A Blesséd Escape

by Phil Johnson

Questions about scripture, authority, and Gospel have been brought into focus for me by Dean Kline Snodgrass, Professor of Biblical Literature at North Park Seminary. I refer to his article, "No Easy Escape," in the December, 1988 issue of The Covenant Companion.

In his article, Professor Snodgrass addresses what he considers to be misuse of the story about Jesus' response to those who asked if a woman taken in adultery should be stoned. He said, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7 RSV).

Dr. Snodgrass names certain well-known people of our own day who may or may not have been taken in adultery but, in any event, have been accused of adultery and of other inappropriate actions for persons in their positions. Snodgrass claims that for these people to defend themselves, or for anyone else to defend them, which he says has been done, on the authority of this story, is to use an "escape clause" that is "wholly inappropriate."

He goes as far as to say that "these various uses show only that this verse has become a magic formula to relieve the guilty of further scrutiny and blame." I don't think that his statement is accurate, but it does make clear how concerned Professor Snodgrass is about this matter.

Because this story is not in the oldest manuscripts of John, or of any other Gospel, Dr. Snodgrass argues that it is not scripture. And, because it is not, it does not have the authority of scripture.

There are several reasons why I disagree with Dr. Snodgrass, My first reaction to his point of view is expressed in the title of this article. To me, this story is an especially cheering example of the blesséd escape that God provides for us all. As this story is specifically about adultery and relief from the obligation to punish one who commits it, it is only part of and not the whole Gospel. We can look at the rest of Jesus' teaching and his work of mercy and love to see that God has provided an escape from condemnation for our other sins as well. Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, we read this word of blessing and reassurance: "For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17 RSV)

Second, I contend that, at this point in history, textual criticism cannot determine scripture. I do not mean that I think that the textual facts Dr. Snodgrass indicates about John 7:53-8:11 are not true, In this regard, his article speaks to me with authority. My own time at North Park Seminary precedes Dr. Snodgrass' arrival by quite a few years, but I have heard of his fine scholarship from North Park students who have studied under him and I appreciate his forthright acknowledgement of the facts concerning this text. I am pleased that a scholarly approach to text study, which has been an important tradition of North Park Seminary throughout its history, continues. Nevertheless, I disagree with Dr. Snodgrass' assertion that the textual history of this passage lessens the story's authority and gives grounds for removing it from scripture.

Although it is not certain that there is an "original" text of the Gospel of John or of any of the canonical Gospels, unknown early editors did include this story when they collected and transcribed the writings that eventually became the New Testament. The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas which Dean Snodgrass compares to this story, however, has never been included in the canon. According to Raymond E. Brown (The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible, pp. 335,336), this story was known in 2nd-century Syria and it may have had early Palestinian origins. Brown informs us that Ambrose and Augustine wanted this story read as part of the Gospel and that Jerome included it in his Vulgate version of John (384 AD). From that point on, the story has been in the scripture of the Western church. It was included in the King James Version and in subsequent English translations. It was much later, about 900 AD, that the story entered the scriptures of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Dr. Snodgrass is shooting blanks, therefore, when he compares this story, which, due to editorial decisions along the way, became part of the Bible, to the apocryphal gospels, which never did. Does Professor Snodgrass' assertion, that "even if one argued convincingly that such material was authentic material about Jesus, it would not be scripture," follow? Is not the purpose of the written New Testament text to reveal Jesus? How could an authentic story about Jesus be excluded from scripture or lack authority? Ancient editors decided against exclusion of this story. If Christians believe that the Bible is a living word and that it reveals the living word, isn't it necessary to consider its editors as contributors to the authority of scripture? I think, also, that the readers through the years, like ourselves, are a necessary part of an understanding of authority.

If we are to apply a test of textual originality or require some sort of legitimate textual history, as Dr. Snodgrass seems to suggest, I think we would have to trim the Bible a lot more. Given the history of particular biblical writings, would not a rigorous application of the criterion implicit in his article mean a much thinner Bible?

However, even if we have demonstrated that requiring a proper textual history would establish a dangerous precedent requiring more passages than this one in John 8 to be removed from the Bible, we have not, thereby, demonstrated that this story is scripture or that it does have authority.

What would demonstrate that this story has authority? The fact that by merely stating the present-day reference — John 7:53-8:11 — every reader of this journal can find this story in a moment in his or her Bible indicates something about its authority. But, though this may give us considerable confidence, there must be more. The fact of its presence is not enough.

Most Christians, including scholars, are satisfied that this text is scripture. However, have people read it or heard it, and do they know it? There are many stories and passages in the Bible that few people know about and that may have little significance to a person living today. A second question, does this story proclaim the word of God's Gospel in the midst of life with any impact? Affirmative answers to these questions would go a long way toward satisfying me that this story properly has authority.

I submit that the answer is yes to both questions. As to the first question, this story has had great power and influence in everyday life for 1900 years. The fact that almost everyone in the Western world, and millions elsewhere, living today have heard or read this story supports the yes answer. It could be that this story is the most familiar story of any story in the world. It may not be possible to know for certain what the world's best known story is, but this story is surely a candidate for that distinction.

As to the second question, I know the authority this story has in my life. I confess that recognizing its authority does not mean that I always abide by its direction and spirit. But, having heard this story, I am aware of Jesus' courage and wisdom. Through this story, Jesus reveals my nature to me. I am like the questioners who were prospective stoners. I am also like the woman, as Jesus points out when he says, "But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:2S).

When I think of this story, my heart is gladdened by the mercy and new beginning given to the woman. This gladness is not a gladness I can create on my own: it is something the story authors to me. In this most primary sense — the verb form of the noun — it has authority. It lets me know that I, also, may be and need to be, forgiven.

There is more good news in this story. It provides an escape for me from condemnation as a member of the group with the question for Jesus. The story reveals that I am liberated from the idea that it is my duty to throw stones for religious or moral reasons. Though, according to the story, their motive was to "test" Jesus, the questioners may, nevertheless, have seriously wondered what should be done. They asked a good question. I suspect that Jesus was grateful for the question because it gave him an opportunity to proclaim the gospel. Any of the questioners who heard this word sincerely must have felt considerable satisfaction, as do we, to be released from the obligation to stone and to be freed to put compassion in stoning's place.

The uncertain stoners were equally the beneficiaries of Jesus' redeeming work in this story, along with the woman. For every party present, Jesus provided a blesséd escape.

The authority of this story has been actual in the lives of billions of persons like ourselves. Tracing this story's presence in people's minds and measuring its impact throughout geography and time would be impossible. I am confident that most of you have experienced this story's authority. Undergirded by it, we can listen to persons without passing judgment, knowing that we stand on the same ground as they.

Given the richness and depth of this passage of scripture and given the fact that it is planted deeply in human consciousness, it is not possible to agree that the examples Dr. Snodgrass cites show "only" that this has been a magic formula (although, we gladly admit, its blessing and redemptive qualities work almost like magic). To disagree with the author's conclusion is not "to avoid taking sin seriously" as he states, it is to take sin very seriously, recognizing that we, also, are in need of forgiveness. Through God's forgiveness we, like those present at this event, receive new life and we can experience the escape of Grace provided by the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Textual criticism is important; it can help illumine a text. At an earlier time, when ancient editors were doing their work of preparing what would become the Bible, textual criticism, though it was not known by that name, was relevant in determining what would be transcribed and what would eventually be considered scripture. However, textual criticism can no longer determine what is in the Bible. And, as Dr. Snodgrass' article reveals, it can get in the way of a good Gospel story.

Whether or not Jesus' recommendations in this situation can be applied to situations other than adultery, they have been. In broader application, too, Jesus' recommendations restrain us from premature judgments and relieve us from the obligation to be stoners. In these applications, also, this is a blesséd story providing a blessM escape. It is an example of the power to forgive or to retain sins that Jesus possessed which he later granted to his disciples (John 20:23 — see the story "Eight Days" in this issue). The escape is blesséd whether one's sin is the sin of adultery or the sin of condemnation.

In response, then, to Dean Snodgrass' characterization of Jesus' words in this text as being without the authority of scripture and to his characterization of their application as an "easy escape," I say they provide a blesséd escape. The escape is blesséd for me because I have no responsibility to throw stones at people, whose lives have been exposed, like those he names. And, a blesséd escape is open to them. Though what they had hidden has been revealed, they, like the woman, have the opportunity for a new beginning, and they know that they cannot get beyond the compassion and mercy of God.

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson