I have already been asked for my reaction a couple of times, and this conference was a great experience, so I definitely think it is worthwhile to reflect on it here a bit. For pictures, see posts by Dave Black and Thomas Hudgins.
First why did I attend the conference? This was recreation for me. I didn’t have a book table or anything! I just went to learn and enjoy. I do, however, think this sort of conference is important. There is controversy about the passage, including a strong consensus of current scholarship that the passage is not Johannine. Pastors need to make a decision about whether to preach the passage, and if they do so, about how to deal with the controversy. I’ll make my own comments on these issues at the end of the post.
The conference was well run, and unobtrusively emceed by David Alan Black. Dave’s assistant, Jacob Cerone, managed microphones during Q/A times. There was a minimum of time during which people spoke without microphones. This is important in a conference.
I give the content an A+. The speakers were good. They had published some substantial work on this passage (John 7:53-8:11) and they had something to say. Persuasiveness was another matter.
The first speaker was John David Punch, who discussed internal evidence and why he believes the passage is authentically Johannine, but was intentionally removed from some manuscripts and their descendants.
He was followed by Tommy Wasserman, who looked at some of the transmission history. The next morning, Jennifer Knust followed up and contined the same topic. (For a more detailed discussion of the content, see the two referenced posts in my first paragraph.)
Chris Keith, whose blog I follow, provided an interesting challenge to the use of internal evidence in general, demonstrating how it could mislead. Finally, Dr. Maurice Robinson presented evidence based both on his collation of manuscripts and on evidence of tight linkage with the rest of the gospel of John.
Let me start from the end. My training in New Testament textual criticism was limited to one course and one independent study as an undergraduate, so you can take this for what it’s worth.
Dr. Robinson was the most persuasive speaker. As evidence, I will point out that I walked into the conference rejecting the authenticity of the PA out of hand, and I am now persuaded that it is quite possible. This was entirely the result of Dr. Robinson’s presentation. While I appreciated Dr. Punch’s presentation, I did not find it convincing. It is only fair to note that I am prejudiced in favor of external evidence, though not overwhelmingly so.
While Dr. Robinson also dealt with internal evidence, and did so effectively, I did not ultimately find that convincing. What he did accomplish was to provide a possible, though not in my view probable, scenario for the removal of the PA from all Alexandrian manuscripts.
His telling point, however, was simply that this is a reading that is supported by both western and Byzantine texts, with only the Alexandrians in opposition. A principle of textual criticism which I learned way back in those classes I took was that older evidence (not necessarily older manuscripts) and more geographically widespread evidence is better.
So why don’t I change my position completely?
First, I find the scenarios both for intentional deletion and for interpolation approximately equally possible, i.e., possible but not probable. An entire story going missing from a family of manuscripts seems odd to me, despite the explanation that it was omitted beacause it is skipped in the lectionary reading for Pentecost.
This story is omitted from an extraordinary number of good manuscripts, some of which show signs of careful copying. I just don’t see that as probable. One of these explanations, or something similar, must be true, but which or what?
So under the circumstances I find myself moved into a largely undecided camp, though still, possibly through mental inertia, tending to consider the passage non-Johannine.
So what about preaching it? I would do so without hesitation. I would present the controversy briefly, because it exists, but I would try to keep from making the controversy central.
There are two reasons for this. 1) It’s canonical. It is part of the text as accepted by the church. I do believe inspiration must come before authority as Scripture, but inspiration and authority are not the same thing. Canonization involves the church recognizing the inspiration and the (perhaps inherent) authority of the text. I don’t believe the author must be John for it to be inspired and/or authoritative. It can be both even if God chose another hand to provide it.
Secondly, I do regard it as an authentic story of Jesus. This provides it’s own authenticity. If we can ask and answer the question of authenticity for any pericope of the New Testament, I believe we can do so for this one. I believe that answer would be “yes.” Even so, for authority in the church it would have to be accepted as canonical. (But it was! See #1!)
What was most worthwhile to me was the interaction of the scholars and the methodology involved. That was worth the cost of the conference in itself. I didn’t discuss “persuasiveness” in the case of Drs. Wasserman and Knuth. They provided excellent presentations, but while they interested me in a number of ways, they did nothing to change my thinking. Dr. Keith was quite convincing, but in a sense he did as much damage to his own position as to the other side, leaving us to ponder how the external evidence would look with any internal evaluations rendered impotent.
How the external evidence stacks up depends on a number of technical questions, including the weight one gives to Latin witnesses in the western tradition, what credence can be given to Codex Bezae, and how much one favors Alexandrian witnwsses over others. Without further study, which I’m unlikely to do given that this is not my field, I’m not prepared to judge that. I will say that with support from two families of manuscripts, originality should not be dismissed automatically.