Nestorius, The Pericope of the Adulteress (other writings)

A couple of more papers to add to the “other writings” list, which may or may not interest you.

The first is my first major research paper for seminary. It was actually a distance-learning class I took through Briercrest Seminary on the Patristic Fathers (basically early church history and theological development with a focus on the leading theologians of the time). Over the course of my reading I became fascinated by the Nestorian controversy, a famous (in church theological circles) heresy in the fourth century (I think) about the relationship between divine and human natures in Jesus. I was fascinated because it seemed like a fine example of hair-splitting and I couldn’t quite figure out why Nestorius got the treatment (excommunication) he did, particularly since some of what Nestorius argued for was affirmed in later church councils. In the last 150 years or so, theologians have been rethinking Nestorius’ status, wondering if he was himself in fact a Nestorian (in spite of the fact that that heresy will forever bear his name).

This paper was particularly helpful for me because it made me realize that “heresy” is not necessarily an evil thing. That is not to say that I affirm heresy. What I mean is that we tend to think of heretics–the purveyors of heresy–as people intent on destroying the church. What I discovered during the course of writing this paper was that those who have been branded “heretics” by the church (often rightfully so) were in fact sincerely wrestling with their faith in and understanding of God. They were often (always?) concerned with believing rightly and faithfully and honouring God.

This is often true, I find, even among the more serious heresies, such as Arianism or the teachings of Marcion. These men were trying to be faithful. That doesn’t mean that they were right–sincerity is not a guarantee of theological correctness–but it also doesn’t mean that they were intent on destroying the church.

I haven’t re-read this paper in more than three years, so I have no idea what I think of it now. But I do remember that the professor said it was a delight to read. Here it is: “Personality and Terminology: The Nestorian Controversy” (terrible title– pdf, 15 pages).

The second paper I want to link to today is the longest I’ve ever written. The pericope of the adulteress (John 7:53-8:11) came up several times in 2011. You’ll notice that your Bible, if it was published in the last 40 years or so, marks off this passage saying in a footnote or elsewhere that “the oldest and most reliable manuscripts” do not include this passage. The New English Bible omits the passage altogether and places it in a footnote at the end of John. One of my professors said that he would not preach this passage because he did not believe, based on the evidence, that it is original to the text. Most text critical scholars feel the same way (hence its marking off in our Bibles).

The fact is, this passage appears in various forms in different places in the New Testament manuscripts as well as in other writings. However, I don’t think simply saying “the oldest and most reliable manuscripts do not include this passage” tells the whole story accurately.

The paper is 31 pages long (plus bibliography) and it still does not fully engage everything I think is worth engaging on this topic. It’s quite technical, as it covers all of the manuscript evidence, but it also engages (though not as much as I would have liked) questions of inspiration and the source of scriptural authority.

Here you go: “Pericope Adultera (John 7,53-8,11).”

Again, if you read either of these, let me know what you think.

(I have now started a page of “other writings,” where I will, from time to time, post additional papers, publications, etc. Of course, the best laid plans, the road to hell, etc.)

16 thoughts on “Nestorius, The Pericope of the Adulteress (other writings)

  1. rey

    The story of the wedding at Cana is probably more inauthentic than the Pericope Adulterae. In fact, if I remember correctly Tatian’s Diatessaron (the first gospel harmony) left both of them out. It certainly did leave out the wedding at Cana anyhow.

  2. Toni

    A thought regarding heretics comes to mind from the practice I see in people around me (in a literal, literary and online sense) that while they may be intensely trying to understand the will of God, they will also hold with absolute determination to some or other line of thinking they have cooked up. Now that line of thinking may or may not prove to be a valid insight, providing understanding into the nature of God and his dealings with us, but the issue is usually that everything pivots around it. Essentially, they won’t lay down their own will and remained determined to hold on to their ‘special insight’. It then comes down to people, persuasion and politics, and in older times that was often dealt with through the courts and the stake.

    Just a thought to roll out.

    When I have a bit more time I’ll try to read your papers. As for the John passage, it’s hard to be sure without study. It doesn’t stand out as being discordant as a couple passages do (not that I can think of which right now) or as parts of the apocrypha very clearly do, but that could be familiarity. There’s also a measure of faith that treats the bible as being inspired, and is less concerned about historical accuracy (though that is practically blasphemy ;-)) that I know some will have.

  3. rey

    “while they may be intensely trying to understand the will of God, they will also hold with absolute determination to some or other line of thinking they have cooked up.”

    Its the same with the supposed ‘orthodox’. After all, orthodoxy is in the eye of the beholder. The Bible requires interpretation. Who is orthodox? In the broadest sense the term tends to be used to Trinitarians. In a more narrow sense Protestants love to exclude Catholics from the term ‘orthodox.’ Calvinists love to exclude Arminians. Everyone seems to want to add their own ideas to the concept of ‘orthodox’ and then “hold with absolute determination” that this “line of thinking they have cooked up” is the standard of orthodoxy!

    So, then, while the basic definition of ‘orthodox’ held by most of Christendom might be simply to believe the Trinity the Calvinist will insist you must deny free-will to be ‘orthodox’. Yet this edition doesn’t normally draw the condemnation of heresy upon them from the rest. (Is it stupidity or fear of these bloodsuckers that prevents the Arminians from labeling Calvinism heresy?) In any case, what you call ‘orthodox’ you only call orthodoxy because that’s what your group calls orthodox. To a mormon, Mormonism is orthodox. To a Jehovah’s Witness, they are orthodox and you are the heretic. The use of the term ‘orthodox’ to refer to the doctrine of the 2nd-4th century Catholics (i.e. Trinitarianism) is only a scholarly convention for Biblical scholars; ‘orthodox’ really means whatever the speaker or writer wants it to mean.

    “Essentially, they won’t lay down their own will and remain[..] determined to hold on to their ‘special insight’.”

    Are you a Calvinist complaining about people who refuse to accept the ignorant lie that there is no free-will?

  4. rey

    “Essentially, they won’t lay down their own will and remain[..] determined to hold on to their ‘special insight’.”

    One more question I have one this, Toni, aside from the are you a Calvinist question. Most ‘heresy’ isn’t even about doing anything or not doing anything. Most heresies are Christological. So it is a question of the will? The person who in trying to explain the Trinity says that Jesus is a man who’s spirit is God will be labeled a heretic by the most ‘orthodox’ of Trinitarian theologians who will say he is separating Jesus and Christ. Is he purposefully doing so? I’d say he isn’t doing so at all! But if he is, it’s only because he’s attempting to comprehend how a man can be both God and man. This is the fountainhead of ‘heresy’ in Christianity according to the prevailing notion of ‘orthodoxy': trying to comprehend the Trinity makes people ‘heretics’ because they come up with definitions and explanations that actually make sense. The explanations that the Catholic church came up with for the Trinity and the Deity of Christ and how they work, that they laid down in the Councils, are fairly nonsensical. I’m not even talking now about Arians but about Trinitarians who simply formulate the Trinity differently from the Councils because they can’t make sense of the views of the Councils or don’t have access to them.

    I recall a heresy called subordinationism that sets order in the Trinity. Instead of Father, Son, Holy Ghost all equal, the Father is higher than the Son. This is labelled ‘heresy’. But doesn’t Jesus say in addition to “the Father and I are one” that “My Father is greater than I”? Doesn’t Paul speak of Jesus returning the kingdom to the Father after putting all his enemies under his feet? Is it really ‘heresy’ then to hold to subordinationism? Are these ‘heretics’ just refusing to “lay down their own will…determined to hold on to their ‘special insight’”? I ask indeed, who is it that is “hold[ing] with absolute determination to some or other line of thinking they have cooked up”? It seems rather the ‘orthodox’ than the ‘heretics’ because BEHOLD the ‘heretics’ have scripture on their side!

  5. Marc

    Rey: “refuse to accept the ignorant lie” — isn’t this playing the Calvinist game you’re complaining about?

    Anyway, in my view “heresy” in the strictest sense is a belief that deviates from the ecumenical creeds of the first five centuries (Niceno-Constantinopolitan, etc). Outside of those, I think we need to be very careful where we use that word (and, yes, Neo-Calvinists of the Driscoll/Piper type often seem a little too willing to use it, IMHO).

  6. Toni

    Sorry Rey – you seem to be trying to answer your own questions, except when you get angry about the possibility I might be Calvinist. Was there something you were actually trying to ask, that my poor old brain can’t seem to see?

  7. rey

    “Anyway, in my view ‘heresy’ in the strictest sense is a belief that deviates from the ecumenical creeds of the first five centuries (Niceno-Constantinopolitan, etc). “

    So that be just the so-called apostles’ creed and the Nicene creed, right? or would you also include the Athanasian creed?

    “Was there something you were actually trying to ask, that my poor old brain can’t seem to see?”

    I guess I was just hinting at the question on the Athanasian creed because according to that creed, subordinationism which is clearly scriptural (per John 14:28) would be heresy, since this creed affirms that “the whole three persons are coequal” whereas subordinationism recognizes that Jesus says “My Father is greater than I.”

    Furthermore, I think its a bit arrogant to say “He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity” as if you have the one and only one explanation of this complex doctrine which alone can save and then to assert “This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.” So unless I buy into an unscriptural version of the Trinity which makes the Father and Son absolutely 100% equal I can’t be saved? Rubbish.

  8. Andrew

    Rey makes a good point, that what defines “orthodox” depends on who dominates the conversation. Martin Luther was a heretic and excommunicated; now his followers (broadly speaking, all of protestantism) view his actions as brave steps to counter Catholicism’s ‘heresy’.

    I like George Lindbeck’s proposal that doctrines are a grammar — they structure a particular community’s discourse. Grammar structures and focuses a language, but it isn’t the sole point of language. Doctrines guide and structure the conversation about God, Jesus, etc. but there is a flexibility, room for diversity and growth. We are all only ever interpreting and striving for truth, but never arriving….

  9. Marc Post author

    I’d say in some respects the term “heresy” became meaningless after the Protestant Reformation.

    Toni: Interestingly, many people feel the story of the adulteress doesn’t seem to fit the context. I don’t feel the same way.

    Rey: I’m not sure one or two verses is enough to make something “clearly scriptural” when there are plenty of other verses that counter it in some way. Jesus’ own perception of his relationship to the Father is something that I don’t grasp clearly, at least not from the things Jesus says. However, many of his actions strongly belie an equality with the Father.

    I’m confident that Athanasius and the other church fathers were not unaware of John 14:28, nor did they ignore it, but neither did Arius pull a strange idea out of thin air.

    I’ve always been uncomfortable with the strong language the early church used (such as the anathemas at the end of some of the Creeds), but it may simply have been necessary in their pagan context. I wouldn’t take that approach today. I think what a person believes is important, because it shapes their actions, but I’d be careful of questioning someone’s salvation based on variations on Christian themes (though I do think that one can drift far enough to where they no longer have what would technically be called Christian belief).

  10. rey

    Marc, I don’t think the strong language was necessitated by their pagan context. Quite the contrary. This very sort of never-ending bickering over inconsequential things and condemning everyone over the slightest difference in Christology undoubtedly would have been the undoing of the Church…if it hadn’t had the power of the State behind it. If the pagans weren’t already relegated to 2nd and 3rd class citizens they could have used this bickering to topple the church, kinda like today. I think the strong language was necessitated by competition of bishops in the political arena. The church was just another bureaucracy of the State. Saying that old bishop so-and-so over there is a subordinationist heretic was just like today Obama saying that Romney is a rich guy who’s out of touch with the American people…it was just a political weapon.

  11. Marc Post author

    Well, I disagree with you there. Concerns about heresy predate the conversion of Constantine and Christianity becoming the official state religion (Marcion, for example, or Gnosticism). It’s quite a popular position to take, that the church became corrupted pretty much immediately after Constantine’s conversion (the legitimacy of which is itself questioned), but I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of what happened. I don’t deny that things changed when persecution was no longer a problem, but I think the situation was much more nuanced than a clear line between purity and corruption running through Constantine’s time.

    The church councils dealing with the various heresies were not positioning for political power (certainly not exclusively or even predominantly). The were concerned about teachings that were deviating from the Rule of Faith. Of course, the word “rule” makes some modern ears squirm, but in that context it simply refers to what has always been believed and professed by the church since the apostles–the “deposit” of the faith, if you will.

  12. Marc Post author

    Also, while there was some hair-splitting and political jockeying(see Cyril and Nestorius’ disagreement), I think that most often they were not “inconsequential” things, as you suggest. That’s a value judgment of course–one man’s inconsequential is another man’s essential. The church had councils precisely because Christians thought these things were important, and not just a handful of bigwigs, but bishops and leaders from across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

  13. Toni

    rey – I’m neither Calvinist nor Arminian, though my theology takes understanding from both camps, since I think both were right.

    Heresy is a curious and highly mobile thing. Some history – I am primarily charismatic in background, but have been called to be part of the church of England. In recent discussion with the rector, he was somewhat dismissive of those who desire church without all the rules and requirements of his organisation, pointing out examples he’s known where individual leaders have gone off the rails. At the same time he is theologically liberal, actively promoting women in church government and wanting to see practicing homosexuals participate in church. 100 years ago he would have been considered heretical for putting forward these points of view, and he holds them regardless of the ‘rules’ which have been gently ignored and adapted to suit changing times. In addition the CoE has practices that are heresy to many outside what is essential a Roman tradition, such as infant baptism, while rejecting other teachings that some would see as central.

    Now in order to function effectively within the church I could hold tightly to my pet theology, demanding that it is seen, heard and accepted as THE truth, or I can put up, shut up and get on and do what I’m called to do while trying not to compromise my integrity. Were I some Luther, possibly I’d be using a virtual hammer and nails to hack my 39 articles onto the front page of the CoE website (I know that’s misuse of the word hack, but it will do here).

    But most ‘heretics’ like me, were and are, as Marc said, wrestling with their faith and church situation, trying to find a Godly way of handling it. I have wondered sometimes ‘what if’ they’d been a little more circumspect: would the various churches have been changed within instead of generating the present situation of splintered theology? Maybe the churches were already too corrupted then and they needed to stand up – I don’t know.

    That was why I rolled the thought out.

  14. rey

    Well, Toni, I never would have gotten from what you said before that you were a ‘heretic.’ But this is all very interesting. Personally, I think Christianity with its emphasis on proper belief tends to make things to complication (and pagan) with its definitions of orthodox. Oh how I long for a definition of orthodox that just says here’s a list of moral rules, if you agree with them you’re orthodox, if not you aren’t, instead of here’s some convoluted mythology and metaphysical concepts and a very contradictory doctrine of justification by faith apart from works + a bunch of works we want you to do.

  15. Toni

    “Oh how I long for a definition of orthodox that just says here’s a list of moral rules”

    That was Judaism, although they tried to make it complicated too. It might seem bizarre if one were to be looking in from the outside, but rules are the death of the Christian faith. That may be why so many of the structures we see appear based on convoluted mythology and metaphysical precepts. It is probably also why there is such a proliferation of rules, as organisations try to get a handle on God and to define who He is and how he must work, so they can either be clearly ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

  16. Mark Goodell

    I read the long monograph on Jn.7:53-8:11 and thought it was helpful. One source that seems to be overlooked by everyone is FJA Hort’s commentary on these verses. (The main reason that we even have the “Majority” vs. “Westcott-Hort” version controversy is that Hort was convinced that the position the PA holds in the NT was invincible, unless an actual, earlier version of the NT were used in revising the Authorized Version.) If I recall this correctly, he extravagantly accuses the unknown author of some kind of bad faith, in setting grace and justice in opposition to each other. An interesting aspect of all of this is that the story’s contents are untruthful in one verifiable respect. The “Law” does not say that a woman who commits adultery should be “stoned.” Where it mentions stoning in connection with adultery at all, it says that it is the man who should be stoned, and that the woman should be given every benefit of the doubt that she was raped. (I think its Dt.22 where these precepts are laid out.) So far as I have been able to tell on the origin of the story, is that it dates the late second century, which was the era of Marcion. The “style” of the Pericope is “Lukan” (or, so this is said by many). Marcion is known to have tampered with the Gospel of Luke, and the story very neatly accentuates the Marcionite position that the Old Testament is all about “justice” when what is more needed is “forgiveness.” Augustine, a couple of centuries later, is given by everyone as the ancient authority to be followed in asserting the story’s place in the gospel, on the theory that it was there somewhere originally, but people of “weaker faith” had it removed. What is not mentioned respecting Augustine’s argument is that he was talking about “forgiving one’s wife for committing adultery” in the context of the alternative, which was to otherwise accuse her to the Roman magistrate, the legal realities of that era (the one-sidedness of Roman Law, where women were blamed exclusively for crimes in this area) being that she stood to be executed. Augustine said that the husband had to look at the situation as Jesus looked at the adulteress in this story, that is, as someone redeemable and whose life could be saved. He later on mentioned his remarks on this in his “Retractions,” as if to ask his reader, “Was what I wrote all right?”
    Thank you.

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