A year and a half ago, Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why was released. No one at the time could have predicted that it would become a New York Bestseller. It’s a book that essentially introduces textual criticism to a general readership. There are some serious problems with the book, as I have noted in reviews posted on www.bible.org, in Christian Research Journal, and in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. In general, Ehrman suggests a gloomy prospect of recovering the original text, and further, that what we thought was authentic often turns out not to be—most significantly, in passages affirming a high Christology.
As much as I disagree with Ehrman over these issues, there’s one thing that I think he is right on target about. He speaks about some passages that scholars for a long time have considered to be spurious, yet for a variety of reasons are still left in the Bible. Two in particular are noteworthy: Mark 16.9-20 and John 7.53-8.11. These two texts—the two longest variants in the New Testament—are almost always marked out in modern translations with notes such as “Not found in the oldest manuscripts.” However, the passages continue to be printed in the Bibles, in their normal locations. The marginal notes are ignored by most readers.
Evidence of this is seen in the many interviews Ehrman has had over his surprising bestseller. He routinely brings up the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7.53-8.11), arguing that it’s not part of the original Gospel of John. There are gasps in the audience (e.g., when he was on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show) when he makes such a revelation.
As I noted in my review in JETS, “keeping these two pericopae in our Bibles rather than relegating them to the footnotes seems to have been a bomb just waiting to explode. All Ehrman did was to light the fuse. One lesson we must learn from Misquoting Jesus is that those in ministry need to close the gap between the church and the academy. We have to educate believers. Instead of trying to isolate laypeople from critical scholarship, we need to insulate them. They need to be ready for the barrage, because it is coming. The intentional dumbing down of the church for the sake of filling more pews will ultimately lead to defection from Christ. Ehrman is to be thanked for giving us a wake-up call.”
In that article, I used the analogy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: in the eighteenth century, when he wrote his masterpiece, he spoke glibly about the KJV reading of 1 John 5.7-8 (“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one”). This passage (or, more specifically, the mention of the Father, Word, and Holy Spirit), which in the KJV becomes an explicit affirmation of the Trinity, is not found in the great majority of manuscripts. In fact, there is no evidence that it was written in any Greek manuscript prior to the sixteenth century. Gibbon’s matter-of-fact denial of the authenticity of the verses in the KJV sent shock waves through England. Yet today, those two verses aren’t found in any major English Bible (apart from the KJV and NKJV), and they rarely merit a marginal note. Modern translations instead have: “For there are three that testify, the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three are in agreement” (NET Bible).
When it comes to the story of the woman caught in adultery or the long ending of Mark, why is it that translators are still hesitant to relegate these verses to the margin? My sense is that there is a tradition of timidity. The problem is that when layfolks learn that these verses are almost surely not authentic, it sends panic through their ranks. I assume that the RMM crowd is a bit more sophisticated than that. Hence, I am taking the risk of talking openly about these passages. If you want to see the arguments against their authenticity, simply check out the NET Bible’s notes on them (at bible.org).
The irony is that between these two doubtful passages, if most Christians had to choose, they would rather have John 7.53-8.11 in the Bible than Mark 16.9-20. Yet, the textual pedigree of the John passage is far worse than the Mark passage. To put it bluntly, the story of the woman caught in adultery is my favorite passage that’s not in the Bible.
This blog is not meant to get into the debate over whether these verses are authentic. I will simply ask you to look at the literature on this if you’re interested. It is certainly not too much to say that the great majority of New Testament scholars, including evangelical scholars, would reject both passages as later additions to the Gospels. However, no cardinal truth is lost if these verses go bye-bye. No essential doctrine is disturbed if they are MIA.
What I want to ask is a different question: In light of the scholarly consensus, how should translators address these passages? What would you prefer? Would you want the texts to remain in their place, with only a tiny marginal note that, like the small print in consumer products, is hardly noticed by the reader? Would you want these verses expunged from the text entirely with no trace? Would you want them relegated to footnotes with explanation? Ultimately, what I’m asking is, How honest do you want biblical scholars to be? Would you rather hear this sort of news from those who are enemies of the faith or from those love Christ and are willing to go to the wall for the scriptures? What say you?