Did you write that down?

In my office sits an antique family Bible printed in 1840. Published before the age of competing translations, it features the then-standard King James Version. The publisher’s selling points come from what’s been added to the text in the form of woodcut images, historical commentary and family record pages. I find the family record pages most interesting. The family who purchased the bible in the 1840’s used it to record births, communicable diseases, deaths and marriages… using a fountain pen and beautiful script. At the end of the records, you see the transition to a ball point; the ubiquitous writing instrument of the modern age.

The ball point pen is everywhere. Do you have one? One? Without searching, I can see three on the top of my desk. Fourteen sit in a cup on my secretary’s desk. Well, thirteen now. She had a nice one. If she reads this, I can be pressured to give it back. If she doesn’t, just… sh.

In the modern world, we write things down to remember them, but it wasn’t always this way. In the ancient world, the world of quills and inkpots, it was more reliable to remember than to write. Craig Keener reports one ancient philosopher who criticized a friend who had lost his lecture notes: “You should have inscribed them on your mind instead of on paper.”[1] Ouch. We write things down to remember them, but the ancient listener remembered without writing things down. It was too difficult to find a pen. And an inkpot. And paper.

Writing preserved information, to be sure, but it functioned alongside reliable memories. How does this relate to the story of the adulterous woman in John 7:52-8:11? Many scholars agree that the story happened in history, but is not part of what John originally wrote in the fourth Gospel. If you read my earlier post Textual Healing, I briefly described the process of textual criticism. In the oldest hand-written copies of John’s Gospel, the story of the adulterous woman does not appear. It’s absence in the early copies ranges across diverse geographical regions and the evidence that it is not original to John’s Gospel is overwhelming. So, what happened? It seems possible that a scribe remembered the story, perhaps from oral traditions about Jesus and included it because it seemed to fit best here in John. But other scribes included it at two other places in John, and it even appears in Luke. It seems to be a story without a home; reliable oral tradition that was remembered about Jesus, but not included in the original text of Scripture. Is this a contradictory hole in the Bible? Absolutely not. It’s a problem in a copy where someone inserted a reliable tradition about Jesus into an authoritative text about Jesus.

I chose not to preach about the adulterous woman in the context of John 7 and 8 even though I believe the story presents truth about Jesus. I didn’t preach on it because it represents an interruption in John’s thought. On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus proclaims that he is both living water and the light of the world. These proclamations occur on the last day of the Feast when the Jews performed a water-pouring and temple illumination ceremony. When John wrote the Gospel, the Temple had been destroyed and these ceremonies were no longer performed. John’s purpose points to Jesus as the fulfillment of these ceremonies.

[1] Keener, John, v. 1, p. 57.

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