is his prerogative. I don't feel that the passage is an escape clause, but rather a statement of who is capable of judging (the one with the "logless" eye) and who is, indeed, the judge. Randy Johnson, Des Plaines, Illinois

From Massachusetts:

I read with interest Phil Johnson's article, "A Blessed Escape," in your Winter 1988 issue. Rev. Johnson's artricle is a response to an article in the December 1988 issue of the Covenant Companion written by Dr. Klyne Snodgrass. Rev. Johnson seems to argue that John 7:53-8:11 is in fact scripture and should be considered as such. While I understand his motivation for this argument, I believe he has missed the mark completely.

First, Rev. Johnson says, "textual criticism can no longer determine what is in the Bible" (p.7), He implies that textual critics seek to determine what is or isn't in the Bible. This is not true. As Rev. Johnson surely knows, it was the early church that determined the canon of the New Testament. A claim on apostolicity was the sine qua non of a book to be considered part of the NT canon, Also, usage and common consent of the Christian community of that time helped in determining the NT canon. It would be safe to say that by the beginning of the 3rd century C.E. there was wide agreement in the church on constituent parts of the canon, though conciliar pronouncements on the canon did not begin to occur until the 2nd half of the fourth century (e.g., the Council of Carthage in 397 C.E.). Textual criticism only enters the picture because of these facts. (1) None of the original documents of the NT is extant. (2) The existing copies differ from one another. So, as Bruce Metzger says, "The textual critic seeks to ascertain from the divergent copies which form of the text should be regarded as most nearly conforming to the original." Hence, textual criticism does not seek to determine "what is in the Bible" but to determine which form of the text, a text which the church already has set aside as canonical and authoritative, conforms most nearly to the original.

In the case of John 7:53-8:11, it is manifestly clear that this pericope was not part of the original text of the gospel of John and probably is non-Johannine in origin (see Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament for evidence). Therefore, this pericope has no verifiable claim on apostolicity. Also, this pericope was not part of the versions of the gospel of John read and accepted as canonical by the early church; as it was added to the text several centuries after its writing, and even then was added to only some versions and many of those marked it with an asterisk because of its dubious origin.

Therefore, if we equate scripture with the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, and if we agree that John 7:53-8:11 has no verifiable claim on apostolicity and was not part of the gospel of John that the early church determined was canonical, then we must conclude that this pericope is not scripture, Of course, this pericope did later become commonly accepted as part of the NT, after the canon was fixed. But this in itself does not establish its canonicity or its character as scripture.

Second, Rev. Johnson wonders if such textual criticism as Dr. Snodgrass uses on John 7:53-8:11 would, if rigorously applied, lead to a "much thinner Bible". The answer to that is simply no. Such textual criticism has been used for centuries and has not resulted in a radical "trimming " of the Bible. Nearly all Biblical scholars, of all theological persuasions, use and accept the results of textual criticism. There is no "dangerous precedent" set in using textual criticism in the case of this pericope, simply because it is an exceptional case (for one comparable case, see Mark 16:9-20). If anything, textual criticism has increased our confidence in determining the text of the New Testament.

Third, Rev. Johnson seems to argue that because John 7:53-8:11 has had and still has "authority" in the lives of its readers, that therefore it should be considered scripture. This argument is not convincing. Many writings can have considerable authority in the lives of Christians — e.g., creeds, confessional statements, the writings of the Church Fathers, ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope, etc. Writings of great antiquity (such as the Didache and the Gospel of Thomas, etc.) may have authority in the lives of Christians and may even bring authentic stories of Jesus (see below). But none of these are part of the NT canon and hence do not have the authority of scripture. Likewise, John 7:53-8:11 may have authority for many Christians, maybe more than any other of the previously cited examples, but that does not necessarily grant it the authority of Scripture.

Fourth, Rev. Johnson wonders how an authentic story about Jesus could be excluded from scripture. Well, it is likely and even very probable that authentic stories about and sayings by Jesus exist outside the NT canon (see Bruce Chilton, The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels). Of course, determining the historicity of stories and the authenticity of sayings is notoriously problematic. But what is important to note is that the early church was well aware of these other traditions but consciously left them outside the canon. We are inheritors of the canon and must live with it. Extra-canonical traditions about Jesus, be they authentic or inauthentic, may help us better understand him and scripture, but it would be foolhardy to recreate the canon to include these traditions.

Finally, while I sympathize with Rev. Johnson's concern for stressing the forgiveness, compassion, and mercy of God, let me suggest that this concern not motivate him to argue that John 7:53-8:11, because we find these themes in this story, should be considered scripture. These themes can be found in abundance elsewhere in the Bible.

Thank you for your fine publication. I find it interesting and stimulating. Keep up the good work! David Freedholm, North Easton, Massachusetts.

Is there Any Escape? - Phil's Response

The editors of Pietisten are thankful for your many responses, readers and friends, since the last issue. We very much appreciate the willingness and fine spirit in which Dr. Snodgrass has continued the conversation about John 7:53-8:11, which began with his article in the December Companion. Other letters which add to the discussion are printed here as responses to the article, "The Blessed Escape." As they began to arrive, I found myself ducking missives and wondering, easy or not, is there any escape? There is no escape for me that I can see from a response to these erudite, lively, provocative, and thoughtful comments.

Klyne Snodgrass writes that he had expected "flak" but not from Pietisten. If a stereotype has been broken, we have accomplished something, although we do not intend the response as "flak." It is reassuring that the participants in this discussion can speak about the development and formation of Biblical text objectively without feeling they must suppress evidence for fear of upsetting a priori theories of inspiration. The free-wheeling nature of the discussion is refreshing, The contributions of the various parties to this conversation have increased knowledge, raised awareness of textual criticism, expanded perspective, and provided sources for further reading.

However, some clarification. I agree with those who say that there may be sayings of Jesus and other information about the lives of the disciples and the early church which are not in the Bible. When I asked the question, "How could an authentic story about Jesus be excluded from scripture or lack authority?" I wondered how could or why would a story that is in the Bible be excluded if it is authentic. Here I was responding to+ Klyne's assertion in the Companion article that "even if one argued convincingly that such material [the story in question] was authentic material about Jesus, it would not be scripture." I'm not suggesting that we expand the canon.

Second, it is not I who by textual criticism proposes to eliminate a passage. Both Klyne and David Freedholm seem to suggest that I think that might be a function of contemporary textual criticism. My point is precisely the opposite. It is their opinion, based upon textual criticism, that this passage in John should be eliminated from Scripture, not mine. Further, though the concept of textual criticism was not yet developed into a formal scholarly theological discipline, the early fathers and mothers did make editorial judgments, which were judgments of what we call textual criticism, as they accepted, copied, and passed along the texts. It was an act of prototextual criticism, one could say, that some editors marked this story with an asterisk. I agree with David Freedholm that textual critics of our generation should not determine what is or isn't in the Bible. I merely ask why Dr, Snodgrass and he think it should in this instance. Better reasons than those advanced thus far would be necessary before I would be inclined to drop the story. This is not to deny what is accepted as the factual account of its inclusion, some of which I reported in "A Blessed Escape."

As for the assertion that this text is one of only a few in question, I am in doubt. Further, what about the discrepancies in other accounts that are accepted as canonical? For example, the conflicting accounts of Judas' death (Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts I:18-20). If we are going to clean things up why would we stop with the passages indicated? Please do not misunderstand; I am not pushing for such an enterprise. The conflicts, where they exist, add to the validity and authority of the Bible, That they didn't purge the conflicts speaks well of the early editors and scribes.

If a reason for being more concerned about this passage than about others is its possible misuses, I am not in the least satisfied. This passage is not unique in that respect. The best defense here is what Klyne offers when he says that "we ought not neglect texts in tension with" a text under discussion. He is right. This helps keep matters in perspective. But, if we take whatever text we are reading as being directed to us personally, as Soren Kierkegaard suggests (see For Self Examination), the issue of condoning and judging others — including their possible misuse of this text — is secondary at best. In this passage, we have before us an example of the power of forgiveness for ourselves, an admonition to be careful about our judging others, and a way we can, if called upon, encounter a person in such a predicament in a healing manner. Plus, the story provides a wonderful opportunity to admire our Lord in action.

Further, in answer to Klyne's question, "When could it [textual criticism determine scripture] and what has changed so that we now live in a different 'dispensation'?" I respond that I cannot pinpoint the time at which things changed in this respect, but think it is clear that they have. For the purposes of this discussion, I submit that we have been in a different "dispensation" since at least 900 C.E. (a nod to David F. for use of common era, an appropriate designation) when the Greeks included this story in their version, making its acceptance nearly universal.

Even though the evidence is clear that some scholars treat this passage differently — with asterisks, in appendices, and so forth — it continues to tag along.

Klyne asserts that usage and impact, though important, are "subjective." To the contrary, it seems to me. Usage for certain and impact when evident are objective. They can be observed. Further, nowhere did I claim that usage and impact were the only criteria for scripture.

As far as the Gospel of Thomas is concerned, I need no reason to not add it to the canon. I am intrigued and amazed by some of its stories. But, I'm not talking about adding to scripture, I'm talking about not subtracting. Who can find the Gospel of Thomas in his or her Bible? It might be handy to have, but it is not there.

So, whereas some scholars may take their cue from the unusual history of this passage to exclude it from scripture, I do not. I'm thankful for this story and I'll go along with the communities of believers, including the church in International Falls that presented the Bible to me, who regard this story as scripture.

See all articles by Klyne Snodgrass