I got an excellent question on my post, Is the Oldest Manuscript Really Best? (See the comment section for the whole question.) I thought it was worth answering one small part of it on the front page.
The question asked about the Pericope Adulterae, the story of the woman taken in adultery from John 7:53-8:11: “This did not show up in manuscripts (the Codex Bezae) until much later (4th – 5th century). The same is true with the Comma Johanneum (first showing up in the Latin the Codex Monacensis [6th century]). Certainly nearly half a millennium worth of older manuscripts (used by the early Church fathers) are not incorrect.”
Not in the Earliest Manuscripts We Have
Warning: this post gets a little technical on the subject of New Testament Textual Criticism.
For this post, I’ll defer the Comma Johanneum discussion, though it certainly is a valid question. I want to focus on the assertion that the story of the woman taken in adultery must not have been in Scripture, that all those early manuscripts must be right.
At first glance, this sounds correct. The story of the woman taken in adultery is not in the two main early papyrus manuscripts of John, p66 (around 200 A.D.) and p75 (early third century). Nor is it in Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (probably mid-fourth century). We have no manuscripts of the New Testament before sometime around 400 A.D. that included it. It must be a later addition, right?
Definitely in Many Early Manuscripts
How can I say this account was “definitely” in early manuscripts, if it isn’t in any of the ones we have?
- The Didascalia (first half of the third century) refers to it.
- Book II of the Apostolic Constitutions does as well (3rd century).
- Eusebius cited Papias (early second century, possibly a disciple of John) as referring to a story about a woman accused before Jesus — this might have been a reference to the Pericope Adulterae.
- Didymus the Blind (350 A.D.) referred to it directly in his commentary on Ecclesiastes.
- Ambrose preached on it around 375 A.D., saying that it caused offence to the unskilled. (He mentioned the tradition which appears in much early art that Christ wrote in the dust, “Earth accuses earth.”)
- Jerome, just after 400 A.D., said it was in many (in multis) Greek and Italian manuscripts (Migne, Patrologia Latina, 23), and used it as authoritative in his rebuke to the Pelagians. You don’t use a passage to refute error if its authority is in question — you use a different passage. Jerome used this one.
- Augustine, who wasn’t exactly “best buddies” with Jerome and didn’t hesitate to call him down, said that some people eliminated it from their manuscripts because they didn’t understand it (paraphrasing roughly).
- Vaticanus has a diacritical mark — a mark that some scribes used to show they were aware of an alternate text at a particular point. Vaticanus excludes the account, but its scribe apparently knew of it well enough to indicate its existence.
These people were not talking about something that wasn’t in the manuscript history for half a millennium. It obviously was in manuscripts that they possessed. The evidence was strong enough that Jerome included it in his Latin translation of the Bible, and strong enough that Augustine didn’t criticise him for doing so.
What Does That Prove?
Just to be clear, none of these citations prove that this account belongs in Scripture. I believe it does belong, but I haven’t proved it in this post. For every citation I give, those who believe it doesn’t belong could cite one or more that leave it out. My purpose was not to prove the passage belongs, but to demonstrate something else.
If we look at the oldest manuscripts existing today, we would say it didn’t exist in any manuscripts back then. Yet, it did exist back then. No one could deny it. The writers of the Didascalia, from Syria, knew of the Pericope Adulterae, and the Didascalia was written as early as any of our manuscripts that leave it out. Papias, from Turkey, even earlier, may have known of it. Didymus in Egypt definitely cited it. Ambrose and Jerome in Italy knew of it and believed it to be Scriptural, as did Augustine in Algeria. We’ve circled the Mediterranean, all before 400 A.D. (the first manuscript that contains it) — it was mentioned in Italy, possibly Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and Algeria.
The Whole Picture and the Oldest Manuscripts
The early church was a missionary church. There were thousands upon thousands of copies of the Gospel of John circulating to the churches around the Mediterranean in the third and fourth centuries — and we have four of them, all out of Egypt, and ample evidence that there were many manuscripts from Egypt and many other locations that told a different story.
When we think about “the oldest manuscripts,” we need to remember that they tell a microscopic fraction of the manuscript story of the third and fourth centuries. These are merely the few that, for some reason, were little used and survived. Many (such as Jerome) who had far more and better evidence than we have today, and were fully aware of manuscripts that excluded the account, included it when they copied the Scriptures.
We have four somewhat complete manuscripts of John from before 400 A.D. that leave the account out. How many manuscripts (from before 400 A.D.) did Jerome have supporting his decision to include it in his Latin translation in 380-390 A.D.? His were ALL before 400 A.D., and he said there were “many”. If we happened to have ten of Jerome’s Greek manuscripts available today, and one from the time of the Didascalia, and a few from the time of Didymus, how would that affect the view of textual critics on this passage? Shouldn’t the fact that we know those manuscripts existed affect our view of the passage even if we don’t have them?
The Pericope Adulterae, far from showing the superiority of the oldest manuscripts, simply illustrates how incomplete is their evidence. To answer the question directly, it is indeed very possible that those earliest manuscripts we have now are incorrect — since we know there were many other early manuscripts that disagreed with them. The fact that those manuscripts have now perished doesn’t mean they don’t count. We know they existed, and we know the text of later manuscripts essentially matches the testimony of Jerome and Didymus.
It isn’t just the Pericope that demonstrates this point. The discovery of many ancient papyrii in the early twentieth century should have killed the “oldest is best” theory, once and for all. Bruce Metzger, in Chapters in the History of New Testament Textual Criticism (p. 38), quoted by Harry Sturz, cited 16 places where p66 (mentioned above, from 200 A.D.) had text that was only matched by “late” manuscripts (“distinctively” Byzantine, for those familiar with NTTC). In other words, textual critics had rejected the readings of these manuscripts because they didn’t occur in any manuscripts before 400 A.D., so they weren’t in the “oldest and best”, and suddenly they pop up in a new “oldest and best” manuscript from 200 A.D. How dare they! 🙂
“Oldest is best” becomes problematic when “oldest” is a moving target and the new “oldest” doesn’t agree with the previous “oldest.” It makes your previous “oldest is best” assertion look pretty silly, and makes one wonder what the next “oldest” they discover is going to say….
At this point, textual critics should have humbly said, “We didn’t have the complete picture before, and we still don’t. There were probably hundreds of thousands of manuscripts in the first three centuries, and we have no evidence that the ones that have survived are representative. ‘Oldest is best’ isn’t valid when you know there were so many manuscripts and you have such a small set of them.”
To be fair, textual critics like Bruce Metzger, Francis Burkitt, Gunther Zuntz, and E.C. Colwell did acknowledge that readings previously rejected as “late” were actually very, very old. Zuntz says that the later manuscripts “did not hit upon these readings by conjecture or independent error. They reproduced an older tradition” (The Text of the Epistles, p. 55). These textual critics, however, did not accept the text of the later manuscripts. They simply (finally) admitted that the wording of the manuscripts was older than the manuscripts that recorded it.
The Age of the Manuscript Proves Little
Once you admit that, you’ve really killed the idea that “the oldest manuscript is best.” Once you admit that a particular wording may be several hundred years older than the manuscript that records it, you admit that the age of the manuscript doesn’t necessarily prove anything at all, as to what is the most accurate text. If one manuscript is 200 years older than the next one, but the text of the newer one goes back to 200 years before the older one, then the age of the manuscripts just don’t matter anymore.
The Pericope Adulterae and the papyrii discoveries of the twentieth century speak with one voice. They tell us that the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Bible do not give an accurate or complete picture of the many thousands upon thousands of manuscripts of the Bible in the second through fourth centuries. The testimony of Christian writers proves it in the case of the Pericope. The testimony of new papyrus manuscript discoveries demonstrates it as well.
When someone tells you that the oldest manuscripts are best, remember Didymus the Blind and Ambrose, on opposite sides of the Mediterranean, preaching on the woman taken in adultery. There were an innumerable multitude of “oldest” manuscripts that were used, copied, preached from, and perished. The voice of those perished manuscripts comes down to us in “later” manuscripts, but that doesn’t mean that voice wasn’t speaking in early days.
Summary Page (with links) for the “Oldest and Best” series