Mar 13

Let him who is without sin fudge the first story.

One of the most beloved stories in the canonical gospels tells us of an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. In it, they bring a prostitute to Jesus and ask his opinion of what to do. The Jewish Law of the time advocated stoning for the offense. Jesus is famously quoted as saying “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Take that, Pharisees. Such Solomon-like wisdom could not be countered.

I also love that story, but for different reasons than most. It is a fake. The story was not in the earliest manuscripts of John that we have (we don’t have the autographs, or originals, of any New Testament writing). It was added later by a scribe. According to a footnote in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (my bible of choice) the “episode is not found in the most authoritative manuscripts.”

The part I find most interesting is not the continued re-telling of this story. It imparts what many Christians feel is valuable wisdom regarding our haste to judge others. Rather, it is the ignorance regarding the story’s authenticity. It is common knowledge among Christian scholarship, including most pastors who have attended some version of seminary, yet no one mentions it outside of textual criticism circles. In my life, I have probably heard that saying repeated in church hundreds of times, but it wasn’t until a New Testament class in college that I learned that.

My point in all of this is only to share what was once a new and interesting revelation for me. I don’t feel this knowledge has to cheapen the story’s status among Christians. It would probably be just as revered if attributed to Paul, James, or Ignatius.

There are countless changes, additions, and deletions that have been made over the years to the Christian bible, most of them minor, but some quite interesting. If you want to know more on the subject, Bart Ehrman is a great resource for books on modern textual criticism.

Tune in next time when I take on an even more well known, and loved, biblical story.

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  1. A So Much

    Christian advice from an atheist?

  2. A So Much


  3. Mike

    I don’t know if it’s advice so much as trying to educate people that their Bibles don’t contain what they think they do. Many people simply have no idea that the Bible isn’t very reliable and went through several known changes. The interesting thing to me is that these stories are still taught as Gospel truths–pardon my pun–even in cases of well known fraud, like this one.

  4. Nat

    I don’t care who wrote it really it is wise none the less. I wish some Christians would follow their own advice and not condem who they think are sinners; people who cheat, gay people, people having sex before marriage and so on… go read the bible again and read it properly this time. This isn’t directed to all christians of course, just the few who wish to twist gods words to feed their very human prejudices!

  5. Mike

    I agree that it shouldn’t matter. A teaching can stand on its own and be good ethical advice without being uttered by the son of God. What I find interesting is how people really think all the “red letters” were actually said by Jesus, and they usually accept this without question. I differ with some of my fellow atheists in that I think Jesus actually existed and he probably really did say some of the things in the gospels. However, this is an example of something I don’t think he said.

  6. Agnostic

    I’m just trying to assess how valuable this story is… It certainly teaches people not to be hypocrites in a way, however are we to conclude that since no one is without sin then no one should judge? What would that do to our legal systems in today’s world?

  7. Lambchop Suey

    The story is not about a prostitute, but, rather, about an ADULTRESS. Its presence depresses the reliability of the scriptures in general. So what if people like it? If it’s not original, then what’s to stop us from adding in every edifying tale we can think of? What about the time Jesus accepted the challenge of a footrace from a cocky little hare, for example? Also, Agnostic makes a good point – since Christianity paints us all as inherently sinful (“original sin” condemning all, without which the supposed sacrifice of the supposed jesus is a self-indulgent sham), that means we can’t have any judicial systems at all. That’s nonsense. But the entire story is a mess.
    Where was the man she had been caught “in the very act” of adultery with? According to Jewish law, the two would have to be caught – and charged – together, yet there she is, alone. What’s more likely is that, in that scenario, the “adultress” was a remarried divorcée. Jesus said that divorce was illegal and that remarriage was adultery (Mark 10:11, Matt. 5:32, Luke 16:18). According to Jesus, this remarried divorcée was an “adultress” and thus guilty of the death penalty (by stoning), while her husband was not – that’s why he wasn’t in the picture. Now, according to Jewish and Roman law, they had done nothing wrong – divorce and remarriage were entirely legal. It was only Jesus who wished to criminalize human relationships. The Jewish leaders were presenting him with an opportunity to demonstrate whether he’d walk the walk of his own teachings, or if he was an empty pompous windbag. Jesus sure showed them O_O
    Furthermore, the Jewish scriptures are quite clear – it is the *witnesses* who cast the first stones (Deut. 13:9, 17:7). The ones who caught the adulterers in the act are the ones to cast the first stones – it’s no mystery. There’s no question about it – it’s very clear. Once again, we see a scenario where Jesus shows his utter ignorance of Jewish law and the most learned scholars of Judaism are supposedly cowed, shown up, depicted as skulking away with their tails between their legs. It’s a ridiculous suggestion.

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