Suppressed texts that bounce back

What is it about suppressing an idea that seems to draw attention to it? I’m not sure, but when a text goes from being suppressed to being championed, it perhaps suggests that the ideas it contains are all the more important.

Two cases in point:

First is the well-known story of the woman taken in adultery. As Metzger puts an analysis of the textual evidence, “The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming.” The idea of Augustine’s that the story contained too radical a doctrine and originally suppressed, only to later be included in the Fourth Gospel may be consider a bit far-fetched, but it also may be true. It’s not hard to imagine that forgiveness so complete and so immediate was seen either as a threat to the moral order and therefore had to be suppressed (so Augustine) or on the other hand was simply too foreign a concept to be included as canon initially (my favorite). But of course now it is one of the best known stories that so many of us (me included) cherish dearly.

Second is the King Follett Discourse (pdf). Again radical doctrine, with multiple ideas that were difficult for listeners. As pointed out years ago, it too has its own history of suppression:

The exclusion and inclusion of the King Follett Discourse in the History of the Church constitutes one of the most interesting episodes in the history of Church publishing. B.H. Roberts, editor of the six-volume work, decided to include the King Follett Discourse in Volume6 of the first edition. Apparently, at the last minute, it was removed. An examination of the first edition of Volume 6 (1912) provides conclusive evidence that the King Follett Discourse was indeed removed as the book was ready to be bound, as pages 302–317 are missing. In the second edition of Volume 6 (1950), pages 302–317 are reinserted, and they contain the King Follett Discourse.

We do not know exactly why the sermon was removed or who ordered its removal, but available evidence indicates that some of the Brethren had become suspicious of the King Follett Discourse, maintaining that all of its doctrines might not be authentic, and expressing some concern over the accuracy of the text. 

(From Cannon, BYU Studies 18, no. 2(1978))

I find it fascinating that these two texts (John’s, Joseph’s) have now become defining for communities that appear to have at one time or another suppressed them.

I can’t help but wonder — is there a modern equivalent? Of course, plenty of heretical ideas have been appropriately ignored, suppressed, or discarded. So certainly suppression alone is hardly evidence of merit. Nevertheless, it seems worth pondering: what doctrines are the powers-that-be trying to suppress today that will end up being beloved?

23 Replies to “Suppressed texts that bounce back”

  1. I always find it interesting how ones experience in the Church is/can be so different. Where I live, (OK) the forgiveness of the adulteress is still suppressed. When talked about in SS class, it is always couched in a “we do not know if she was forgiven or not, just told to go and sin no more.” For some reason the JST that addresses that very question was not included in our scriptures. I wonder why?

  2. it is always couched in a “we do not know if she was forgiven or not, just told to go and sin no more.”

    Love it! What it actually says is:

    “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

    My favorite version of this story in GD is the day that a young gentleman pointed out that regardless of what Jesus said to her she was still going to have to go see her bishop.


  3. Is there any evidence beyond Augustine’s speculation that the pericope adulterae text was suppressed? I ask that because my impression is that this text is the opposite of being suppressed. That is, it was simply plopped down in John because it had nowhere else to go; people liked it so much that it was included even if it didn’t have a place.

  4. Is there any evidence beyond Augustine’s speculation that the pericope adulterae text was suppressed

    Nope, although I think some SWALDSS favors that explanation. One of the authors in the last NT Sperry Symposium brought the idea up.

    It’s not in either Bodmer papyri or the Coptic. It never appears in the writings of Easter church leaders or their manuscripts until the close of the 1st millennium. It does appear in the West quite early, though, and it’s in Bezae and the Vulgate, which is about 5th century. It also appears after Luke 21:38 in one family of texts, and it fits there nicely, as well as at John 7:36 or at the end of the Gospel. So it’s inclusion appears to be both late and deliberate.

    It could, however, be an authentic story in the sense that it appeared in Palestine quite early. There’s a cryptic reference that might be relevant in Papias and clear reference in the Didascalia Apostolorum, which means that it was known to 2nd century Syria. In that sense, it’s not really suppressed even though it didn’t make it into the canon. Early Christianity was very, very open and fluid, probably much more so that most of us Christians want to consider.

    The idea that it might have offended the sensibilities of early Christians is plausible. The penance for sins back then could be remarkable. IIRC I have a reference where it took one man a decade to get back to the point where he was allowed in the church so he could lay on the floor on his stomach and listen to the sermon. For three hours. His sin? Adultery.

    It’s not totally plopped into John, either. It does illustrate statements made by Jesus at John 8:15 about not judging folks and 8:46 about convicting Jesus of sin. Also, if you take the idea that the issue was the admissibilty of witnesses then Jesus has a few things to say about that in 7:51 and 8:13.

    I’m in favor of it, though, and not just for the entertainment every four years in GD.


  5. For us score-keeping humans and especially us score-keeping Mormons, the idea that those who show up late in the day to work in the vineyard get the same reward as those who work all day is hard to accept. Paul recognized that promoting the benefits of the atonement can be misinterpreted as license to sin. So it’s not hard for me to envision suppression of the pericope either in early Christianity or today, because as the commenters mention there is so much supportive evidence in people’s attitudes.

    Thanks, Mogget, for the excellent summary of the textual evidence (and I agree there is more than a modest fit where it is in John, even if the Greek sounds a bit Lucan). I don’t know exactly how Augustine came to the conclusion that it had not just been left out but actually removed from the text. But my observation of many members in their attitudes towards those with lower “scores” than they have on whatever list of shalts/shalt-nots is in vogue suggests that in practice, as CEF #2 suggests it is still suppressed in our congregations…

  6. as CEF #2 suggests it is still suppressed in our congregations…

    Oui, oui. I would never argue against the idea that it gets the cold shoulder these days, and in more places than just our time and neck of Christianity. IIRC, it’s not in Frank Maloney’s otherwise excellent narrative reading of John, either. I wonder if it shows up in the liturgical cycles of the mainline denominations.


  7. I wonder if it shows up in the liturgical cycles of the mainline denominations.

    Interesting question. I don’t see John 8 in the traditional Western lectionary, nor in any of the three years of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary .

    While there is a short bit in the LDS Seminary student manual, it emphasizes not condoning sin while loving the sinner. And the Religion 211 BYU/Institute manual has nothing more than this quote:

    “Did the Lord forgive the woman? Could he forgive her? There seems to be no evidence of forgiveness. His command to her was, ‘Go, and sin no more.’ He was directing the sinful woman to go her way, abandon her evil life, commit no more sin, transform her life. He was saying, Go, woman, and start your repentance; and he was indicating to her the beginning step—to abandon her transgressions.” (Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 165. Emphases in the original.)

    Sure seems like it is getting the cold shoulder — colder than I had realized.

  8. For some reason the JST that addresses that very question was not included in our scriptures. I wonder why?

    Thank you, CEF, for pointing this out. It is VERY curious that both the 1981 LDS edition of the KJV and even the online version at leaves out the modifications that Joseph Smith made to this pericope.

    Particularly relevant is the addition to verse 11:

    She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more. And the woman glorified God from that hour, and believed on his name.

    Even Elder McConkie in DNTC Vol 1 agrees that this modification suggests that the woman gained forgiveness, though he does not agree that she gained in in “that hour.” Certainly that is the sense of the reading — that she not only believed, but gave glory to God, presumably for his mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

    For the paranoid amongst us — sure seems like even more evidence of ongoing suppression!

  9. Here’s how Elder McConkie reads it:

    Neither do I condemn thee This is not in any sense a pardon, nor is our Lord condoning an adulterous act. He does not say, ‘Go in peace, thy sins are forgiven thee.’ He merely declines to act as a magistrate, judge, witness, or participant of any kind in a case that legally and properly should come before an official tribunal of which he is not a member. (DNTC vol 1 p 451)

    This seems to me to be consonant with the position that Elder Kimball takes. But both completely misread the whole concept of Johannine salvation. The idea that Jesus would somehow think he wasn’t worthy to judge — that’s contradicting McConkie’s other writings in the same volume and is not tenable. Jesus can and does offer forgiveness on the spot. It’s just a hard concept to swallow. More later, gotta run.

  10. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

    There are three distinct steps here: 1) Has no one condemned you? No one, sir. 2) Neither do I. 3) Go and sin no more. So, it appears that 2 & 3 were dependant on the answer to 1.

    Jesus also said:

    Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

    Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

    Most sin may simply take place among ourselves. If no one was injured perhaps there was no sin or no debt.

  11. Thanks for the plug Rick. Here is the link to the post where I discuss the 20th century textual history (and reception) of the KFD. I just recently had an email exchange with W. V. Smith who runs the “Parallel Joseph.” He as a volume in the works that will add quite a bit to what I wrote there.

  12. Secco,

    Yes, I agree about the incoherence. Here’s another thought: is this pericope about repentance in either it’s original (goodness knows where) context or current literary context? The word repentance never appears, you know, and neither does forgiveness.

    In it’s current literary context perhaps it’s better read as an example of Jesus as a judge, with the news that God’s judgment can be rather different since he sees and values things differently than we sometimes do. In its “original” context it may have been another of those stories where Jesus demonstrates his superior wisdom by escaping a trap.

    I’ll add that projecting our ideas about repentance and forgiveness back on this text is also problematic. We’d need to look at the Johannine version for coherence, I think.


  13. I have a question: why is this even an issue? Why would some officious LDS person EVER indicate that the Lord was not sovereign–and this poor woman would have to see her ecclesiastical authority to obtain forgiveness? Have we strayed so far from the Lord that we think He requires some institution to render “official” forgiveness? The very idea is reprehensible, even blasphemous, to me. The church is an arm of the Lord, but it is NOT the Lord. It reminds me of someone in my GD class who said that Jesus had to be ordained? WHAT? Doesn’t the Priesthood bear His name? Why would He or how could He be given a priesthood that He himself OWNS.

  14. I do not wish this to be a thread jack, but I thought I would through this out just the same.

    I think the question can be answered (was the woman saved or not) by looking closer to what Joseph Smith added to the text. “And the woman glorified God from that hour, and believed on his name.”

    If we believe in justification (declared innocent) by grace, then she was forgiven saved. If we believe in justification by works, she was not. Perhaps a post on justification/grace would help.

  15. I just realized I muddied the waters by using the word saved instead of forgiven. Please just use the word forgiven in the place of saved and maybe we can keep this from getting too complicated. Sorry about that. 🙂

  16. Oh boy, Secco is gonna be irritated with me when he gets back. I always mess up his threads. I will have to buy him dinner if he’s in Boston this fall with the rest of us…

    Why would [someone]…indicate that…this poor woman would have to see her ecclesiastical authority to obtain forgiveness?

    Well, this guy was weird in a variety of ways. He also assumed that I wanted to hold his kids during Sacrament Meeting because I’m single. Once.

    To be more serious, however, this sort of thing reflects an ill-disciplined approach to the intersection between ancient scripture and modern life. It arises when we use a one-step reading process rather than a two-step approach to reading. In a 2-step approach we might start with figuring out what some passage might have meant in its historical, literary, and cultural context and then ask ourselves how that understanding applies to us. In Catholic thought, this first step is interpretation and the second is actualization. We can also step outside the historical viewpoint or context and explicitly read from another (feminist, post-colonial, etc.), but when we do so owe it to our readers make clear what we are doing and it remains a multi-step approach.

    Unfortunately, what usually happens is that we blithely read 21st century SLC back onto 1st century Palestine and then wonder why it takes a BFH to make it all fit. There’s a strong interest in reading the idea of “restoration” in ways that can seem quite naive, I think.

    So what Secco and I are sort of thinking on is understanding how this reads inside John, where it now stands. If we knew where it once was, we could do it from there, as well. But we work with what we have. We won’t be bringing in the Synoptics or Paul (justification) because we’re trying to read it in context and they aren’t part of the context.

    My point was that words such as “repent, repentance, forgive, and forgiveness” aren’t in John. On the other hand, John clearly does teach us about the reconciliation of God and man. So how does he do this? It’s along the lines that Secco is starting to talk about. When we figure that out, we’ll take a look at the WTIA and see what we think about Jesus as a judge and salvation as a verdict.

    Or something like that. As I said at the start, I always end up messing with Secco’s threads. Poor man.


  17. Mogs, I hope you decked that guy!

    P.S. I think we all know that you actually meant “forgiven”…but once again, if the Lord says He does not condemn you, then the condemnation of a sin does not exist any longer.

  18. John’s view of the Good News is so compelling and yet still so foreign (I fear) to most Mormons. Part of it is ineffable IMHO and so I’m not at all sure I can explain it. But let me take a short stab, because I agree with Mogget: This story fits well in John because it resonates with John’s overall approach to sin and the distance between God and man.

    My sense is that John correctly perceived that God and Jesus do not care about keeping score of our rights and wrongs. He proposes a different paradigm altogether, one perhaps best exemplified in the jewel of Chapter 9, the story of the man born blind. In this story, John contrasts the movement of a blind man into light, and the descent of the seemingly sighted Jews into spiritual blindness/darkness. These movements were provoked by the crisis of Jesus’ actions, which demanded a response of believe (leading to action, specifically, movement toward light) or disbelief (leading to a different action, such as plotting how to destroy the light). John reminds us that Christ’s actions stir up these conflicts, and force us to declare ourselves. Are we moving toward the light, or are we moving toward the darkness?

    This is not just a fancy way of magnifying the old saw about it doesn’t matter where you are, just which way you are facing, because Jesus in the Fourth Gospel rejects that as well. Instead, the point is that salvation comes from moving so close to God that we become one with him, and we do this by choosing the light over the darkness, and then Christ’s grace can be active in us.

    The WTIA fits into this in a number of ways. First, hearing of Jesus’ radical judgment provokes a similar crisis in each of us, and by our response, we reveal whether we are merciful like Jesus, or judgmental like the Jews. The various quotes from General Authorities and others are so obviously self-revealing on this, I don’t need to say any more about them, except I’m saddened by those who interpretations suggest they still seek to throw stones.

    Second, as the WTIA needed to ‘go and sin no more,’ she was not near salvation. If she continued to sin, she would continue to move away from light and away from Light. But if she were to move towards the light, then Christ’s grace can continue to bless her and she will move further towards the light. In essence, she judges herself by her actions: does she want light, or does she want darkness? Is she like the man born blind, or the ecclesiastical leaders who reject the miracle?

    The wonderful comment made by the JST in John 8:11 suggests that the WTIA did the move toward the light. This mirrors the same sort of tension and resolution that we see with the woman at the well in ch 4, who similarly is portrayed as standing on a precipice of indecision about Jesus and whether she will move towards light or darkness when she discovers Jesus knows all about her immoral life. Without the JST’s addition, we see only the WTIA up at the precipice, and we don’t know how she decides. The resulting literary tension may be why readers like Augustine felt that the story was radical, that it left the impression that Jesus’ grace endorsed sin. But Jesus doesn’t endorse sin. He (thankfully) just keeps making it possible for us to decide afresh which way we want to go — the atonement in action.

    So as Mogget so nicely puts it, this story is not explicitly about forgiveness at all, or repentance per se. It fits so well with John’s portrayal of Jesus’ teachings, and certainly condemns sin, and shows how radically powerful an encounter with Jesus can be. (Thanks for all your comments, especially Mogget but others as well.)

    To tie it back to the initial thread direction, it may well be that these radical texts are suppressed and reinterpreted because they are so radical that they are misunderstood as people project on to them that which they most fear might be true. Certainly the WTIA is an excellent mirror, and seems to be suppressed or reinterpreted particularly by judgmental people perhaps precisely because it rails so against judgmentalism.

    (edited for typos)

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