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Dec 3, 2010

Comfort on the PA

Excerpt for Review: P. Comfort, The Pericope of the Adulteress, The Bible Translator, (Jan., 1989) p.145 fwd

Page Index

Pericope of the Adulteress: P. Comfort (review)

The Pericope of the Adulteress


The pericope of the adulteress (John 7:53-8:11) is included in the text of the UBS3 and NA26 but is set in double brackets to signify that the editors considered the portion so enclosed to be an insertion taken from an oral tradition.

Textual Evidence Against the Passage

This passage is not found in P66 P75 א Avid B Cvid L N T W 1 and several ancient versions (primarily Syriac and Coptic), and it was unknown to several early church fathers (Clement, Tertullian, 2 Origen, Cyprian, Chrysostom).

Its first appearance in a Greek MS is in D, but it is not contained in other Greek MSS until the 9th century. 3 No Greek church father comments on the passage prior to the 12th century 4 until Euthymius Zigabenus, who himself declares that the accurate copies do not contain it. 5

When this story is inserted in later MSS, it appears in different places: after John 7:52, after Luke 21:38, 6 at the end of John; and when it does appear it is often marked off by asterisks or obeli to signal its probable spuriousness. 7

The story is probably part of an oral tradition that was included in the Syriac Peshitta, circulated in the Western church, eventually finding its way into the Latin Vulgate, and from there into later Greek MSS, 8 the like of which were used in formulating the Textus Receptus (Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek NT).

The external evidence against the Johannine authorship of the pericope of the adulteress is ovewhelming. 9

Internal Evidence Against the Passage

The internal evidence against Johannine authorship is also impressive. First of all, many scholars have pointed out that the vocabulary used in this pericope does not accord with the rest of John. 10 Second, the insertion of the pericope of the adulteress at this point in John (after John 7:52 and before John 8:12) greatly disrupts the narrative flow. 11

Westcott & Hort(W/H) indicated that the setting of John 7 and 8 is at Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles (Introduction, "Notes on Select Readings"). During this feast, the Jews would customarily pour water over a rock (in commmemoration of the water supply coming from the smitten rock in the wilderness) and light lamps (in commemoration of the pillar of light that accompanied the Israelites in their wilderness journey). With reference to these two ritualistic enactments, Jesus presented himself as the true source of living water (John 7:37-39) and as the true light to be followed (John 8:12).

W/H's argument is that the pericope of the adulteress disrupts the continuity between the events. 12

Ernest Colwell, following W/H, put it this way:

"The story does not fit the context because it interrupts the narrative. If this story were absent, then the great day of the Feast of Tabernacles is signalized by Jesus' twin declarations that he is the Water of Life and the Light of Life" (What is the Best NT?, p.81-82). 13

This is a good argument, but I think there is another that deals more directly with the connection between 7:40-52 and 8:12ff, which excluding the pericope adutleress, must constitute a continuous narrative.

8:12 as a Response to 7:52

In John 7:52 we read about the Pharisees' retort to Nicodemus' weak defense (on behalf of Jesus): "Are you also from Galilee? Search and see that a prophet does not arise out of Galilee." Given the fact that the pericope of the adutleress was inserted immediately after this statement in so many MSS and was tanslated in so many versions of the NT, the reader cannot see that Jesus made any kind of response to the Pharisees' bold assertion. But actually, John 8:12 is a response - even though indirect - to John 7:52 (See Matt. 22:1-14 for another example of an indirect response to the Pharisees' unbelief and plot to murder Jesus, as recorded in Matt.21:43-46).

In John 8:12ff, Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees (which could not be the Pharisees of 8:3, for they all had left one by one, but must be the Pharisees of 7:45ff, who had come again to speak to Jesus).

Undoubtedly, Jesus knew of their remarks to Nicodemus. They had boldly asserted that the Scriptures make no mention of even a prophet (much less the Christ) being raised up in Galilee. With respect to this assertion, Jesus made a bold declaration in which he implied that the Scriptures did speak of the Christ coming from Galilee. He said, "I am the Light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

Surely, those Pharisees must have realized that Jesus' statement was drawn from Isaiah 9:1-2 (also cited in Matt. 4:15-16 as a proof text for Jesus' Galilean origins and Galilean ministry), which says, "...the land of Zebulun, and the land of the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, the Galilee of the Gentiles, the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them has the light shined."

There are three corresponding images in Isaiah 9:1-2 and John 8:12:

(1) "the light of the world" coresponds to "the great light",

(2) the clause "he who follows me will not walk in darkness" corresponds to "the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light", and

(3) the phrase "but will have the light of life" is the positive antithesis of "those who dwelte in the land of the shadow of death".

Thus, John 8:12 parallels Isaiah 9:1-2 and thereby provides a reproof to the Pharisees' declaration in John 7:52.1

But such connections are not easily accessible to English readers because the pericope of the adulteress is still printed in the text between John 7:52 and 8:12. 14 The RSV translators made the daring move to relegate this pericope to a marginal note, but then due to outside pressures they were forced to print the passage as part of the text in the second edition. No other English translators have dared to follow the RSV's original move - for the pericope of the adulteress has become an immoveable fixture in a long tradition. It is true that this "fixture" has been bracketed, or marked off with single lines (similar to the practise of marking obelit, employed by several ancient scribes to the same passage), or set in italics. But there it stands - an obstacle to reading the true narrative of John's Gospel. 15 Some of the readers may read the notes about how this passage is not found in the earliest MSS, but how many see the connection between John 7:40-52 and John 8:12ff?

Isn't it the task of translators to remove those obstacles that keep the reader from comprehending the meaning of the original text? 16 If so, this "fixture" shoud be relegated to the margin, so that the reader can see the continuity of John's narrative.

1. Adapted from my note on John 7:53-8:11 in "Guide to the Ancient Manuscripts", Eight Translation NT.

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Nazaroo's Footnotes:

1. This handful of early papyri and 4th century uncials may indeed represent the oldest surviving manuscripts, but not the best ones. They show a large number of obvious accidental errors, and a substantial number of deliberate edits, and so are not 'pure' or pristine examples, but heavily edited texts created centuries after the New Testament was written.

P66 P75, א B, all have marks indicating an awareness of the omission at 7:52/8:12. The Four Earliest MSS. As for A and C, they have lacunae, (missing pages), and it is not possible to determine the state of the text at this point, even if it could be estimated that they did not include the verses. We simply don't know what the scribes of A/C thought.

2. Certainly Tertullian, and probably Origen, had some awareness of this passage. It is worthwhile to check all the references to John 7:53-8:11 among the early Christian writers.

3. This is blatantly false. Although there are no surviving 4th century manuscripts (only a handful survive), Jerome makes it plain that there were many manuscripts, both Greek and Latin, containing the passage in his time (c. 390 A.D.). Many of those manuscripts would be hundreds of years older than א/B.

4. Although many early writers are actually Latin, or their works survive in Latin, Didymus the Blind is a 4th century Greek writer who plainly quotes the verses, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes.

5. This reference is in the margin of a late manuscript, and can hardly be considered reliable testimony regarding either Euthymius or the commentaries he refers to.

6. Von Soden has adequately explained the origin of these late manuscripts which dislocate the verses.

7. Dr. Maurice Robinson has shown that the purpose of the obeli is not to mark 'spuriousness' but to indicate the beginning and ending of Lections for public reading.

8. Steven Avery and James Snapp Jr. have both commented on the absurdity of Comfort's textual history at this point:

"Notice what he [Comfort] says about how the PA got into the Vulgate: "The story is probably part of an oral tradition that was included in the Syriac Peshitta, circulated in the Western church, eventually finding its way into the Latin Vulgate, and from there into later Greek manuscripts. The like of which were used in formulating the Textus Receptus." Comfort cites Metzger immediately after that sentence but although Comfort parroted Metzger earlier in the paragraph, Comfort is not an echo at this point; instead he is a fiction-writer. Jerome included the PA in the Vulgate, affirming that he found the passage in many MSS, both Greek and Latin. (And Latin support includes Pacian, Ambrose, and Augustine; an indirect Greek witness from no later than the early 500's is mentioned in an account about Mara (again, see Willker's commentary for details.) Meanwhile, the Peshitta initially did not contain the PA. The trek that Comfort describes is utterly imaginary and obscures important pieces of evidence from his readers."

- Yours in Christ,
James Snapp Jr.
(TC-Alternate-List, msg #3824 Jan 10/2011)

9. Actually, we find the 'external evidence' rather underwhelming, as against Metzger (whom Comfort is here paraphrasing).

10. For a fair assessment of the supposed vocabulary evidence, see the following:
S. Davidson refuted
H. Alford refuted
R. Heard on Methodology
Internal Evidence in FAVOUR of the PA

11. Expert opinion is divided on the supposed "disruption" of the narrative flow. Dean Burgon thought Hort's opinion here was worthy of derision and laughter:

"The man [Hort] who is of opinion that the incident of the Woman Taken in Adultery (filling 12 verses), 'presents serious differences from the diction of S. John's Gospel', - treats it as 'an insertion in a compartatively late Western text', and declines to retain it even within brackets, on the ground that it 'would fatally interrupt' the course of the narrative if suffered to stand; - the man who can deliberately separate off from the end of S. Mark's Gospel, and print separately, S.Mark's last 12 verses (on the plea that they 'manifestly cannot claim any apostolic authority; but are doubtless founded on some tradition of the Apostolic age;') - yet who straightway proceeds to annex as an alternative conclusion (αλλως), 'the wretched supplement derived from Codex L;' - the man (lastly) who, in defiance of 'solid reason and pure taste', finds music in the 'utterly marred' 'rhythmical arrangement' of the Angels' Hymn on the night of the Nativity; - such an one is not entitled to a hearing when he talks about 'the ring of genuineness'. He has already effectually put himself out of Court. He has convicted himself of a natural infirmity of judgment, - has given proof that he labours under a peculiar Critical inaptitude for this department of inquiry, - which renders his decrees nugatory, and his opinions worthless." (Revision Revised, p.309-310)

12. Hort's own opinion was more complex than is often supposed:

"In relation to the preceding context the Section [Jn 7:53-8:11] presents no special difficulty, and has no special appropriateness. In relation to the following context there is, as noted above, a resemblance between vv. 11 and 15; and the declaration "I am the light of the world" has been supposed to be called forth by the effect of Christ's words on the conscience of the accusers: but in both cases the resemblances lie on the surface only."

- Hort, Notes on Select Readings, p.87

13. Colwell's complete discussion would be useful, but it must be found in his book. It is unlikely to have any stunning insights however on the problem of the PA, as these would have been noted by others.

14. Here Comfort begins a strange confusion between the task of commentator and that of a translator. He somehow imagines that the very presence of the Pericope Adulterae somehow interferes with the average reader's perception and comprehension of the text.

15. Again the assertion is made, that somehow these twelve verses obscure or prevent the proper grasping of the surrounding stories. But this is simply ludicrous. The average reader is hardly going to perceive naturally what it has taken Comfort himself three or four paragraphs of commentary to explain.

16. Here Comfort goes further astray into a dark and dangerous forest of confusion. Even if a translator's task is clarity in translation, removing any translational obstacles, this mandate can hardly extend to deliberately editing the text by excising or rearranging its sections. Comfort has here gone off the deep end.

It can never be right for a translator to 'remove an obstacle to comprehension' by deleting 12 verses of text. The kind of 'obstacle to comprehension' that Comfort is here referring to can only be removed by a good detailed commentary, and this can hardly be accomplished by deleting any number of verses. Such action cannot in any way magically provide historical, religious or traditional background of the kind Comfort has had to summon (i.e., Jewish Festival practices) to elucidate the text and its connections. The text itself is not the 'obstacle', but rather the ignorance of the reader regarding Jewish Temple traditions. This cannot in any way be derived from the text of John's Gospel, no matter how it is arranged or edited.

Comfort's argument is not simply weak, its illogical, and it is perplexing that he would resort to such a desperate form of 'special pleading' in order to convince people (who?) to delete the verses from the Bible.

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