Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Orphan Sayings and Stories in the New Testament

Certain stories about Jesus and certain sayings of Jesus may be found in your edition of the New Testament but the text critics tell us they do not belong there. Robert Miller has pulled these sayings and stories from the gospels and collected them at the back of his edition of The Complete Gospels.1 One of the more famous of these stories that do not belong in the New Testament is the story of the woman taken in adultery that has traditionally appeared in English language translations at John 7:53-8:11. Here is how the passage is introduced by Miller:

[It is] a story found at various places in the manuscript tradition. In several manuscripts it is found after John 7:52. Many modern editions of the New Testament include it here, assigning it the versification John 7:53-8:11. Another important group of manuscripts include it after Luke 21:38. In the Georgian tradition it was sometimes located after John 7:44, and in another group it is found after John 21:25.2

The story seems to have been unknown in the manuscript tradition before the 5th century (Codex Bezae, which dates 5th or possibly 6th century). To put this date in perspective the reader should understand that the bulk of our extant New Testament manuscripts date from the 3rd century and later. Very few of the extant New Testament manuscripts are dated in the second century and none are dated in the first century.

            Bruce Metzger thinks that John 7:53-8:11“has all the earmarks of historical veracity,” but fails to describe what those “earmarks” are.3 He also adds that the style and vocabulary of 7:53-8:11 “differ noticeably from the rest of the fourth Gospel…and that it interrupts the sequence of 7:52 and 8:12 ff.” He concludes that “the evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming.”4

With respect to the “veracity” of the narrative, there is at least one irregularity that argues against the genuineness of the story. The lady in question had been caught in the act of adultery. Why did the scribes and Pharisees not bring before Jesus the man with whom she was caught? The Torah condemnation of adultery applied equally to both men and women (Exod 20:14; Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22). It seems unlikely to me that the scribes and Pharisees would have failed to bring before Jesus both parties that had violated Torah.

            If one decides that the story is a genuine piece of oral tradition coming from the time of Jesus, what should be done with it? It apparently does not belong in the New Testament since it does not come from the pen of any of the gospel writers. Miller’s solution describing it as an orphan story and listing it at the back of his book with other such material seems to concede that point. There is no common practice for treating this passage by English translators. Generally, it is translated following John 7:52, as though it belonged there. Some translators, however, do indicate that the location is spurious by a note at the bottom of the page and/or by marking it with brackets or parentheses. At least one (The American Bible. An American Translation, translated by the New Testament scholar Edgar J. Goodspeed) simply eliminates the story with no explanation.

            There is another problem this passage presents to a church group that treats the Bible as divinely inspired literature. If it was not written by any of the writers of the New Testament, why should it be considered inspired by God? The theory that the New Testament texts are themselves inspired derives, I assume, from the idea that God inspired its writers and, therefore, the products of their literary labors must also be considered divinely inspired. John 7:53-8:11, however, at this stage of scholarship must be considered an orphan text, since it has not been identified as the brainchild of any New Testament writer.

What is your take, as a reader of the New Testament, on the story of the woman taken in adultery?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels. The Scholars Version (Salem OR: Polebridge Press, 2010), 457-62.

2Miller, Complete Gospels, 460. Old Georgian was the literary language of the Georgian monarchies known from the 5th century in the region of the Causasus.

3Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2000), 187-89 (188).

4Metzger, Commentary, 187.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Faith and Superstition

In common vernacular superstition is a negative word. It evokes images of voodoo, magic objects, and fetishes. In a milder form in the modern world it might relate to things people carry for luck, such as a rabbit’s foot, or things they wear for protection, such as a cross necklace or the evil eye, or holding certain beliefs about the nature of the universe. Faith, on the other hand, is a positive word, and evokes such acceptable images in a democratic society as family worship in a synagogue, or men praying prostrate in a mosque, or people in pews praying and singing hymns together in a church sanctuary. Nevertheless, the definitions of the words reveal that, as concepts, faith and superstition are similar ways of thinking. Here are the Google definitions for religious faith and superstition. Religious faith is: “A strong belief in God or in the doctrines of religion based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.”1 Superstition is defined as: “An excessive credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings.”2 God, Allah, and Yahweh, as generally conceived by religious people, are all supernatural “beings.” Why should not Christian, Muslim, and Jewish beliefs in supernatural “beings” also be regarded as superstition? Many, if not most, people in these three religious groups also share a belief in supernatural spirits. Why should not such beliefs also be labeled superstition?

            I confess that the close similarity between faith and superstition, as revealed by the definitions of the words, has always surprised me and have described their relationship as follows:

Faith and superstition actually seem to function in a similar manner. What I conclude from the shades of meaning accorded the word superstition is that superstition and faith are not two qualitatively different kinds of belief. Rather they reflect a range of similar attitudes best represented by a spectrum [or a continuum] with superstition at one end and religious faith at the other end. They meet somewhere around the middle, depending on who is describing the middle point. In short, what some define as acceptable religious belief, others will define as unacceptable superstition.3

In short, superstition and faith are the same mental exercise. That one is negative and the other positive depends on who is doing the evaluating. In my view, however, they can only be judged good or bad in how they affect believers. In other words, religious faith and superstitious beliefs may only be judged positively or negatively in terms of their ethical effects on believers. Where the behaviors of believers are judged unethical or harmful to themselves or others, their beliefs are best judged as superstition. Where the behaviors of believers are judged to be ethical and beneficial to themselves or others, their beliefs are best judged as faith.

            Google offers a second definition of superstition: “A widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such belief.”4 This definition fits a short episode in Acts 19:11-12:

And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul. So that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them” (RSV).

This episode in the Bible (and others as well; for example Acts 5:15-16) immediately plunge one into the occult world of ancient magic, superstition, and religious fetishes.5 The Bible has many similar accounts fitting the Google definition of superstition; they offer encouragement to contemporary Christian and Jewish believers to think and act superstitiously. The Bible contributes to superstitious beliefs in the modern world because many take it as a handbook for understanding the universe.

How do you define superstition and faith? Where do you draw the line between faith and superstition?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For the definition of faith, google: “definition of faith.”

2For the definition of superstition, google: “definition of superstition.”

3Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 5. There are various explanations of superstition in Graeco-Roman antiquity, see pages 1-12.

4Google: “definition of superstition.”

5Hedrick, Unmasking, 7-10.