To tell the history of the pericope adulterae is to tell the history of the Gospels, and vice versa. (To Cast the First Stone, Wasserman & Knust, 9).
The story of the woman caught in adultery is beloved by many Christians, non-canonical to others, and a fascinating story of transmission of the New Testament Text to scholars. There are even some who consider the story to belong in the Gospel of John despite believing that John did not write the story himself. The current scholarship on the Pericope Adulterae reveals a bigger picture on New Testament text critical studies than twelve verses that make up the story of the woman caught in adultery. This scholarship has in some cases, uncovered the ghost of Schleiermacher, and in other cases exposed the evolutionary perspective that scholars have of the New Testament text. In either case, the perspectives of these positions are by no means historical or orthodox, despite the best intentions of those engaging in the work.
The Well Intentioned Theology of Partial Preservation
Good works are only such as God hath commanded in His Holy Word, and not such as without the warrant thereof are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intentions (LBCF 16.1).
The best of intentions are utterly devoid of any value if the actions of those intentions are not submissive to the Word of God. It does not matter if those engaging in New Testament textual scholarship are nice or even dear brothers in the Lord, if the underlying perspective and work done is antithetical to Scriptural truths. The doctrinal statements of protestant Christianity have, until the modern period, been in agreement on the nature of the Holy Scriptures. They are self-authenticating, and God has preserved them in every age. Any theological position that allows for a total corruption of the text, such that the text of the Bible must be recovered or reconstructed, stands in opposition to the standards laid down by the great heroes of the protestant faith throughout the ages.
There is a difference between collating the texts that have been received by the people of God in every generation and believing that the text has been lost to time and needs to be reconstructed. The textual scholars of the Reformation did not believe they were trying to find the potentially earliest form of the New Testament (which had become corrupted totally), they were collating the best manuscripts which were in use at the time. This is why it is inexcusable to say that Reformation era textual criticism is the same thing as modern textual criticism. Imagine John Calvin saying something like this:
“Books and the texts they preserve are human products, bound in innumerable ways to the circumstances and communities that produce them. This is also true of the New Testament…Even if the text of the Gospels could be fixed – and, when viewed at the level of object and material artifact, this goal has never been achieved” (15)
This perspective does not just represent the most liberal views of the New Testament text, it is abundantly present amongst conservative camps as well. This is often justified by loose understandings of Organic Inspiration. This is the Theological reality that underpins scientific approaches to New Testament textual criticism. Now juxtapose the above statement with this quote from John Owen’s The Divine Original.
“That the laws they made known, the doctrines they delivered, the instructions they gave, the stories they recorded, the promises of Christ, the prophecies of gospel times they gave out and revealed, were not their own, not conceived in their minds, not formed by their reasonings, not retained in their memories from what they heard, not by any means beforehand comprehended by them, (1 Pet. 1:10, 11,) but were all of them immediately from God—there being only a passive concurrence of their rational faculties in their reception, without any such active obedience as by any law they might be obliged unto”
Despite well-intentioned Christian scholars and apologists, there is not a single empirical refutation that can stand against the reality that the original text cannot be found by using scientific methods. One might be bold enough to take a stand on every variant unit in the corpus of the modern critical text, but they will be met by an overwhelming amount of scholars who reject the readings they have chosen by utilizing the same exact methodology. In fact, this is the reason many have rejected the Tyndale House Greek New Testament. Ultimately, even the most conservative Christians in the reasoned eclectic camp must pad their conclusions with “probably”, “might be”, and “could be”.
To demonstrate this point, see these quotations from Dirk Jongkind’s An Introduction to the Greek New Testament.
“I have no problems with the notion that God has preserved his Word. On the contrary, I believe he did. But I do not believe that God is under any obligation to preserve every detail of Scripture for us, even though he granted us good access to the text of the New Testament” (90).
“To say that God inspired the words of the New Testament does not mean that God is therefore under an obligation to preserve for us each detail” (23).
Notice that in one breath, Jongkind affirms preservation, and in the next rejects that it has been preserved totally. Scripture has been preserved, just not in every place. It would be more transparent for those who hold to this position to say that “God has preserved most of His Word”. When this theology is applied to the actual text of Scripture, it just aligns with the same exact perspective as those that believe the Word of God is a human product that cannot and has not ever been preserved in its original form. This is because the places where God has not totally preserved His Word just so happen to be the same places that the secular scholarship agrees cannot be determined with absolute certainty. Despite the well meaning efforts of believing textual scholars to hold onto an orthodox view of preservation, they have had to change the meaning of preservation entirely in order to have an empirical argument. Jongkind admits as much that that is what he, and like minded Christians, are doing when they engage in textual criticism.
Therefore, Textus Receptus proponents avoid the historical question, “Is this the text backed up by the best historical evidence? By answering the following theological question in the affirmative: Is this the text given to us by God? (89)
Well-intentioned Christians have to denigrate and attack another Christian position that actually believes in a finished product of God’s Word in order to justify their theological position that the Word of God has only been preserved in parts. If they can demonstrate that there is not a single form of God’s Word that has been preserved, they can justify the work that is being done today. The modern critical position is only appealing when the other positions are mocked, shamed, or otherwise discredited.
The problem with statements like these, which seem scientific and logical, is that they do not carry the weight that they seem to carry. In the question, “Is the text backed up by the best historical evidence?” there is a monumental assumption that the modern text is backed up by historical evidence. Yet even the evidence that is produced for the various forms of the modern text, the very same scholars who belittle the Textus Receptus admit that their science is not certain or verifiable. This is not a controversial opinion, there is even a symbol in the NA28 apparatus which literally designates when a verse cannot be determined to be original by empirical methods. And in every case where an empirical stand is taken on a textual variant, there is never absolute agreement. At the end of this pursuit, the only thing that has been produced is not a Bible, but bibles. Modern New Testament text critical scholars have not succeeded at the goal of producing a text.
The historical, orthodox understanding of the doctrine of preservation does not allow for partial preservation, or multiple forms of the New Testament text. The word preservation itself means that something remains in its original state, or has been kept safe from harm or corruption. This word has not shifted in meaning over the years – it means the same thing now as it did when it came into English from the latin. If one is to employ the word “preservation” in discussing the Scriptures, than it means to believe that the Scriptures have been retained in their original form since penned in the first century. That is not to say that every manuscript has, or that one manuscript has, just that upon collation of manuscripts, the original form has been retained. In order to say that the Bible has not been preserved in every detail, than the term “partial preservation” or “substantial preservation” should be employed. It is not transparent to claim to espouse a preservationist doctrine of Scripture while also affirming that the Bible has not been preserved.
The simple doctrine of preservation is that God preserved His Word, and has kept it pure in all ages. This requires affirming that a final product has been available to the people of God in all ages (though there were times where not every Christian had access to a Bible, this is still the case in many countries). If this is the case, the goal of the Christian should be to see which text has been given to the people of God. At this juncture, there are a handful of options – the modern critical texts, the majority texts, and the Received Text. Within the modern critical texts, there are hundreds of Bibles to choose from. Within the majority texts, there are but a few. And within the Received Text camp, there are a dozen or so, most notably the KJV. In any case, the Christian, especially in America, has the luxury to choose which Bible they read in any format imaginable. Choose a translation that is based off of the most faithful methodology, not one that is the most empirically “consistent”. Remember the words of the famous empiricist text critic, D.C. Parker:
“The text is changing. Every time I make an edition of the Greek New Testament, or anybody does, we change the wording. We are maybe trying to get back to the oldest possible form, but paradoxically we are creating a new one…There is never a final form of the text.”
The views of D.C. Parker are not aberrant from the rest of modern textual criticism. He represents the majority view, either explicitly or implicitly. The theology of partial preservation and a changing text has become the orthodoxy of New Testament text-critical scholarship. This theological foundation is being taught as the only methodology in seminaries and from pulpits. My only hope is that Christians will take the time to consider the implications this has on the doctrines of inspiration and preservation. If the goal is to give Christians confidence that they are reading God’s Word, this modern methodology cannot do that.