Gene Callahan recently had an interesting post in Biblical inerrancy. (Loosely speaking, this is the claim that the Bible is literally true because it is the inspired Word of God. Go look at the Wikipedia entry if you want to see a subtler treatment, which contrasts Biblical inerrancy with infallibility, for example.) Here’s Gene:
[T]he story of the adulteress, the one in which Jesus talks about whoever has no sin casting the first stone, does not appear in any manuscripts or in any commentary on the New Testament before about the 12th century A.D. (Bart Ehrman speculates that something like the following occurred: one scribe in reading John saw Jesus saying things about not judging others. He thought, “I know a wonderful story that’s been circulating about Jesus that illustrates that point nicely.” He then wrote the story of the adulteress in the margin. A second scribe saw that, and thought, “Gee, this guy accidentally left that part out, and then had to write it in the margin. Let me get it in the main line of the text.”) In any case, it is nearly certain that the story of the adulteress did not make it into John until after 1000 A.D.
But why should this worry me one way or the other? It is a great story that teaches an important spiritual lesson. Isn’t that what is important, rather than whether or not it was in the earliest version of John?
Generally speaking, I very much appreciate Gene’s views on religion, but on this particular issue I’ve never agreed with his nonchalance. Because my faith is different from Gene’s, knowing which part(s) of the Bible are literally true, and which may merely be exaggerations or even outright fictions that were invented by later writers, is crucial. Here’s why:
==> Most crucial, the standard Christian view is that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate in man. God Himself decided to walk among us, teaching and healing, and He decided to enter the world through a human woman’s womb in the form of the 100% man whom we know as Jesus of Nazareth. He performed many miracles, but His most important one was literally rising from the dead after dying on a cross. If there really wasn’t such a man–or even if there had been a really wise, kind man who left disciples who made up stories about him after his death–then standard Christianity collapses. The Christian’s hope of salvation and eternal communion with God in paradise is dashed. (Maybe we could rebuild it on a different framework; Gene believes in God, after all. But my point is, standard Christianity can’t rest on a foundation of “wonderful parables.”) See Paul in Corinthians on this matter.
==> On the story of the adulteress in particular, I am very interested to know whether this is something that actually happened, or if it’s just a fable invented by subsequent Christians (presumably acting with good intentions). One of the biggest problems with Christianity is reconciling the freedom of faith in Christ with the Law laid down through Moses. When an atheist libertarian nowadays demands to know whether I am in favor of carrying out death sentences as laid out in Deuteronomy (I am not), it’s very tidy to say, “As my Master said, let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” But I need to cite something else, if it’s not clear whether Jesus literally said that. Obviously we have no evidence that Jesus ever physically hurt someone (driving the moneychangers from the Temple being the only thing close), so I have no doubt that His example showed that we’re not supposed to kill people for sinning, but I personally was indeed disturbed when frequent commenter “Ken B.” on this blog pointed out the genuine doubt even among theologians about the story of the adulteress.