The scholarly nonsense surrounding John 8 and Romans 7

October 27, 2015

Years ago, when I was in theology school at Emory, a professor wrote a critique in the margins of one of my essays that began with these sympathetic words: “For those of us who live in our heads…” And I thought, “Oh, right! I guess I do tend to live in my head!” What can a I say? It’s a blessing and curse.

It was a curse recently, for example, when I ruminated over this margin note on John 7:53-8:11 in the otherwise conservative ESV Study Bible:

There is considerable doubt that this story is part of John’s original Gospel, for it is absent from all of the oldest manuscripts. But there is nothing in it unworthy of sound doctrine. It seems best to view the story as something that probably happened during Jesus’ ministry but that was not originally part of what John wrote in his Gospel. Therefore it should not be considered as part of Scripture and should not be used as the basis for building any point of doctrine unless confirmed in Scripture.

Should not be considered part of Scripture? It’s one of the greatest passages in the gospels! Oh my goodness!

My own theory is that, regardless how it got there, the Holy Spirit put it in our Bibles because God wanted it to be there: whether it belongs in this particular context in John or somewhere else, it belongs in the Bible! I have preached this passage and will continue to do so.

So I was ruminating over this margin note when, providentially, I listened to Paul Zahl’s latest podcast, in which he discusses this very passage, and the controversy surrounding it. He apparently has even less patience for Bible scholars who say it doesn’t belong. Transcribing the fast-talking Zahl, with his endearing Newhart-like stammer, is a challenge, but here goes:

I remember in Tübingen reporting that all sorts of New Testament so-called “scholars” would be saying that the long ending of John 8, with the woman taken in adultery, was unquestionably an insertion from a later text, and it couldn’t possibly be… you know, it was an insertion. And I kept always thinking, you know, “This is the core of the entire religion—is what he says: ‘Go and sin no more,’ but ‘neither do I condemn thee.’” I mean, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” This is the core of the Christian insight about the universality of human fallenness, human suffering, brokenness, waywardness, and the forgiveness of Christ—mammothly the core. And isn’t this the classic case of the Satanic mechanic hypnotizing a collective scholarly consciousness to somehow believe this doesn’t even belong there?

But he’s not finished! Next he attacks the idea—prominently featured in N.T. Wright, among others—that Paul, in Romans 7, is speaking hypothetically about a non-Christian—rather than from his own present experience as a believer—when he says, for example, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing”:

I mean the one thing… it’s like when people used to say that Romans 8—Romans 7, I should say—was not really a Christian. It was a so-called pre-Christian, or it was some kind of… Paul trying to get into the head of some putative pre- or non-Christian to relate to this. Whereas obviously anybody—you know, “I don’t do the things I want to do, and I do the things I don’t want to do. Who will deliver me from this body of death?” It’s everybody. It’s the unity of all people. It’s a Christian. It’s a non-Christian. It’s a pre-Christian. It’s a post-Christian. It’s a pagan. It’s a non-pagan. It’s a dualist. It’s a secularist. It’s a nun. It’s a Jew. It’s a Christian. It’s a Protestant. It’s a Presbyterian—my golly. It’s Charles Simeon and it’s Pope John Pall II. It is utterly true to life—Romans 7.

And then when I also related to Herr Moltmann that they had also decided that Romans 7 was not what it was obviously about. And he just shook his head and said, “Isn’t it amazing [says something in German] can actually believe this?” It’s so obvious this is true from experience. Anybody reading it—of any shape, size, form—understands that Romans 7 is about him- or herself…

What cerebral place of total non-existence are we bringing to these things? It’s a devilish thing!

I love when Zahl gets carried away! I love his passion.

2 Responses to “The scholarly nonsense surrounding John 8 and Romans 7”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    In total agreement. I have a good Christian friend, very scholarly, who believes Romans 7 cannot be talking about a dedicated Christian. He’s wrong.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’ve certainly read (and, sadly, preached) N.T. Wright’s argument. For one thing, wouldn’t Paul be asking a lot of his readers, in his day or our own, to comprehend that he’s speaking hypothetically as a “non-Christian” or a member of “ethnic Israel” or a “pre-Christian” or whoever else, especially given that he’s speaking plainly in first-person? Is there any indication here that when he says “I” he doesn’t literally mean “I.” I just don’t think Paul’s meaning is so cryptic.

      It’s similar to the way LGBT apologists reinterpret Romans 1. Oh my goodness, if the Greek underlying the seemingly clear English is so dense and impenetrable, how on earth do we understand anything that the Bible says?

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