Response to James White on Augustine and the Pericope Adulterae

This post is in response to a few claims made in the video, Dr. White Answers Critics on Apologia TV, which James White recorded after our argument in the Reformed Pub Facebook group about the Pericope Adulterae, the passage about the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). First, I’d like to express my utmost respect for Dr. White, I have learned a lot from him on other issues, but I do disagree with him about his method of textual criticism. I believe that Reasoned Ecclecticism is inconsistent with the doctrine of Preservation expressed in the Reformed confessions.

I will not respond to every claim and argument made in the video, I will only focus on 1) his misrepresentation of the “Ecclesiastical Text” position, 2) his dismissal of Augustine’s testimony about the passage being removed from manuscripts, and 3) his attempt to discredit Augustine’s testimony through the claim that Augustine also held the Apocrypha as equal to Scripture.

The Ecclesiastical Text

Dr. White misrepresents the “Ecclesiastical Text” position as if it is popish and dismissively asserts that the Latin Vulgate was the ecclesiastical text for a long time. He doesn’t seem to understand what we mean by ecclesiastical text because our position explicitly refutes that claim. Our position is that the text has always been preserved in its original language (WCF 1:8), not that specific translations are somehow infallible.  Scripture is not merely inerrant in its autographs, but it is infallible in those faithful copies in the original languages that the Church has passed down to us today. Otherwise, the Scriptures would not be “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) nor would they be able to function as the final court of appeal for the Church (WCF 1:8). The confessional view concerning the authentic, received text is not that the Church determines what is Scripture, but rather, that the Church is the instrumental cause of the preservation of Scripture such that “as in all controversies of religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them (Isa 8:20; John 5:39, 46; Acts 15:15)” (WCF 1:8). The Scripture itself is the objective cause of our knowledge about what books and what passages are truly Scripture, and the Holy Spirit is the efficient causebearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts (Isa 59:21; John 16:13-14; 1 Cor 2:10-12; 1 John 2:20, 27)” (WCF 1:5). Here’s a great sermon explaining these three distinctions (objective, efficient, and instrumental causes) with regard to the text of Scripture: Westminster Larger Catechism 4 – What causes us to believe the Scriptures?

Translations from the original languages are necessary for those who do not speak the original languages, but they cannot be considered the authentic, ecclesiastical text. Although the Latin Vulgate was used for a long time, it was never the authentic, ecclesiastical text. Rather, the original language, faithful copies that God has providentially preserved, always have been. We might look to the ninth chapter of William Whitaker’s “Disputations on Holy Scripture” titled: “Wherein the Arguments are Explained Whereby the Latin Vulgate Edition is Proved not to be the Authentic Scripture.” Whitaker even argues from the writings of Medieval papists that the original language apographs are of higher authority than the Vulgate. Francis Turretin, as well, refutes the notion that the Vulgate was ever the final appeal, asking and answering:

Have the original texts of the Old and New Testaments come down to us pure and uncorrupted? We affirm against the papists.

I. This question lies between us and the papists who speak against the purity of the sources for the purpose of establishing more easily the authority of their Vulgate version and leading us away to the tribunal of the church.

Institutes of Elenctic Theology Vol. 1, p. 106.

It is a straw man and red herring for Dr. White to accuse us of inconsistency for rejecting the Vulgate as authentic.

Augustine and the Pericope Adulterae

Augustine evidently believed that this passage was Scripture, and he relates to us why it is missing from a minority of extant manuscripts today:

Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord’s act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if he who had said, Sin no more, had granted permission to sin.

Augustine, De Adulterinis Conjugiis, 2:6–7.

In one of Dr. White’s Facebook responses to this quote he stated “Augustine had no CLUE what the manuscript evidence was, no sources to draw from, and his claim is just…well, rather silly.” and in another comment he asked, “do you *really* think entire massive chunks of the NT were being deleted for the reason Augustine noted? And that they did this with ALL Greek manuscripts prior to the 5th century?” And in the same manner at approximately 47:20 in the video he stated “The fact of the matter is, Augustine would not have had access to the information we have today.

I don’t think we have to agree with everything Augustine said to believe his testimony about the removal of this passage from manuscripts. Adultery was a huge issue in the early church and many saw it as a sin that could not be repented of. Novatians and other similar heretics would have jumped at the chance to remove a portion of Scripture where God showed mercy to an adulterer. Augustine was far from ignorant, he was quite astute with respect to the text of Scripture. Certainly he did not have Bible software on a computer with all the extant manuscript evidence in the 21st century, but he lived contemporaneous with the purported dating of Codex Sinaiticus and very likely would have had access to many early manuscripts that are not extant today.

Augustine the Textual Critic

Augustine mentions in several places of having to correct manuscripts because of corruptions.  In his Harmony of Gospels (Book 3, ch 7, sect 29, NPNF1-06) Augustine says:

“Now, if any one finds a difficulty in the circumstance that this passage is not found in the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, and thinks that damage is thus done to the veracity of the evangelist, let him first take notice of the fact that this ascription of the passage to Jeremiah is not contained in all the codices of the Gospels, and that some of them state simply that it was spoken “by the prophet.” It is possible, therefore, to affirm that those codices deserve rather to be followed which do not contain the name of Jeremiah. For these words were certainly spoken by a prophet, only that prophet was Zechariah. In this way the supposition is, that those codices are faulty which contain the name of Jeremiah, because they ought either to have given the name of Zechariah or to have mentioned no name at all, as is the case with a certain copy, merely stating that it was spoken “by the prophet, saying,” which prophet would assuredly be understood to be Zechariah. However, let others adopt this method of defence, if they are so minded. For my part, I am not satisfied with it; and the reason is, that a majority of codices contain the name of Jeremiah, and that those critics who have studied the Gospel with more than usual care in the Greek copies, report that they have found it stand so in the more ancient Greek exemplars. I look also to this further consideration, namely, that there was no reason why this name should have been added

[subsequently to the true text], and a corruption thus created; whereas there was certainly an intelligible reason for erasing the name from so many of the codices. For venturesome inexperience might readily have done that, when perplexed with the problem presented by the fact that this passage could not be found in Jeremiah.”

Augustine not only comments on differing manuscripts but even references “critics” who have studied the issue of textual variants among different manuscripts.  Augustine was obviously aware of textual variations among the manuscripts of his day and it appears that other scholars of the day published information about the subject of textual criticism.  Other references to Augustine’s textual critical comments are given in David Schaff’s introduction to Vol 6 of NPNF:

“Augustin’s textual and grammatical comments are few in number, but they cannot be said to be wanting in all value. A few instances will suffice for a judgment of their merit:—

“In the Harmony of the Gospels (ii. 29, 67), writing of the daughter of Jairus (Matt. 9:29), he mentions that some codices contain the reading “woman” (mulier) for “damsel.” Commenting on Matt. 5:22, “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause,” he includes the expression “without a cause” without even a hint of its spuriousness (Serm. on Mt. 1:9, 25); but in his Retractations (i. 19. 4) he makes the correction, “The Greek manuscripts do not contain sine causa.” Tischendorf, Westcott and Hort, the Vulgate and the Revised English Version, in agreement with the oldest manuscripts, omit the clause. He refers to a conflict of the Greek and Latin text of Matt. v. 39 (“Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek”), and follows the authority of the Greek in omitting the adjective “right” (Serm. on Mt. 1:19, 58). At Matt. 6:4 he casts out, on the authority of the Greek, the adverb palam (“openly”), which was found in many Latin translations (as it is also found in the Textus Receptus, but not in the Vulgate, and the Sinaitic, B, D, and other manuscripts). Commenting on Matt. 7:12, “Wherefore all things whatsoever ye would that men,” etc., he refers to the addition of “good” before “things” by the Latins, and insists upon its erasure on the basis of the Greek text (Serm. on Mt. 2:22, 74).”

So we see that Augustine most certainly did understand what he was talking about.

In the 16th century, Calvin said that the Pericope Adulterae “is found in many old Greek manuscripts:”

It is plain enough that this passage was unknown anciently to the Greek Churches; and some conjecture that it has been brought from some other place and inserted here. But as it has always been received by the Latin Churches, and is found in many old Greek manuscripts, and contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit, there is no reason why we should refuse to apply it to our advantage.

John Calvin, commentary on John 8:3.

Evidently we no longer have all of the manuscripts which Calvin was referring to, but his testimony, and the ubiquitous testimony of the Church during the Reformation, which held the Pericope to be authentic, can be trusted. As an aside, Calvin is actually wrong that it “was unknown anciently to the Greek Churches.” Greek father Didymus the Blind quoted the Pericope Adulterae in the 4th century, but his works were not rediscovered until about 100 years ago (which makes it quite unacceptable that Metzger says that no Greek father quotes it). Additionally, William Whitaker in his book on Scripture, recommended by Dr. White, has no trouble accepting Augustine’s testimony:

“But, before I proceed, I deem it necessary for you to censure the madness of certain ancient heretics, who impiously removed some certain and undoubted parts of scripture from the sacred canon. Such heretics, indeed, there were in great numbers, as we read in Irenaeus, Tertullian, Epiphanius, Augustine, and others. I shall not endeavour to go through them all, but will enumerate for you the principal.”

William Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture, First Controversy, ch. 3, Concerning Those Heretics Who Were Guilty of Sacrilege Against the Sacred and Canonical Scriptures, pg. 30.

I brought a few of these things up to Dr. White before he recorded the video, and I was disappointed that he did not address them.

The current extant Greek manuscripts dated before the 5th century that include John 8 are: P39, P66, P75, Sinaiticus, and Vaticanus, none of which include the Pericope.  However, White’s claim that there are no manuscripts prior to the 5th century with the Pericope is misleading. It is not accurate to say that none of the manuscripts “prior to the 5th century” had the passage, it’s just that none of the 5 manuscripts from that time period that have survived to this day have it. While the 5 earliest extant manuscripts that include John 8 do not have the passage, the 6th oldest (Codex Bezae) does include it. It is also included in the vast majority of other extant Greek manuscripts and nearly all the old Latin (and the Vulgate) manuscripts. I will not cite all of the external evidence that we have for the Pericope Adulterae, since many others have done so better than I can (see here, here, and here), but I will list some early church testimony that sufficiently disproves Dr. White’s assertion that the Pericope Adulterae did not exist until the 5th century. The Diatesseran (a harmony of the Gospels from the 2nd century) quotes it (although Schaff’s publication doesn’t contain it because it was based on a single Arabic manuscript, nearly all other Diatessaran manuscripts that have been discovered since have included it). The Didaskalia (3rd century) and the Apostolic Constitutions (4th century) quote it. Jerome and Augustine both comment on it, and Augustine said wicked scribes were removing it. Didymus the Blind (a Greek father) in the 4th century quotes it and Papias (2nd century) references it. Considering these things it would seem that the account was in manuscripts before the 5th century that are no longer extant.

In short, we have no legitimate reason to doubt Augustine’s testimony about the passage being removed from manuscripts and certainly no reason to dismiss it out of hand without at least serious consideration.

Augustine and the Apocrypha

In order to discredit Augustine’s testimony, Dr. White also claims in the video that, “Augustine defended the Deutero-canonicals, or the Apocryphal books because they were in the Greek Septuagint and he thought that represented the Hebrew canon.” (45:30).

This is incorrect and misleading. Augustine distinguished between deutero-canonical books and canonical books and did not consider the Apocrypha to be on par with Scripture; he used the term “canonical” in a nuanced way, which Whitaker and Cajetan explain in the link below. Dr. White’s argument was actually used by the Roman Catholics during the Protestant Reformation in an attempt to prove the Protestants wrong for rejecting the Apocrypha from the canon. William Whitaker dealt with this assertion in “Disputations on Holy Scripture” pages 44-49. Whitaker cites papist cardinal Cajetan (who was sent to debate Luther), who even affirms that Augustine didn’t hold that the Apocrypha was canonical in the sense of inspired Scripture…someone who would have every reason to say otherwise.

Whitaker says, “We allow that the council of Carthage, and Gelasius with his seventy bishops, and Innocent, and Augustine, and Isidore call these books canonical. But the question is, in what sense they called them canonical. Now, we deny that their meaning was to make these books, of which we now speak, of equal authority with those which are canonical in the strict sense; and the truth of this we will prove from antiquity, from Augustine, and from the papists themselves…Augustine…plainly indicates that he did not consider those books of equal authority with the rest. For he distinguishes all the books into two classes; some which were received by all the churches, and some which were not…Augustine himself testifies that these books were by no means received in all churches (De Civit. Dei. Lib. xvii. c. 20.)

Read the entirety of the passage here: William Whitaker on Augustine’s View of the Apocrypha.

In conclusion, we observed how crucial the confessional distinctions are between the objective, efficient, and instrumental causes of our knowledge that Scripture is the Word of God. We saw how misleading the presentation of external evidence can be depending on how it is phrased. Lastly, we saw that given Augustine’s knowledge of textual issues, and the testimony of others about him, we have no legitimate reason to doubt his testimony about the Pericope Adulterae being removed from ancient manuscripts.

About the Author:

Paul J. Barth is a confessional Presbyterian who holds to the original (1646) Westminster Standards. He is an Air Force veteran and currently an undergraduate Geography student at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where he lives with his wife and two kids. Paul is not an ordained minister and offers his views as a private person.

7 Comments

  1. It Is I March 29, 2016 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    “However, White’s claim that there are no manuscripts prior to the 5th century with the Pericope is misleading. It is not accurate to say that none of the manuscripts “prior to the 5th century” had the passage, it’s just that none of the 5 manuscripts from that time period that have survived to this day have it.”

    You just repeated what he said..in a different way. That’s semantics.

    • Chris Thomas April 1, 2016 at 6:32 pm - Reply

      No, that is not what Mr. White has said. He said he that there are no manuscripts prior to the 5th century that had the passage. That’s a universal claim about ALL Greek manuscripts ever produced. Mr. White does not know the content of ALL Greek manuscripts ever produced. Therefore he has overstated his case. The content of the earliest 5 tell us nothing about the content of every Greek manuscript ever produced. Nor do they overturn the doctrine of Providential Preservation and the authentic Greek text of the Reformers.

      • Stephen Davis November 30, 2016 at 7:52 pm - Reply

        But in the manuscript evidence that we do have, none of them contain it.

        What you’re basically saying is that even though the evidence we do have doesn’t contain the text, there may be lost manuscripts that have it.

        There may be, but that’s just conjecture. If you go based upon the evidence we do have, Dr White is right.

        • Chris Thomas December 1, 2016 at 7:53 am - Reply

          The vast majority of the extant Greek mss contain the Pericope. You can believe the nonsense Mr. White espouses, or you can trust the testimony of the Holy Ghost throughout the history of the Church. The latter will never lead you astray. Also White fails to deal with the Lectionary evidence. But that’s White.

        • Adrian Cheney December 1, 2016 at 7:51 pm - Reply

          The manuscript evidence we have is Codex Bezae..from the fifth century. It was found in France. Augustine was a bishop in Algeria. Augustine died in 430 (also fifth century).The fact the Augustine mentions the verses were removed gives credence to Augustine being aware of manuscripts with, and without the Pericope. i.e….manuscripts that were probably older than Codex Bezae and from a different region and probably a different manuscript tradition. We CANNOT say there weren’t manuscripts older than what we have that did or did not contain it.

  2. Hugh McCann April 5, 2016 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    Mr White’s facile and blithe rejection of many of God’s words [including also Mark’s ending, Luke 23:34, 1 John 5:7], followed by his necessary peevish defensiveness, along with his long-held hubris, are all sad products of the idolatry of evidentialism or empiricism.

  3. James Snapp Jr June 3, 2016 at 3:39 am - Reply

    Without weighing in on anything written in this post, lemme focus on minutes 49-54 of the video with James White: this is a stunning display of confident ignorance, and a spectacular failure to comprehend the evidence’s implications.

    This is the most gracious interpretation that there is of White’s statements. The only other explanation is that he is fully aware of how the influence of the lection-cycle elicited the dislocation of the PA, and purposefully hid this from his listeners/viewers.

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