On the Pericope Adulterae Conference at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

From Dave Black Online, used by permission.
7:45 AM Today I’m taking a much-needed break from scholarship. I’m going to spend the next few days getting the farm into shape for the haying season. My new ride mower (that was dead-on-arrival) was replaced yesterday, and I am hoping against hope that this new machine will start. The yard grass is already reaching Eden-like proportions, and I’d rather not bush-hog it if I can avoid it.
Let me just say a word about this weekend’s Pericope of the Adulteress Conference on campus. A number of factors made it, in my opinion, a fabulous success. First, there was the high quality of scholarship represented by the five speakers.
pa ndjriroirororThat level of expertise provided the rest of us with an enormous opportunity that is often absent when these matters are being discussed or debated. Second, the lecturers all spoke with the greatest clarity —  and charity. The buzz in the room was definitely a positive one! This is partly because the speakers all knew each other fairly well; some have collaborated on writing projects for years. Constant association with one’s colleagues cannot help but build a sense of genuine collegiality. It is partly because the speakers respected each other, and it showed. Third, it has been shown that the majority of people base their academic positions on exposure to various points of view. Hermeneutics is not so much a crisis; it is more a process. This may well be the most critical aspect of the conference: it both broadened and deepened the conversation in significant ways. Fourth, it is abundantly plain that the vast majority of people who attended left with a deep sense of satisfaction and even joy at having witnessed such cordiality and amiability. Each of our speakers is a warm, committed, unembarrassed Christian, representing different Christian traditions to be sure, but nonetheless “Christian” both in their approach to the text of the New Testament as Scripture and in their deportment.
Without a doubt, the most interesting speaker this weekend was our own Maurice Robinson, whose status among the textual critics present has achieved, it appears, almost that of Michael the Archangel. mr fwgtwyqiuiqoioqoq
Maurice’s perspective draws from a lifetime of experience in encountering actual manuscripts rather than from the many books on the subject. Some may find him too detailed, but this is a good fault for a textual critic! For far too many Christians, textual criticism is a meaningless ivory tower pursuit or else simply the prolegomenon to something far more important. Maurice showed us that nothing could be further from the truth. He has spent a career showing average evangelical Christians how important and relevant textual criticism is to our understanding of sacred Scripture.
I was delighted in the extreme to see many students and “lay persons” in attendance. (The Johannine scholars seem to have stayed away in droves.) pa mbmkb,lblblb
Just as politics is too important to leave to the politicians, so textual criticism is too important to leave to the experts. They may know more than you do, but you are the ones who will have to decide, week in and week out, whether or not you  teach or preach this disputed word or that debated passage. No, we cannot leave textual criticism to the scholars. Each church member has a job to do. And that job includes personal involvement, to some degree at least, in deciding between textual variants. I dread to think of the opportunities I constantly miss through my failure to dig deeper into the text on this level. Years ago one passage brought this home to me, and it will always stand as an example of the relevance of textual criticism for the church. In some manuscripts of Matt. 5:22 we have a Jesus who condemns all anger, while in other manuscripts we see Him forbidding only causeless (eike) anger. What a difference a little Greek adverb can make! To put it another way, our views about the legitimacy of anger for the Christian are dependent to a very great degree on our understanding of textual criticism. We have to engage in it!
This is now the third time I’ve helped to organize a conference of this kind on campus, and I must confess to you that all along I’ve had an ulterior motive. We Christians live a good deal of our lives in splendid isolation, rarely interacting with people from differing perspectives or backgrounds. It is sort of a self-imposed monasticism. And it is dangerous. My hope for all of our conferences is that they will become bridge builders. Christians are so varied, and their starting points are so diverse, that it is always good for us to listen to each other. I’m not suggesting for a moment that it is necessary to surrender our long-cherished views or personal convictions in order to engage in dialogue. What I am saying is that none of us has a complete handle on the truth, and so we need modesty. The world is filled with harsh, pushy people who are always trying to sell us something. We are repelled by them, and rightly so. Christianity calls for much more moderation than that. At the same time, Christianity also calls for us to speak with confidence whenever we proclaim the word of God. If that is the case, it follows that we should acquire at least of modicum of facility in the art and science of New Testament textual criticism. No, we may not always know precisely what the original reading is in a place of variation. But at least we can tell our people that we have done our own homework and have made an honest effort to understand the problem for ourselves. Christianity is inescapably intellectual. Engaging in exegesis is not an optional matter for those who “like” that kind of thing. It is an integral part of what it means to be a Christian.
Evangelical textual criticism is not the kingdom (God forbid!). But it is a tool in God’s kingdom that tries to serve and please the King. New Testament interpretation does not end with textual criticism but it begins with it. No wonder the audience over the weekend seemed so delighted and pleased to have been treated to a clear and enjoyable presentation of the major hypotheses surrounding the PA. I hope the time will come when every serous Christian will join the conversation. An excellent entrée into the discipline is Harold Greenlee’s Introduction to New Testament Criticism. My own New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide, attempts to introduce the subject in a simple and clear manner. In all this, it is important to remember that we are not trying to undermine anyone’s confidence in his or her translation of the Bible. We are simply trying to bring home to others the awesome responsibility that interpreting the Bible is. New Testament textual criticism is not an end in itself. The hope is that as we study the text of the New Testament we will go on until we find the pearl of great price as part of our search.
My sincere thanks to all of the wonderful speakers (J. D. Punch, Jennifer Knust, Tommy Wasserman, Chris Keith, Maurice Robinson); to president Danny Akin of SEBTS for his enthusiastic support; and especially to my personal assistant, Mr. Jacob Cerone, whose tireless attention to a myriad of details — sprinkled with a massive amount of live blogging — reminds me daily of why I appreciate him so much.
P.S. For what it’s worth, my own view is that the PA is original. The inclusion of John 7:53-8:11 is well attested externally; it is early (the Old Latin pushes the reading back into the second century); and the passage is sui generis with the rest of John’s Gospel in terms of vocabulary and style. I’m not much of a fan of internal evidence, but I would accept either the “Liturgical Omission” or the “Ecclesiastical Repression” hypothesis as an adequate explanation for the omission of the PA in some early manuscripts. So, in conclusion, I would most certainly preach/teach this passage as Scripture but let’s be honest — there is no unique “evangelical” stance one can take. The issue is a matter upon which good people (including biblical inerrantists) will continue to disagree.
P.P.S. I agree with Dr. Robinson that the elephant in the room was the (often unexpressed) predilection for the Alexandrian text type among modern textual scholars. My friend Keith Elliott once called this the “hypnotic affect of Aleph and B.” (I honestly do not know if he continues to use that language to describe this phenomenon.) I believe it is time to lay this misconstrued concept to rest. The NA 28 is no more to be considered an authoritative text than the TR was 150 years ago. At the same time, I think Maurice’s case for Byzantine Priority is very weak. I’d love to believe it, but the evidence is just not there. I tend to lean more toward Harry Sturz’ view (The Byzantine Text Type and New Testament Textual Criticism) that the Byzantine text, because it is unedited in the Westcott and Hort sense, remains a reliable witness to the text of the New Testament but not the only one. Which is why I’ve been speaking to Henry Neufeld of Energion Publications (who is now visiting with me on the farm) about the possibility of him re-issuing Harry’s now out-of-print book.
henry ngkgogpogpgpgpSo there you have it.
Keep thinking, reading, discussing, and living the Gospel!

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  1. It was a very enjoyable conference.
    I would caution that Greenlee’s Introduction is by no means “excellent.” For the most part, when Greenlee discusses specific textual variants, he condenses Metzger, and when he is not condensing, he is mangling; for example see his reference to “the second-century church father Cyril of Alexandria” on page 101 (in the 2008 edition), in the course of his/Metzger’s treatment of Mark 16:9-20. His description of evidence pertaining to Mark 16:9-20 is lopsided and inaccurate from beginning to end. In other respects, the adjective that came to mind repeatedly when I read Greenlee’s book is “superficial.”

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