I was asked to speak in Sacrament Meeting on a scripture that has helped me understand Christ. As I thought about it, the same idea kept coming to me: John 8:1-11, the story of the woman taken in adultery (aka Pericope Adulterae).
What strikes me is the focus on mercy and the charity and patience with others that the atonement requires of us. We focus on the issues of obedience (which are necessary) to the degree that we forget about the quality of mercy that this story reinforces. I’m deeply moved as I contemplate Christ offering mercy to her and by extension, me. I like the idea of seeing ourselves and others in the way that Christ and the Father do: defined not by our sins, but by our potential to be like Him because of the Atonement.
But there’s a complication: there is some question if this section is was originally part of the book of John. Briefly, it is missing from early manuscripts and there were marks on some manuscripts some analysts believed indicate a interpolation. Other scholars have seen textual consistencies with the rest of John. (At least one writer suggests it was part of John and was taken out so nobody would use it to justify adultery.) Adding to the confusion is the doctrinal inconsistency. Like our Kevin writes in his New Testament Footnotes for Latter-day Saints, ‘[I]t seems incongruent in light of some of his other sayings,’ contrasting it with Mark 7:9-13.
What to do?
1. Find a new scripture. The textual evidence is weak, and I don’t want to risk claiming something as the actions and words of Christ which may not be. It might be authentic, but when dealing with questions of divine authorship, one ought to be careful.
2. Use it, but don’t be too literal about it. After all, the principles of mercy and avoiding judgment can be found elsewhere in the doctrines of Christ. Use the story as a springboard for talking about those principles and their relationship to the Atonement, but skip the discussion about the woman as a historical person and the lessons that might come out of that exploration.
3. It’s all good. If it weren’t part of the ‘real’ Bible, Joseph Smith would have said so, right? And if it’s good enough for Monson, Hinckley, other church leaders and this guy, it’s good enough for me.
I guess my question is this: how much should I worry about the textual criticism of the Bible? Should I consider some sections stronger than others, based on my understanding of the imperfections of the book, or do I accept it as the word of God unless told otherwise by authorized leaders?