Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Pericope Adulterae: What's in a name?

In any debate, in order to start out with a level playing field, it's important to agree ahead of time on a definition of terms. This is because "He who defines the terms wins the debate." I suspect that this may have already happened before one particular discussion even got out of the starting gate, because of the name by which all scholars refer to that passage of Scripture located at John 7:53-8:11. In using the same term as its detractors, we have all but conceded the debate.

Actually, there two terms used, but that concedes nothing. "Pericope Adulterae" and "Pericope de Adultera" both mean essentially the same thing in Latin. "Pericope," from the Greek word meaning 'to cut out', in its ecclesiastical meaning refers to a portion of Scripture that is used separately in a public reading. It's synonymous with the Latin-derived word 'excerpt.' The rest of the phrase simply means 'of, or concerning, the adulteress.'

There are two huge problems with using this term in regards to John 7:53-8:11. First of all, the overwhelming tendency with this passage has not been to cut it out from its greater context in the Gospel of John, but to cut the rest of John out from it. It is being excised, not excerpted. And this has been the tendency of all who separate it from the rest of John for as far back as the history of the public reading of pericopes reaches. If this indeed be a pericope, it is like none other in the entire Bible.

Secondly, despite what its detractors may call this passage, it's not "the passage concerning the adulteress." That is to say, any "pericope of the adulteress," should we chose to identify one, runs from John 8:3 to the end of verse eleven; but they start theirs way back in the previous chapter. We could, for the sake of being reasonable, even stretch things out a bit to set the scene, and begin at the start of the chapter. But under no circumstances does it make any sense to begin a story that takes place in the temple courts with the sentence, "And then everybody went home."

In other words, the very structure of this so-called pericope belongs to something that was cut out of a passage, not because it had any coherent structure of its own, but because it contained whatever was necessary to leave the least trace of its excision behind in the broader context from which it was cut out. So what should we call this passage? I suggest, as a working title, The Johannine Excision.

But whoever excised this passage didn't do a very good job of sizing it; it still doesn't fit. As the mutilated context now stands, we go directly from the priests talking to Nicodemus, to Jesus "speaking to them again." But he's not speaking to the priests--he's addressing the people last mentioned in 7:43. So in order to have a coherent context left behind, the Johannine Excision should have really begun at 7:44--not nine verses later. This would have been the best way for the Exciser to cover his tracks--including verse 53 in the excision didn't quite cut it.

Of course, had he not included verse 53, we would have the problem of the pericope beginning with the word 'but.' Not in the King James version--which does not pericope this passage--but in those that do. And we know that pericopes don't start with 'but.' And verse two (although not in the English versions) has the same problem! Alas, so does verse three. So, having to cut somewhere, the Exciser went all the way back to the first verse that started otherwise, settling for beginning the whole story with the word 'and.'  Why he didn't just finish up his hatchet job by going clear back to the end of the previous story, instead of starting with the end of the present one, we don't know. Apparently he wasn't quite willing to cut out the only mention in the gospels of the priests' Bible Study recommendation for the day.

So, to recap, this is no Pericope--a passage cut out from its context in order to be read publicly. It's an Excision--a passage deliberately (and rather clumsily) removed from its context in order to avoid having to read it publicly. And despite the almost universally successful (at the time) efforts to erase it from Scripture, it yet remained, down through the ages. And it has remained, even in this day of tarnished translations and duplicitous definitions--despite all the still-clumsy efforts to set it aside from a context that still doesn't quite scan without it.

And if it's not a Pericope, we have no business referring to it as one--especially those of us who actually see it as something that was there to cut out to begin with.


Nazaroo said...

Great article!

Hats off. Your analysis of the actual cutting and splicing is quite lucid and plausible.


Nazaroo said...

This might have more readers on the PA blogsite. I'll see if mr. Scrivener can send you an invite to post there as well.