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.
- The Bible is Unique (Part 2 of 2)
- Gospel Truth: Important Contradictions
- Gospel Truth: A Christmas Story(ies)